Wednesday, August 25, 2010

CA: New school to open with price tag of $578 million

A glimpse of why California is financially struggling. It's only taxpayer's money so who cares about getting value for it?

Next month’s opening of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools will be auspicious for a reason other than its both storied and infamous history as the former Ambassador Hotel, where the Democratic presidential contender was assassinated in 1968.

With an eye-popping price tag of $578 million, it will mark the inauguration of the nation’s most expensive public school ever.

The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the crème de la crème of “Taj Mahal’’ schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting architectural panache and deluxe amenities. “There’s no more of the old, windowless cinder block schools of the ’70s where kids felt, ‘Oh, back to jail,’ ’’ said Joe Agron, editor in chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. “Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning.’’

Not everyone is similarly enthusiastic. “New buildings are nice, but when they’re run by the same people who’ve given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they’re a big waste of taxpayer money,’’ said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. “Parents aren’t fooled.’’

At Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex’s namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool, and preservation of pieces of the original hotel.

Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The complex follows on the heels of two other Los Angeles schools among the nation’s costliest — the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

The pricey schools have been built during a sensitive period for the nation’s second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, and the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall, and some schools persistently rank among the nation’s lowest-performing.

Los Angeles is not alone, however, in building big. Some of the most expensive schools are found in low-performing districts — New York City has a $235 million campus; New Brunswick, N.J., opened a $185 million high school in January.

Nationwide, dozens of schools have surpassed $100 million with amenities including atriums, orchestra-pit auditoriums, food courts, even bamboo nooks. The extravagance has led some to wonder where the line should be drawn and whether more money should be spent on teachers.

“Architects and builders love this stuff, but there’s a little bit of a lack of discipline here,’’ said Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund in Washington, D.C., which promotes urban school construction.

Some specialists say it’s not all flourish and that children learn better in more pleasant surroundings.


The weird fashion for bashing faith schools

Comment from Britain: Far from being factories of conformism, many faith schools turn out youngsters with high levels of BS immunity.

As someone who attended faith schools from the ages of four to 18 - and also a faith nursery, faith youth clubs, faith swimming lessons, faith teenybopper discos, faith football matches and faith outings to the seaside - I find the commentariat’s fear of these institutions fascinating. Nothing freaks out today’s privately educated ragers against religion quite as much as a school where the teachers talk to the children about God. They need to calm down, because the real secret about faith schools, the hidden truth, is that they more often produce intellectual sceptics than mental slaves.

Some people look upon faith schools as alien institutions, the churners-out of brain-raped youngsters who will hate homos and want to strangle single mums. ‘[W]e have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms’, says Catherine Bennett, providing Observer readers with their weekly satisfying shudder at the thought of how the other half live.

These schools ‘brainwash impressionable children’, the New Statesman has warned, quoting that old Jesuit boast, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, as evidence. Now Richard Dawkins, like a bull in a Padre Pio bookshop, has caused the Bimonthly New Atheist Controversy - it’s like they have a contract with the papers - by saying faith schools should not be given ‘a free pass to do religious education in their own way’ and must be prevented from ‘indoctrinating’ children. He was promoting his scary-sounding Channel 4 show, Faith School Menace?.

There are at least three problems with this sport of Hate The Faith School. First there’s the insulting idea that the kids are being brainwashed. Are the social circles of the liberal, atheistic, PC classes really so narrow that they have never met anyone who attended a CofE, Jewish, Muslim or Catholic school? They mustn’t have, because if they had they would know that the idea that faith-school children have their minds turned to mush by all-powerful priests, rabbis and imams is hilarious.

Take my school. (Warning: anecdotal evidence ahead.) A convent-based school in a rundown part of north-west London, administered by Dominican sisters who saw it as their duty to beat – sometimes literally – us Catholic boys and girls into shape, it was fairly full-on, religious-wise. We prayed before lessons, read the bible, raised money for black babies, had a chapel. (I say chapel. It was more of a glorified shed, which, being made of wood, got damaged in the great storm of 1987.)

But were we Pope-fearin’ Stepford kids? Far from it. Me and a friend beheaded a statue of St Vincent de Paul. The school Bibles were awash with cartoon penises sticking out of Jesus of Nazareth’s smock and speech bubbles above the apostles’ heads saying ‘I am gay’. In flagrant defiance of priestly teachings, a legend scrawled on the walls of the boys’ toilet said: ‘Wanking is evil / Evil is a sin / Sins are forgiven / So get stuck in.’ In their own little way, those four lines pose a serious theological challenge to the many contradictions of the Catholic faith.

What the faith-school fearers forget is that, yes, 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds are wet behind the ears and sometimes dumb, but they also don’t believe everything they are told. They are developing a sceptical streak, which in 13-year-old boys might express itself crudely in the agonising cry ‘What do you mean I can’t masturbate?!’, but which nonetheless speaks to an inner questioning of supposed big truths.

When a teen is told that everything from bodily pleasure to playground arguments to wanting to be super-wealthy is sinful, he will instinctively recognise a contradiction between his desires and what is expected of him. This often leads, not to brainwashing, but to an instinct to ‘kick against the pricks’ (to quote Acts, chapter 9, verse 5). As Patrick West has argued, it’s a myth that faith schools are ‘factories for producing unquestioning, God-fearing drones’.

Indeed, in my experience, people who have been to faith schools often have a natural scepticism towards spiritual crackpots. Perhaps all those years ingesting, considering and often rejecting religious education strengthens our bullshit immune system.

Everyone I know who attended a Catholic school is now an atheist, an agnostic, a lapsed Catholic or a pretend Catholic (someone who attends Mass only so that his or her child will get into a Catholic school, hilariously giving rise to fake-faith schools).

