Sunday, December 31, 2006

In Praise of the Small School

The article in today's Detroit Free Press about Michigan's micro schools gave me a different perspective on the size of our local Leland school district. I've been thinking about Leland Public School a lot this week, first after reading Jack Lessenberry's recent essay blaming Michigan's growing school funding crisis on too many "hopelessly tiny school districts," and then later after looking over Time magazine's December 18 issue about remaking education in America.

Leland School measures up Time magazine's criteria quite well. Kids not only learn technology, but they live technology, taking home laptops, designing websites, blogging in their English assignments, even broadcasting this year's mock election over the internet. They are working in teams, from elementary school on up, learning to "git 'er done" even if they end up teamed with someone they'd rather avoid. They are learning to think critically and to do their own research, working towards the school's goal of producing life-long learners. Although an improved international outlook has not been a stated goal, we managed to graduate the most worldly class ever last year: of 42 graduates, there were 3 exchange students, two recent immigrants from India, one returning exchange student, and two who had designed their own international treks.

All of this is happening in the context of a small community that sounds a lot like the "micro schools" described in the Free Press article:
One upside to that, said student Kayla Gust, is fewer students means fewer cliques. Everyone is invited to the parties and nobody is ignored at school.

"You basically know everyone and you all get along," she said. "You have your friends, but you talk to everyone."
I have always liked that aspect of our smaller school community; my kids have always felt responsible for and connected to their community in ways that just can't happen in a larger school. They also know that in this small-town they can't get away with being sneaky. If I don't catch them, some other mom will and I'll hear about it anyway.

But is this all worth the money? Aren't small schools less efficient? The Small Schools Project doesn't think so. Liz first spoke to me of this research last year, when she was writing a paper on charter schools. It seems that if you look at the cost of producing a graduate (as opposed to the cost of making the payroll and keeping the lights on), small schools are much more cost efficient because more kids graduate.

If you were trying to evaluate the efficiency of an auto plant, you would be interested in how many working cars it was able to produce. You wouldn't count the ones that got thrown off the line because of defects. "Defective" work in a school is much more costly because we can't just toss non-graduates on the scrap heap. Dropouts are much more likely to suffer from all sorts of costly problems, from jail time to poor health to unplanned pregnancy.

The Dollars and Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools (pdf) paper puts it this way:

School size is arguably more important than either racial makeup or class size, according to at least one analysis. The Report Card on American Education (2001) noted that higher outcomes on standardized tests, such as the SAT and the ACT, as well as higher rates of graduation, may be connected more with school size than with race (LeFevre & Hederman, 2001, p. 3). The study also found that school size, not classroom size, was the key to student performance. Children performed better in schools where the principal knew their names.
In the 1990's, studies in both New York City and Nebraska showed that the so-called inefficiencies of smaller schools were greatly reduced when calculated on a cost-per-graduate basis. At 2006 transportation prices, we may have already outlived the era of ever larger schools.

Yet, here in Leelanau there is hardly a discussion about our schools, or school funding, that does not end in talk of further school consolidation. Never mind that we are entering an era of internet-based education and rising gas prices. Never mind that our county is long, narrow, and bisected by Lake Leelanau. Never mind that we already have kids on hour-long bus rides and that our schools, when they have remained in their communities, still function as the social backbones of those communities.

And never mind that in Michigan, size is just not relevant to our school funding problems. Some of our biggest school disctricts --Grand Rapids, Flint-- are the closest to bankruptcy court. Many of our smaller school districts are quite efficient, making good use of their staff, their students, and of their extensive community support.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Microchips in People

Photo from RFID Hand .
After reporting on people who objected to being required to implant microchips in their farm animals, it's only fair that I also report on people who choose to implant microchips into themselves.

I work in a casino, and many times work is a Human Zoo. I can't say as I'm surprised that people would implant microchips into their bodies. It is at least arguably more useful that some of the extreme facial piercing that I see. You can rig up your door so that you don't need a key, for instance. And I've seen reports of nightclubs where you get scanned instead of paying cash for drinks. (In these parts the bartender still lets you run a tab.)

Curious? Here is a list of FAQs about personal RFID tags. And the related forum, where people trade info and advice about their implants.

