Saturday, August 31, 2002

SATURDAY: Lookin' Up

Dah-Dah-Dah-Duhhhhh for Atheists

People who don’t believe in God tend to treat the rest of us as if we’ve forgotten to button our intellectual bib overalls. They mostly can’t believe we believe.

Do you know why? Because believers have bad manners. Nobody bothered to introduce atheists to the living God. No wonder they don’t believe in Him. They’ve never met Him.

So whenever I run into a skeptic or find out an acquaintance is struggling with agnosticism or atheism, I try to ask this simple question: “How come you don’t believe in God?”

They usually work their way down a list of cliches: “Miracles are impossible so the Bible can’t be true,” “I can’t believe in anything I can’t see or touch” and “That’s all based on ancient myths and fables that bear no relevance to our high-tech world today.”

When it comes down to it, they don’t believe because they never met God and don’t know Him, so they don’t recognize His touch when it comes and don’t see His signature on His work when it’s right in front of their faces.

So I just ask them this little loaded question: “Do you believe in Beethoven?”

“Hunh?” they usually reply.

“You know, the great composer,” I’ll say. “Do you believe he existed?”

Usually, they’ll admit they do.

“Well, believing in God is like believing in Beethoven. Beethoven’s music is miraculously beautiful, there’s no scientific way to measure its influence on the human heart even though we know it’s there, and even though Beethoven’s music is hundreds of years old, it’s still head and shoulders better than anything that’s been composed ever since.”


“It’s the same thing with God,” I’ll say. “You never met Beethoven, but obviously you believe he existed. Well, you’ve never met God, but for some reason, you DON’T believe in HIM. Just as you can get to know Beethoven better by reading up on him and listening to his music, you can get to know God by reading the Bible and going to church and listening to sermons about Him or listening to Christian radio or going to Bible study or any number of other ways.”


“And if you refuse to try to get to know God, then you’d be just as foolish as someone who refuses to believe in Beethoven only because they never met him and never heard his music.”


The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. — Psalm 14:1a

Yeah, but when they finally see they've been wrong, it'll be music to your ears.

Friday, August 30, 2002

FRIDAY: Vitamin Mom

A Stash to Quash Tantrums

One of the key arts of mothering is anticipating the meltdown. Good moms are never unprepared for those sudden, high-decibel, low-reason tantrums. Children seem to have a knack for setting off on them right when your hands are full, you’re out in public, or you really, really need peace and quiet.

But be of good cheer. Here’s how to handle three common tantrum situations. The secret: have a stash of special equipment on hand to quash a tantrum before it starts:

1. Breastfeeding an infant. In the early weeks, an older sibling usually chooses the infant's feeding time to take a ride on the Attention Tantrum Train. Derail it by setting out a little cup of milk, juice or water and a cookie or half-banana on the kitchen counter or a low table where the sibling can reach it. Or hide a toy or book somewhere special, like a drawer or under a rug. Then when the sibling comes up to you at Dairy Time and starts wailing, suggest the child go check out the special Big Brother (or Sister) Surprise or direct a guessing game to find it.

2. Telephone sanity. Quite often when someone important calls, Junior starts exercising those tonsils. You can plug one ear and turn your back, but that usually makes it louder. Instead, try keeping a supply of things for a child to put in his or her mouth for just a few minutes near the telephone. You can buy some quiet with no-sugar lollipops or an old pacifier dipped in peanut butter for a little one, and cinnamon-dipped toothpicks or jawbreakers for an older child. Keeping a five-minute kitchen timer by the phone helps you keep your calls as short as you can and you can point to it to show your child when you will be back on Mom Duty. Make a rule that the child has to give up the treat if he or she disrupts the call.

3. Long car rides. Small children can have a really tough time staying quiet in enclosed areas like a car. One solution is to make a felt storyboard ahead of time. In these high-tech digital days, the quiet but colorful and tactile stimulation of felt is often different enough to be fascinating. Before your trip, cover a large piece of cardboard with a background scene of blue sky and grass, and then cut out cars, trucks, cows, barns, people, pets and other shapes that may match the scenery as you go along, or fantasy shapes like castles and knights, or whatever your child likes. Bring them in a zip-lock bag. It may only distract the child for a half-hour, but that may be all you need.

Thursday, August 29, 2002


A Takedown for Coed Wrestling

In my day, when a girl wanted to do "coed wrestling," it wasn't good. There's a name for girls like that, and it ain't Miss America.

But now, more and more, girls are demanding their "rights" to invade the smelly, hairy, macho world of wrestling. They're being egged on by thick-ankled FemiNazi educators who think it's great to train girls to fight and be dominant. They're being pushed by confused parents who think it's OK to put their daughters into highly compromising positions separated only by a thin layer of Spandex from adolescent male hormone volcanoes.

It's just as bad for the boys. They're put in the no-win situation of either beating up on, or getting beaten by, girls. The close contact can be embarrassing because of inevitable physical consequences in the southern regions that happen to any red-blooded teenage boy. Injuries and blood spills are common in wrestling, but inflicting harm on a girl goes against a boy's inborn instinct to protect the opposite sex.