Meanwhile, it is often the trendily and liberally educated who later in life most feverishly embrace New Ageism, Buddhism Lite or end-of-the-world environmentalism. Suckers. Some of us had done that whole finding God and losing Him again by the time we were halfway through puberty.

The second problem with the fashion for bashing faith schools is that it is seriously, properly illiberal. The idea, expressed by Dawkins and others, that educating a child in a religious faith is a form of ‘emotional abuse’ is really an attack on the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit.

In an Oxford Amnesty lecture popular amongst New Atheists, one militant secularist argues that children ‘have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas’. An alarmingly intolerant campaign run by the British Humanist Association seeks to bring faith schools to an end, in the name of children’s freedom of belief.

This is an Orwellian use of the language of ‘freedom’, for it is really an attack on adults’ freedom of association, on parents’ freedom to get together with whomever they please in order to share ideas and find the education system they feel is right for their children.

As Hannah Arendt, a far more profound thinker than today’s New Atheists, argued in the late 1950s: ‘To force parents to send their children to [a certain] school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies - the private right over their children and the social right to free association.’ Campaigning for the government to shrink the faith element in faith schools would force some parents into precisely this scenario.

And thirdly, in answer to Catherine Bennett’s hair-tearing question about what on earth is taught in faith schools, the fact is they increasingly teach much of the same nonsense as ‘normal’ schools. Catholic schools, for example, teach far less of that anti-sex, pro-God stuff and much more of ‘mankind’s a rotter for wrecking the environment, multiculturalism rules, the key lesson of the Holocaust is “don’t bully Johnny”, you shouldn’t eat chips’, and so on and so on.

My old school recently won a Friends of the Earth award for being super-green by sticking a solar panel on the roof and getting the children to recycle their rubbish. Not surprisingly, none of the brave warriors against faith schools has a word to say about children being ‘indoctrinated’ in the meek, fearful, self-loathing pieties of the liberal zeitgeist. I just hope the kids one day do to their recycling bins what I did to St Vincent de Paul.


Absurd British middle-school exam: So easy a five-year-old has passed and a seven-year-old got an A star

A five-year-old girl today became the youngest child to pass a GCSE amid concern that tests have become too easy and that pupils are being pressured into taking exams too early. Pupils achieved record GCSE results this year, with more than a fifth obtaining top grades - nearly three times the number two decades ago.

However, despite the soaring number of A and A*s, teenagers now face being squeezed out of college courses by an increasing number of university rejects.

Today's results show the proportion of pupils achieving the top two grades has exceeded 22 per cent following year-on-year increases since the exam was introduced in 1988. And 70 per cent of teenagers gained at least a C grade - up two percentage points from last year.

Dee Alli from Southwark set the record for a five-year-old by getting a C in maths. She said: 'I treat maths as a game so I don't think of it as an exam. I find maths very easy.' Dee said she was inspired to take the exam by her friend Paula Imafidon, who with her twin Peter got the highest-ever grade in a Cambridge advanced maths exam at the age of nine. When asked whether she would like to do any more maths exams she said: 'I want to be a princess that lives in a big house so I can count my money.'

Seven-year-old Oscar Selby was celebrating after he became the youngest to achieve an A*. Oscar, from Epsom, Surrey, is believed to be the youngest to score the top grade in a GCSE.

He spent four hours every Saturday for nine months studying for the course through Hertfordshire-based Ryde Teaching.

But experts raised new fears that children are under too much pressure. Professor Alan Smithers said schools wanted to push pupils to pass while some parents were competing with each other over results. 'Our education system has become too dominated by exams,' he said.

While teenagers have been warned that as hundreds of thousands of A-Level students set to miss out on a university place, many will return to sixth form or college - meaning fewer places for pupils.

And pupils face increasing pressure as more universities are now selecting candidates on their GCSE results as competition for higher education places becomes tougher.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: 'While celebrating individual success and welcoming the fact that there has been an enormous take-up of GCSEs in the individual sciences, we believe that more needs to be done to close the attainment gap between those from the poorest and wealthiest backgrounds.'

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union said: 'These are the best ever results but the worst ever outcomes now exist for young people. 'These fantastic results stand in stark contrast to some of the worst ever employment and training prospects for young people and the reality of rising youth unemployment as a result of the coalition Government's austerity programme.'

This year's GCSE exam pass-rate increased for the 23rd year in a row, however the number of entries has fallen again to 5.37million compared with 5.47million in 2009. After a drop in the number on English entries being awarded a C last year to 62.7 per cent, the pass-rate has risen this summer to almost two-thirds.

Despite the rise in passes, school leavers face being squeezed out of further education this year as college places go to older pupils who have failed to get into university.

However, more pupils are expected to fall into the 'neet' - not in education, employment or training category - as college places are snapped up by A-Level students who are set to miss out on a university place.

Many will return to sixth form to resit exams, take more A-Levels or to turn to qualifications like BTec and HNDs. And colleges will be keen to take on these higher-achieving older students to boost performance indicators, the lecturers' union warned, reducing the number of places available to 16-year-olds.

More than a quarter of students who applied for university still have no place, figures released yesterday revealed.

Dan Taubman, further education policy officer at the UCU, told the Guardian: ‘Schools and colleges are to a large extent judged to be a success or failure on their exam results. That’s a big incentive not to take kids who have just failed. ‘It’s just like the universities – they can be more selective, and the kids without are not going to get in.’

One assessment expert has warned that the exam questions have become increasingly 'predictable' and compared the relentless rise in results to currency inflation.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, suggested highly tailored teaching and 'built-in inflation' were responsible for the consistent rises in results. 'The questions themselves are becoming much more predictable; they are highly structured and teachers are increasingly familiar with them,' he said. 'Exams just seem to have the same built-in inflation that our currency has.'


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