School duty or hard sell? Fund-raising options sought as practice cuts into time for learning

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 1A

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, Friday nights are for football, and small, sad-eyed children are asking you to buy a candy bar. Or some cookie dough. Or a roll of wrapping paper.

“My gosh, how many candles or mugs does a person need?” asks Jerry Cook, father of two daughters and recipient of countless sales pitches over the years.

But Dr. Cook isn’t just a parent: He’s also superintendent of Duncanville schools, and thus in a position to do something about it. At the start of school this year, he made it clear to district employees that the clamps were coming down on school fund raising.

“I’m trying to wean us off of it,” he said. “At some point, we’ve got to make sure that we’re using school time for what it’s intended for. And that’s learning, not selling.”

Product fund raising is a $4 billion industry in America, and almost 90 percent of that fund raising is done by schools, student groups, and PTAs, industry officials say. And while groups hawking the wares get to keep only a fraction of what they sell – less than half, usually – fund raising gives schools $1.5 billion they
wouldn’t otherwise have to spend.

But some schools are asking whether having students function as neighborhood sales reps is the best way to get those funds. They’re trying alternatives to the usual sales or turning away from fund raising altogether.

Dr. Cook has ordered that no Duncanville child below sixth grade will be involved with fund raising in any way, and older students will be prevented from selling door-to-door.

“People are tired of having the schools ask them for money,” said Alexis McLaughlin, an Indiana mom who was inducted into a national fund-raising “Volunteer Hall of Fame” this year for helping raise more than $170,000 for her children’s schools. “There are days when I have been in tears over it. Obviously, it’s never a pleasant task.”

More than before?

Because the industry is so decentralized, it’s difficult to determine if fund raising is more prevalent in schools than in the past.

In an unscientific study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals last year, 81 percent of principals surveyed said their schools use product fund-raisers, and 83 percent said they had seen an increased need for raising outside cash.

And while more than 90 percent said the time and effort are worth the result, more than half of the principals said they had heard parents’ complaints: There’s too much fund raising and too much pressure to sell products they think are sometimes shoddy or overpriced.

At some schools, product fund raising is a year-round endeavor, with one sale following another until the return of summer. But for many, this is peak season: just in time to sell goods for the Christmas season and early enough to pay for field trips or other second-semester expenses.

While there is much variety in the way they operate, most fund-raisers follow a simple pattern. Students or their parents are given a catalog or order form for a product and are asked to sell as many as they can.

Then the students hit up family and friends, and parents solicit their co-workers. The incentive to sell is strong: Many fund-raisers offer prizes or other enticements.

“I knew it was important to him to get that reward,” said Melody Davenport, a Euless parent who bought more than $50 worth of gift wrap, candles, and chocolate-covered peanuts so that her Wilshire Elementary School fifth-grader, Chuck, could attend a special party.

Wilshire children who sold 10 or more items from a catalog may attend a 90-minute party that features large inflatable party rides and games. For his part, Chuck didn’t worry much about polishing his salesmanship: “I knew my Mom’d buy 10, so I didn’t really try to sell to anybody else,” he said.

In previous years, those who didn’t sell enough had to stay in class; this year, they’ll get to watch a movie.

Like at other schools, the money raised at Wilshire – about $15,000 a year – goes to significant academic needs, such as curriculum materials, math games, and science equipment. Industry officials say many schools couldn’t make ends meet without selling candy, cookies, and the like.

“The items people purchase are typically things they’re going to purchase anyway,” said Russell Lemieux, executive director of the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers, an industry trade group. “They see it as a way to get things they need while helping out their local schools.”

Not everyone sees fund raising as such an unalloyed good thing.

“In one way or another, all school-based fund raising depends on the unpaid labor of students, parents, and/or teachers,” said Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University. “If teachers are using school time to sort through soup can labels, the public is essentially subsidizing these corporations.”