Thanks to Jameskpolka who alerted me to this phenomenom.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Giant Corporate Media

I added Giant Corporate Media to my list of interesting blogs after happening upon the site and finding a link to these senior citizens singing punk rock.

I'm going to try to troubleshoot my comments one more time, as comments are turning up posted in odd places. It turns out that Haloscan has directions for installing their product on Blogger. Guess I'll go and read them.

The Weather Report

Last year, on December 13, I published an account of the winter so far (very snowy) and the graphic of Lake Michigan's surface temps on that date. I checked the NOAA site today, wondering about our warm weather and how the lake temps compared to last year's. Even though it is nearly two weeks later in the year, the lake temps are so similar that I thought I was looking at last year's picture. The average surface temperature for this year is a tad lower, but last year had pockets of colder water, as one would expect when the air temps were much colder than this year.

OK, so that's the scientific observations. What we have here is no snow. Green grass. Temperatures in the 40's. I still have arugula to harvest in the garden.

At this latitude (we are right smack on the 45th parallel) summers are supposed to be cool. Maybe one or two days when the thermometer tops 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Nobody here bothers with air conditioning. On those few hot days, if they come, we just hold out until we can go jump in the lake.

Last summer it was beastly hot. The temperature was over 90 for days on end, and it was flirting with 100, breaking records. Lake Michigan was, usually breathtakingly cold, even in August, was warm. Like bath water. Even when I swam out far, I could never find a cold spot.

If the weather gets cold, the lake is still warm enough to generate a ton of lake effect snow. If it doesn't get cold, I will be really worried that global warming is happening faster than predicted.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Misfit Toys

Misfit Toys launched its new website today at This is Liz's summer and vacation job, and she has been helping Rob put the site together since July. It has been a long haul because he didn't take any of the usual shortcuts like charging shipping according to dollar amounts; they weighed every item so that they could charge only the actual cost of shipping. The website is connected to their point of sale system so that actual quantities on hand are displayed next to each item.

I just sent in an order for Rocket Ballons, a simple toy that was the big hit of Anna's birthday party this summer.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

See Charlotte's Web and Help 4-H

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

I am looking forward to seeing the new movie version of Charlotte's Web, especially after reading this review (with clips) from the New York Times. As you can tell from the clip, which shows Fern trying to hide her pig in her school desk, the story line has been altered somewhat. In the movie, Fern is a member of a 4-H club. 4-H was a partner and advisor in the film and any movie tickets purchased through 4-H will benefit state 4-H programs.

Tickets to Charlotte's Web may be purchased by clicking on Hollywood Movie Money's special 4-H page. This link will take you to a purchase page at Hollywood Movie Money. Here you will enter a ZIP code and purchase as many tickets as you like via credit card. The price of the ticket is determined by your local movie theater. Then you print a ticket voucher that you redeem at the theater. For each ticket purchased, Hollywood Movie Money will make a $1 donation to 4-H (included in the $2 processing fee). State 4-H programs will receive 100 percent of donations as determined by ZIP codes entered at purchase.

It seems that the movie won't be playing long, so get out and see it while you can.

Anna enjoyed the Charlotte's Web site, which had different clips and games to play.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The War on Science Grinds On

I didn't join in the rejoicing after the Democrats took back Congress. Sure, I was glad, but our troubles are far from over. The nation will soon find out what it's like to be Michigan in the post-Republican hangover period. Our economy is shot, our state coffers are empty, our schools are failing, the ex-governor who ran the state into the ground ids now a lobbyist in Texas. It's like the morning after the wild party: as long as the booze and food were free you had lots of friends, but now that it's time to clean up you're all alone. And broke. And out of trash bags.

The rest of the country may not realize that getting rid of the neocons is not enough. We're still going to have to clean up after them, and pay the bills for all they stole.

But some things can get better right away. This article about the censorship of science is a prime example:
The Bush administration is clamping down on scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the latest agency subjected to controls on research that might go against official policy.

New rules require screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists who study everything from caribou mating to global warming. The rules apply to all scientific papers and other public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

This sort of stuff irritates me to no end. I am interested in the process of science, not just the results, and if you don't "show your work", including all of the hypotheses that didn't prove true, you ain't doing science.