Worst of all, if the boys don't like it, their only recourse is to wuss out and forfeit their matches. So much for their "right" to participate, get better and perhaps win scholarships. So much for good, clean, uncomplicated fun, too.

All this is courtesy of the U.S. courts, who say girls have to have "equal access" no matter what. Coed wrestling is a fact in most states, with all-girls teams operating mainly in Texas and Hawaii, and an opt-in system in place in California, where at least the bouts against girls are made optional for the boys. Nationwide, there are an estimated 3,000 girls among approximately 245,000 wrestlers, with recruitment starting in grade school.

Now, as the mother of four girls who recognizes that the two genders are different for a reason, and vive that difference, I'd like to hoist coed wrestling over my head, put it into a dizzying spin and destroy it with a mighty sidewalk slam.

And so I applaud a couple of Nebraskans who are determined to do essentially that, only with better manners.

They are Barbara and Gary Repair of midtown Omaha. Their son David hated having to wrestle a girl last year in eighth grade. The 112-pounder got a face full of his female opponent's sports bra when her wrestling singlet got pushed aside. He doesn't want to spend his career at North High School being forced into inappropriate contact with girls, in stark contrast to the way he believes males should be: gentlemen.

The Repairs have politely asked the Nebraska State Activities Association board to stop coed wrestling, but they say their hands are tied by the courts. The Omahans are gathering more information right now, and a reverse discrimination lawsuit isn’t out of the question, although they hate to spend money on something like this.

In an interview, Mrs. Repair said it has nothing to do with denying girls the right to compete, but everything to do with the duty of society to maintain standards of decency. There are certain boundaries between the genders which shouldn't be breached.

"It's gone too far," the mother of a girl and two boys said. "The bottom line is that the harm outweighs the benefits, when you put it all together."

The Repairs are working with the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy on a way to stop coed wrestling but still assure girls an equivalent athletic opportunity. Their concerns helped spur the Omaha Public Schools to survey incoming freshmen girls last spring on what sports they would like to have offered.

A solution should be found that will benefit girls but not put their male classmates in such an awkward position literally and emotionally, Mrs. Repair said. She said that most school handbooks have rules about sexual harassment that make it clear that a student's participation in any activity may not be conditional on that student's physical conduct of a sexual nature.

So it actually may be illegal sex discrimination to make boys wrestle with girls when wrestling moves and positions constitute highly inappropriate body contact between the two genders . . . unless, that is, we decide to make wrestling a non-contact sport. I suppose that's what's next: Air Wrestling.

Seriously, though, the Repairs sought the help of Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, who obtained the federal regulations regarding equal access. They clearly say that contact sports can be exempted. That, coupled with the fact that many high schools actually offer more girls' sports than boys' sports, makes the Repairs feel hopeful that they will eventually prevail.

All the Repairs need to outmuscle coed wrestling is teammates. They need a groundswell of public support. That means you.

Anyone who agrees with them or who has a son who wrestles and wants to support them is encouraged to send them a note: Gary and Barbara Repair, 6811 Spalding St., Omaha, NE 68104.

C'mon. Let's get a takedown on political correctness gone crazy, put it in a half-nelson, and get the pin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

WEDNESDAY: Family Funnies

Bilingual Boo-Boo

One of the nicest, sweetest nurses in the world lives in a Nebraska community in which there has been a recent influx of immigrants from Mexico. When these Spanish-speaking people get sick and come to the hospital, it poses a challenge to the English-speaking health care professionals who want to make them at ease as well as well.

My favorite nurse is one of those caring individuals who always tries to find common ground with others. Well, one day, two of the rooms on her floor had Mexican patients, each with a large contingent of extended family visiting.

Trying to make friends, the nurse commented on a little girl’s adorable pigtails. She asked how you said “pigtails” in Spanish. The answer: “coletas.”

The nurse went into the next room, where there were quite a few more people of all ages visiting the patient and speaking only Spanish. Another little girl was with them, and she also had darling pigtails up on top of her head.

The nurse again tried to make friends. She came up close to the little girl and said brightly, “I like your ‘cachungas.’”

The room fell silent. Everyone stared at her, shocked and appalled.

She had forgotten the correct word for pigtails — “coletas” — and had somehow come up with the slang word for “testicles.”

All of a sudden, the great-grandmother burst out laughing, and all the others joined in. By the end of the week, the whole hospital knew. Anytime anyone saw this nurse coming, they would put their hands up to the sides of their heads and wave them at her.

Humor comes in all languages. Ole!

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

TUESDAY: Hot Potatoes

School Spending Melodrama

Omaha’s Westside Community Schools portrays itself as an innocent maiden tied to the tracks by an evil villain, Stingy Taxpayer, who won’t let it raise taxes again, and now a big steam engine called “Financial Ruin” is a-comin’ to derail the best darned education money can buy.

Man, oh, man, can these guys do melodrama.

