Friday, September 12, 2014

In D.C., a 13-year-old piano prodigy is treated as a truant instead of a star student

Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.

The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.

But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents’ begging and pleading for an exception.

“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.

Avery’s parents say they did everything they could to persuade the school system. They created a portfolio of her musical achievements and academic record and drafted an independent study plan for the days she’d miss while touring the world as one of the star pianists selected by a prestigious Lang Lang Music Foundation, run by Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who handpicked Avery to be an international music ambassador.

But the school officials wouldn’t budge, even though the truancy law gives them the option to decide what an unexcused absence is. The law states that an excused absence can be “an emergency or other circumstances approved by an educational institution.”

Too bad, so sad. After 10 unexcused absences, it doesn’t matter whether a child was playing hooky to hang at the mall or charming audiences in Hong Kong with her mastery of Mozart. D.C. bureaucrats will label the kid a truant, will mar her transcript with that assessment and will assign a truancy officer to the case.

When Avery returned in March from winning the Grand Prix at a big competition in Hartford, Conn., for her performance of a Chopin Waltz, she didn’t get calls of congratulations from her school. That was her 10th absence, so a truancy officer was called.

Deciding that a truancy prosecution over piano competitions was ridiculous, Avery’s parents withdrew her from Deal. And this year, instead of touring the world as a first-class representative of D.C. public schools’ finest, she is going as a home-schooler. And no one is happy about it.

“We decided to home-school her because of all the issues, because it was like a punch in the gut to have to face the fight again this year,” said Gagliano, who works at Hertz Car Rental. “We didn’t want to do this. We want to be part of the public school system. Avery has been in public school since kindergarten. She’s a great success story for the schools.”

Avery misses her friends. When school started Aug. 25, she wanted to be there, catching up with them and wearing her cute, new school clothes and meeting her teachers.

Instead, she’s at home doing schoolwork at the kitchen table, miserable that her achievements in piano have led to this isolation.

So send her to private school, you say? Olympic gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky, 17, doesn’t get any blowback from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda when she misses classes to smash some more world records. Instead, school officials have a page on the Stone Ridge Web site bragging about her achievements.

Unfortunately, Avery’s parents can’t afford private school tuition. So essentially, DCPS is making sure that Avery’s continued trajectory as an international piano prodigy has a price tag on it.

It’s true that D.C. has a huge truancy problem. Last year, nearly a third of all students missed more than 10 days of school. So that’s about 15,000 kids who are doing who knows what instead of being in a classroom.

It would be immoral to enforce a truancy rule for some, but not others, right? But wait, what about Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old who had been living in D.C.’s family homeless shelter and missed nearly 30 days of school before anyone reported her missing?

Aren’t we supposed to be tightening up on truancy enforcement to ensure that cases like that don’t happen?

Of course. But the fact is, truancy rules in the District are selectively enforced, depending on your Zip code.

The 8-year-old living in a homeless shelter and attending a school overwhelmed with transient children — where truancy can be a sign of something dangerous — racks up 30 absences before someone has the time to notice.

But over in the Other City, where some D.C. public schools are as fancy as their neighborhood, the little concert pianist is collared and the truancy police are on high alert.

School officials who are deciding to enforce the policy for some and not others, who refuse to take a holistic look at the child and her life in and outside school — whether it be at international concerts or in homeless shelters — should be held accountable for their short-sighted decision-making.

And seriously, from a PR perspective, how could the embattled school system pass up a chance to brag about Avery’s success as a lifelong public school student?

I guess common sense isn’t on the curriculum this year.


Muslim students will be offered sharia-friendly student loans by British government in bid to get more Islamic pupils to go to university

Muslim students are to be offered Sharia-compliant interest free loans by the government in an attempt to get more Islamic pupils to go to university.

Since tuition fees were increased in September 2012, many Muslim students have been put off continuing their education as it was expected the loans, which are paid back above the rate of inflation, would be used to cover the rising costs - contrary to their beliefs.

Following a four-month consultation, a new Sharia-friendly model which involves Muslim students paying a donation into a pool system instead of paying interest has been produced by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS).

The alternative scheme is expected to be introduced within the next three years, but BIS has denied it will pave the way for compliance with Sharia in a wider sense, saying: 'Sharia has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and the Government has no intention to change this position.'

It also confirmed that students taking out the loans will pay back exactly the same amount as those who use the traditional scheme, essentially making a charitable donation rather than paying back interest.

With universities now charging tuition fees of up to £9,000, most students borrow money from the Student Loan Company (SLC) - taking out loans of up to £9,000 to cover their tuition fees and up to £4,375 for their maintenance costs.

While they are studying, the loan carries an interest rate of the Retail Price Index, currently 2.5per cent, plus 3 per cent, and when paying back the loan the interest rate, based on their income, will be between RPI and RPI plus 3 per cent.

Once a student is earning a £21,000-a-year salary, repayments are made at a rate of 9per cent of any yearly income over that amount.

The need to take out a loan to cover the cost of university led to concerns being raised by many Muslims that paying it back was incompatible with their beliefs, and the rising fees meant families were unable to fund courses themselves.

Around 20,000 people responded to the consultation document,with 93 per cent saying students with religious objections to the charging of interest had been affected by the changes in tuition fees and student loans.