Controversy

Fund raising has always been a contentious issue. Author Robert Cormier wrote a novel about it, 1974’s The Chocolate War, which detailed the pressure and physical abuse faced by a teenager who refuses to sell candy for a school fund-raiser.

In 1997, an 11-year-old New Jersey boy was murdered as he went door-to-door selling candy for a school fund-raiser; he was working to win a pair of walkie-talkies. After that, some schools nationwide created policies to limit or ban door-to-door sales.

Local schools have their own policies limiting sales, for reasons of safety, finances, or fund-raising fatigue. “We try to limit the number of fund-raisers we have each year,” said Priscilla Maxfield, principal of West Main Elementary School in Lancaster. “And we do not allow our kids to go door to door. But the money we raise does pay for some of the extras we can’t pay for otherwise.”

Others are seeking ways to raise money outside the usual sales. At Owen Elementary School in The Colony, PTA leaders have started a recycling program to partially take the place of traditional fund-raisers. “Instead of having parents get more junk in their house, we’re asking them to get junk out of their house,” PTA president Brenda Anderson-Brewner said.

Some PTAs are trying to get out of the fund-raising business. The National PTA has a policy against allowing children to be involved in any fund raising and discourages parents from spending too much time raising cash. But local chapters are autonomous.

Dr. Cook, the Duncanville superintendent, said that his district’s PTAs will have to come up with new ways to raise money within his new restrictions. He said he would use his discretionary fund to pay for some academic needs that fund raising used to cover.

“There is absolutely no question that fund raising is bigger now than it used to be,” he said. “If we spend one minute of time at the elementary level on fund raising, it’s too much.”

‘A love-hate thing’

Ms. McLaughlin, the award-winning seller, said she’s torn about the system’s merits. Most fund-raisers, she noted, return 30 to 40 percent of sales to the school group, some far less.

“It’s a love-hate thing,” she said. “You really want to help the schools … but how can you feel good when you know you’re lining some company’s pockets?”

Mr. Lemieux, the industry group director, said profit margins in the industry are “quite slim” because there is so much competition. The group has more than 650 member companies and estimates there are more than 1,600 in all.

Ms. McLaughlin said she also has seen the pressure on kids. “Some of the prizes are so unattainable,” she said. “In some fund-raisers, if you sell 125 items, you get a CD player. That’s probably a $1,500 sale, at least.”

But such concerns melt away when faced with a child asking you to help a school. What does Dr. Molnar, the industry critic, do?

“Generally, I just give the child some money,” he said, “and say, ‘Keep the candy bar.'”

New study shakes up school rating system; researchers put higher value on ‘proficiency,’ level playing field

Saturday, October 20, 2001
Page 33A

New study shakes up school rating system
Researchers put higher value on ‘proficiency,’ level playing field

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

By most standards, Flower Mound Elementary School is doing an excellent job.

State officials have labeled it “exemplary.” More than 90 percent of its students pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills each year. A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of America’s “Blue Ribbon Schools.”

But a new study released Friday says it – along with many other area schools – is failing its children. On a scale of one to five stars, Flower Mound gets a lowly one.

“Well, my goodness,” Flower Mound principal Connie Gall said when hearing of the rating by the Austin-based education research group Just for the Kids. “If they want to cut the cake that way, I suppose that’s what they come up with.”

The group’s study, published on the website of Texas Monthly, is a new twist on the same approach Just for the Kids has used on its website for several years. The study uses Texas Education Agency data but attempts to improve upon the state’s four-tiered accountability system and its familiar labels – exemplary, recognized, acceptable, and low-performing.

The results, for more than 5,000 schools statewide, can sometimes seem odd. Dallas’ Lakewood Elementary, which had a TAAS passing rate 20 percentage points lower than the one-star Flower Mound school, got four stars from Just for the Kids. The TEA rated Lakewood low-performing this year because only 47 percent of its black students passed the math portion; the school otherwise would
have been rated acceptable.