We won’t know for a few days whether District 66 will get the additional spending authority it wants. It appeared to, on a whisker-thin margin of five votes after Monday’s oddly-timed spending-lid override vote. But it could wind up either way after 67 “conditional” ballots are scrutinized and tallied.

Bottom line: the vote exposes deep division among Westside’s patrons that the top educrats didn’t realize was there. No matter how the final vote turns out, it will be next to impossible politically for them to increase their spending, beyond the natural increases yielded by incessant property revaluations in the state’s wealthiest urban school district.

In the meantime, the Westside vote is a weather vane for school districts across Nebraska contemplating tax override campaigns of their own. Westside’s tight vote and Florida-style post-election melodrama aim a welcome spotlight on the important area of school finance, which is usually offstage and out of the limelight.

The best thing about melodrama is audience participation. But instead of booing and hissing, we’re going to bring this ever-thickening plot to a happy ending. How? By suggesting several ways that school districts in general and Westside in particular could get on with the business of education without hurting quality and without raising taxes:

-- Nebraska’s K-12 public school districts had $1.2 billion in cash on hand at the close of the 2000-01 school year, the last one on file with the State Department of Education’s financial reports website,
The money sits in reserve in general funds, special building funds and several other funds. District 66 had $10.5 million in its general fund’s cash reserves alone, representing 25 percent of its total spending. That’s more than three times as much money as would be raised by the spending-lid override. Scott Scheierman of Sutton, candidate for the Unicameral from south-central Nebraska, analyzed financial reports to come up with the $1.2 billion total. He is calling for districts to tighten their cash management practices instead of raising taxes. Sounds like a winner.

-- The Legislature enacted an educator retirement law in 1999, LB 674, that the Nebraska State Education Association values at an extra $126,292 per teacher, above and beyond what each teacher was already entitled to, over the course of a typical 20-year retirement. See A walloping big number of teachers are getting ready to retire in this state. In light of current economic condtions, it may be time to roll back that plum.

-- Also according to statewide district financial reports, District 66 taxpayers paid $554,600 in the “retirement incentive fund” in the 2000-01 school year. That’s an astounding one-third of the $1.5 million total that all the districts statewide paid. It may be time for some public “education” on how much Westside’s retirement plan is costing taxpayers. Educators not only can retire with full pensions at age 55, but they have guaranteed cost-of-living income protection.

-- The financial data show that District 66’s overall employee benefits package is nearly three times as expensive as the average Nebraska school district’s. In the 2000-01 school year, Westside taxpayers paid $165.71 per pupil (average daily attendance) for employee benefits, vs. a statewide average of $59.63 per pupil. Is it time for District 66’s employees to step up to the plate and accept a more reasonably priced benefits package?

-- Also according to the annual reports, Nebraska’s K-12 districts own a total of $3.75 billion worth of buildings and contents for an average of $14,208 per pupil (average daily attendance). District 66’s $86.3 million in property is substantially more, $17,477 per pupil. Is it time Westside sold the two junior high schools it is no longer using for K-12 education, Westbrook and Valley View? How much money would that raise and how much would it save in ongoing maintenance costs?

-- Westside was the springboard behind Nebraska’s open enrollment law, which allows students who live outside a school district’s boundaries to “opt in” there anyway. Their parents do not pay property taxes to District 66 but by law cannot be charged tuition, even though many of them come from the richest neighborhoods in the city outside of District 66. Westside does get thousands of dollars per option student in state aid, but it is far less than their actual cost per pupil, especially when debt service for the recent bond issue for the remodeling of Westside High School, nearly $45 million with interest, is factored in. Westside property taxpayers subsidize thousands of dollars apiece for these option students, whose numbers now approach 30 percent of the District 66 student body. Westside should plead that its financial capacity for taking in new option students has been reached and cap option enrollment as of this year. Then the district should go back to the Legislature for a new law allowing them to charge tuition to option students to cover the difference between state aid and actual costs.

See? We don’t even have to touch teacher pay, although that’s the threat district officials and union wonks usually use. Note that in District 66 in the 2000-01 school year, teacher pay totalled $14.3 million, just 34.9 percent of total spending. It’s the 65.1 percent of OTHER education costs that should be addressed.

Suggestions: true efficiency audits that will pinpoint waste and excess instead of the shallow audits done now . . . a return to the staff-to-student ratios of the 1970s . . . strict tightening of expenses such as car allowances and staff development . . . a return to sanity on technology spending . . . a return to phonics-based reading instruction which is 10 times cheaper and significantly better than the whole language methods that have been in use and creating learning disabilities for so long . . . but you get the idea.

So, audience, what do you think?

Are the schools right? Are we taxpayers really so stingy? Are we the villains in this melodrama?

Or is a new hero about to come on stage, one with the creativity and elbow grease it will take to obtain a happy ending for this melodrama instead of raising taxes?

I hope so. Because that hero, dear audience, is you.

Everyday citizens who want excellence in education as well as excellence in school finance and management can no longer wait in the wings and hope the right thing happens.

