Back to school

Summer is almost over, and the countdown has begun to alarm clocks, lockers and homework. Don’t be afraid.


From grade school through high school, teachers are on the prowl for students who take short cuts

Gone are the days when students tried to get around preparing for tests by writing significant dates on their wrists or taping an answer sheet inside their jackets. Not that we—or our little darlings—ever did such a thing.

Innovative ideas for cheating that were never contemplated, even in the 20th century, have found a home in 21st century schools. Who would have ever thought students would be able to send a surreptitious text message—"whos buried in grants tomb?—to their more-prepared pal?

But that text message is about as unsophisticated as high-tech cheating gets. Ipods hook directly to computers, and images, JPEG or PDF, can be placed on the MP3 player’s hard drive. Cell phones can be used to photograph entire tests. And schools that offer open wi-fi access points could be allowing Internet access to those lucky students with Iphones or more conventional Web-enabled cell phones.

Then there are Palm-type devices, and calculators with USB hookups and onboard memory, and … you get the idea.

With all the potential for cheating, it may seem odd that schools would allow cell phones on campus, but it’s the law: In 2003, the Nevada Legislature made it illegal to ban cell phones in schools.

“Students may have cell phones on their person while they’re in school, but while they’re in the building, they are to be kept in the ‘off’ or ‘vibrate’ position,” says Steve Mulvenon, Washoe County School District spokesman. “During testing, they cannot have them—at all. Anything that is considered a breach of test security has to be documented, and those reports are sent to the Nevada Department of Education.”

The reason cell phones are allowed in schools at all is simple: Parents demand the ability to get in touch with children for simple communications, like arranging after-school pick-ups or in case of emergencies like sudden sickness or school violence.

The Washoe County School District cell phone policy, which can be found on the district’s Web site at, spells out the rights and responsibilities of students with regard “to electronic signaling devices, including but not limited to pagers, beepers, and cellular/digital telephones.”

The school district has four tiers of increasingly odious punishments for children caught cheating with electronic doodads, starting with confiscation, parent notification, policy review and a warning, and ascending to revocation of cell phone rights and school-determined punishments for “administrative insubordination” or “disregard for school rules.”

There are certain types of tests during which getting caught with electronic devices is considered particularly heinous. The national standardized tests, such as the Criterion Reference Tests (CRTs), the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the writing test, all have security protocols.

“They’re standardized, so everybody has to have the same testing conditions,” says Dr. Bryn Lapenta, head of the public policy assessment and accountability office. She’s in charge of filing the reports of possible cheating with the Nevada education department.

“We had some incidents [during the last school year],” Lapenta says. “We have rules against students having cell phones out at all. We’re worried about the whole infrared transferring of images or texting somebody with an answer or just the general disturbance of cell phones going off during a high-stakes test.”

And that’s where the issue of cheating moves from a strictly local-classroom issue to one with national repercussions. Should security be breached anywhere in the country, and a student is able to use a cell phone or other method to make an image of a test, that test could be posted on the Internet in the blink of an eye. The costs could be high if it became necessary to make new tests or if large segments of the test results were invalidated because of wide distribution of the purloined exam.

High-tech cheating concerns Dr. Bryn Lapenta of the Washoe County School District’s public policy assessment and accountability office.

Photo By David Robert

Lapenta says the secret to security is plugging the breach before cheating takes place.

“We had, I believe, three instances this year of students having a cell phone that came out during the exam. When a cell phone comes out, teachers immediately take it from the child, and it’s reported as an exception, and then there’s an investigation.”

The investigation could include looking at cell phone inbox and outbox records to see which numbers were dialed and the contents of text messages.

“I’m not familiar of any incident of a calculator or an MP3 player coming out during a test in the last testing season,” Lapenta continues. As point of fact, she says, MP3 players are banned in Washoe County schools, although enforcement of this apparently has been problematic.

“In this day and age, we’re used to being able to get in touch with our children easily. The cell phone is a reasonable device that we expect children to have. We don’t expect them to have an MP3 player at school. That’s going to get taken away, and parents are going to have to come pick it up.”

—D. Brian Burghart

The middle child

Middle school is stressful for children, but it’s an opportunity for parents and schools to ensure children’s future success

Middle school is said to be the biggest, most stressful transition of a student’s K-12 education. Leaving behind the maternal incubator of elementary school and its gentle comforts, pre-teens are driven like cattle into a Guantanamo-style gauntlet of dread and anxiety. Adolescents are faced with the task of establishing a sense of who they are in a bitter new world of bullies and drugs and sex and acne and seven different classes.

“Middle school is definitely a flashpoint,” says Amy Callahan, assistant principal at Swope Middle School. And it’s a nervous time for educators, as well, because “it’s the first chance we have to lose [students].”

The goal is to keep kids on the right path at the point where the path is often the most narrow and divergent.

“Now is not the time to back off,” says Michele Collins, senior director of Middle Schools for Washoe County.

“Kids are squirrelly at that age,” says Rick Harris, deputy superintendent of Washoe County Schools. “They have an unbelievable amount of energy, and they’re going through a very emotionally interesting time in their lives.”

