Friday, October 22, 2010

Boston public schools emptying out -- as pupils flee to charters or the suburbs

Boston school officials — under pressure by financial watchdogs to cut operating costs but hesitant to close schools — have not made public the full number of empty classroom seats across the city.

Their most recent tally of 5,758 empty seats counts only the excess capacity in classrooms staffed by teachers, officials said in interviews this week. It does not account for the surplus space that exists in no-longer-used classrooms or those that have been converted into storage and meeting rooms as student enrollment has dropped.

The accounting is more than an academic exercise for a district that recently proposed vacating four buildings at the school year’s end. The more empty seats there are, the more money it could be wasting on unneeded infrastructure as it confronts a potential $60 million shortfall next year, fiscal watchdogs say. The higher the number of empty seats, the more pressure leaders will be under to close more schools — a politically difficult process that riles parents, teachers, and students.

Over the past decade, enrollment has declined by nearly 8,000 students to 55,371 last fall, according to the most recent state tally. Yet during that time, the school district has opened three new large schools and has only vacated four small buildings, potentially leaving it with more square footage than when the decade began.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has long been hesitant about closing schools, concerned that the district may need the space in the future even though enrollment is expected to decline further into the foreseeable future as more independently run public charter schools open.

Michael Goar, the school district’s deputy superintendent, said yesterday that the district is developing its strategy to balance next year’s school budget and hoped the number of school closures was on target. “It’s very difficult for students, parents, and staff,’’ Goar said of the school closures, which have sparked protests. “I’m hoping we got it right and I’m hoping we don’t have to do another closure next year.’’

School officials declined yesterday to fulfill a Globe request made a week ago for an estimate of the district’s overall capacity that would encompass empty classrooms, saying they needed more time to refine internal numbers.

The variation in how much space is available in a building can be striking in some instances when data comes to light.

A case in point is the Dearborn Middle School, located in a nearly 100-year-old building in Roxbury.

In June, as part of a districtwide report on building use, school officials told the City Council that 79 percent of the 365 seats at the Dearborn were occupied by students, while the rest were empty.

But school officials told the Massachusetts School Building Authority last November, in an application seeking millions of dollars for a massive renovation of the Dearborn, that the building could accommodate 675 students and only 41 percent of the building was being utilized.


Fairfax County Renews Lease for Saudi Wahhabi School

No separation of Mosque and State!

Last night, Virginia’s Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to extend its lease of county property to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia for the Islamic Saudi Academy. It did so despite new evidence that this Wahhabi school is poised to lose its academic accreditation, according to the Atlanta-based international accrediting giant AdvancEd.

The vote took place after an hour and a half hearing (unofficially summarized here and officially videotaped here) that aired citizens’ concerns about Wahhabism being taught at the school. Until two years ago, it had been documented that ISA texts taught that it is permissible or even required to kill those who leave Islam (which includes the majority of Muslims who reject Saudi Wahhabi doctrine), polytheists (which includes Shiite Muslims), Jews, homosexuals, and others, and that militant jihad to spread the faith is a sacred duty, as described here.

What it now teaches in Islamic Studies no independent observer knows for sure. I was one of the witnesses urging that the county not risk abetting Saudi Arabia’s well-known practice of exporting extremism by renewing the county lease, and I cited new information, namely a letter and an accompanying report I received from the agency that previously accredited ISA (both are posted here).

The letter from ISA’s accrediting agency states that it currently finds ISA “in violation” of five of the agency’ seven standards and that because of this it could not recommend ISA for accreditation status in its assessment earlier this year. It plans to review the school again next spring to see if its demands have been met.

AdvancED, the parent company of ISA’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, sent a special review team to the school last December. On that occasion, unlike its prior visit almost five years ago, the review team included two fluent Arabic speakers, and one who has previously taught Islamic theology at the university level. This was critical, since the religious textbooks in question are written in Arabic.

