Scholarly pursuits

Is your child in grade, middle or high school? Does he or she eat, dress or ride the bus? These stories will help you plan the upcoming school year.

Although healthful food choices are often encouraged at home, when a child goes to school, he’s on his own to make the right food decisions. Pizza or sandwich?

Although healthful food choices are often encouraged at home, when a child goes to school, he’s on his own to make the right food decisions. Pizza or sandwich?

Photo By David Robert

Munchies for munchkins
As Joey Loeb, 8, heads off to second grade at Bud Beasley Elementary in Sparks this month, his mom is confident he’ll make good food choices.

“He’d pick an apple over a candy bar anytime,” said his mom, Isabel Loeb. The two shopped for school supplies at Target on a recent Sunday afternoon. Joey, a bright, energetic guy, still wore a nametag from his church.

Though some kids pack lunches from home, Joey buys school lunch each day. His favorite meal?

“Pizza,” he replied without hesitation. He also enjoys yogurt and muffins. He almost always eats an apple.

“Sometimes he’ll have a salad, too,” Isabel said. Though healthful food choices are encouraged at home, Joey’s mom realizes that, at school, “he’s on his own.”

These days, public school cafeteria workers are more apt to serve tacos and cheeseburgers than meatloaf and soggy boiled veggies. But the same nutritional guidelines, handed down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are observed.

On Joey’s first day of second grade, he’ll have a choice of “Soft Beef Taco, PB&J Uncrustable, Corn Dog [or] Cheese Pizza,” a “Sugar Cookie” and “choice of Milk and a trip through our food bar.” That’s the menu listed for Beasley Elementary on the Web site of Sodexho Education, the multinational food service corporation that provides grub for the Washoe County School District’s 91 schools.

In Washoe County, middle- and high-schoolers have a set menu—sandwiches, salads and specials ($2). Elementary schools rotate through four entrée choices daily with “a variety of side dishes and milk” ($1.75).

Sodexho doesn’t provide nutrition information for menu items at its Web site, though a section titled “Food Facts” advises families to consume fewer refined carbohydrates.

USDA-proscribed school lunches, however, weren’t the focus of the school district’s “School Food and Beverage Study,” completed last August. The study looked at foods and beverages sold on school campuses offered outside of Sodexho’s breakfasts and lunches—like snacks sold in vending machines, student stores and à la carte lines.

The findings: Of the Washoe County schools surveyed, sugary drinks (from Pepsi to juice drinks high in sugar) were sold at nearly three-quarters of the schools. Candy was sold at nearly half. This access to foods of low nutritional quality might be undermining more-healthful breakfast and lunch options, the study concluded.

School board trustees in May accepted a recommendation to begin a pilot healthful-nutrition policy that limits competitive food sales at five schools: Shaw, Swope and Billinghurst middle schools and Corbett and Taylor elementaries.

The program is an acknowledgement, said district spokesman Steve Mulvenon, that the school district has a role to play in setting a good example for kids regarding nutritious lifestyle choices.

Since 1970, the school district’s nutrition committee observed, childhood obesity has nearly tripled. Type II diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure are becoming more common among children. It’s estimated that only about 2 percent of school-age American kids regularly consume the serving recommendations for the five major “Food Pyramid” groups.

“As an educational institution, we think you need to lead by example,” Mulvenon said.

The pilot program doesn’t ban vending machines or student store sales, but the items offered to kids will shift to comply with healthful food guidelines.

Besides candy or soda sold in schools, kids often bring treats from home to share on special occasions such as birthdays. Last year, Joey’s first-grade teacher encouraged parents to send nutritious snacks. If parents sent candy, the teacher would offer only small portions, Isabel Loeb said.

Things were different when Isabel’s oldest son went through Washoe County schools. Her 21-year-old, now in the Air Force, graduated from Reed High. He wasn’t nearly as fond of apples, Isabel said.

These days, public schools seem more committed to teaching kids to make healthful choices, the Sparks mother concluded.

“They’re doing a good job.”