It’s time you got into the act.

Monday, August 26, 2002

MONDAY: Show 'n' Tell for Parents

Education Websites

Hooray for the Internet! It helps parents get up to speed on key education issues. Parents are getting better equipped to evaluate their child’s progress and problems, and discuss them with educators more credibly and persuasively. There are hundreds of education websites out there, and many of them are excellent.

Here are my favorite education websites for parents:




Afterschooling / Tutoring

Preventing Learning Disabilities

Hot Potatoes (Drug Ed, Sex Ed, Etc.)

Education Public Policy


School Choice

And of course my own:

Sunday, August 25, 2002

SUNDAY: Radiant Beams

Montana Messenger

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
— Matthew 6:26

Our friends let us use their family’s longtime cabin on a crystal river in south-central Montana, facing a spectacular rock cliff. The deck stuck out right over the water and you couldn’t see anything manmade in any direction. Deer came from nearby mountain meadows. Chipmunks chattered. They call the place “Rockhaven.” How true.

Most of all, I loved the birds in this diverse habitat. There was a young bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk. There was a tiny blue hummingbird, shimmering in the sunlight, and a spectacular goldfinch in his yellow and black tux. We heard Canada geese and woodpeckers, and saw wild turkeys and a mama duck and six.

I would take my coffee out on the deck in the early morning and watch the flickers and the swallows work the trees and bushes on the face of the rock cliff. My spirits soared with them.

But one afternoon, just before we left, my husband and I were sitting out there feeling flat, frustrated and emotionally flightless. We had been discussing a concern we had about one of our daughters. It wasn’t all that serious, but it was a toughie. No easy answers were surfacing.

Not even the beautiful setting with the magnificent rock across the river could keep tears from spilling down my face. Not even the wide arms of the old Adirondack chair, worn soft by generations of heart-to-heart talks, could keep me from slumping in both body and soul.

Just then, a plain, brown sparrow lighted on my husband’s knee. His little head bobbed all around, checking us out. We froze. In a moment, he hopped onto my head. I could feel his tiny feet shifting positions. So little, and yet so bold and carefree. After a few seconds, he flew off.

My husband grinned. “Nothing like that has ever happened before.” He looked 10 years younger, surprised and delighted. “I’d forgotten how much I enjoy being out in nature.”

I instantly thought of the Bible’s promises that God cares for the smallest sparrow as well as every one of us. I looked it up later: it’s in Matthew 10:29. He knows when a sparrow falls, and He knows when we are struggling. He doesn’t just watch; He acts. This time, he sent a winged messenger to let us know everything would be all right.

It wasn’t a robin. It wasn’t a wren. It wasn’t a starling. It was a sparrow, the one with the Biblical credentials.

I knew that sparrow was sent directly to us as a symbol of that assurance, that God knew about our worry, and God was in control. Suddenly, my daughter’s problem didn’t seem very big any more. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember why I had been crying.

What, me worry? I’m a blood-bought child of the living God. He can send a cute sparrow to cheer up the worrywarts in the Montana wilderness, and He has His hand on every last thing in creation, all over the world and beyond. He knows what’s going on with our daughter, and He will make it work out fine, for her good. Quit fretting! Fuhgeddaboudit! Relax! Smile!

It was as if that bird flew off with my all my despair and concern. My spirits once again were lifted up lighter than air.

As the old song goes, His eye is on the sparrow . . . and even way out in the Montana wilderness, I know He watches over me. †

Saturday, August 24, 2002

SATURDAY: Playtime

Gardening: Spider Plant

Queen of the garden in August and September is the old-fashioned but majestic cleome. It’s pronounced “klee-OH-mee” and known as the “spider plant” because of the long, spiky “whiskers” under the blossom that remind you of a daddy long legs.

Blossoms are like large popcorn balls with fuschia, pale pink and white petals. They make a stunning cut flower in a large bouquet, although petals start to drop after a day or so. Besides the multicolor petals and the “whiskers,” these plants are fun to show to kids because of the wonderful seedpods that develop in the fall.

It’s fun to leave cleome up all winter and let the pods split outside and re-seed in place for next year. But bring in a pod to show your kids. Put it on a counter and check every so often. You’ll love seeing how the warm air of your house makes a pod split suddenly in a spiral down its length, like one of those refrigerated crescent roll packages, to spill out the seeds.

It’s also a good lesson for kids to see how tiny the cleome seed is, and yet each seed produces a plant that can get over five feet tall.

If you let cleome stand in place over the winter and re-seed itself for spring, you may not like how the tricolor blossoms tend to diminish to one color over a couple of years. Also, the size of the flowerhead tends to diminish with reseeding. For maximum color and size, remove plants in the fall and plant new, storebought seeds.

In full sun with ample water, with at least a square foot of space per plant, you’ll get a spectacular stand of cleome with no care needs other than to pull out the strong stalks in late fall or early spring.

A packet of seeds costs about a dollar. Plant in late fall after first frost, or early spring.

