Author Archive

Laura Varlas

Kidsdata in California Maps Student Well-Being Statewide

California is ahead of the curve in mapping the health and well-being of its students statewide. The Lucile Packard Foundation's website Kidsdata catalogues all relevant health, wellness, risk, and resilience data available on students and stores it in a searchable website.

You can compare counties, and even school districts, by

  • Connectedness, as well as caring relationships.
  • High expectations.
  • Meaningful participation.
  • Safety.
  • Physical health, fitness, obesity, or levels of activity.
  • Mental health.
  • Resilience.
  • Risk-taking behaviors.

. . . And the list goes on. All in all, there are over 400 measures of child health and well-being, which you can cross-reference by ethnicity, age, and gender.

This site provides a clearer understanding of youth health and wellness issues and how our kids are doing in comparison to their peers on measures beyond well-documented standardized test scores. In short, it paints a fuller picture of our youth and our neighborhoods. It's a great tool for California and should be of high interest to other states.

Laura Varlas

Whole Child Loses When Subjects Compete for $

Speech and theater saved Keegan Robinson, a shy student who could spit out standardized test answers but hadn't found the connection that would keep him coming back to school.

The dramatic arts brought him out of his shell and into the school community as a contributing member. He eventually won an academic scholarship to college.

Robinson, a former student of Bronx Preparatory Charter School in the South Bronx, N.Y., illustrates how essential a well-rounded education is to averting dropouts and, better yet, to nurturing career-, college-, and citizenship-ready young adults, said Bronx Prep arts educator Kate Quarfordt at Thursday's Capitol Hill briefing on policies that support balanced education.

Bronx Prep is located the poorest congressional district east of the Mississippi. "Kids in my neighborhood don't get a second chance," Quarfordt said.

We have to ask ourselves, she added, are our schools funneling kids into the dropout machine, or are we persuading kids to stay with us; graduate; and go on to college, career, and an engaged civic life?

She shared several other stories like Keegan's, where the "spirit of equality among disciplines" at South Bronx meant the difference between losing kids to the streets and changing lives for the better.

Quarfordt, and the other educators behind the more than 20 major organizations who have signed on to the well-rounded education consensus recommendations, provide the vital link between the classroom and education policy.

On the table for consideration: balanced representation of all the major disciplines in the coming ESEA reauthorization and federal funding schemes for education in FY11.

Although the Obama administration has proposed a $38.9 million (or 17%) increase in funding to support teaching and learning in the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, geography, and economics in the FY11 budget, the administration proposes combining eight subject-specific grant programs into a single competitive grant program. Disciplines would compete against each other to receive funds from the $265 million pot of money allocated under "A Well-Rounded Education" on the proposed FY11 budget.

The consensus recommendations presented on Thursday ask the U.S. Department of Education to amend this approach to promote collaboration, not competition, among the disciplines. Also important is a dedication to educator-developed standards of quality and accountability for all disciplines, not just language arts and math.

Forcing the disciplines to compete for funding runs the risk of perpetuating the status quo—a lopsided curriculum that offers no quarter for creativity or students like Keegan Robinson.

Laura Varlas

Six Chicago Schools Develop "Culture of Calm" Plans

Yesterday NPR featured a story on turnaround efforts at Chicago's Fenger Academy, where last fall a student was beaten to death in a brawl off school grounds. Last year, 49 Chicago students were homicide victims; this year, 27 students in the city have been murdered.

Fenger has new staff, including a new principal, and holds school-community events around messages of peace and self-actualization. Community members are optimistic that the school culture is becoming less violent and that changes will ripple out into the surrounding neighborhood.

In the same school system, six high schools are enacting "culture of calm" antiviolence plans as part of an initiative developed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Ron Huberman. The initiative identifies vulnerable students based on their similarities to prior CPS shooting victims, establishes nonnegotiable behavior expectations, and brings all suspensions in-house. Huberman notes that preliminary results have been positive at the six "culture of calm" high schools.

"Culture of calm" will eventually roll out to 38 CPS high schools and establish safe passage routes to 12 high schools in high-crime areas. Fenger Academy is on the list of schools set to participate in this $60 million effort.

Laura Varlas

Why Guidance Counseling Needs to Change

April10cover_blogWhat's behind the low rating of services delivered by high school guidance departments, as reported in the 2009 Public Agenda survey With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them?

"Why Guidance Counseling Needs to Change," in the April issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine, notes that capacity is one huge challenge. The number of students pursuing postsecondary education has ballooned, yet most schools provide an average of 1 counselor per 265 students (with states like California tipping the scales at nearly 1,000 students per counselor).

But even if the student-to-counselor ratio was more manageable and if counselors' time was not monopolized by scheduling and administrative tasks, the article's authors contend schools need to reimagine counselors as more than just maitre d' to a menu of postsecondary options.