Dealing with student-teacher conflicts
There’s a favorite teacher saying shared with parents at the beginning of the year: “I promise to believe half of what your child says about home, if you promise to believe half of what he tells you about school.”

This may sound harsh and counterintuitive. After all, one of your jobs as a parent is to be your child’s advocate. You may want to believe him if he complains about a teacher: “She’s mean,” “He gave me an F,” “She doesn’t like me,” “His class is boring.” If you hear one of these things, your protective instincts will kick in, and you may be tempted to say, “Oh my God, that’s terrible. I’m going down to the school to set that teacher straight.”

Remain calm. Thank your child for telling you there’s a problem, and let him or her know that you’ll contact the teacher before deciding on a course of action.

Karen Reinhardt, who teaches at Gardnerville Elementary School, says, “It’s important for parents to hear from all parties before jumping to conclusions. They should not immediately buy into their kid’s version of the story. Children are wonderful exaggerators, and some of them are in the habit of getting their parents to bail them out of things.”

If you’ve started off on the right foot with the teacher, you’ll probably be able to resolve any complaints easily. To build a positive parent-teacher relationship, you need to meet the teacher within the first couple of weeks of school. The best time to do this is at back-to-school night, when teachers give presentations about how they run their classrooms and their expectations for students. If you can’t make it to back-to-school night, plan to stop by before or after school, or at the very least, call, e-mail, or send the teacher a note early in the year.

To continue a positive relationship, Reinhardt advises parents to keep in touch with their child’s teacher. “Please don’t hesitate to call,” she says. “If you have any questions or problems at all, we would much rather hear from you than think you might be stewing about it at home.”

When you meet the teacher, find out the best way to contact him or her. Most likely, the teacher will prefer e-mail. If you want to talk about a problem or ask a question, you can either e-mail it directly or find out a good time to talk. Some teachers give out their home phone numbers and are willing to talk with parents in the evenings or on weekends. However, if a teacher doesn’t offer this, plan to talk with him or her on weekdays during working hours.

Most teachers care about their students, and they don’t want to displease parents. Some conflicts, though, are inevitable. You can help resolve conflicts by establishing a positive relationship with the teacher, keeping in touch, and being open to his or her side of complaints your child brings home.

On the rare occasion that the teacher is intractable, schedule a meeting with the principal and the teacher. If that doesn’t work, schedule with the principal alone. If further action must be taken, go to the district and be prepared to involve a lawyer.

Covering the student body
Bare shoulders and jammies are usually on the list of dress code no-nos.

Before you hit the malls with your kids for back-to-school clothes shopping, school district spokesman Steve Mulvenon suggests reviewing your school’s dress code.

“To put it as simply as I can, not everything that’s marketed to kids these days as ‘cool’ is acceptable in a school environment,” Mulvenon said. “We tell kids that school is just like the workplace. When you graduate and get a real job, you’ll have to dress appropriately, thinking of the image you want to convey. So get used to it.”

Previewing the dress code at your child’s school might be easier said than done. If you can wait until school starts, your school’s dress code may be printed in a student handbook.

Your child is likely to be sent home from school for wearing pajamas, sleeveless shirts and/or belly-exposing outfits. Know the rules.

Photo By David Robert

If you can’t wait until school begins, you might be able to find the dress code on your school’s Web site. But content at the sites isn’t consistent. And some schools don’t have Web sites.

Dress code policies vary from school to school. At Rita Cannan Elementary, for example, the stated dress code lacks urgency: “The main criterion for clothing is fresh, clean clothes.” Other schools are painfully specific. Reed High’s Web site offers a few highlights of an increasingly intricate code: no spaghetti straps, exposed midriff, excessive cleavage, visible undergarments, chain-type key rings, gang attire of any kind, bandannas, sleeping attire of any kind, mini-skirts, baggy pants that are not secured at the waist, long belts, visible tattoos demonstrating gang affiliation, shirts or hats supporting or advertising alcohol, drugs or sex or studded jewelry.

