Friday, January 09, 2009

California Courts Rule for Charter Schools Again

A Los Angeles charter middle school is moving into new digs thanks to a court ruling on equal treatment that has national implications. One of the largest obstacles charters nationwide face is finding adequate facilities. Across the United States, only 26 of the 41 states with charter laws include procedures for providing space. California law requires districts to make unused facilities available to local charters, yet receiving the facilities continues to be a rough road.

Proposition 39, passed in 2000, requires school districts in California to treat charter schools the same as they do other public schools. Wayne Johnson, then-president of the California Teachers Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle charter schools were getting the leftovers and should be entitled to adequate facilities.

In the 2007-08 school year, New West Charter Middle School in Los Angeles was looking for a new facility to house its 285 students. The school's contract on its location was up for renewal in June 2008 and would require $1.5 million in rent. Fairfax Senior High School, just 15 minutes away in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), had unused classrooms that could accommodate the middle schoolers at far less expense. In October 2007, New West requested the vacant Fairfax classrooms from LAUSD. In April 2008, Fairfax made New West an offer, which the charter school accepted the next day. But only a few hours later, New West received a faxed notice saying LAUSD would not provide the facilities.

New West had little choice but to sign the $1.5 million contract for its current space. Administrators took the case to court, arguing the charter had been denied the equal treatment mandated by Proposition 39. On October 3, 2008 the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in New West's favor, ordering Fairfax Senior High to provide 13 classrooms. The transition will take place at the beginning of 2009. New West hopes to sublease its current site in order to recoup the money spent on the legal process.

"This has far-reaching implications for charters nationwide" said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter School Association. "This and other cases will have ramifications as to whether or not charter school students will be afforded the same treatment as any other public school students."

Charter schools have always faced an uphill battle for support from sponsoring districts. Over the past two years, two similar cases have been brought to California courts by groups denied facility requests by LAUSD. "Districts do not seem to want to comply with the law," said Sharon Weir, executive director and principal of New West Charter Middle School. "Now there is a precedent for districts to be held accountable to the law." Weir doubts the move to new facilities will hurt students' performance.

The small charter is fulfilling its mission "to provide an academically rigorous, highly individualized education." New West earned an 867 on the state measurement of the Academic Performance Index (API). A passing proficient score is 800, and New West has exceeded it three years in a row. According to the California Department of Education, this API ranks higher than all other LAUSD middle schools, including public and charter schools. "It is attributed to the quality of our teaching staff," said Weir. "They are non-tenured teachers, but they teach wholeheartedly."


Labour sees SATs pass marks plunge for English and maths

British Sats are exams taken during and at the end of primary schooling

SATs test marks appear to be on a consistent downward trend. The pass mark in SATs tests has fallen sharply since Labour came to power, figures show. Youngsters needed to score just 43 per cent to make the grade in English last year and 45 per cent in maths to reach pass standard. A decade ago, they needed 48 per cent and 52 per cent respectively, according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats.

Ministers insisted that pass marks only fall when papers are judged by exam watchdogs to be harder, thus ensuring standards are maintained year-on-year. But opposition politicians claimed the figures cast doubt over the reliability of marking - and questioned why pass marks appear to be on a consistent downward trend. Results in tests for 11-year-olds in both English and maths have risen over the past 10 years, sharply until 2000 and then more slowly.

The Liberal Democrats said the figures would further weaken public faith in SATs marking following the debacle over late and chaotic results last summer. And they claimed a new independent exams watchdog being set up by the Government to dispel dumbing down worries was not independent enough. 'These figures reveal there has been a decline in the marks needed to get the basic maths and English levels since Labour came to power,' said education spokesman David Laws. 'They will raise inevitable concerns about a dumbing down of standards and there must now be serious questions about the reliability of the SATs results. 'We need a fully independent Educational Standards Authority to restore confidence in standards and ensure that the national tests really are rigorous.'

Figures disclosed by Schools Minister Jim Knight in a Parliamentary written answer showed that in 1999, pupils needed to achieve a minimum of 48 per cent in English and 52 per cent in maths to reach 'level four', the standard expected of 11-year-olds. However in each of the last three years the threshold has been 43 per cent for English. In maths, it was 46 per cent in 2006 and 2007 and 45 per cent in 2008.

The proportion of pupils making the grade and achieving level four has risen over the same period. In 1999, just 71 per cent scored level four in English and 69 per cent in maths, against 81 per cent and 78 per cent respectively in 2008.

However, experts at Durham University, who compared SATs results with independent tests, believe primary reading standards are little changed since the 1950s and maths standards have improved only marginally. Evidence from international studies is mixed, with a study of reading literacy claiming in 2007 that standards in England have fallen 'significantly' but a 2008 study in maths saying our primary pupils are among the best in the world.

