Washington, Georgia voters weigh in on charter schools
Georgia voters like Jaime Grant were asked to consider an amendment to the state constitution involving charter schools.
November 7th, 2012
02:57 AM ET

Washington, Georgia voters weigh in on charter schools

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - In an election year when education didn’t draw much attention, some voters considered Tuesday the future of charter schools in their states.

In Washington, there was a narrow lead for an initiative that would allow the opening of the state’s first public charter schools.

Washington is one of nine states that doesn’t have any public charter schools. Initiative 1240 would allow eight charter schools per year in the state, up to 40 over five years. At the end of that period, the charter system would be up for review. The system would be free and open to all students, and independently operated.

Critics argued the initiative was an expensive proposition at a time when schools were already underfunded, and that it didn’t serve enough students.

Supporters said the schools would create competition among schools and increase the choices available to parents and students. They liked that the schools wouldn’t be bound by district curriculum mandates or teacher unions’ contracts.

In Georgia, with most ballots counted, voters favored a constitutional amendment that would allow a state commission to approve school charters, even if local and state boards deny them.

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Filed under: Charter schools • Politics
October 11th, 2012
02:03 PM ET

This 'Mousetrap' can crush a car - and teach physics

by Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Dearborn, Michigan (CNN) - If the crooked blue staircase, colorful crank and dangling bathtub looked familiar, well, that's the point.

"Who wants to play 'The Life Size Mousetrap' - and sign a waiver?" a big top voice boomed across the Maker Faire at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, this summer.

Ahh, yes. At this annual celebration of DIY culture, of course this would appear: a scaled-up version of "Mouse Trap," the Hasbro game bent on marbles zigging through a plastic labyrinth. And the circus voice? That would be Mark Perez, creator of the larger-than-life board game. Almost every run begins with a boardwalk-style sales pitch of his grand machine.

"Are there any engineers in the house?" a voice bellowed over the sound system, drawing a few claps.

"Who likes to do math in here?" it demanded, drawing ... nothing.

"Let's not have this weak applause for math! MATH!"

Perez played "Mouse Trap" a lot as a kid - kind of. Nobody followed the rules, he said. They just liked to build the machine and make it work. In his house, they built and rebuilt the contraption so often, they'd get a new version of the game every couple years.

"I decided one day to put three of them together to see if I could make them all work and hopefully not poke my sister's eye out," he said.

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Filed under: Extracurricular • Physics • video
October 9th, 2012
02:11 PM ET

Can lawsuit, charter takeover save Highland Park, Michigan, schools?

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Highland Park, Michigan (CNN) - A few weeks before school began here, parents filed into the high school cafeteria to meet the people just hired to revamp one of the state's worst-performing districts: their own.

They came with questions. What time would the school day start? What were these new uniforms they’d heard about? Would all the schools stay open? Would the same teachers be there? The same kids? Was there anything worth saving?

For years, financial and academic turmoil plagued Highland Park schools. The state of Michigan says the district ran at an operating deficit five of the last six years. Barely 800 kids still attended its three schools, and even those buildings were overgrown with weeds and tagged with graffiti.

There was a lot of cash coming in, more than $14,000 per student, but there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. Standardized test scores were embarrassingly low; among 11th-graders, 10% scored proficient in reading and 5% proficient in math. Some kids went on to college, but nobody - 0% - of kids reached the ACT's college readiness benchmarks.

The district drew national attention this summer when the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a "first-of-its-kind" lawsuit against the state, education leaders and Highland Park schools for allegedly failing to teach students to read at grade level.

Now the state-appointed emergency financial manager had handed the district over to a charter school operator, the Leona Group, for a five-year contract worth more than $750,000. In a statement, the Michigan governor’s office said it moved to address “a long overdue fiscal and academic crisis that was crippling the district” because it “can’t and won’t accept academic failure.”

For some here, it was a hostile takeover. For others, a new hope.

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Filed under: Charter schools • Policy • Reading • video
September 4th, 2012
01:10 PM ET

From detention cells to the stage

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) It starts at the mall, with a girl in a pink dress, browsing alone.

"Why is she at the mall?" a teen behind her sputters. "She ain't got no money."