If the rules seem awkward, the enforcement of said rules gets even messier. To avoid lawsuits and angry phone calls, the district plans to issue guidelines to schools, advising them that “it’s probably not a good idea,” Mulvenon said, to suspend students for first violations. Also, schools will be encouraged to have female staffers review girls’ skirts for shortness and male staffers for issues with guys. A couple of adults should be present during such proceedings.

On the bright side, the school district is at work on a district-wide dress code that will cover each institution’s respective bare spots. Under debate are such concepts as “no bare shoulders"—a desperate rule enacted at some schools after administrators grew tired of trying to define exactly how wide a “spaghetti strap” is—and “no loungewear or pajamas.”

“When I looked at this, the first thing I thought was, ‘Why do we have to say ‘no pajamas'?” Mulvenon said. “What kid in his right mind wears pajamas to school? But then, sure enough, a kid at Traner shows up in her jammies.”

When school officials called Dad to pick up his jammies-clad daughter, the infuriated father had what Mulvenon called “a hissy fit.”

“He said, ‘Show me where it says she can’t wear pajamas,’ and sure enough, Traner didn’t say ‘jammies’ last year. But I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they have it in this year.”

Last year, administrators at Reed and Reno high schools began suspending students for dress code violations. Sending straight-A students and band members home for bare midriffs and short skirts got everyone’s attention. Mulvenon took many a phone call from angry, frustrated parents.

That’s why, he said, it’s best for parents to think ahead. When your kids brings home the pile o’ paper at the beginning of the school year, pay attention to the dress code.

“It’s buried along with all that other stuff,” Mulvenon said. “Take the time to read it. And if you have questions, call and get some answers.”

Taking the fight out of bullies
Big kid picks on little kid. Christian child picks on Hindu child. Girl with straight hair picks on girl with curly hair. Athletic boy picks on boy who couldn’t hit a baseball to save his life. Bullying happens for all sorts of reasons, but no matter what the reason, it’s not healthy, and it should not be tolerated. Whether verbal or physical, bullying is harmful. The best protections against bullying are a vigilant eye on the part of teachers, parents, administrators, bus drivers and school peers, and making sure victims understand they have the right and the duty to tell an adult without feeling weak and/or embarrassed.

"[In middle school] there’s the issue that kids think that they should be able to handle things more on their own,” says Jennifer Bryan, assistant principal at Pine Middle School. “So it’s important that adults set up, right from the get-go, an open-door policy with as many students as possible.”

Some children may refrain from informing an adult about a bully because they don’t want to be a tattletale. Or, there’s the possibility the victim fears reprisal from the bully if the bully finds out where the report came from. Parents need to let their children know that if children are feeling afraid and emotionally troubled as a result of bullying, informing an adult is not tattling. It’s the surest way to gain some peace of mind. And schools always try to address bullies in a way that protects the victim’s confidentiality.

“A lot of times,” Bryan says, “we’ll bring the bully in and say, ‘Hey, I hear you’ve been having problems with Joe Bob. What is he doing to bother you?’ Once the bully knows that someone has noticed the conflict, without laying blame, a lot of times that can make a big difference right there … nine times out of 10.”

A good indicator that your child may be experiencing the brunt of a bully’s abuse is if she or he returns home from school depressed and/or irritable. Encourage your child to share personal problems with you, and always listen with a nonjudgmental ear.

Most schools in Washoe County have bully task forces; these are groups of parents and teachers who focus on policies for dealing with bullies, intervention and bully detection.

Pine Middle School doesn’t have a task force but says it takes a very forward approach when it comes to teaching students how to deal with bullies.

“At Pine, we are very proactive,” says Bryan. “When school opens, we will go into the classrooms and put out there that bullying is a reality, but it’s not something you should tolerate. If you feel that somebody is not treating you appropriately, then you need to talk to somebody about it.”

Some simple measures that may help prevent situations at school that may lead to bullying are as follows: Make sure your child adheres to the dress code; don’t let your child take expensive clothing, school accessories or jewelry to school that other children could be envious of; talk to your child about being aware of her surroundings and making sure she stays within areas where a supervisor is within view.

