High Hopes, Tough Times

December 23, 2002


Raptors in the City uses peregrine falcons nesting on an office tower window ledge to teach city kids about nature.
Youth courts grow in popularity nationwide.
State budget troubles loom for Oregon program that helps parents move from welfare to work.
Innovative school district in Alaska gains international reputation.
A big gallery show, and school and college success, are the rewards for young graffitti �taggers� who make up the United Youth Arts Partnership.
Kentucky�s Commonwealth Institute keeps building its army of parent leaders.
Sixth-grade teacher Ellen Berg finds school reform slow going at Turner Middle.

Soaring with Cleveland�s Peregrine Falcons
Three peregrine chicks by Scott WrightWill Buckeye and SW find each other again? That�s the question for students who have been hooked on the dramatic ups and downs of this pair of city-dwelling peregrine falcons through the Raptors in the City program. In March, 2002, we wrote about Buckeye and SW, who were in the midst of attempting to hatch four eggs on a window ledge at the Terminal Tower building in Cleveland, Ohio. Their story was the centerpiece of the program, which teaches students about a wild predator which has learned to thrive in the city.

It was a perilous nesting season, according to Deborah Mathies, program director of Raptors in the City. �Things started going bad in late March, as a series of spring snowstorms hit the nest�The second storm was particularly bad, and Buckeye sat rock still on the eggs for 25 hours, part of the time becoming nearly covered with snow.� But SW finally came to relieve him. Not long afterwards, all four eggs hatched. All the chicks were successfully fledged, with much of the action recorded by webcams trained on the ledge.

In 2003, provided Buckeye and his mate return, even more students will be following the action and learning about these fast-flying predators. The webcam coverage will continue, as well as the �Falcon Flash� e-mail newsletter. Mathies hopes to institute a new feature, a bulletin board discussion moderated by falcon experts, on which children can post their questions about the birds. A small but growing number of classrooms across the country will employ a full-fledged science and technology curriculum built around the falcons that follows them through their nesting season (approximately February through June, making for a great second-semester project). To sign up for the free e-newsletter, or order curriculum materials and a reference book, go to www.raptorsinthecity.org.

Youth Courts Multiply
Teen Jessica Ferguson as a youth court judgeIn the past eight years, the number of youth courts in the United States has grown from 78 to over 900, operating in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Why is it such a fast-growing trend? According to Scott Peterson of the Department of Justice, it works as both an intervention and prevention program, and it takes a burden off the juvenile court system.

�If there�s a thousand cases going through your local community, youth court may be able to take 100 or 200 out and handle them more effectively,� Peterson says.

We followed up with youth court after our 2001 article to find that there have been exciting developments in programs across the country. Last year was the first national youth court month, and the governors of New York and Tennessee issued proclamations. Almost 640 sites offered activities, like mock trials for the public. In May 2002, youth courts were recognized at the United Nations' Special Session on Children. Starting next year, youth court volunteers will participate in a 12-month campaign designed to get youth involved in education and community service.

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Scott Peterson talks about young people getting satisfaction out of volunteering.
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A spring 2002 study by the Urban Institute found that youth courts or teen courts are a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system. It�s no surprise to those like Peterson who have believed in the potential of youth court for years. �Through volunteering the youth develop a strong attachment to their community and are less likely to victimize it,� Peterson says. �They�re more a part of the decision-making process, so they�re not so alienated.�

Sidestepping Budget Struggles
Last spring, we profiled Portland, Oregon�s Steps to Success program, a welfare-to-work initiative that was among the most successful in the country�moving a greater percentage of parents to work, and a higher number into jobs providing health benefits, than any other program studied.

There have been some changes, but struggling parents are still finding a handhold on the career ladder with help from Steps to Success. The program continues to run full-service career centers from two community colleges and seven welfare offices (that�s five fewer than before, because the county was divided in half on July 1, and the other offices are now serviced by another agency). They just opened a new career center in a low-income housing development in Portland.

But it hasn�t been an easy year. State and federal budget crises are beginning to take their toll. In October, the program lost some funds from a federal cutback on food stamp and employment training grants. More cuts are likely when the state budget is rewritten in June. And the number of families needing assistance may climb higher in 2003: Early evidence suggests caseloads are rising. Oregon still has highest average unemployment in the nation.

�The economy has gone south � and [with] TANF caseloads going back up and unemployment insurance claims ending December 28, 2002, more than 18,000 Oregonians alone will need help,� says Kim Freeman, director of workforce development at Mt. Hood Community College, who oversees Steps for Success.

Still, not all the news is bad. Steps to Success recently became part of a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Steps to Success career trainers will work with welfare office staff and alcohol, drug and mental health specialists to conduct in-depth, two-week assessments of people returning to welfare. They hope to find out why parents couldn�t keep their jobs, then tailor specific training and service packages to get them back into the labor force.

�It's very new, and will be studied for the next couple of years, so the jury�s out [on its success]. But it�s exciting,� says Freeman.

Alaska Schools Spread Their Knowledge
Chugach representatives receive award from presidentWhen we first featured the Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, the district had come so far academically in a decade that it had won a national award for quality and progress. With support from the Gates Foundation, 12 school districts in Alaska are currently in the process of replicating the Chugach model, which is based on performance standards rather than A�s and B�s.