Mona Lisa hears it. It's not the first time she's been picked on. She argues a little, tries to ignore them, but they bump into her and call her names. She wants to run, wants to be strong, wants all this to just go away.

At home later, the phone rings: "I just wanted to tell you, you should kill yourself," a voice cackles. "You're ugly and nobody will ever love you."

After a day like this, Mona Lisa believes what she's hearing. She grabs a handful of pills and climbs out the window. With voices in her head yelling louder and louder, she jumps.

Actress Alexis Lee crumples to the floor. The jump isn't real, the dress is a costume, the play is fiction, at least at the moment. But Mona Lisa and Alexis aren't so different. At 17, Alexis has been bullied and teased, been made to feel ugly, like she's nothing. She moved to escape terrible situations, only to be delivered into worse circumstances. She's got scars from where she cut herself, memories from when she tried to kill herself.

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'Brooklyn Castle' students seek solutions 'for every problem on the chessboard'
Justus Williams, left, is the youngest-ever African-American chess master, and is featured in the film "Brooklyn Castle."
July 19th, 2012
02:10 PM ET

'Brooklyn Castle' students seek solutions 'for every problem on the chessboard'

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) – Brooklyn's I.S. 318 chess team was the best, always ranked among the top in the game. Some of its young members were just looking for something to keep busy, but a few expected it would help them pay for college or reach chess master status early in their teens.

Katie Dellamaggiore was about to shoot a documentary about the inner city school's unlikely success when she heard from the principal.

“‘Katie, I have some bad news,’” she remembered assistant principal and chess coach John Galvin said. “‘The school got hit - we got hit with some really bad budget cuts. I don’t know if you can make your movie anymore. I don’t know if we’re going to nationals or any of that.’”

“'Are you serious? How is this possible? You guys are the best, how can you not have the money?'" Dellamaggiore said.

“We have no choice but to make this movie. This is the movie now.”

And make it they did: “Brooklyn Castle” will be released in theaters October 19, Producers Distribution Agency announced Thursday. The distribution initiative previously released three other films, including the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop." Theatrical release is a major feat for an independent documentary, but the film has already built buzz at festivals, including SXSW, where it won an audience award and was acquired for remake by Sony Pictures and Scott Rudin, and at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where it shared an audience award and at the Brooklyn Film Festival, where Dellamaggiore won the award for best new director.

The film follows the school's chess coaches, team members and some of its recent alumni as they face the complications of modern tweenhood, from attention deficit disorder, to school elections, to scholarship competition, to parents who work long hours, to parents who aren’t there at all.  Some try to win as individuals, some just want what's best for the team and some are trying to spare the program from budget cuts. Of course, this is chess – the sport of solving problems.

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Want more kids to take calculus? Convince mom first
A new study showed a simple intervention with parents led high schoolers to take more math and science classes.
July 13th, 2012
03:40 PM ET

Want more kids to take calculus? Convince mom first

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Math and science educators across the country spend their summers learning how to make calculus more engaging and biology more relevant, but there's a problem: What if high schoolers never even signed up for those classes?

What if a tough ninth grade algebra class meant they hopped off the high-tech train, and couldn't find a way back on later? What if nobody answered when kids asked, "But I'm not going to be a chemist - why do I need this?"

For all the reasons teens find to stop taking math, science and technology classes, a study published online in the journal "Psychological Science" found a relatively simple way to make them continue: Convince their parents first.

The study, “Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention,” showed a simple intervention with parents led students to take, on average, one additional semester of math and science in their last two years of high school.

"These are the critical years in which mathematics and science courses are elective, and our results indicate that parents can become more influential in their children’s academic choices if given the proper support," the study says.

How simple was that support? Just a couple of brochures, a web site and a little guidance about how to use the information.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and James Madison University mailed parents of 10th graders a glossy, 16-page, photo-filled booklet touting math and science education. The brochures offered up talking points to parents about how to discuss science and math classes with their kids, and examples of how those subjects might be relevant to their lives now or when they're considering careers. If parents were convinced of the value of science and math for their kids, researchers thought moms and dads could convey that utility value to teens.