Friday, August 23, 2002

FRIDAY: Vitamin Mom

College Send-Off

Do you know another mother who is sending off a son or daughter to college for the first time? Here's a wonderful way to help them mark the occasion. On the day before they leave, stop over with a Polaroid camera and two small picture frames. Take two Polaroids of mother and child, cheek to cheek. Put them in the frames then and there, and give one to the mother and one to the new freshman. It may not prevent homesickness on either end, but it'll help both remember a special moment in their relationship as they both adjust to this big change.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

THURSDAY: Creativity Club

Flashlight Tag

First day of school coming up? Here’s a fun way for the whole family to blow off the last of the summer steam and mark the start of the school year in a special way.

When it’s good and dark outside, every family member should be equipped with a flashlight, and then everyone plays a game of flashlight tag.

Meanwhile, start some coals going in your grill.

At the end of the flashlight tag, roast marshmallows under the stars and talk about your hopes and dreams for the coming year. Parents can help children come up with three goals for the year.

When it comes to inspiring children to have fun learning and setting goals, parents: tag! You’re it!

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

WEDNESDAY: Family Funnies

Sex Ed: “The” Talk

A father, a 12-year-old son and an old fishing boat: the perfect combination to fulfill that important but often dreaded task of parenting, “the” talk about where babies come from.

One dad chose to deliver the talk on a lazy Saturday afternoon fishing with his son. He figured that the Q&A might go better in the utter privacy . . . plus he doubted that his son would try to get away if he had to plunge overboard and swim.

Well, the talk went well enough. This was one of those ultra-organized dads who no doubt went into minute detail, explained every anatomical feature and scientific term, and might even have pulled out flow charts and slides.

He was just thinking to himself that it had gone very, very well and that now he wouldn’t be too worried about making the sex ed presentation to the boy's younger brother in a few years. He finished his long lecture.

Then he wrapped it up with a question: “Well, Son, what do you think?”

The boy stared back at him for a moment, and then said with fervor:

“I think that's the grossest thing I ever heard. And you and Mom have done that TWICE?!?!?”

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

TUESDAY: Hot Potatoes

Three Little Words to Say Besides “Yes” to Higher School Taxes

Voters in midtown Omaha's School District 66 will decide Monday whether to shoulder a heavier tax burden over the next five years with a spending-lid override. Omaha Public Schools taxpayers will face a similar decision Nov. 5 as will other districts around the state.

School leaders paint a sad, sad scene if the tax lids aren’t set aside: pupils relegated to chalk and slates, teachers in sackcloth and ashes, classrooms as crowded as Memorial Stadium at kickoff. . . .

Well, maybe their implications aren’t THAT drastic. But school officials do make it sound as though raising taxes is the only way to keep producing quality education. That’s a tough one in these days of drought, shrunken portfolios, and so many other worthy ends competing for our financial means. Bottom line, though: nobody wants to say “no” to kids, and we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking “Here’s more money” means “I love you.”

But I offer voters three OTHER little words they can say to these proposed tax increases, and everybody wins: schools, kids and taxpayers.

The words are: “no,” “cap” and “audit.”

Voters should consider saying “no” at the polls on these overrides, and “yes” to two changes that would produce money for the schools without a tax increase:

1. Cap the percentage of a district’s budget that it can keep in a cash reserve fund.
2. Pass a law to allow the state auditor to do performance audits and spot checks on state aid to education.

These changes emerged from a review of the audited financial reports of Nebraska’s K-12 school districts on file with the Nebraska Department of Education:

The reports paint a dramatically different picture about school finance than the one coming from school leaders.

First off, taxpayers shouldn’t feel guilty about turning down tax increases. We have been generous in equipping and funding schools. For instance, we provided OPS with buildings and contents worth $246.4 million. In District 66, the workplace cost $86.3 million.

Secondly, schools could look in their existing cash reserves to find more money than the tax overrides would produce. District 66 had $10,484,096 in cash on hand in its general fund at the end of the 2000-01 fiscal year. That’s more than three times as much money as is at stake in Monday’s tax override vote.

Similarly, OPS reported a cash balance of $57.8 million, far more than the overall budget of nearly every other district in the state.

Westside’s cash fund represented 25.5 percent of its general-fund budget. That’s nearly twice the 13.4 percent cushion it carried in 1994-95. OPS ran a cash fund of 11.6 percent of its budget in 1992-93; within eight years it had spiked to 21.2 percent of the total.

A healthy cash fund is a measure of a school district’s solvency. But these districts aren’t just solvent — they’re oceanic!

A simple cap on cash of 15 or 16 percent of the general fund would produce millions of extra dollars for instructional use without a dime of new taxes. Better living through prudent cash management — it may not be sexy, but it sings to those on fixed incomes.

Finally, let’s beef up our auditing procedures, especially in light of the Enron disasters and in view of the fast growth of school budgets. The faster anything involving money grows, the more prudent a strict auditing system becomes. Right now, audits are ordered by school boards and are relatively perfunctory. The state auditor does not now have the power to conduct separate checks of what happens to our state tax dollars spent on education. That should change.

