Should Santa Be Allowed in School?

A school district in Oregon recently came under fire for circulating a memo banning Santa Claus — as well as any religious imagery — in classroom decorations. As you can imagine, parents are voicing their opinions on both sides of the issue, causing many to ask: Should Santa Claus be allowed in public schools?

Oregon’s Hillsboro school district is at the center of the recent controversy regarding Santa Claus in the classroom. It started when school administrators distributed a memo asking employees to refrain from using religious imagery, or Santa, in their classroom decorations.

“We will not be holding a door decorating contest this year,” read the memo. “You may still decorate your door or office if you like, but we ask that you be respectful and sensitive to the diverse perspectives and beliefs of our community and refrain from using religious-themed decorations or images like Santa Claus.”

The memo was sent to teachers and school staff, not to parents, but it did not take long for parents throughout Oregon — and throughout the country — to weigh in on the issue.

In a year when tempers are already at an all-time high and Americans are divided over issues small and large, it’s no surprise to learn that opinions vary widely on the topic of including Old St. Nick in the classroom.

Jason Ramirez, the parent of a child in the Hillsboro school district noted, “If you’re going to put a giant cross on the window that’s one thing, but I think Santa Claus is more folklore and American history than a religious symbol at this point.”

Cindy Jencks commented commented on the story with a different opinion, “Celebrate diversity by letting everyone decorate the way they want to for the holiday season. Encourage acceptance of people’s differences. Don’t ban religious themes. We are all different and there lies the beauty of it all.”

A 1984 Supreme Court ruling (Lynch vs. Donnelly) found that many of the symbols of Christmas — such as the tree, Santa Claus and even the nativity scene — are secular images that do not advocate a particular religious view. By that standard, images of Santa would be no different than say a shamrock in March or a red leaf in autumn.

But the winter holidays have always hit a special nerve for Americans. And Santa Claus is undeniably a symbol of Christmas, a holiday that is both secular and nonsecular, with roots in both religion and over commercialization.

Personally, I tend to lean toward Jencks’ point of view. Don’t ban Santa from the classroom, bring him on in. But also bring in the menorahs and dreidels and the symbols of Kwanzaa. Teach children about all of the various holidays that people celebrate throughout the year so that everyone feels welcome and included.

Now that would be something to celebrate.

Standing Desks Make Students Fitter and Smarter

We do go on about our standing desks. And while all of us standinistas might feel sharper and smarter, a systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace “showed mixed results for improving psychological well-being with little impact on work performance.” Perhaps we are just too old; a newer study led by Ranjana K. Mehta at Texas A&M; has come to a different conclusion, finding real cognitive improvements in high school students who used standing desks.

Mehta tested a group of high school students in the fall semester using four computerized tests and a portable brain imaging device to study brain activation patterns. After they used standing desks for 27 weeks, she tested them again. She is quoted in a news release:

“Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities,” Mehta said. “Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.”

Another Texas A&M; professor had something to say about this:

“There has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks,” added Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, co-researcher and director of the Texas A&M; Ergonomics Center. “This is the first examination of students’ cognitive responses to the standing desks, which to date have focused largely on sedentary time as it relates to childhood obesity.”

Benden previously studied students with standing desks to see if they could assist in fighting childhood obesity, (they did, with students burning 15 percent more calories; read TreeHugger’s coverage about that aspect) but also found that students were more engaged and involved.

“Standing workstations reduce disruptive behaviour problems and increase students’ attention or academic behavioural engagement by providing students with a different method for completing academic tasks (like standing) that breaks up the monotony of seated work,” Benden said. “Considerable research indicates that academic behavioural engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.”

Benden, an engineer, even started a company, Stand2Learn, which makes adjustable standing desks for schools. No doubt it will do well; the results of the two studies are really impressive, showing that giving students standing desks “can effectively increase energy expenditure and physical activity as well as ensure (and enhance) cognitive development and educational outcomes.”

And Professor Benden, trademark that line “we think better on our feet than in our seat.” It’s a keeper.

The Pinellas County School District Is Failing Black Students at a Shocking Rate. That’s Exactly What It Chose to Do

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times published a report of its sobering year long investigation of the Pinellas County School District, which is home to five of the worst elementary schools in the state, despite the county’s relative affluence. The school crisis in Pinellas County—on Florida’s west coast on Tampa Bay—is a familiar story of court-ordered integration followed in short order by devastatingly thorough resegregation.

But what happened in Pinellas offers an even more dramatic cautionary tale, and not just because the changes have taken place so precipitously: Just eight years ago, the school district voted to ditch integration by ending busing and reinstituting a “neighborhood schools” policy that amounted to de facto segregation. In the years since, the five elementary schools spotlighted went from good to middle-of-the-road to homogenously awful. One school that had had an “A” rating is now the second worst elementary school in the entire state of Florida. Students are failing at eye-popping rates, with 8 out of 10 kids failed at reading, and 9 out of 10 in math. Altogether 95 percent of black students are failing reading or math at these schools, which the story memorably labels “failure factories.” See also this powerful graphic account of “Why Pinellas County is the worst place in Florida to be black and go to public school.”

So what went wrong? Is it simply that Pinellas County—in particular the southern part of its largest city, St. Petersburg, which has been predominantly black since the 1930s, when discriminatory housing policies ghettoized minorities there—is afflicted with an irreparably poor, damaged student population? Not at all, and that’s precisely why this story is so disgusting, and so important. As the piece points out, while “there are places in Florida where deep generational poverty, runaway crime and rampant drug use make educating children an extremely difficult task,” Pinellas County isn’t one of them.

Statewide, Pinellas County is right in the middle when it comes to poverty rates, median household income, college graduation rates, and single-parent homes. More from the Times:

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The reporters make a very convincing case that the kids in Pinellas are failing not because, as the school board members would have it, they’re trapped in a “cycle of poverty” but because the school district is setting them up for failure with at best do-nothing and at worst malevolent policies.

When the board voted to resegregate in December 2007, it vowed to pour more resources into what would become overnight-majority-poor and -black schools: more counselors and social workers, beefed-up after-school and summer programs. It did none of these things. Funding was erratic, and unlike other districts with high-poverty schools that have made efforts to invest in minority students (a computer tracking program in Broward County, a teacher-incentive bonus of up to $20,000 in Duval County), the Pinellas County board just shrugged off the plummeting scores and skyrocketing reports of behavior problems, and actively ended any attempts at intervention. More than half of teachers in the five schools requested transfers out in 2014, and some classes had up to 12 different teachers in a single year. The teachers who stayed were often the most inept and inexperienced.

Even after community calls for change, the school board members continued to attribute the abysmal state of their county’s black schools to the “cycle of poverty,” absent any influence from them.  “This is a nationwide thing, not just us,” the piece quotes school board member Peggy O’Shea, who voted for resegregation in 2007 and continues to defend her stance today, as saying. You get a good sense of her sympathies when she goes on to say, “We only talk about it in black schools, but we resegregated white schools as well.”

Saddest of all is that the fate of Pinellas County’s black students truly is a “nationwide thing” these days. After huge gains in the fight to make good on the promise of equal education enshrined in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, more and more school districts are consigning already-disadvantaged students to separate, and extremely unequal, schools. Or, in the case of Pinellas County, actually creating those schools.