Clare Struck, an elementary guidance counselor from the Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, testified at today's Senate ESEA reauthorization hearing on meeting the needs of the whole child. Senators learned about the challenges and benefits of providing students with a whole child education based on the firsthand experiences and successes of PLS educators. Struck believes that Congress can best support the work of pupil service providers by establishing policies that promote:

  • Innovative and useful reform that requires state and local governments to dismantle the obstacles to collaboration between and among school systems and the social, health, and safety services that support children.
  • Alternate pathways to graduation that are available to all students.
  • An adult mentor for every student—one who supports individualized learning opportunities that engage students in relevant curriculum and challenging education plans.
  • The facilitation of school partnerships with community service agencies and other local entities.
  • Flexible grouping and flexible time frames to measure success, which enables schools to develop alternative approaches to the Carnegie unit and other traditional conventions such as the traditional school day and year.
  • Publicly reporting the ratio of counselors and support staff to students—with an effort toward meeting the goal of the ASCA-recommended 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio.
  • School turnaround strategies that incorporate the tenets of the Whole Child Initiative—with special attention to fortifying the relationships and interpersonal connections among students, staff, and families—to support student achievement.
  • Content assessments that are valid, reliable, and comprehensible for English language learners and students with disabilities.

Each student deserves access to personalized learning and support from qualified, caring adults. Research shows that, in addition to improving students' academic performance, supportive schools also help prevent a host of negative consequences, including isolation, violent behavior, dropping out of school, and suicide. Central to a supportive school are teachers, administrators, and other caring adults who take a personal interest in each student and in the success of each student.

If we recognize that students need more than a high school diploma to be successful in today's job market, why shortchange them the professional support to manage career and college pathways?

Laura Varlas

Whole Child Podcast Preps You for H1N1

Jerry Weast, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools (MCPS) superintendent, leads a district of about 142,000 students. Last spring Weast's district got an early taste of H1N1 and had to temporarily shut down a school that serves 1,600 students. MCPS's strategy going into this fall's flu season? Remain calm and connected. In this month's Whole Child podcast, hear Weast and our panel of experts discuss preparations and concerns for this year's flu season.

With about 200 nurses to those 142,000 students, there has to be a lot of interagency collaboration to monitor the sick, address the concerns of the worried well, and constantly communicate with all levels of the community. Fortunately, MCPS is well connected to parents and its education community via e-mail and Web resources, and they've been working all summer to seal up any gaps in communication and ensure that messages make it home over multiple mediums to a community that speaks a range of 123 languages.

The advent of H1N1 has also created a unique opportunity for federal health and safety officials to collaborate with school communities, says Theresa Lewallen, ASCD's managing director of Constituent Services and the liaison to the federal government agencies handling H1N1. In addition to guiding schools on preventive measures and maintaining learning continuity, these groups also need to help schools balance high-stakes accountability mandates with the potential for lower attendance rates this flu season, Weast says.

Many questions linger, and the flu, by nature, is unpredictable, says registered nurse Linda Davis-Alldritt, president-elect of whole child partner the National Association of School Nurses. We know that kids 6 months to 24 years old have been the hardest hit by this flu, and we know that schools will be dealing with H1N1 on top of regular seasonal flu illness, she says. Aside from that, schools are planning responses but are also alert to any emerging patterns.

Download the podcast today and visit ASCD's H1N1 resource page to stay on top of developments relevant to the K-12 community.

How are your school and community preparing for H1N1? Share your reactions, ideas, and questions in the comments. Because now more than ever, we must strive to ensure that each child is not only healthy but also safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Laura Varlas

Harkin to Helm HELP; Whole Child Victory?

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) will step in to fill the late Senator Kennedy's post as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP). He will have to give up chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In addition to his new role as HELP chair, Harkin also heads the subcommittee on education spending, meaning he'll have a big say in both shaping education policy and making sure that K-12 programs are funded.

As senator, Harkin has been a strong supporter of whole child education, particularly for students with special needs, both in his state and at the federal level. He also called for changing the federal Teacher Incentive Fund so that teachers would have more input in shaping the program. In 2006, Harkin was the first recipient of ASCD's Whole Child Leadership Award. Harkin's own words portend the potential effect of his new chairmanship:

"I agree with the need to educate the whole child and not focus solely on test-taking skills. I also support the need to bring more quality, effective teachers into the classroom, but many of the problems No Child Left Behind has encountered stem directly from a lack of funding."

ASCD policy Twitterers sum it up in less than 140 characters:

Harkin HELP chairman + 60 Senate dems + Dem House + Obama = full funding for IDEA?


Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Harkin accepts the ASCD Whole Child Leadership Award
from ASCD CEO Gene R. Carter.


Laura Varlas

Attention Interventions: A Case for School-Based Mental Health Supports

The June issue of the medical journal Pediatrics features this study out of UC Davis, which analyzes data on approximately 700 children followed from kindergarten through the end of high school and finds a clear link between attention problems in early grades and lower high school test scores.

