Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sleep for teens

Radio Commentary

For years parents and educators have known that many teens do not get enough sleep to meet their health needs. Now there is a new culprit: their cell phones.

Parents may be unaware that many teens sleep with their cell phones by their side, answering calls or text messaging throughout the night.

Research has documented that, on average, teenagers have traditionally gotten about two hours less sleep every night than they need. This increases their risk of accidents and makes them moody.

In the past, this was caused by teens generally staying up too late and waking too early for the needs of their bodies. But these figures were calculated BEFORE the prevalence of cell phones.

According to research, teen bodies need nine hours and fifteen minutes of sleep per night. Prior to the advent of cell phones as bedmates, teens were getting an average of only seven hours of sleep per night. Now the numbers are far lower.

And fitful sleep, in short bursts, is not as healthful as uninterrupted sleep, so the health implications are far more grave than ever.

For example, of the estimated 100,000 car crashes a year linked to drowsy driving, almost half involve drivers age 16-24, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What’s more, like all of us, teens get more emotional when they are sleep-deprived.

The best thing a parent can do to help teens get the sleep they need is to make sure there is no cell phone by their side when they go to bed. Period. Turn it off and take it away. It’s good parenting.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Detail skills

Radio Commentary

People generally talk about reading and writing in the same breath. Certainly, many of the skills that make children successful in one subject make them good in the other.

For example, one important reading skill that benefits from writing practice is identification of details.

Parents should encourage children to provide details in their own written and verbal stories. This will help them become more aware of the way other authors use detail.

One writing exercise requiring detail is to have children give directions. Ask them to write very specifically how to get from home to school, or how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

When children write thank-you notes to friends or relatives, have them describe in detail the gift they received and how they will use it.

You can also have children use a clipboard when watching TV. Have them jot down ad slogans that use good details.

They might write down phrases such as “the brightest, sharpest photos” or “crispy, crunchy crackers.”

Children can also take the clipboard along on family outings. Ask them to describe the “prettiest” thing they see on the trip, or the “most unusual.” Then challenge them to list as many details and descriptions as they can.

One way teachers measure improvement in young writers is to look at their use of details. The same is also true for improving reading comprehension: details matter.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Read

Radio Commentary

It’s never too early to begin reading to a child. Even infants love the sounds of words in lullabies and rhymes.

Set aside some time for reading aloud every day. Let children snuggle close to you. That way, they will think of reading as a happy time when they have your full attention.

Your reading time doesn’t need to be long—10 or 15 minutes each day is fine.

Remember: if you read just one story a night to children, they will arrive in kindergarten with more than a thousand story-sharing experiences.

As you read, you can also boost a child’s thinking skills — and have fun.

Ask children to think about why something is happening in the story—or what they might do if they were in the same situation. For example, “What would you do if you were Little Red Riding Hood?”

When you’ve finished a book, ask children to think about how to change the story.

For example, “What would have happened if all three little pigs had built their houses of bricks?”

You can have fun with these questions. Even better, your children will be developing thinking and reasoning skills that lead to success in school.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What do teens need?

Radio Commentary

The teen years can be tough to navigate, both for the teens themselves and for their parents.

It can seem as if all family interactions and relationships have changed. Sometimes new strategies are required to ensure smooth sailing through these stormy times.

Remember that teens need clear limits that define what is safe and acceptable.

They need discipline that is consistent and fair in all areas. They will be quick to zero in on actions that are seemingly unjust — even if the practices worked when they were younger.

Teens need positive role models who find pleasure in work, reading, hobbies, and family activities. No role model in that area is more powerful than a parent.

Teens also need permission to fail, with a tolerance for mistakes. No child can be perfect in every way. The telling family interactions are those that happen when mistakes are made or disappointments occur.

Never forget that teens need the chance to laugh and be happy, with their friends and their family. They need the chance to be successful, and it’s important to help them find an arena where that can occur.

Teens also need structured family activities, including meals and vacations. They benefit from friends who provide a positive peer influence.

