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Stressed at School 

by Cynthia Taggart & r & Six-year-olds lining up for class at Skyway Elementary in Coeur d'Alene no longer tote lunch pails filled with peanut butter on Wonder bread and baggies of Oreos. They've never heard of Show and Tell, and they may be among the last first-graders to experience recess.


It's not the 1960s anymore. Or even the 1980s. In the schools of 2005, the partnership of reading, writing and arithmetic has grown to include accountability; safety fears redefine volunteers as too costly and nearly a nuisance; and Twinkies are tantamount to poison in a student population spreading rapidly in girth.


"We have a climbing number of students with diabetes," says Pam Pratt, Skyway's principal. "Kids are overweight, much more than before."


They're also incredibly busy, thanks to adults who want to multiply the number of best and brightest available to care for them in their old age. State and federal academic standards are so demanding now that teachers have abandoned traditions such as Show and Tell to spend more time preparing students for achievement tests that determine schools' futures.


Recess may be the next tradition abandoned. Concerns about childhood obesity prompted a recent proposal to increase required physical education time in Idaho schools. Good idea, educators say, but where do they fit more PE time in a schedule crammed with non-negotiable academic requirements? Teachers already are borrowing recess time from children who need extra help with reading and math skills.


"Teachers are under so much pressure to make sure kids get all the content and process all the knowledge and skills that there's less time to carve away for recess," says Matt Handleman, principal of Spokane's Moran Prairie Elementary. "The one piece of flexibility left is recess."


The days when multiple choice tests determined students' literacy are history, as are sticky buns on cafeteria shelves, unfenced schoolyards and impromptu classroom visitors. Schools in the 21st century present daunting challenges to educators trained in the previous century.





Safety Worries & r & "When I was first principal at Coeur d'Alene High in 1989, my daughter was there and we never had an issue with her safety. It wasn't even on the radar screen then," says John Brumley, principal at Lake City High in Coeur d'Alene. "Now safety is an ever-present concern."


A grisly murder near Coeur d'Alene this spring motivated many school officials to push safety measures into high gear. A convicted child sexual molester is facing charges he staked out a family he saw from the freeway, beat to death two adults and a 13-year-old boy, kidnapped and molested an 8-year-old girl and her 9-year-old brother and later killed the brother.


In reaction, three Kootenai County school districts purchased software during the summer that scans identification cards of school visitors to find convictions in most states of sexual offenses. Schools have locked down and replaced their public welcome mats with airport-like security practices.


"Skyway had fences, but now I have to make sure we're able to lock our gate," Pratt says. "It sounds paranoid, but we want to make sure everyone walks into school through one location."


The software hasn't reached Spokane schools yet, but educators no longer assume the best when students aren't where they should be. When a little girl didn't meet her parents as planned at the Moran Prairie Elementary flagpole after school recently, Principal Handleman jumped into his car and looked for her along her route home.


The little girl had walked home with friends.


"We're vigilant, but we don't panic," Handleman says. "Child safety is our No. 1 concern."





Weighed Down & r & Childhood obesity is a close second. David Groth, a fifth-grade teacher at Coeur d'Alene's Sorensen Elementary, was dismayed to hear students laboring to breathe during a hike over the Tubbs Hill nature area along Lake Coeur d'Alene.


"That shouldn't be happening," he says. "Kids have way too much passive time at home watching TV and on their Playstations."


Pratt says classrooms at Skyway have refrigerators now for all the diabetic students who need snacks and juice throughout the school day.


"It takes a lot of teaching time away when other students see a child having a reaction to too much sugar," she says. "Everyone puts their head down while the problem is taken care of."


Pratt and other educators have had to rethink the rewards they offer students and the messages they send when they ask kids to sell candy to raise money for schools.


"We used to have milkshakes in the middle schools," Pratt says. "Not any more."


Under pressure from parents, some schools are restocking vending machines with fruit and other healthy alternatives to chips, cookies and candy.


"Obviously the kids aren't too thrilled, so we're doing it gradually," says Jerry Keane, superintendent of the Post Falls School District. His district changed the content in vending machines and also reduced the number of machines.


The increase of diabetes among Spokane students so alarmed Spokane Public Schools officials a few years ago that they developed a rigorous new health and fitness program. Schools sell a la carte snacks now that are no more than 250 calories each and contain a maximum of nine grams of fat. Students can no longer buy candy or sugary sodas. Students wear heart monitors during physical education classes, regularly test their blood pressure and measure their fat content.


A registered dietitian visits Spokane's Glover Middle School every week to teach kids the value of eating healthy foods and exercising. Glover Principal Roberta Kramer invites parents to the school twice a year for lessons from the dietitian on preparing healthy meals at a low cost.


But avoiding an over-zealous approach to curbing obesity is a huge challenge for schools. Causing eating disorders is not the goal, Handleman says.