Different standards

The disparities result from two vastly different approaches to examining the same set of numbers.

Unlike the state system, Just for the Kids rates schools not by how many students passed the TAAS but by the percentage of students who reached a higher standard.

According to TEA standards, passing means getting a 70 on the Texas Learning Index, the scale used to grade the tests. For most tests, Just for the Kids uses a “proficiency” standard, a measure of how many students score 85 on the learning index.

“If you’re having lots of kids passing the test, but they’re not proficient, there are some sizable holes in your curriculum,” said Chrys Dougherty, the group’s director of research.

But the biggest difference in approaches is how Just for the Kids tries to eliminate socioeconomic factors from schools’ ratings.

For each school being rated, the group created a list of Texas schools that it considers equally or more disadvantaged, as determined by things such as poverty rate and the number of students who have trouble with English. Then it found which schools in that group fared the best on state tests.

How far a school fell behind the top-performing schools in its economic group determined what Just for the Kids calls its “opportunity gap.”

In other words, schools are expected to do as well on state tests as all schools with more disadvantaged student bodies. Falling short of that standard means a lower rating.

Finally, schools are divided into four quartiles based on their poverty levels and assigned star ratings. Schools with the best “opportunity gap” in a quartile got five stars; those with the worst gaps got one star.

“The whole system is designed so there’s no advantage or disadvantage because of income levels,” Dr. Dougherty said.

Shock to some schools

The different method can make suburban schools used to high ratings look worse. Several schools rated exemplary by TEA – such as Vaughan Elementary in Allen, Durham Elementary in Carroll, and Bray Elementary in Cedar Hill – got one star. All had TAAS passing rates above 90 percent.

In Flower Mound’s case, the school’s low poverty rate – 2 percent of students qualify under federal standards for low- and reduced-price lunches – put it up against some tough competition statewide.

“Our passing rates are in the 90s, but we can be better,” said Ms. Gall, the principal. “It’s like a five-star restaurant: Some people might love it, other people might say, ‘It’s not my thing.'”

In contrast, schools such as Lakewood often come out ahead in the Just for the Kids ratings because they’re compared with other schools with less-advantaged students.

But Carol Brown, assistant principal at Lakewood, cautioned that statewide standards are set because all schools are expected to meet them.

“The state has said that every child in Texas should know a certain set of knowledge,” she said. “You have to be judged against all schools, because all children can learn, and they’re all capable.”

But that doesn’t mean she won’t brag about her school’s four-star rating. Many schools promote their high performances on TEA ratings by having employees answer phones with something like, “Smith Elementary, an exemplary school. How may I help you?” Ms. Brown said the school might consider doing something similar with the new ratings.

“If you can say five-star general, I think you can say four-star school,” she said. “We’ll have to think about that. My chest is sticking out.”

The GED is easy? Wait until Jan. 1; students have to pass existing sections soon or face tougher exam

Saturday, October 13, 2001
Page 1A

The GED is easy? Wait until Jan. 1
Students have to pass existing sections soon or face tougher exam

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Potential dropouts will have another reason to stay in school starting Jan. 1.

On that day, a tougher version of the General Educational Development test – the GED – takes effect, the first major change in 14 years.

“We always hear people say, ‘Well, my friend took the GED, and he didn’t have any problem,'” said Steve Johnson, who supervises a GED preparation program in Denton.

“I think now they’ll think twice before dropping out,” he said. “The test isn’t going to be easy for everybody.”

As a result of the impending change, GED classes and testing centers are seeing huge increases. About 40 students are usually enrolled in Denton’s GED program, Mr. Johnson said. Now there are 120, an all-time high.

“We’re kicking it into high gear,” said Delois Zachary, a GED instructor at Dallas Can! Academy.

The changes are designed to bring the test up to date with what today’s high schools require and what businesses want in employees. For example, there will be more questions on history and civics, tougher science and essay portions, and math questions that are not multiple choice.