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National Teacher of the Year: 'The revolution begins with us'
2012 National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki spoke at the NEA annual meeting on July 5.
July 5th, 2012
04:19 PM ET

National Teacher of the Year: 'The revolution begins with us'

By Donna Krache and Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - The United States is obsessed with high-stakes testing that doesn't show whether teachers are masterful and students are knowledgeable, National Teacher of Year Rebecca Mieliwocki said to nearly 8,000 of her colleagues at the National Education Association annual meeting Thursday.

"When we help a child reach proficiency at any grade level, we have changed the quality of that child's life and that community forever," she said. "But aiming for proficiency means we aim to create generations of children who are average."

Instead, she said "people who haven't set foot in a classroom" should not be making decisions and policies about teaching, and teachers should be aiming to take all students - whether hungry, homeless, in the midst of their first crush or celebrating the big game - beyond the test.

"We have got to stop talking about testing and start talking more about developing, supporting and celebrating teachers," she said. "Teachers are the architects of the change we've been waiting for. We've forgotten what a teacher can do that a standardized test can't."

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Which places spent most per student on education?
While Washington, D.C., tops per-student spending at $18,667, Utah is at the bottom with $6,064.
June 21st, 2012
06:15 PM ET

Which places spent most per student on education?

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Public school systems spent an average of $10,615 per student in the 2010 fiscal year, an increase of 1.1% from the previous year, according to  Public Education Finances: 2010, a U.S. Census Bureau report released today.

Washington, D.C., schools topped per-pupil spending at $18,667; Utah was lowest, at $6,064. Public schools systems spent $602.6 billion in 2010, a 0.4% decrease since 2009 - the first time the spending level has gone down since the Census Bureau began to keep track.

Although the amount spent per student has steadily crept up in recent decades, it can vary widely based on cost of living and operating. Of the 50 largest school systems, New York City School District spent the most per student in 2010 at $19,597.

Make no mistake: Spending a lot of money doesn't mean a kid is getting a good education, and spending less doesn't mean it's bad. Per-pupil spending comes up often because it's among the few easy-to-compare measurements  that crosses school, district and state lines, said Matthew Chingos, a researcher with Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy.

“Per-pupil funding is a pretty terrible measure of quality of education,” Chingos said. “In some case, it matters, but sometimes it’s hard to find evidence it matters.”

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Filed under: Economy • School funding
June 21st, 2012
06:00 AM ET

High school students develop app to fight bullying

Students at a Connecticut high school developed an app they hope will curb bullying, CNN affiliate WTIC reported. Users can use the app to report bullying they've experienced, even as a witness. The information is anonymous, but goes to administrators, who can look for common threads and patterns in what's reported. The app was designed by students at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, who said they saw it as a way for kids to help other kids.

Share in the comments: Do you think an anonymous app is a good way to report bullying? Would you want your kids or their school administrators to use it?

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Filed under: Bullying • Issues • Technology
May 23rd, 2012
12:16 PM ET

Principal apologizes after sending 60 students home for senior bike ride

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Seniors at Kenowa Hills High School in western Michigan thought a mass bike ride to school was a sweet sendoff for the last day. Police escorted the ride and parents lined the route. The Walker, Michigan, mayor brought doughnuts.

But principal Katharine Pennington didn't know. She said the ride was dangerous, tied up traffic and prevented staff from making it to school, CNN affiliate WOOD-TV reported.

She sent more than 60 students home after the bike ride yesterday. Soon-to-be graduates were banned from participating in the senior walk - a traditional final walk through the school's hallways - and some were told they wouldn't be allowed to walk at graduation, a decision that was later reversed. Students told CNN today the senior walk was rescheduled, too.

Pennington released an apology on Wednesday, along with the superintendent, after parents and students flooded a school board work session with complaints.

“Yesterday, I made a mistake and sincerely regret my actions. Did I overreact? In retrospect, of course I did," Pennington's statement said. "I apologize to the students, their parents, and the community for a reaction that blew this incident out of proportion and called into question the character of our students. Our senior class has demonstrated leadership, unity and school pride throughout this school year. My actions and emotion overshadowed what should have been a very positive senior activity. I have learned much from this experience and do not consider myself infallible.

“I now applaud the students for their foresight in contacting the police department to ensure the safety of their senior surprise. I only wish the police department or others who may have known about this would have let us in on the surprise but, of course, it wouldn’t have been a surprise had we known in advance."

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Filed under: Behavior • Graduation • High school • Practice
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