Also, parents should have conversations with their children to make sure they can recognize the signs of bullying. Even if a child is not a victim of bullying, it is important that he recognize when a bully is mistreating one of his peers. If students and not just teachers learn to be watchful, bullies can’t act out as easily without being noticed.

All Washoe County Schools have counseling options available for both bullies and their victims when necessary.

“Whether in middle or high school, our kids are still our kids,” Bryan says, “and they still need adult assistance in addressing some of their issues. We, as adults, have taken many years to learn tactics.”

Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is to be a good role model. A child who has been raised to respect others will have a positive influence on all who come in contact with him.

For more information on how to deal with bullying and links to other Web sites, visit

The kids are all right
If you’ve been reading the papers or watching television news for the last decade, you no doubt worry when you send children off to school. You need not. What journalists have been feeding you is claptrap. Here’s the bottom line, supported statistically: Of all the places children frequent, school is by far the safest.

What we’re dealing with is journalism’s ability to create its own reality. In this case, it covers every case of a kid taking a gun to school like a blanket, it throws every school shooting into the glare of coverage normally reserved for a presidential assassination, and it fails to put such incidents into any kind of context. Voila! We have a school violence problem.

School violence has declined steadily for decades. There have been years in which school violence spiked slightly, but they’ve been anomalies—the decline continued in spite of them.

Children are overwhelmingly victims (Of children under age 12 involved in violent incidents, 90 percent are victims), not perpetrators, of violence. And they are overwhelmingly attacked by adults, not by other children. In a nation of 293 million people, the number of school shooting deaths annually is in double digits.

On Jan. 13, 2003, the Reno Gazette-Journal’s lead front page story was a USA Today report that “School violence becoming common in lower grades.” The story, however, failed to support its alarmist headline. It was mostly anecdotal, gave a bow in the direction of experts talking sense and then dismissed them. “Violence threatens schools across U.S.” read a March 2001 USA Today headline over a story that was nine-tenths anecdotal—and, in the 12th paragraph (for those who read that far) was flatly contradicted by the actual statistics.

Sometimes it’s a matter of accurate data and false extrapolation. “Middle school violence widespread” was the RG-J headline on Washoe and Clark county schools shortly after Columbine. The story said violence was higher in middle school than at other levels—but failed to note that the rate was low at all levels.

The spate of school shootings in the late 1990s is instructive. At Columbine, which seemed to make television assignment editors nearly insane, 12 students and one teacher were killed. That is fewer children killed than die every two days in family violence in the United States. Yet journalism treats child murders at home routinely while giving white-hot coverage to school shootings. The exception becomes the rule.

Opinion surveys then show that people are more worried about school violence than domestic violence, and legislatures and Congress start passing laws to deal with freakishly rare incidents instead of numbingly common dangers—or, worse, reversing policies that have led to the steady decline in school violence, all on the basis of a myth of rising school violence.

No one wants to ignore legitimate problems of school violence, but distorting the problem (and thus misdiagnosing it) has terrible consequences.

All of this is avoidable by providing context in stories, yet how many times during Columbine did caveats appear in news stories? Some variant of “While the Colorado incident is shocking, it is also exceptionally rare, and most schools and students remain safe” would have been easy to put in every story, but it also would have undercut the rationale for the heavy coverage—with its giant ratings and circulation numbers.

In the first half of 2004 in the Washoe County School District, there were 12 calls for assault on school grounds, 197 for battery, 128 for drugs, two for bringing a gun to school, 44 for carrying or brandishing other weapons, three for battery with a deadly weapon, 33 for harassment, one for sexual assault. These, remember, were service calls—the actual findings of culpability or guilt would be much lower. And they cover 180 days in a school district with 60,000 students in 86 schools. And all but one category saw declines over the same period in 2003.

Carole White, principal at Rainshadow Community Charter High School, says charter schools offer flexible schedules and unique curricula to students.

Photo By David Robert

For further information, see a report by the Justice Policy Institute at Among its findings: “The number of children killed by gun violence in schools is about half the number of Americans killed annually by lightning strikes.”