The district has been inundated with requests to share its innovative ideas, from as far away as New Zealand and Japan. Now teams of students are traveling across the country to give presentations on how their district approaches learning. Student participation fits right in with the Chugach educational philosophy: �Our instructional model tries to find opportunities for all our students to apply skills and knowledge rather than just regurgitate it on a test,� says Bob Crumley, assistant superintendent.

Crumley and superintendent Richard DeLorenzo are looking to create a nonprofit foundation to help others replicate their model. Also on the agenda is a virtual �dashboard� that provides a snapshot of how well the district is reaching its goals, including student performance, parent involvement, and post-high school employment.

Audio Excerpt

Bob Crumley talks about how the dashboard will show legislators there is a better way to build accountability than standardized tests.
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The dashboard will be part of an information management system that will tackle the question of how to measure academic success. �If a student has performed well on standardized tests, is that enough of an indicator of how successful they will be later in life?� asks Crumley. �Or do we need to expand that and include things like personal and social skills, team building skills, character skills, life skills, and service learning type skills?�

Good question.

Graffitti On the Right Side of the Law
A holiday mural by UYAP studentsIn November, the University of New Haven�s Gallery at Dodd�s Hall ran an art exhibit called "Shakin' the Streets...Off." The exhibit�s opening night was one of the largest in the gallery�s history, according to the art director. What drew the big crowds? The work of inner city teenage �taggers� studying at the United Youth Arts Partnership in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Connect for Kids first profiled UYAP in 2000, and followed up in July 2001.

Some of the pieces were wrenching: paintings and drawings dealing with gang life, death, teen pregnancy. The biggest attraction was The Sounding Board, two accordion-like sheets of plywood that a half-dozen graffiti artists painted.

�We really push the envelope in terms of what we teach these guys and girls, it�s not like arts and crafts with pixie sticks,� says Officer Mike Gosha, who started UYAP in 1997 as a different approach to fighting the problem of graffiti, vandalism, and gangs. Since then, 22 UYAP kids have left street life to enter college, and more than 40 who had quit high school have returned. The program now has nine instructors, three of whom are paid staff. And graffiti vandalism in the city is still way down, Gosha says.

That progress may be in jeopardy. For the past five years, UYAP has gotten most of its funds from a federal after-school grant. The federal government just shifted that grant to the state of Connecticut. �We�re no longer dealing with people who know us� and the program, says Gosha. Cuts in funding are certain, he says. How deep they�ll be remains to be seen.

But what about �Sam,� the withdrawn 16-year-old who once seemed doomed to follow his brother�s footsteps to jail? He�s now living in Boston and is in college, studying art. �He�s a phenomenal artist,� says Gosha. �He�s living in an apartment with three roommates and doing real well.�

Parent Army Adds Recruits
Kentucky student in an outdoor classroomIn the months since our April 2002 article on parent leadership training in Kentucky, hundreds more parents have gone through the program created by the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. �We have now trained 1,011 parents in all, and 450 of them are on school councils and committees, twenty have served or are serving on local school boards,� says Beverly Raimondo, executive director of the institute.

But the institute has had to scale back. After holding seven six-day training sessions in the fall of 2002, the organization is planning a smaller number of sessions�five�for the fall of 2003. But the training will remain the same. �It will still be six days, in three two-day sessions, and we will still cover all the costs for the parents who participate,� says Raimondo. While fundraising has been off recently, adds Raimondo, �The key thing is we�re still finding ways to keep it going.� The institute is a project of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizen organization with a 20-year history of working to improve public education in Kentucky.

Raimondo says the work of the institute has had high-profile support from Kentucky Commissioner of Education Gene Wilhoit over the past year. �He contends that parents are an untapped resource when it comes to school reform, this has really made us feel vindicated,� says Raimondo.

Sixth Grade Perspective

Back in July, Turner Middle School sixth-grade language arts teacher Ellen Berg was enjoying summer and wondering how well a new reform model would take hold in her school in St. Louis, Mo. Now, mid-way through her school year, Berg says she is enjoying teaching a class in which most students are reading at or close to grade level�a dramatic change from last year. But she remains skeptical about reform at Turner.

�Our reform model (called Connect) is wonderful�The whole idea is looking at school data to make decisions. It makes so much sense, but in many ways represents a big change for us,� says Berg. An example of data-driven decision-making: at Turner, where math scores are low, the teachers have come up with a common goal: to incorporate higher-order math skills into all of the subjects.

�I think a lot of people in the school say, �Oh, this too will pass.� And they don�t really make the effort�Some people honestly don�t understand, don�t know how to write a rubric, don�t know how to make these changes, and they need help, not criticism.�

Berg says writing a weekly column about her classroom experiences on the Middle Web site helps her fight the isolation of her profession. �The feedback has been invaluable to me� I have no concept of what should go on in a sixth grade classroom. I know what is happening in my classroom, but I have no idea if my expectations are too high, too low, or what. That is extremely stressful for me.� Berg adds, �Writing helps bring a lot of things clear for me.�


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