Archive - Nov 18, 2008

Racking Cider

Today Kim and I siphoned off the cider from the first firmentation jug into the second.  We will give it a few days to settle and then bottle it.  We poured off a glass to see how it came out, and we're very pleased.

The Tale of Three Superintendents

As I write this, I believe my seven year old daughter is sitting in the superintendent’s office explaining to him what she has said online. Those of you who have followed my coverage of the Doninger case might expect me to be irate. In fact, I am ecstatic. Let me explain.

When Avery Doninger was a junior at Lewis Mills High School, she was secretary of the student council. She worked hard to help organize a battle of the bands at her school and at one student council meeting was told that due to scheduling issues, the Jamfest would need to be rescheduled or moved to a different location. She, and some fellow students reached out to the community to encourage parents to contact the school administration and urge them to reconsider.

The school administration did not take kindly to being contacted by parents and confronted Avery and the other students, telling them that unless certain conditions were met, conditions that Avery did not believe were possible, Jamfest would be cancelled.

That evening at home, she wrote in her personal diary something to the effect, “Thanks to the douchebags at the central office, Jamfest is cancelled.” She went on to describe how all the calls from parents had pissed off people at the central office and she encouraged more parents to call.

The problem is that her personal diary was on Livejournal, a website where many people write there personal thoughts so their friends can see them. Some weeks later, the son of the superintendent found the diary entry and pointed it out to her mother. Her mother responded by forbidding Avery to run for re-election as class secretary. Nonetheless, Avery won the election as a write-in candidate, which the school refused to recognize.

Avery has since graduated and is spending this year as a volunteer for AmeriCorps. However, a lawsuit lingers. Avery’s mother did not believe that the school should punish children for things that they do at home. That should be the purview of the parents. Mrs. Doninger spoke with the school about appropriate punishments for using language that some find objectionable. Yet the school administration was intransigent.

Mrs. Doninger then filed a suit against the school for violating her daughter’s freedom of speech. As is typical for cases like this, they move slowly. The school argued to have the case moved from the Connecticut courts to the Federal courts. The Doningers sought a preliminary injunction to allow Avery to take her duly elected position as class secretary, but the District court did not grant the injunction. This was appealed to the Second Circuit which did not override the judges decision.

Since then, the superintendent has retired. The principal has been reprimanded for emails that she has sent violating students’ privacy. Some of these emails have been released because of Freedom of Information requests and paint a picture of a vindictive school administration seeking vengeance as opposed to protecting the school from significant disruption. In fact, it appears that any significant disruption stems not from the blog post, nor even from the email the students sent, but from the initial decision of the school administration, yet again postponing or canceling the Jamfest.

Last week, I was back in District Court, where the defense was arguing for a summary dismissal of the case. The plaintiffs presented evidence that had not been available during the hearings for the preliminary injunction and argued that the dispute of facts of the case warrants a full jury trial. The defense argued that the facts in dispute were not material and that even if they were, the whole thing should be dismissed because of qualified immunity.

The qualified immunity argument seemed especially twisted. To show qualified immunity, you need to show that reasonable people would argue whether or not the principal’s actions were legitimate. Much of this hung on whether or not reasonable people might guess that at some point in the near future the courts might overturn previous decisions that the reach of schools to punish students for what they say stops at the school gate.

Now, a reasonable school administration would probably settle this out of court, unless the school administration really wants to assert its right to reach into students’ bedrooms. So far, such reasonableness seems to have eluded the Region 10 School District.

This takes me back to Dr. Stella, who is the superintendent for the Woodbridge School District. Like many school districts, the Woodbridge District is struggling to find how to use the Internet to enhance the education of its students. Last week, Dr. Stella attended the convention of the Connection Association of Boards of Education (CABE). At this conference he attended a session entitled, “New Ways of Communicating in an Electronic Age”. The presenter was the third superintendent that I wish to highlight.

David Title is superintendent of the Bloomfield Public Schools and he spoke about his blog. As far as I can tell, Dr. Title has not used the word “douchebag” to describe people that he disagrees with. Instead, he has set an example of how superintendents can use the Internet to get the message out about what is going on at the school.