Of 1,054 Muslim students who gave an example of their experiences when completing the survey, 337 said they objected to the interest, and 144 stated they would not go to university as a direct result of requiring an interest bearing loan.

One said: 'Students, including myself, chose to stay at home through their higher education in order to take only the minimal loan necessary to avoid extra interest.

'Most significantly in my opinion, this seriously limits the options of universities that they can apply to as they can only apply to ones within a reasonable commutable distance.

'This might mean that they miss out on courses only available at specific universities, or miss out on applying for the best universities for their course of interest.

'This can hinder these students from the best career for themselves that they could possibly have achieved otherwise.'

The new loans will operate under the Sharia model of ‘Takaful’, a form of Islamic insurance where people contribute money into a pool system to guarantee other members against loss or damage.

The fund will be established with an initial sum of money, either donated to the fund or provided as an interest-free loan, and applying for money is expected to be done in a similar way to existing loans.

Students will make a Takaful contribution - which is perceived as a charitable donation from a Sharia perspective.

BIS insist that the scheme will not leave non-Muslim students out-of-pocket, as the loan repayments will simply be reinvested into the ‘pool’ for future students’ funds.

The government worked with Islamic financial experts to come up with the product, working under the criteria that the repayments and debt levels must be identical to a traditional loan, ensuring that students who took up the alternative scheme would end up no better or worse off than others.

It was also ruled that repayments should be made directly through the UK tax system, making it as simple to do as for those paying back traditional student loans.

A spokesman said: 'Making higher education more accessible to all is part of government’s long-term economic plan to boost skills and strengthen growth.

'The overwhelming response to our consultation has shown the strong demand for a Sharia-compliant alternative finance model for student loans that everyone can access. We support this idea and will now work towards its development.'

The National Association of Student Money Advisers agreed that there is no hard and fast answer to the problem, saying that 'there is a variety of interpretations amongst Muslim groups as to what would be acceptable under Sharia requirements.'

Sharia is a moral and religious code which affects everything from a believer’s personal hygiene to finance and diet. Attempts to implement Sharia law have been met with opposition globally. There is no consensus between Islamic schools of thought on how far-reaching Sharia should be.


'Young people are sloppy and don't dress or talk properly': Ofsted boss claims teenagers are not taught the right skills for surviving in the world of work

Millions of youngsters are too sloppy and slovenly to get jobs because they lack the discipline or skills needed for work, the chief inspector of schools said yesterday.

School and college leavers are careless about time, lack a work ethic, do not dress or speak well and are lackadaisical, Sir Michael Wilshaw added in his scathing remarks.

Employers think teenagers and those in their early 20s have never been taught how to behave and work or about the attitude they need to get on, he continued.

Sir Michael, head of Ofsted, made his attack as the inspectorate published a highly critical report on the quality of  further education and sixth-form teaching for 16 to 19-year-olds.

In particular, it savaged English and maths teaching, and failures in the way young people are guided towards careers.

The report said there was no point in keeping young people in education until 18 if they did not gain qualifications or were not prepared for the demands of work.

‘Many employers complain that far too many young people looking for work have not been taught the skills, attitudes and behaviours they need to be  successful,’ Sir Michael warned.

‘It means they have a sloppy  attitude to punctuality. It means they are far too relaxed in terms of meeting deadlines. It means that far too many young people are  lackadaisical in the way they present themselves for work.

‘If they dress inappropriately, speak inappropriately and have poor social skills, they are not going to get a job.

‘Youth unemployment is far too high and it is in everyone’s interest that young people receive the very best education and training to improve this situation.’

His verdict came a day after an analysis by the wealthy nations grouping, the Organisation for  Economic Co-operation and Development, said only a quarter of  British graduates scored well in maths and English tests.

This was well below standards achieved at universities in rival countries. OECD officials said in Japan, the top-rated country, foundations for good language and maths skills were laid in schools but that is ‘not true for the UK’.

Sir Michael said at the launch of the Ofsted report: ‘The gap between the good intentions of  policy and the reality of what is happening is worryingly wide.’

He added that too many teenagers drop out of post-16 education and disappear from the system, and too few get a chance of useful work experience.  ‘Too few young people know what they want to do at 18 because the quality of careers guidance is shockingly poor,’ Sir Michael went on.

‘Too few students make sufficient progress in improving their English and maths because the teaching is simply not good enough.

‘Again, it is quite shocking that 84 per cent of youngsters who don’t get the GCSE at grade C in  English and maths at 16 fail again at 19.’ His remarks reflect the  long-standing despair felt by many employers.

As a result of Labour’s 2008 Education and Skills Act, the school leaving age was raised from 16. By last year all teenagers had to stay on in education or training to 17. Next year, they cannot leave education or training until aged 18.

Just under 1.18 million young people aged 16 to 24 count as NEETS – not in employment, education or training. Yesterday’s report said too few schools and colleges had taken advantage of new ways to fund courses to boost standards.

‘Too much teaching in English and maths is not good enough as not enough learners are making sufficient progress in developing their reading, writing, oral  communication and mathematical skills,’ it warned.

‘There is a shortage of good  teachers of English and, in  particular, mathematics.’

A spokesman at the Department for Education responded: ‘The number of young people NEET is at its lowest level since consistent records began.  ‘We have scrapped thousands of low-quality qualifications so that only the gold-standard, employer-valued courses remain.

‘And providers are now incentivised to ensure young people study valuable courses.’


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