A little help for your children
It’s a simple fact: Schools can’t be all things to all students. So where do you turn when your child is falling behind or needs additional assistance in his or her education? Tutors and learning centers provide the services that can help where the system falls short or when kids want to excel in their education.

Children experience difficulties in school for a number of reasons: trouble at home, oversized classrooms, learning challenges like ADHD, low self-esteem, fear of ridicule, commitments outside of school—the list is as endless as the challenges of growing up.

Sometimes, kids just want more educational challenges. These are areas where rescue educational services, of which there are many in Northern Nevada, come into the picture. They provide the individualized attention needed to help get a child up to speed or even ahead. For many children, tutorial services are throwing off their stigma as the punishment arena for the underachievers and recast as a positive place where kids come to learn how to learn, fill in the gaps, get ahead and prepare for higher education.

Vicki Isacowitz, co-founder and co-owner of Clever Minds, a learning center in Truckee, sees tutoring help kids in a variety of circumstances.

“There are the kids who are falling behind in school,” she said. “They’re getting shuffled through the system so they don’t need to be dealt with. Then there are the kids who want to stay ahead. They’re super-motivated, and they want to do well. And there are kids who just need help.”

Great minds think alike, and tutors in different tutorial services have some commonalities in how they arrive at helping students achieve more. So what should parents look for when they decide that a tutorial service will help their child?

“Experience,” said Randy Berenson of Ace Tutoring, “and a love of children.”

“It’s all about chemistry and personality and how [the tutor and the child] mix,” Isacowitz said. “It’s most important for a kid to feel comfortable. A lot of times, they don’t feel comfortable in the classroom, and they’re scared of asking questions and being ridiculed. If they’re with a tutor, they can ask the questions they should be asking in class and getting that extra little boost.”

Joelle Griffin, director of education for the Sylvan Learning Center in Reno, suggested parents look for a center or tutor that is “comfortable, positive, offers the best results and has a history of success.”

Parents should begin to see results in a month or two. Don’t be surprised if they recommend more time, though; these are for-profit businesses.

“We recommend that people sign up for six weeks,” stated Isacowitz. “It takes four to six weeks to really see results. You’ll probably see it before, but by then you will see a difference.”

Griffin similarly stated that the Sylvan Center suggests giving tutoring about two months (based on a child’s attending three to six hours of tutoring per week) to show improvement. And the results are not just academic. These educators all said improved self-esteem and a better attitude toward school are some of the first and most powerful signs of progress students exhibit after they’ve begun to receive this additional education.

Sound like an educational panacea? Well, it’s a bit much to say that tutors are going to solve every child’s learning problems or guarantee her or his acceptance into Stanford and Yale, but the percentage of success is good. Sylvan, for example, guarantees children will advance one grade level for the first 36 hours of tutoring. Parents must also be committed to the idea of their child’s success—Sylvan, for example, charges $39 per hour.

Chartering a different course
It’s not very hard to find people to criticize traditional public schools. The schools are big and impersonal and too large to tailor learning to the student. Politics often intrudes its ugly mug, turning education from intellectual pursuits to the quest for higher test scores. Your child may blanch in the authoritarian automaton factories. Maybe he’ll thrive.

But if your child is the so-called square peg, there may be help within the Washoe County School District through charter schools.

That’s right, within. Contrary to popular notions, charter schools are actually part of the school district. They’re fully accredited and offer the same types of diplomas as the traditional schools. Charter schools are free, although some demand parent participation on a weekly basis. Most have unique curricula. Think of it as public education with a twist.

Washoe County sponsors eight charter schools: Academy For Career Education Charter School, 324-3900, grades 10-12; Bailey Charter Elementary School, 323-6767, grades K-6; Coral Academy of Science Charter School, 323-2332, grades 6-11; High Desert Montessori Charter School, 624-2800, grades pre-K-6; I Can Do Anything Charter High School, 857-1544, grades 9-12; Mariposa Academy Of Language & Learning Charter, 826-4040, bilingual, grades K-6; Rainshadow Community Charter High School, 322-5566, grades 9-12; Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School, 677-4500, grades K-7.