Initially, this article made me think of two recent New Yorker articles:

The first, "Don't!," references studies that show kids who are able to delay gratification (the marshmallow test) are more successful as adults. In relation to this new research from UC Davis, I'm wondering how teachers are using exercises in mindfulness to intervene when students are struggling not to act on an impulse or just to slow down and concentrate.

"Brain Gain," the other New Yorker article, discusses neuroenhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall and briefly wonders if these drugs might be employed to assist students with fewer educational supports. With evidence like this new study from UC Davis making the case that attention problems as early as kindergarten do lead to later drops in achievement, are we likely to move toward wider acceptance of pharmaceutical interventions in education?

Researchers at UC Davis say the message from their study is for parents and teachers not to ignore signs of inattentiveness in young children. OK, so how do you tell if you've just got a spacey 6-year-old or a kid who's got a significant learning or clinical disorder or might be struggling to pay attention because of poor nutrition, anxiety, or lack of sleep?

School-based mental health professionals, say the researchers, should be a "priority for education policy makers, because classroom interventions, counseling and—in some cases—treatment for psychiatric disorders could mitigate these attention problems." And that means, down the road in high school, students will be better prepared to fulfill their true potential.

Laura Varlas

Waging Peace for Afghan Girls' Schools

Education, not force, is the biggest threat to oppressive regimes. This spring, we learned from ASCD Annual Conference keynote speaker Greg Mortenson that girls are the torchbearers of peace in developing nations. Teach a girl or woman to read and write, and they will use these tools to make better choices for their family, connect to the broader community, and teach their family members to read and write.

And so, it's terrible but no surprise that three Afghan girls' schools have been the targets of poison gas attacks in the past few weeks. Security, limited access (due to lack of basic infrastructure for schooling), and too few female teachers are the top barriers to education for Afghanistan's girls.

It's easy to feel powerless in light of the incredible odds against girls in places like Afghanistan. But it's important to remember that, as a whole child educator, you can spread concern, awareness, and advocacy for Afghan girls to your students and colleagues. Mortenson started the pennies for peace campaign—showing students the sort of momentum that can build from the smallest of actions. You can get started simply by talking to your students about the connections between education equity and peace. The United Nations Girls' Education Initiative has a ton of resources and conversation starters, organized by country.

Laura Varlas

Exercise Linked to Attention and Academic Achievement

Researchers at the University of Illinois have found a positive link between physical activity and attention and physical activity and academic achievement in children. Children in this study were better able to pay attention and performed better on academic tests after bouts of physical exercise. Particularly in reading comprehension, students tested performed a full grade level better after exercise. The study has prompted some curricular recommendations: integrating physical activity into lessons, daily outdoor recess, and 150 minutes of physical education per week at the elementary level and 225 minutes at the secondary level.

In other studies, and previous ASCD Inservice blog posts, brief, planned recess breaks were linked to better behavior. In monitoring the "healthy" component of a whole child education, we've noted that nearly 40 percent of elementary schools have eliminated or are considering eliminating recess, according to the National PTA, even though 75 percent of parents and teachers think elementary school recess should be mandatory.

Teacher Magazine recently reported that school districts in Oregon are failing to reach targets of 30 minutes of recess per day. In a trend that mirrors who gets recess nationwide, large urban schools in Portland were especially far from the mark—some providing only 8 minutes of recess per day. Recess—and physical education—deprived schools often cite curriculum narrowly focused on academic subjects and lack of funding for facilities and instructors.

Has your school cut back on time for physical activity? If so, have you noticed any effects on your students?

Laura Varlas

That's Code for Discrimination

Last week, "dressing like a girl" got Marion County high school junior Justin Reynolds sent home from school, reports's Gradebook blog. The Florida school district's dress code policy requires that students dress "in keeping with their gender."

Reynolds, whose transgression involved some high-heel boots, a necklace, earrings, mascara, and eyeliner, argues that his outfit was not overdramatic and was merely an expression of himself. His school counters that he violated dress code and that his clothing was potentially disruptive.

Gradebook offers some food for thought on this issue: if a student dresses tastefully, what difference does it make if he or she has on a certain type of clothing? I'd add to that the article mentions Reynolds identifies as gay, so what sort of values do schools support when they enact policies that marginalize or penalize different expressions of gender?

For a really great read on teaching in a way that is inclusive of the LGBTQ community, check out the March 2009 English Journal magazine by the National Council of Teachers of English, on the theme "Sexual Identity and Gender Variance".  In particular, slam poet George David Miller's piece, "You Brought This on Yourself", powerfully addresses how parents of LGBTQ youth struggle with apathetic administrator attitudes toward homophobia in the school house.

Do you think Marion County's dress code policy contradicts the safe and supported tenets of a whole child education?

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