The new test also addresses a criticism some have leveled at the GED: It might cause some high school students to drop out because they think the test is an easier path to a diploma.

The exam, administered by the GED Testing Service, was created in 1942 to give returning war veterans a way to get the equivalent of a high school diploma without re-enrolling in a school with teenagers. But over the last two decades, the number of people taking the GED has gone up substantially – last year it was more
than 800,000 – and the typical GED test taker has gotten closer to high school age.

The deadline is especially pressing for those who have passed some portions of the exam. The GED consists of five tests, and students are allowed to take them separately – passing math and writing one day, then tackling science, social studies, and reading later, for example. A student receives a GED upon passing all five sections, even if it takes months or years.

A clean slate

But at midnight Dec. 31, those who haven’t completed all five tests will have their records wiped clean. Even if they’ve passed four of the five, they’ll have to start over. That has inspired some to head back to the classroom.

“I’m trying to hurry up and get out of here,” said Terance Robinson, 19, a Skyline High School dropout who has only the math test left to pass.

“I saw what they have on next year’s test, and it was real hard,” said Ian Johnson, 18, who dropped out of Roosevelt High School and has two of the five test sections to take. “So I need to get it now.”

The last major changes in the GED came in 1988, but students who passed parts of the test before that date were allowed to carry over their results. That won’t happen this time, and instructors expect the new test to be significantly more difficult than the existing one.

“Our passing rate now is pretty good, about 90 percent,” said Dorris Baker, who coordinates the Dallas school district’s GED program. “But I expect that to drop significantly – to maybe 40, 50 percent.”

About 40 people have enrolled in Elana Ingram’s GED class at the Skyline library branch, up from about 25 a year ago, and in the last two months, she has turned away about 10 others for lack of space.

“I have students coming in every day wanting to enroll,” she said. “If they’re just a few points away from passing, they’re anxious to get it done now.”

All booked up

Fort Worth’s testing center is booked for the rest of October, and officials are doubling up their capacity for November and December. The same phenomenon is taking place across the country. Lyn Schaefer, director of test development for the GED Testing Service, said testing centers in New York are booked for the remainder of the year.

“Right now, most centers in Texas are swamped; everybody’s trying to get in,” said Georgia Paris-Ealy, director of the GED unit at the Texas Education Agency.

Mr. Johnson, who supervises the Denton program, said teachers expected a light turnout for a class on the night of Sept. 11. Adult education classes often have poor attendance, and the day’s events made most people want to stay home.

“But we didn’t have a single empty seat,” he said. “Not that whole week. Those people are committed to passing that test.”

Juanita Garza, 19, a Sunset High School dropout who expects to take her first tests at Dallas Can! this week, said she hopes the GED will let her leave her cashier’s job and go to college to study computers.

“I don’t want the test to be any harder than it has to,” Ms. Garza said. “You have to set your mind on your work and get it done.”

The transition to the new test is stressful for teachers as well as students. Instructors must be trained on what the test will cover and how it will be graded. Many aren’t sure what changes will be made; training sessions are scheduled for many later this month.

Some instructors are having to make difficult decisions about their students. Do they have a chance to pass by December? If so, teach them the existing test. If not, start them on the new material.

“You’ve got to figure out quickly where people are and play a game to see who you feel comfortable pushing quickly,” said Jesse Cummings, Fort Worth’s program director for adult education.

The front lines of young fear; curriculums shifting to address students’ questions about war

Tuesday, October 9, 2001
Page 19A

The front lines of young fear
Curriculums shifting to address students’ questions about war

By Katie Menzer and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Adam Cislo asked only one question in his fifth-grade social studies class Monday: “I would say the big question is: ‘Is this the start of World War III?'”

Nancy Morrison, a history teacher at Glen Oaks Elementary in McKinney, fielded several other difficult questions. For many, she had no good answer.

“I don’t know, Adam,” the 28-year veteran teacher said gently. “I really don’t think anyone knows yet.”