I’m not saying waste, fraud and abuse will be uncovered by these new audits with dummy corporations set up to siphon off the kids’ lunch money and so forth. I’m just saying it’s nuts not to look at spending patterns in our units of government, including schools, that no doubt would raise eyebrows in the private sector.

Example: District 66’s total spending rose by 30.5 percent in the eight years marked by the annual reports, while enrollment went up just over 1 percent. Similarly, OPS spending rose 39 percent during those years; enrollment rose 1.5 percent. What business would ignore such a gap between increased costs and increased customers?

Similarly, teacher salaries increased 29.7 percent in OPS and 28.8 percent in District 66 over the eight years, but spending in several nonteaching areas rose considerably faster. Consider special education transportation (up 116 percent in District 66 in eight years), maintenance and building operations (a 54.4 increase in OPS) and executive administration (up 46 percent at Westside).

Last, consider that District 66 spent $478,053 on staff development in 2000-01, which was nearly three times as much as OPS spent, and yet OPS has eight times as many students as District 66 has.

Go figure.

That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

Monday, August 19, 2002

MONDAY: Show 'n' Tell for Parents

Ten Tips for Back to School

1. Band Together

Join forces with other nice mothers and fathers.
A group gets attention. One lone soul? Why bother?
Get folks together. Share questions and answers.
United, you'll stand much more of a chance-er.

2. Research the Issues

Do your homework. Bone up! It's tried and it's true.
To influence schools, you must know what they do.
Go beyond just your school to broaden your scope
And come off as credible, not some dumb dope.

3. Just Ask Questions

Learn to master the art of the effective question.
Teach teachers with kindness . . . and a pinch of intestine.
Be brave! Nicely ask WHY they do what they're doing.
If they're wrong, gently show them how "up" they've been "screwing."

4. Get Reading Fixed

What has caused the most learners the most doggone anguish
Is the boneheaded way schools cling to Whole Language.
Kids can't read. Kids can't spell. What a bust! What a tonic
'Twould be for our schools to go back to straight phonics.

5. Dump Whole Math

Because of Whole Language, kids' brains have no path.
No order. No logic. Some “fun” . . . but no math.
Demand pencil and paper, math facts, computation,
Or we’ll have number numbskulls in future generations.

6. Look at the Books

Skim through assigned books for English discussion.
Are any the classics? Or sex, knives and cussin’?
Stories character-building? Or dark, sad and "anti"?
Teachers who teach trash need kicks in the panti.

7. Follow the Money

When schools do dumb things straight out of the comics
That’s your clue that they focus on crass economics.
If programs seem pointless, suspect a scheme
Not for learning . . . but raking in more income stream.

8. Assert Parental Rights

Schools want mousey parents who think they're the boss
Of your child's mind and feelings. Hey! Say: "Applesauce!"
If they're teaching sex skills, or take girls to abort,
Get your kids out of that district . . . and see them in court.

9. Inform Your Community

Remember the story 'bout belling the cat?
Get parents and taxpayers to do ‘xactly that.
Don’t let the schools be the sole source of the scoop.
Try to bring more people in on the loop.

10. Vote, Be Active and Improve Schools

It’s sad to see so many voters apathetic.
Look at that word: it's mostly "pathetic."
Vote! Go to meetings! Speak out! Protest! Be bolder!
They mind their ABCs when you look o'er their shoulder.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

SUNDAY: Radiant Beams

The Kayak Klutz

And it was a river that I could not pass over. . . .
— Ezekiel 47:5

Next time I have a chance to be in excruciating pain and humiliate myself as the Kayak Klutz of the Wild Wild West, I’m going to do it on the Stillwater River in south-central Montana near the sparkling town of Absarokee.

Why? Because I had such a darn good time the first time.

We went kayaking there last week, our first trip. I had taken my first few swipes with the paddle and looked behind me to exclaim to my husband, “This is great! I love this!” and turned back around when KLUNK!

I hit a rock, capsized and the current swept my paddle downstream approximately 42 miles, with my hand dutifully still grasping it. The problem was, the rest of my body was still wrapped around that rock.

In Montana, they have a saying: a river runs through it. Yeah, but not always vice versa.

The story of my Lucille Ball style whitewater kayaking excursion has already gotten back to my fellow flatlanders in Nebraska. The story is becoming so glamorous and exciting that soon they’ll all rush up, crowd the IGA, flood the Dew Drop Inn, and camp in line all night outside Absarokee Rafts ready for their turn to, as they say, test the waters.

I need to set the record straight. The day I went kayaking, the current wasn’t really rushing at 75 mph. More like 5 mph, tops. I didn’t really kayak for 50 miles; it was more like 30 feet. It wasn’t really 150-foot deep water where my accident happened; more like hip-deep. No, they didn’t really have to life-flight me out by helicopter; I just rode to the clinic in a pickup truck joking with the owner, Matt, the whole way. And no, I didn’t break every bone in my body and cling to life desperately, dictating my last will and testament onto the back of a cocktail napkin from the Cowboy Bar. I had iced tea, not a cocktail, there, and I don’t drink, though you could never tell it from the way I kayak.