The figures for marks thresholds over time were issued by the now-defunct National Assessment Agency, which was wound down late last year after a devastating report into failings that led to the summer's marking chaos. Mr Knight, writing prior to the findings, said: 'The NAA uses a range of statistical and judgmental procedures to ensure that the standards of performance required for the award of each level are maintained consistently from year to year. 'The content of each test changes every year, therefore different numbers of marks may be required in different years to achieve a certain level. 'Levels are anchored to the national curriculum so that a level four achieved in one year represents the same level of performance as a level four achieved in any other year.'


British schoolchildren aged FIVE expelled for sex offences, girls molested by classmates: Playground bullying takes a shocking twist

Arriving punctually at her school in South London, the 15-year-old girl - let's call her Sarah - would not have expected that day to be different from any other. She would have greeted friends, familiar faces gliding past hers in the corridor as she prepared for the first classes of the morning. But for her, those classes did not happen. Her headmaster told me the brutal story of what happened next: how Sarah went missing some time between her arrival and assembly and then, a while later, reappeared looking withdrawn and anxious.

Initially, her teacher wondered why she had entered her classroom late. Then Sarah became distraught and the teacher took her to one side. Eventually she revealed how that morning, she had been marched into an empty classroom by a group of boys - themselves pupils at the school and all aged under 16 - who had physically forced her to perform a sex act on one of them. The head told me: `The incident had actually occurred in the school building. The boys concerned had just gone off to their lessons afterwards as though nothing had happened.'

His astonishment is still evident as he speaks. `The girl herself was immediately badly affected. She took some time in the toilets to recover from it. Eventually, she disclosed that something had happened.'

Arrests and court action followed. The boys later pleaded guilty to sexual assault and were given custodial sentences. But Sarah's story did not end with their conviction. She left the school and remains terrified that she might see her attackers again. Her father told us that even now, 18 months on, he is still shell-shocked. `You see your child off safely to school and you don't worry about them, really, until the point when they leave school to come home. This was something that occurred at a time when I just couldn't have possibly expected her to be a victim of anything.'

Yet when he complained to the council and asked for a home tutor for his daughter so that she did not have to go straight back to the same classrooms where her attackers were taught, they refused. `The council official I spoke to said: "I'm very sorry, we only provide home tutoring for children who've been excluded from schools, such as the boys who've assaulted your daughter. We don't provide it for their victims." 'ent part of the city, but he can still see the fear in her eyes. `If she goes into town or if she's on the train and she sees anyone from her old school, she becomes very fearful and very distressed.'

A sexual crime on school premises, committed by one set of under-age pupils against an equally young victim . . . It sounds as if it must be, thankfully, a vanishingly rare event. Yet this case is just one example of a shocking new trend in sexual bullying among children that is the subject of a BBC Panorama report on Monday night. We investigated Sarah's story, and others like it, to see whether they tell us anything about the world our children inhabit when they congregate at school.

For among experts there is a growing conviction that, up and down the country, something disturbing is happening. It is difficult to break this kind of activity into statistics. But the Government did supply us with its most recent figures, compiled in summer 2007, showing that in the previous year there were 3,500 school exclusions for sexual misconduct - which can include anything from daubing sexually explicit graffiti through to serious physical assault. In 20 cases, the guilty party was only five years old. But informal evidence suggests the problem may be worse. A survey of 11 to 19-year-olds by the charity Young Voice found that one in ten had been forced against their will to take part in sex acts.

How can this be happening? In one sense, the evidence is all around us. Fuelled by a sex-addled culture that parents cannot hope to shield them from, children can be fluent in sexual terminology long before they turn the legal age of consent at 16; often, even, before they hit ten. Sexual words can become sexual actions - so playground bullying is becoming sexual, too. Michelle Elliott of the charity Kidscape says: `Sexual bullying has become much more prevalent. On the Kidscape helpline we used to get maybe one or two calls a year. Now we are getting two or three a week. It's probably the tip of the iceberg.' If the emergency calls made to Michelle's office are the summit of that iceberg, far more are happening lower down the slopes, in routine exchanges between schoolchildren.

I was amazed when I met a group of teenagers in the offices of an anti-bullying charity. There were around 20 of them, some aged over 16 and some under.We were sitting in a circle inside the headquarters of Beatbullying, where helpers counsel youngsters whose lives have been made a misery. They were from local state schools; all had, in some way or other, come across verbal sexual bullying.