Making the jump from elementary to middle to high school a little less awkward is a challenge for parents, teachers and administrators.

Enter “teaming” and “looping,” two fundamentally encouraging strategies from the educator’s playbook to make sure that no child really is left behind.

“Teaming” attempts to allow kids an instant sense of identity and to easier establish their place in their new environment, says Collins.

Michele Collins, senior director of Middle Schools, describes “looping” and “teaming” strategies to help students learn.

Photo By David Robert

Students are put into groups in order to build a sense of belonging.

“A core of teachers work together to integrate the curriculum, allowing for collaboration between faculty,” says Collins.

For instance, if a student is doing a unit on flying in science, their art class may study aerodynamics, while their English class may read about the Memphis Belle, increasing the relevance of learning.

“Education has become way too compartmentalized,” says Collins.

Additionally, kids are given an advisement period with a teacher. But this is far from the old homeroom period where students sit around, pass notes and make faces at each other.

“The advising meets for about 20 minutes a day and may include classroom housekeeping and character education,” says Harris, who notes that the schools have energetic pep rally-like academic assemblies to celebrate achievement.

“Advisement offers a chance for the kids to get more intimate help with organizational skills, have their questions answered about grades and build relationships with the faculty,” says Callahan.

Looping is the practice of advancing a teacher grade-by-grade along with his or her class. At the end of a “loop,” the teacher begins the cycle again with a new class of kids.

Looping serves to “build relationships, trust and accountability,” says Callahan. “It enhances the points of contact. It’s hard to disappoint somebody who knows you well.”

First implemented as a pilot program for at-risk adolescents, Callahan says consistency and continuity are keys for teachers to get to know students better so they can better target their needs. It also cuts down on wasted class time. Harris estimates this amount of class time saved not in days or weeks, but in months.

With the same teacher, there’s no waiting around wasting time “getting back in stride” after summer vacation. There’s no re-teaching or repetition of material. Students know what is expected of them before they even set foot in the next grade, says Harris.

With closer relationships, teachers can better recognize dangerous sudden changes in a student’s behavior that may mean drugs or alcohol problems or something wrong at home.

There’s so much evidence that teaming and looping are a good prescription for the malaise of middle school, Harris says, that when the district plans to assimilate sixth grade into the middle school fold in the future, teaming and looping will become even more efficient methods.

“Having another year to get to know the kids is only going to help,” he says.

—Peter Thompson

Second jobs

High school students are expected to work in school, but that may not be where their hardest work is done

“It’s not a lot of money, but I need it. Or we need it,” Sharon said, referring to her family. She works at a fast-food place on Oddie Boulevard while also going to high school.

They are in fancy clothing stores in malls, in casino restaurants, in drive-throughs late at night. High school students who also work are a part of the valley’s economy, and in this age, when everything seems to be regulated, this is one segment of the economy that’s not.

At one time, Reno students were required to have teen “work cards” to get a job, but if that system still exists, it has fallen into disuse. Washoe County School District communications director Steve Mulvenon was unable to think of any way in which the teen workforce is monitored.

Reno High School sophomore Kenneth Lashley slices a pizza at his after-school job at the Pizza Baron.

Photo By David Robert

“We have no control over that,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s any state laws that I’m aware of. … As a school district, as an entity, we don’t have any control over that at all. Don’t have anything to do with it.”

To educators, the ideal is a student who doesn’t have to work and can focus entirely on his or her real job—learning.

Some teachers say that when working students come to school with no energy, their jobs are interfering with their schoolwork.

The reality, of course, is that plenty of students work, whether to help support their families or to support their own spending.

Eugene Paslov, former president of Harcourt Educational Measurement, tried to get some kind of a handle on high school student employment when he was Nevada’s superintendent of schools.

“There’s—or at least there was, some years ago—a requirement that youngsters in high school could only work 20 hours a week. … But to my knowledge, there’s virtually no enforcement of it, and I remember years ago I tried to initiate a requirement to have employers monitor the 20 hours a week and also have employers monitor student grades … so that if their grades were impacted, they would not be able to continue their work.”

He said the idea was received like “a lead balloon.” Paslov was denounced by Las Vegas Sun executive editor Mike O’Callaghan, a former governor. He received a “scathing” letter from Luther Mack, owner of several McDonald’s restaurants in Reno.

“The objections were that kids need to work and support themselves and, besides, industry [needs them],” Paslov said.

But industry didn’t need them enough to take on the added responsibility of overseeing issues like grades.

This laissez-faire system in which teens are more or less on their own in the working world means that it is one area of family life where parents are also on their own. There are no school officials, and there is no school policy to backstop them. (Though some school officials are nervously aware that if there is ever some newsworthy problem, the educational system will probably end up with a public relations black eye, anyway).

Not all working students work because they must, but even their parents tend not to object to jobs outside the school.

“And then, of course, the kids themselves who want to buy records and support their cars and girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever, [want jobs],” Paslov notes. “It’s a priority that kids and families and policy makers—they want kids to work … and they want them to work more. And I would argue that kids need to work less, if at all, and they need to spend more time in school.”

School, Paslov said, is a job. “It’s a hard job, if you do it well.”

—Dennis Myers