"Do we want to put that pressure on little girls? There's a difference between awareness and panicking kids," he says. "It's a very fine balance."





Making the Cut & r & Educators know exercise is as important to weight management as is diet. But student schedules are too packed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to fit in any more physical education time. No Child Left Behind and its costly sanctions make it an absolute priority for all school officials.


"We pay a lot of attention. We have $8 [million] or $9 million at stake," says Brian Benzel, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.


No Child Left Behind began redirecting public schools in 2002. Under the act, schools must meet set academic requirements every year. State achievement tests provide the proof. The act allows parents to remove their children from failing schools at the school's expense and place them in successful schools. Expectations grow every year until 2014, when all public school students are expected to meet academic proficiency standards.


Schools that don't improve on schedule face the loss of federal money. In Spokane's schools, nearly $9 million is at risk, but schools are so far managing to meet the standard, Benzel says.


The federal plan is a mixed bag. It has led to streamlined curriculum, clear and measurable academic goals, solid data and better communication among educators.


"To stay competitive in the world, children need reading, writing and math skills, solid teamwork, and problem-solving and citizenship skills," Benzel says. "NCLB has captured that idea in a powerful way."


But it also has turned schools into pressure cookers.


"Kids want to do well on the tests," Pratt says. "They get very nervous. They set goals, and it's very nerve-wracking for them."


For the first time, high school students who are sophomores this year must pass proficiency tests to graduate in 2008.


"Teachers feel pressure and so do students," says Gary Neal, principal at West Valley High. "For the first time, these tests mean something to them."


West Valley added an after-school achievement center this year for those students who want to improve on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). College students provide the help.


John Swett, principal at Lewis and Clark High in Spokane, adds academic pressure to the list of potential suicide factors that bait his students. Swett has lost students in the past to suicide. He knows which pressures push their buttons. To keep students' spirits up, he schedules assemblies in which whole classes are celebrated as role models or future leaders.


"We have to empower them, make them feel good to be here, connected," he says.


Teachers, too, are cracking under the pressure, particularly veteran teachers who remember the days they had time for field trips, class parties and fun projects. Some have changed careers or retired early. Others have adapted and discovered they're still passionate about teaching.


"Accountability gives us the opportunity to celebrate our successes," says Groth at Coeur d'Alene's Sorensen Elementary. "I've heard teachers say you have to give up fun things, but I don't understand that. Good effective teaching can and should be fun."


All Groth's fifth-graders learn to juggle. He incorporates his passions into his lesson plans, he says.


Jeff Norton, an English teacher at Lewis and Clark High, says No Child Left Behind hasn't changed his mission to teach students to write grammatically correct sentences and think constructively. Accountability is tough, though.


"It's time-consuming and logistically difficult," Norton says. "It adds a challenging dimension."





Principal Concerns & r & School principals probably face the most pressure from No Child Left Behind. They scramble to stay in the fight. To keep staff morale from sagging, they bring teachers together and celebrate successes. In Spokane schools, principals are no longer managers but team captains, Benzel says.


Principals also shoulder the shame when their schools fall short of the No Child Left Behind standards. Schools that don't meet all annual requirements are considered failures, and penalties follow. But most of the region's schools are failing only because students with disabilities didn't perform as well on assessment tests as other students. Nearly all students are held to the same academic standard, an issue under hot debate nationally.


Coeur d'Alene's Canfield Middle School is a national merit school with top achievement test scores -- except from special education students. As a result, it's considered a failing school and parents can ask the district to bus their children to another middle school.


"It's devastating not to meet standards, even if you know it's totally unreasonable," says Lake City High's Brumley. "I still really love the work, but it's not even close to the same job it was when I started. National research says the toughest job in terms of replacement now is high school principal."


The school in the region with probably the biggest challenges this year is Holmes Elementary in Spokane. Ninety-three percent of the school's students live in poverty. Kids come from homes with absent parents, little food and no stability. Half the students who started at Holmes this month will leave before the end of the year.


"It's a challenging population. Some of these families live in crisis mode," says Principal Steve Barnes. "Their top priority is not making sure kids get their homework done."


His students have to meet the same academic standards as all students, but they have greater needs than most students at other schools. Before teachers can teach kids to read, they have to convince kids they're capable of learning, Barnes says.


"You have to touch kids' hearts before you touch their minds," he says. "These kids need mothering, a relationship before they're ready to learn."


Holmes' assessment scores last year were low, but they had improved dramatically from the year before. Only 28 percent of Holmes students met academic standards in 2003. Last year, 61 percent met standards.


Barnes understands the pressure he's under not to lose federal funding, but the kids are his top priority. His challenge is to win his students' trust with enough time left to fill their minds -- an absolute necessity to their future success, he says.


"I want to show the district, the community that these kids can learn," Barnes says. "I believe their way out of poverty is through education."





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