In its letter of February 9, 2010, AdvancED’s general counsel wrote:

Upon review of material provided by the Islamic Saudi Academy and other agencies, SACS CASI, and its parent organization, AdvancEd, identified the following areas of concern about the school: course material, course curriculum in compliance with standards and non-discrimination policies, teacher qualifications, governance issues, and community and stakeholder involvement. Specifically, the institution appeared to be in violation of the following AdvancED Accreditation Standards:

Standard 1: Vision and Purpose

Standard 2: Governance and Leadership

Standard 3: Teaching and Learning

Standard 6: Stakeholder Communication and Relationships

Standard 7: Commitment to Continuous Improvement

The two standards it managed to meet relate to adequate resources — hardly surprising, since the school is supported by the Saudi government.

Specifically regarding the Islamic Studies curriculum, the review team required the academy to take the following action before next spring: “As with other program areas of the school, [Islamic Studies] curriculum should be in a written format and placed on a regular schedule for review and revision.” In other words, part of this curriculum was not provided, at least not in written, verifiable form, to the Special Review Team. This is in fact the modus operandi of the secretive Saudi academy’s Islamic Studies department.

Other relevant problems encountered by the Special Review Team included:

* “During the Special Review Team’s [three day] visit, the Director General of the school was not available for interview and was not on campus. The Director General did not contact the Special Review team or provide information to them through written or other media.”

* “While the Special Review Team requested interviews with the Director General and the complete Board of Directors, only those members who were also part of the school leadership were made available for interview.”

* Of the requested information for the Special Review Team, “much of the data and information was not readily available or current.”

* “School leadership employed legal counsel to be on site during the teacher interviews.”

* “The Special Review Team requested samples of student writing, which were submitted after screening by the principal and Director of Education.”

In view of all this, the accrediting agency concluded that “they represent a lack of transparency in the operation and leadership of the school.”

AdvancED states: “This lack of transparency does little to quell external stakeholder criticism or suspicion of the school’s curriculum.” This suspicion, it should be noted, was heightened last year when one of the academy’s valedictorians was sentenced to life imprisonment by a U.S. Court of Appeals for supporting al-Qaeda and conspiring to assassinate the president of the United States.

The upshot is that the Fairfax County board of supervisors doesn’t know or care if the Royal Saudi Embassy doing business as the Islamic Saudi Academy, as the lease calls its tenant, is still teaching jihad on county-owned property.


State v private: The A-level gulf widens with British fee-paying students now three times more likely to get straight As

As discipline has collapsed in State schools

Teenagers from private schools are three times more likely to gain straight As at A-level compared with pupils in the state system, figures reveal. Nearly a third of independent school students achieved three or more A* or A grades this summer compared with one in ten state pupils.

Private schools produced more pupils with these grades at A-level than every comprehensive put together – despite educating just 7 per cent of pupils, according to statistics from the Department for Education.

Almost 12,000 pupils at fee-paying schools achieved three A grades this summer – against 10,802 at comprehensives. Only 8 per cent of pupils in comprehensives gained three As, compared with 27 per cent in selective state grammars and 31.4 per cent in the independent sector. The figure for all state schools was 10.6 per cent.

The latest statistics show that the gap between private and state school pupils doubled under the previous Labour government.

In 1996/7, 5.4 per cent of state pupils gained three As at A-level, compared to 15.6 per cent of independent school students – a 10.2 percentage point gap. By 2009/10, the gap had widened to 20.8 percentage points.

The Coalition said it was ‘scandalous’ that the gulf has been allowed to double despite the billions poured into the education system by Labour....

The fall came after an overhaul of A-levels by the Labour government in a move designed to introduce tougher, essay-style questions in exams and allow students to study fewer modules in more depth.

The A* grade was also awarded for the first time this summer as part of sweeping changes made to the exams. One in 12 entries was awarded the top grade, higher than predicted.

At A and A* grade, boys slightly outperformed their female classmates for the first time, with 12.5 per cent of boys gaining at least three top grades, compared to 12.4 per cent of girls.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: ‘It’s tragic that children are three times more likely to secure top A-level grades if their parents can afford to go private. ‘And it’s a scandal for all the billions spent and all the “education, education, education” rhetoric, the gap between the maintained and independent sector actually doubled under Labour.’


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