Carole White is principal at Rainshadow Community Charter High School. She’s a former administrator at the University of Nevada, Reno, and former special-ed administrator in Clark County. She came to Rainshadow “because I really needed to be around kids. That’s where my heart is.”

She says charter schools offer the opportunity for an individual education.

“Charter schools have flexible schedules, very unique curriculums—not just the four core classes, but they have electives that are usually not offered in the general education,” the perky administrator said. “For example, at our school, we have people who teach quilting, embroidering, modeling, straight-up guitar classes—just a whole host of classes that wouldn’t be offered at a traditional high school.”

Charter school students can still take classes at the student’s home school, which may allow students to get the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of the lower student-teacher ratios in charter schools and the big sports opportunities at the traditional schools. At one alternative high school, Truckee Meadows Community College High School, while it’s not technically a charter school, students can gain college credit while taking regular high school coursework.

“I think people come to Rainshadow because of the project-based learning,” White said. “It’s the only charter school out there that’s truly doing interdisciplinary learning and service learning.”

Other charter schools have other disciplinary specialties: For example, I Can Do Anything has focused on the performing arts, while Mariposa Academy targets making students bilingual.

Rainshadow has been open only one year, so it’s premature to estimate how students’ success at college will be.

“Yesterday, I had a 17-year-old student do a presentation at a business referral group,” White said. “One of the things that came across to the people of the group was she kept saying, ‘It’s real education. Anything that I learned at Rainshadow made sense to me because the teachers made it come alive in the areas that I understood. I learned why and when I have to have algebra in my life. It’s applicable to me.’ That was a real neat eye-opener.”

Free money for college
Nevada is known for many things, but a reputation as a community of scholars isn’t one of them. In fact, the state of Nevada ranks 50th nationally for the number of students who go directly to college after high school graduation, says a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

This is why many in Nevada see the Millennium Scholarship as a saving grace. Since its launch in 2000, the scholarship has enabled more than 40,000 young Nevadans to attend college. But changes on the horizon will affect recipients.

The Millennium Scholarship was conceived in 1999, when a class-action lawsuit against four major tobacco companies won Nevada $1.2 billion, to be disbursed over 25 years. Nevada’s Legislature divided that award among several health care programs and the Millennium Scholarship.

However, the award was subject to change based on domestic consumption. “In other words,” says state treasurer Brian Krolicki, “If people smoked less, we’d get less money.” As it has turned out, 8 percent less money.

More Nevadans are also using the money than was expected. “We thought 50 percent of Nevadans who qualified would use it,” says Krolicki. “But starting with the class of 2000, 74 percent have used it. That’s wonderful news. But the money is running out. We knew this would be a challenge soon, and that changes would have to be made. But that point in time is coming sooner than projected.” The money, intended to last until 2010, may not do so without some belt tightening. And now it’s going to be a little tougher to get and keep a Millennium Scholarship.

Originally, a student graduating from high school qualified for the scholarship by earning a 3.0 grade point average. That scholarship offer was then good for eight years. Once in college, the student was required to carry 12 credits per semester and to maintain a GPA of 2.0. “In my opinion, a 2.0 isn’t that special,” Krolicki says. While that policy will be “grandfathered in” for students already attending college on the scholarship, the changes will affect those entering or attending high school.

For those graduating high school in 2005-06, eligibility hinges on a 3.1 GPA, and for those graduating in 2007 or later, that becomes a 3.25. Then, going forward, those students attending college on the scholarship must maintain a 2.6 GPA, still carrying a 12-credit course load. Once offered, the scholarship is now good for just six years, not eight.

Krolicki believes these changes benefit students and the university system by improving schools’ reputations. He believes enrollment will remain high.

“I think having higher standards is appropriate,” says Dr. John Lilley, University of Nevada, Reno, president. “The universities are moving toward that. And higher GPAs in core courses is the predictor for higher future success.”

“Most scholarships are a challenge to keep, so I think this is good," says Dr. Carol Harter, president of UNLV. "I call it the Chivas Regal phenomenon. The more selective you get, the more people want it. If you increase your standards, you actually increase the number of interested students."