Children struggling to understand the jarring events of the world often turn to their teachers for guidance and understanding. On Monday, teachers tried to explain why bombs were falling.

“Because we are social studies teachers, we are on the front lines of answering questions,” said David Wallner, a world history teacher at Duncanville High School. “They have a lot of concerns. They are worried about being attacked. They are afraid.”

Since the attacks, Mr. Wallner said, he usually begins his 10th-grade classes with a discussion of new developments. They have talked about religion, foreign governments, and other subjects that rarely came up in class before.

“You just take one day a time and address the situation,” he said.

The words “curriculum” and “current events” come from the same Latin root, so it’s not surprising that the day’s news would figure prominently in what teachers teach. The latest developments, however, posed a new challenge.

While the events of Sept. 11 had teachers working mostly to counsel students, the offensive in Afghanistan offered different challenges.

“It’s different in the way the teacher approaches it,” said Edward DeRoche, a professor of education at the University of San Diego who has written extensively about how current events intersect with curricula. “Now there’s even more of a need for historical perspective, for talking about what happened in the 1930s with
Hitler, for talking about fairness and justice. It’s a series of teachable moments.”

In McKinney, Ms. Morrison suspended her fifth-graders’ studies of early colonial life in America to answer questions and allay fears about events after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although Ms. Morrison has been answering students’ queries individually since Sept. 11, Monday was the first day she brought her students together to discuss the recent events in depth.

“I’ve had several come in today and say ‘My mom or dad said we were at war,'” Ms. Morrison said. “Some of them are afraid that out of the night sky are going to come these bombs to blow them and their families away.”

During Ms. Morrison’s class, students asked myriad questions, from why terrorists chose the World Trade Center as a target to whether the tap water at home is safe to drink. Tori Ricketts, 10, expressed concern over the conditions of people living in Afghanistan.

“Are they allowed to leave?” Tori asked solemnly during a discussion of recent Afghan history.

“No, not really,” Ms. Morrison responded.

Ms. Morrison – who spent last week decorating the fifth-grade hallways with pictures of flags and other patriotic symbols – said this is the first time in her career that students have expressed real fear for their safety.

She said she has tried to answer questions with candor while making students feel secure in their school and at home.

“Where is America?” Ms. Morrison asked her students, many of whom then pointed to a world map hanging on the wall.

“It’s right here,” continued Ms. Morrison, shaking her head and placing her hand over her heart. “It’s in our hearts. It’s an idea, and you can’t kill that.”

Dr. DeRoche said that patriotism had fallen out of vogue in American schools in recent decades. “If you asked school leaders what the top values of their schools were, patriotism wouldn’t have been on that list. But now it is again.”

Ms. Morrison concluded the afternoon class by playing the national anthem for the children. They each stood up from their chairs, faced a flag hanging above one blackboard, and cupped their small hands over their hearts.

“They’re living this history,” Ms. Morrison said. “If this is what they’re worried about, if this is what they want to talk about, then this has to be the curriculum for the day.”

Staff writer Donna Wisdom contributed to this report.

Fearing earth science’s erosion; As schools reduce role of subject, some worry key fields are at risk

Tuesday, October 2, 2001
Page 1A

Fearing earth science’s erosion
As schools reduce role of subject, some worry key fields are at risk

As much as any state, Texas has prospered from the bounty of the earth. Oil and gas have built staggering fortunes and shining skylines.

But a group of geologists, academics, and corporate executives is arguing that the state is risking its future prosperity by letting its schools’ commitment to the earth sciences erode.

“If you don’t get kids exposed to these things in the classroom, how are they going to learn?” said Jon L. Thompson, president of Exxon Mobil Exploration Co. and one of dozens lobbying officials to strengthen the state’s commitment to the field.

State officials acknowledge that a series of recent decisions has helped to move earth science to the margins. But they say it’s the unintended consequence of well-meaning reforms.