I can only imagine what the last six years might have been like if we had a president who was more familiar with the Scientific Method. Or one who was interested in a dialogue of competing ideas. Or one who censors policies to suit the results, instead of vica-versa.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Microchips on the Farm

I've been watching the growing controversy about the microchip tracking of farm animals for about six months. This week it made national news in a NYTimes article:
A federal effort to quickly pinpoint and contain outbreaks of disease among livestock is coming under attack on farms, in Internet chat rooms and at livestock markets, ranches and feed shops across the nation.

Although the effort, the National Animal Identification System, intended to trace a sick animal to the property it came from within 48 hours, is still in early, voluntary stages, the United States Department of Agriculture has had to retreat from a proposal to make it mandatory. Officials now say that further participation will result from financial incentives and market pressure.
I'm glad that the feds are backing off the program, which I suspect was propelled in part by microchip manufacturers looking for new markets. (There has also been a similar push to implant US servicemen with microchips). Once again, we see policy makers who have very little knowledge of the various ways in which people interact with animals.

When I get day-old chicks, they cost about $1.25 each, shipped in the US Mail in lots of 25. They are remarkably hardy, but I still expect to lose two or three in those first few days. (We have to carefully remove them from the shipping box one at a time and dip each one's beak in the water to teach them how to drink, else they'll die of thirst.) According to the proposed policy, I would pay an additional three dollars per chick to buy them each a microchip, plus whatever it cost to get the microchip implanted. When a bird died, I would have to report the death and somehow scan the microchip. When we took birds to the fair, or sold them, it would require a permit. When I have a broody hen who raised her own chicks I would have to get them implanted, if I could find out where she was hiding them.

I suspect that more regulations, imposed by a federal bureaucracy that can't afford to do the job right, will burden the good farmers and be flaunted by the few who don't give a hoot. Why bother to keep your fences mended if all of your cows can be located by GPS when they stray?

Profit margins in agriculture are not that great, and it's not clear that small farms will be able to absorb the new costs of this program. The microchip program is being promoted as a remedy for concerns like avian flu and mad cow disease, that are arguably the result of the globalization of our food chain. We need small local farms now more than ever.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Courageous Caroline

Last summer we had one of those community dramas that is a little too personal to blog about. One of our friends, Shelagh and Liz's high school physics teacher, had a young daughter who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In very short order she was flown to Ann Arbor, readied for surgery, and the tumor, mildly malignant, was removed with seemingly no lasting effects. Of course it was not quite so simple at the time, it was scary.

This story in the Lansing State Journal tells of a girl about the same age, also with a brain tumor, who has never had it so easy. Her trials started at birth, when she was born to an addict, already hooked on crack cocaine. Her adoptive parents are the sort of people that we all need to think of when we think that parenting is too hard, or we start to feel overly proud of our parenting. I can't hold a candle to these folks.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Choir Bliss

Winter came yesterday, laying down 12 inches of snow between 10 am and 6 pm. We spent all day wondering if the Leelanau Children's Choir Madrigal Concert scheduled for last night would be cancelled. Mrs. Bell held off making a decision until the last minute, and by 7:35pm the snow had stopped and we were playing to a packed house.

For the first time in many years, I have only one kid singing in the choir. This morning Anna has that dreamy after-concert attitude about her, as if life is too much to believe. The kids performed well. The weather outside made the concert's setting, a 14th century castle complete with a feast of boar's head and jesters, a little closer to reality as we had all struggled to get there, and felt truly sheltered from the cold.

Before the encore we all sang "Happy Birthday" to Stephanie Pentiuk, who turned sixteen last night. She was a new choir member at age eight when she turned suddenly sickly and was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. She spent some weeks on death's door before receiving a heart transplant. Stephanie spent many more months recovering at the Mayo Clinic before returning home in time to sit in the audience, wearing a surgical mask to ward off germs, at the last choir concert of that year. Shelagh and Stephanie's sister Anna sang a duet of The Coventry Carol. It was the firat time that I had heard Shelagh sing a solo, and I kept looking around to see whose voice that was.

The kids had been so glum at their first concert that season, as they had expected to sing to Stephanie but she hadn't shown. With Stephanie back in the house it was truly a party, one of the best Madrigal concerts ever.

Today Stephanie is just one of the kids. It was startling to remember back to those days not so many Christmases ago when it was a miracle that she could walk into the room. Life is too much to believe.