Once and for all, here’s the truth: I dislocated my right shoulder in a stupid accident that was all my fault. I had listened diligently to their safety lesson onshore but must admit I was only one for two:

1) I did NOT, as advised, lean into the rock when my kayak klunked into it. Instead, as I do with other obstacles, including surly teenagers and people with bad breath, I leaned AWAY from it. Of course, my kayak flipped over. Then I was trapped underwater, upside down, and my only thought was totally self-serving: “I can’t drown! Going kayaking was MY idea!“ No one to blame for my untimely death, in other words. So my left arm shot up and knocked the kayak off me in a mighty blast.

2) I DID hang on to my paddle, as urged in our lesson onshore, but only with my right hand, which the current carried backwards and over my head. That’s what yanked my shoulder out of its socket and my arm into the next county.

Yes, I suffered so much pain I wanted to chew my arm off. My right hand was quivering as if I were playing the banjo. I hunched over cradling my arm like Quasimodo taking a football handoff. I was bawling so loud I’m sure the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals rushed to town to investigate moose torture.

But there was a happy ending and yes, it involved drugs.

I squished down the hall to the exam room at the Absarokee Medical Clinic, minnows leaping out of my sneakers. Mayme, Roxie and Paulette pampered me with a pillow, a pink blanket, kleenex, some Wild Rose hot tea, more kleenex, and a lot of TLC.

The Physicians Assistant, Sheri Spuhler, saw the x-ray and didn’t find anything, excuse the expression, humerus about it. Sorry: a little medical humor there.

Anyway, we tried to pop my shoulder back in place on our own with a little move they teach at the Marquis de Sade School of Nursing. No dice.

So they gave me an IV full of the powerful painkiller Demerol, and as the clouds parted and the birdies sang, a nurse held my armpit back and Sheri skillfully played tug o’ war with my right hand. Snap! Crackle! POP! What had gone hither suddenly was yon again. My pain went from a spring runoff waterfall down the gorge at Custer National Park to a tiny little faucet drip, not even a trickle.

They sent me home with five lovely narcotic pills, a designer sling, instructions to discover the wonderful world of physical therapy, some fabulous Flathead Lake cherries, and a warning to my husband and four children that I would probably not be able to vacuum, iron, do dishes or balance the checkbook for the rest of my life.

“So what else is new?” they asked.

I cut a lovely figure in the parking lot of Absarokee Rafts in my interlocking designer hospital gowns forming the Sarong From Hell, plus sopping wet shorts, squishy sneakers and prominent sling. I put my helmet back on because my hair looked so bad, too. I figured the rafting company wouldn’t exactly make me the cover girl of their next brochure, but at least I can salvage their reputation with the statistic that they have been in business for 12 years, have run well over 10,000 people down that river, and I was their first medical emergency ever.

Brace yourself, Absarokee: we loved it, and we’re coming back!


Susan Darst Williams,, is a wife, mother and writer who jokes that she lives at the base of Mount Laundry, Nebraska.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Topic: Be a Coach, Not a Critic

If there's one thing that discourages a child, it's criticism. Sure, kids need to realize they've made mistakes and often they need correction. Sometimes they need disciplinary structure, which a generation ago was called "punishment."

But don't let yourself sink into the role of a nag and a critic, especially when it comes to your own child. That's no way to turn on a love for learning. If you're not making mistakes from time to time, you're not learning. Right?

So don't overdo the negative input. Try to get into the habit of saying three positive or neutral things to your child before you say anything that could be construed as critical, even if it's highly constructive.

You want to put the "can do" spirit into your child's heart, especially when it comes to school. So be a coach, not a critic.

That will encourage your child to "win one for the Gipper," and excel in learning for the fun of it, and the joy of it. And that, parents, is how you play the game.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Topic: A Cure for Learning Disabilities?

Is your child among the 2.4 million children who have been unjustly labeled "learning disabled"? And is there a way out?

According to a report released this summer by the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 40 percent of children in special education programs have nothing wrong with them physically or mentally. They simply never were taught to read properly, and that's why they develop learning and behavioral problems.

What can you do if you suspect your child is one of them? Use the summer to investigate your options. Is there a private school or remedial school near you that teaches reading with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics? Could you afford to send your child there for a year, if he or she is just not flourishing in the public school environment? Would your public school pay tuition for all day or after-school tutoring there?

If you feel your child needs a bigger change, network with your local or state homeschooling association and see if that might be a viable option for you. Talk with parents of older children with learning disabilities and find out what they wished they had done when their child was your child's age.

Don't delay. The sooner a reading disability is addressed with proper phonics instruction, the better the child's chances.

You can turn a disability into an ability. All it takes is what you and proper reading instruction can give your child: the opportunity to succeed.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Topic: History

What's older than dirt? Water! A proper summer is spent immersed in the stuff at least some of the time, too. So why not suggest a summer project to your child of finding out what role water has played in the development of your neighborhood, city or state?