“The unfortunate net result is that earth science has become something we never meant it to be, which is essentially ignored,” said Chris Castillo-Comer, director of science in the Texas Education Agency’s division of curriculum and rofessional development.

Ms. Castillo-Comer and advocates for earth science say the root causes for the shift are several converging changes in the past few years.

Among them is the state’s new curriculum, adopted in 1998, which eliminated focused study of earth science in third, fifth, and eighth grades as part of a shift toward broader “general science” classes that touch on each field of science in every grade.

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which will replace the TAAS testing system in 2003, also replaces the eighth-grade science test with a fifth-grade test. The change was made to ease the load on eighth-graders, who will take three other tests in the new regimen.

And last year, the State Board of Education changed a rule that allowed high school students to take earth science to fulfill science requirements. Officials want to be sure all students study biology, chemistry and physics. Starting with freshmen this fall, earth science counts only as an elective.

Add all those changes up, and the place for earth science – the study of rocks, lakes, volcanoes, and other things terrestrial – is shrinking.

Some schools still offer earth science classes as electives, but Ms. Castillo-Comer said few students take them if they can’t be counted toward science graduation requirements. Fewer than a quarter of Texas high schools even offer an elective in geology, meteorology, and oceanography, the main earth science high school course approved by the state, she said. It’s too soon to tell how the changes have affected class enrollments.

“The result of this is that earth science is going to be just a middle school subject in Texas,” said Mike Smith, director of education for the American Geological Institute, which has been coordinating the lobbying efforts in Texas. “Kids may learn earth science as 11- or 12-year-olds and never encounter the subject again.”

He said that, if there is a national trend in earth science education, it’s to increase its presence in the curriculum as environmental and energy issues become more important. For example, North Carolina made high school earth science a required course for graduation last year. The National Science Education Standards, produced by the National Research Council in 1996, includes earth science in its standards at each grade through senior year.

“These people are going to be voters someday, and they need to know something about the earth, the water, the soil, the environment if they’re going to understand the issues they’ll be facing,” said Edward Roy, a professor of geology at Trinity University in San Antonio and chair of AGI’s education advisory committee.

More than a dozen oil company executives have written letters or made phone calls criticizing the move away from earth science in Texas, a state with more working geologists than any other. “It’s difficult to imagine that a state that’s benefited so much from the bounty of the earth and should be so concerned about the future would neglect this part of education,” said Robert Stern, who heads the geosciences department at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Grace Shore, the State Board of Education chairwoman, said she has gotten 40 to 50 letters on the subject in recent months – “more than I’ve received on any other curriculum item.” She said she’s sympathetic to their concerns.

“We have a very narrow focus in our science curriculum,” she said. “I would like to see more courses counted for science credit.”

But she said the state must keep that narrow focus in order to have a sensible testing system. If high school students are going to be tested in a subject area, they need to take the classes necessary to prepare them for that test.

All Texas students are required to take biology and at least an integrated course in chemistry and physics; as a result, officials say, all students can be fairly tested on those subjects. Let some students take earth science instead of chemistry, they say, and the integrity of the test could be compromised. “We can’t test everything,” Ms. Shore said.

As a result, she said, earth science probably won’t be used for science credit unless the science requirement is expanded from two to three credits, something that Ms. Shore supports but probably would take several years to accomplish.

“You get back to the old problem of how many hours are there in the day?” she said.

Until larger changes can be made, Ms. Castillo-Comer – a former earth science teacher – and others are trying to find smaller ways to bring the field back to prominence. While earth science objectives will not be tested on the exit-level standardized tests, Ms. Castillo-Comer said officials will try to include some questions that use earth science settings to deal with concepts of biology, chemistry or physics.

“I know the importance of earth science in making sure that our kids connect back to the earth, especially in our huge urban schools,” Ms. Castillo-Comer said. “It’s been very difficult, and everyone is concerned. But we’re not going to lose it entirely. We just have to keep working at it.”