They all talked of the way sexual language was part of the daily currency. The word `slag' has survived from my schooldays, but new ones such as `sket' and `junge' have the same meaning and are thrown around with equal malice. `Gay' has become an all-purpose term of abuse. But what fascinated me was the way the wordplay so easily drifted into physical interference. According to Opey, a girl of 17, there is a lot of `grabbing and touching' between pupils, mainly with girls the victims of boys. She hears them bragging threateningly about sexual activities: `It would be verbal a lot of the time. Like: "She did this and she did that, so will you do this? Will you do that?" It happens quite a bit.' So, I asked, are she and her friends upset when it happens? `For the most part, yeah, but after a while you just learn to deal with it,' Opey said sadly.

Gang culture has contributed to the problem, of course. In some cases, boys are told to have sex with particular girls as part of `initiation rites', while young girls are bullied into performing sex acts for their `protection'. This hateful culture has now spread into the mainstream arena. I am told that 25,000 homepages on Bebo, the social networking site for children, have the word `slut' on them.

Words give way to actions. Every one of the youngsters I met at Beatbullying knew someone they thought had been sexually groped inside their own school. Dwayne, 16, said some of the boys he knows `touch girls where they don't want to be touched, especially in a public place at school'. I asked what the teachers did about it. `They ain't aware,' he replied, and I sensed my question showed me to be hopelessly out of touch. `They're, like, oblivious to everything.'

Even when the authorities are notified, it doesn't guarantee they will punish the perpetrators. In one horrifying case, a five-year-old girl was locked in a school room and sexually assaulted by another pupil. Astonishingly, the school urged her mother not to notify the police. She informed them anyway - only to be told that the boy responsible was under the age of criminal responsibility.

So whose fault is this sexualisation of the young, and where does it start? Without hesitation Monique, an eloquent 15-year-old I met at Beatbullying, blamed popular culture and magazines which have thrown sex at her and her friends for years. `It has a big impact on the sexual bullying side of things,' she said. `Music especially. Most of the songs you hear are `sex this' and `sex that'. And magazines have things at the back for positions, and things to do with sex.' She says even 12-year-olds see such material. `If you're 12, you shouldn't really be thinking about that.' Next to her sat Ramanae, 16. She told me: `My eight-year-old cousin, if she's on the internet, a pop-up advertisement will appear - a pornographic one - and she'll go to her mum: "What's this?'' '

What I found saddest was that all the youngsters spoke as if such exposure to sexual harassment was a fact of life. Monique said, matter-of-factly: `I have seen people bullied sexually. It's all around you; in school, outside of school, if you're out with friends after school, at weekends.' And when it escalates, it can bring disaster. Paula Telford of the NSPCC said: `We have had examples, for instance, of a 16-year-old boy who raped a much younger boy in a secluded setting in school. We have had a ten-year-old who was forcing other children to perform sex acts on him, and performing sex acts on them. And we have had much younger children who've been inappropriately touching each other.'

There are many grey areas. The sexual attack which causes a headmaster to call the police, and results in criminal prosecution, is clear enough. But in lesser cases, it can be difficult for teachers to decide how to intervene when so much of the traffic between pupils can be excused, optimistically, as general teasing and banter in the roughhouse atmosphere of a school.

So now Children's Minister Ed Balls is preparing guidance for teachers on when they should step in. Yet if the problem comes from our culture, what can a minister do? Not one of the parents I met had any idea how to stop sex arriving in the playground.

I gathered a group of a dozen mums and dads in a bar to talk about it. They spoke about mobiles, music and the internet, freely admitting that policing TV viewing was nigh-on impossible because of the ease with which children can access programmes out of hours. The ITV2 series Katie And Peter, featuring fly-on-the-wall footage of Jordan and her slightly preposterous husband, Peter Andre, was cited frequently as an example of a show which a child might be drawn to, but which had strong sexual content - they frequently joke about `shagging' and fall into bed with other.

But why, then, do their parents not ban it, I wondered. One mother, Lisa, told me: `I look like such a bad parent, don't I? Yes, we absolutely love that show. OK, I'm not happy about the language - but my daughter, she's only ten and she looks up to Katie Price and she thinks she's amazing. And you know what, in some ways she is not a bad role model. My daughter sits there going: "Oh Mummy, I want to be like her.'' ' Another mum, Jane, said she had found out through her child that ten-year-olds in the playground were `boasting about who they'd snogged.' She was alarmed, but what could she do about it?

I tried to remember if I had any concept of that at ten; were ten-year-old boys doing that in the Seventies? These days, as the father of two daughters aged four and two, I worry about the sort of world they are growing up in. Sometimes, it can seem so innocent - like the moment this weekend when Martha, the oldest, took five minutes to help her little sister undo her cardigan buttons. There was something so innocent about this moment of sisterly support, amid all the usual rows over who owns which toy, that it made my heart leap for joy. But then I remembered all the interviews we did for Monday night's film, and how that innocence can so easily be dismantled. It seems that whatever we parents do, childhood is invaded by knowledge far earlier than we would wish - and danger can follow.


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