Teens need encouragement to be responsible. Positive reinforcement helps.

They also need to be trusted and supported by important adults in their lives. Most of all, they need to be loved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Budget reserve decisions should remain with local school districts

Newspaper column

For as long as I can remember, the common wisdom was that school districts should be run more like businesses.

The arguments against this are many and persuasive: To use the language of business, school districts have no control over their “raw materials,” over the length of time each “unit” remains in the production line, over the regulations that govern how they operate, and so on.

But one way that schools seem to surpass business practices year after year, was their agility in dealing with rapidly changing and daunting budget constraints. One tool districts utilized to adapt so quickly to changing circumstances was the careful creation of budget reserves that proved critical in dealing with cash flow issues and emergencies. 

Many districts worked long and hard to build up sufficient reserves beyond the minimum required by the state so that they could continue to react to changing needs. Most people agree that building and retaining reserves for emergency purposes and cash flow issues is essential, and should be rewarded and applauded. It is simply good business practice.

The reserve restriction included in budget trailer bill SB 858 turns that wisdom on its head. It is bad legislation that needs to be changed. In essence, it restricts school districts’ reserves and chips away at the whole premise of local control — having local school boards make the decisions critical to the well being of the district it is their responsibility to help manage. I agree with those experts who warn that it actually puts fiscal solvency at risk. Reducing reserves is certainly a poor way to run a business.

The language that creates this change was inserted into this year’s state budget, enabling legislation at the last minute, and was therefore never discussed in budget subcommittees where public analysis and discussion could take place. It was not a part of the Governor’s May Revision and did not appear in the final budgets adopted by the Senate and Assembly. 

It’s not clear why or how this language became part of the budget, but the rationale is tied to the Public School System Stabilization Account, sometimes referred to as the “rainy day fund.” If the state deposits money into that account for schools, the theory is that those funds will be sufficient to cover district needs in times of hardship. The way the language is written, however, means that even if a small deposit is made by the state into that fund, districts statewide would have to spend down billions of dollars in the reserves that they worked so hard to build.

The reality is that it will take years for our state to build enough funds in that stabilization account. But in one year, districts would be forced to spend down their reserves and ending balances to levels many believe could jeopardize their fiscal solvency.

The ironies should be clear to all: If voters approve a measure on the November ballot to establish a very worthwhile rainy day fund for the state, statutory changes would bind school boards statewide from exerting that same form of fiscal responsibility.

The language of this bill ignores the critical role that budget reserves play in the ability of districts to maintain fiscal solvency and it ignores how districts have used their reserves during the recent recession to avoid even greater cuts to education programs and staffing. 

What kinds of numbers are we talking about? The state’s minimum reserve requirements are based on the size of a district and usually are set at three percent of the overall budget. Well-managed districts have generally felt more secure carrying more than that in reserve because a three percent reserve represents between six and eight days of payroll for an average district. The new requirement transforms this minimum reserve into the maximum allowable for districts.

Some more numbers: Between 2008 and 2011 school districts had to manage $6 billion in ongoing revenue reductions, including $2.85 billion in unexpected mid-year cuts. Many districts would not have been able to stay solvent without the prudent fiscal management of healthy budget reserves. That was their safety net.

People ask what factors determine what level of reserve a district considers healthy. Those factors include the district’s size, its source of revenues, the trends of those revenues, projections for student attendance, pending litigation, state cash deferrals, and many more. School boards and district administrators always try to identify the key priorities for the district, the students, and the staff. One size does not fit all.

We all know that our state’s revenues are volatile and often uncertain. Those uncertainties directly impact school districts, because the major portion of their funding comes directly from the state. Strengthening the state’s rainy day fund is a worthy goal. It simply makes no sense that that same prudence would be undermined for school districts. 

I join those urging the governor and legislature to rethink this problematic mandate on such a crucial portion of school district budgets, and return budget reserve control to local school boards who know best the economic uncertainties facing their local districts. It is the right thing to do.