I can only imagine what would have happened if Avery attended the Bloomfield Public Schools. I imagine him telling Avery that he understands that her post was on a private diary at home and published on the Internet, which gives space for more emotional outbursts, but that he feels she should work on communicating her views in a more positive and articulate manner. Perhaps he would even have asked her to write a guest post, on his blog, about how students could better deal with their frustrations and be heard by the school administration and the public. That would have been a true example of using blogs to communicate and educate. Yet, unfortunately, Avery was not in the Bloomfield Public School system.

I, on the other hand, am fortunate. I went to the Board of Education meeting last night where the CABE conference and Superintendent Title’s presentation was discussed. After the meeting, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Stella about the issues of making sure that the Internet is used as effectively as possible to further students’ education while at the same time, not putting students at undue risk.

I mentioned Fiona’s Radio Show which she does every Sunday evening at 6:30. Fiona and I talk about the events of the week. It provides a great opportunity for some quality father-daughter time, and is building an archive of recordings that Fiona will be able to go back years hence, to find out what her life was like when she was seven. I suggested that perhaps some Sunday, Dr. Stella could call into Fiona’s radio show.

Dr. Stella was intrigued. He suggested that Fiona should find a time to come down to his office and tell him about her radio show. That is why my daughter has gone to the superintendent’s office this afternoon and why I am pleased about it. Dr. Stella and Dr. Title are examples of superintendents working hard to use new communication tools to improve their schools. I’m sorry that Avery didn’t have a superintendent like that to deal with, but I hope that this story, and others like it will be an encouragement to superintendents across Connecticut to move into a Twenty First Century that teaches and encourages intelligent use of new communications media.

The Woodbridge Strategic School Profile

Every year, the Connecticut State Department of Education issues Strategic School Profiles, which get discussed at the Board of Education meetings for the schools across the state at their November meetings. Last night, the Woodbridge Board of Education discussed the Strategic School Profile for Beacher Road. Unfortunately, the new strategic school profiles are not yet available online either at the State Website or at the Woodbridge Board of Education Website.

For a data hound, it was a great meeting. There was all kinds of little tidbits. 3.1% of the students are classified as talented and gifted. 8.8% are listed as participating in special education. 17.4% are from minorities, with Asian American students making up the largest group. Board members asked questions about trends and further details to determine if the policies and budgets of the school were having the desired effect. Some of this became fairly detailed and the superintendent, Dr. Stella, spoke about the need to prioritize which areas of additional research the board would like his staff to pursue.

As I listened to this, my mind wandered back to the workshop on Watchdog Reporting that I attended on the previous weekend. All of this information is available online and any board member, blogger, member of the press or citizen of the town can easily go out and to their own research.

Some of the data is in PDF files which are harder to extract data from. Some of the data is in a database that can be queried from a web page. There is also a summary of much of the data available as a spreadsheet. An enterprising researcher would contact people from the State Department of Education to see how much of the data could be obtained in a raw format that could be loaded into spreadsheets and databases.

One statistic that people expressed concern over was the percentage of students passing all four fitness tests. In 2005/6, 41.1% of fourth graders completed all four fitness tests. The number was unchanged for 2006/7. I don’t have the numbers for 2007/8 but I seem to recall them as being about the same. Yet for schools in the state, it was only 33.6% in 2005/6 and 33.5% for 2006/7. It may be that there is something wrong with the tests. For sixth graders, the numbers were different in 2005/6 36.6% passed all four tests, but in 2006/7 climbed to 62.6%

As the economy falters, people will be looking even more closely at the money spent on our schools and how effective the money is being used. In addition, there may be more demands on the school as more students need free or reduced price lunches and more students need after school care through programs like extended day as more parents need to work to make ends meet.

While the school appears to do a good job of analyzing the data to make sure that our students needs are met as fully and cost-effectively as possible, having school board members and members of the public go out and analyze the data is useful to help find other ways that our schools can be improved.

This leads to another part of the report. In Woodbridge there is one computer per 2.9 students. This is slightly better than the one computer per 3.6 students which is the state average. However, as of the 2006/7 report, only 67.3% of these computers were high or moderate power, compared to 89.5% on a statewide basis. The school continues to refresh its computers, and I suspect the number is much better now, but it is an area that needs vigilance. Beyond that, we need to make sure that besides having good computers, we have teachers that can help the students make the best use of these computers and, ideally, that this learning gets brought into the parents homes so parents can make better use of the Internet as well, like being able to research strategic school profiles.

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