It might be as simple as reading an encyclopedia's report about the nearest river, or calling the local nursing home to see if anyone used to be a commercial fisherman. You could interview a scientist with the local government unit or utility that supervises water flow and find out what environmental and logistical challenges there have been to controlling it.

Was there a big flood in your community? Research it at your county's historical society.

Did early explorers through America come your way? Visit your local museum to learn more.

If you live by the ocean, how has it affected development of your town or area?

For kids who are hard to motivate on these lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer, try this: promise to take them to the pool if they will ask the pool manager or lifeguard what the history of that pool is. How old is it? What's the swim team's win-loss record? Has anybody ever drowned there? Has anything memorable ever happened there? Any weird things in the lost and found?

They may tell your child he's all wet . . . or they may come up with waves of historical information for your child to soak up and enjoy.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Topic: Science

Gas Station Science: it's a fun way to refuel your child's mind during the summertime while you're refueling your car. Whether you play this game during regular errands in your hometown, or out on the open road during family vacations, it's a good reminder of how science is all around us. And for all ages, science is . . . a gas!

All you do is encourage your child to ask a question at every gas station you visit. Look for gas stations that have car maintenance and repair facilities. When you arrive, your child should politely ask if any of the mechanics or other employees could answer a science question. The vast majority of the time, people are so pleased to be asked anything politely by a child that you may wind up getting a tour, demonstration, and a wonderful experience.

In between stops, give your child your car's owner's manual to "prime the pump" for more questions. Samples:

Where exactly does gasoline come from?

Where is the gas stored and how does it get in there?

Why is some gas "unleaded"?

How does the gas get from the storage tank into our car?

What does the car battery do?

How does the odometer work?

What is p.s.i. (pounds per square inch) and how does it relate to tire pressure?

What would happen if our engine didn't have lubricant on it?

What do sparkplugs do?

Gas Station Science should "spark" a lot of conversations about science, and your child's understanding and confidence about what makes the world go 'round should be "pumped up" thanks to this summertime exercise. Do you have a child hungry for science learning? Well, fill 'her up!

Saturday, August 03, 2002

Topic: Math

A fun way to practice simple addition and multiplication skills over the summer is "Numbers Checkers." Do you have a set of the child's game, checkers? They're inexpensive in the toy store, if not.

Have your child write single- or double-digit numbers on small slips of paper. Then roll tape and place a different number on top of each checker.

Then your child can play you, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or anybody in checkers, the usual way. First, declare whether you're playing "Addition" or "Multiplication." For every jump, before the child can collect the opponent's checker, he or she must say the answer to the mini-math problem posed by the checkers. For instance, if your child's checker has an "8" on it and is jumping a checker with a "12" on it, and you're playing "Addition," your child has to say "20" or he or she can't collect the opponent's checker. If you are playing "Multiplication," the child would have to say "96." Match your child's grade level to whether you will stick to addition, or try multiplication, and whether you will stick to single digits or go for the challenge of double digits.

Oh, the games people play . . . and the fun ways parents can find to help their children "check out" those crucial math facts in and out of school.

Friday, August 02, 2002

Topic: Writing

The reason many children freeze up when it's time to write is so simple, you'll laugh. Many of them simply never learned penmanship. If you have to stop and think how to form your letters when you're writing, it slows you down and interferes with your idea flow and short-term memory.

Sad to say that many primary-level teachers don't realize how important proper handwriting instruction is, so many students never learn how to sit at a desk properly, hold a pencil correctly, angle the paper just so, and form the letters consistently and fluidly. Without this basic writing instruction in the early grades, on down the line they may be suffering from fatigue, muscle strain and frustration that interferes with the quality of their work and their self-confidence as well.

If you think your child's poor handwriting may be a drag on his or her writing projects in school, it's easy to homeschool or after-school a child of any age on proper penmanship skills. These last few weeks before school starts are the perfect time. Go to a school supplies store and purchase a penmanship workbook and perhaps some of the specially-lined paper you've seen used in schools. Have your child go through the workbook for a few minutes each day. Give your child a small reward upon completion, and best of all, put your child's handwriting on the wall . . . or maybe just on the fridge with a kitchen magnet.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

August is back-to-school month. Look here for a tip a day on how to make sure your child is rarin' to go back to school.

Topic: Reading

How many books has your child read this summer? Zero? Maybe part of one? A trip to the public library is in order.

First, you should browse and find a book for yourself to read, talking with your child about your selection process. Then, take your child through the same process in the kiddie shelves. Look for short adventure and nature stories, which tend to go down easy under a back-yard tree with a glass of lemonade on these hot summer days. Join your child for some parent-child team reading.

Next, make a simple chart for your fridge, list each book that your child finishes, and stick a gold star on there just to make your child feel noticed and honored for being a reader.

Teachers love to hear about summer reading, and your child will ease back into the task of sitting still in class, concentrating and paying attention with just a little summer practice in your own back yard.