Sunday, November 27, 2005

Some Peoria Leadership In Denial?

I quote from a document dated 10/27/05 from Dr. Gerald Brookhart, Peoria County Regional Superintendent, “In the school year 2004 the Regional Office of Education had 458 people take the GED test, of which 266 passed and 219 failed”. I suspect almost all of these lacked proper counseling and dropped out thinking they didn’t need an education and realized late in the game that they do. Too bad that the system is failing to look after those who have no inclination to finish high school, let alone attend or finish college.

I quote from a document received from the Office of the Chief Judge, Tenth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, “2003 data – School areas and the percent of Juvenile probationers who reside in that area. Whether or not they attend school in that area is another issue”. 4.5% come from the area served by Richwoods, 16.6% come from the area served by Peoria Central, 30.8% come from the area served by Woodruff, and 31.3.% come from the area served by Manual.

In an article titled “Dunlap Aces Tri-County” appearing in the JS dated 11/20/05, statistics are shown that Peoria School District #150 has the highest average teacher salaries, the sixth highest administration salaries, the highest by far expenditure per student; $10,038, had the worst PSAE in 2004 by far and the worst PSAE in 2005 by far. As to academic status 150 was one of five area schools on the states “early warning” list.

Manual had the worst truancy rate of any area school by far, 34.5%; an average of 240 students absent each day; Peoria High and Woodruff had 2nd high truancy rate 11.6% each day.

I hear from the school board that the new truancy policy is working and fewer kids are seen on the street. A City Police Officer tells me that truants have quickly learned to stay off the street so they won’t be picked up. This system needs a year to work out but if results aren’t substantial, there are additional alternates to keep kids in schools. I have already blogged on one way; find it in my 3/26/05 archives and there is an article titled “Schools Get Tough on Tardy Students” appearing in the 11/17/05 issue of the WSJ telling how other schools area getting results.

A Manual lead teacher did not like the observations I made about the lack of discipline, the dress of some of the kids (and some teachers) and the teaching I observed in the classroom. She emailed me “Comments about 16,000 warrants (this figure from the floor of the City Council) and lawbreakers from schools or dropouts around the courthouse… that would be the Peoria High and Woodruff area, not Manual”. Sorry, read the statistics in the Journal Star.

The latest statistics I have for the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center for the month of April 2005; it shows 84 African Americans; 22 Caucasians and 3 Hispanics, passed through the system with an average incarceration of approximately 23 days. The County paid for 1463 days of child care.

An article appearing in the WSJ on 11/08/93s and titled “The assault on Juvenile Crime” says “that throughout the country, district attorneys are naming juvenile crime as the number one crime problem and the reform of the juvenile justice system as their top priority”. Here it is almost 13 years later and little has changed.

The renowned black author Tom Sowell and a man called by many “America’s best intellect” was interviewed tonight by Fred Barnes on Fox TV. Dr. Sowell talks and writes about what has gone wrong in the black communities. Dr. Sowell says “Blacks were better off before Civil Rights and Affirmative Action and he is pessimistic about the future. He believes that values such as honesty and responsibility have greatly deteriorated and that many of the leaders of the black community have a strong feeling toward the rights of entitlement. (I add that blacks are not alone in “just give me the fish. I don’t want to work to catch it)”. We need thousands more black leaders like Dr. Sowell to help us out of worsening mess accelerated by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”.

Dr. Sowell believes in the ability of the individual to do better for their selves than to wait for someone to do it for them. An article dated 11/06/ 05 in the JS quotes Dorothy Rich, founder and president of the nonprofit Home and School Institute, Mega Skills Education Center in D.C. Mrs. Rich says “adults are doing what children need to do. I visited a kindergarten class the other day. I love to see children’s artwork. All I saw was the teacher work. Student accountability gets harder as kids move forward in the grades because they get so used to adults doing it”. I observed this at Manual and have observed this flaw at a few other schools I visited.

I believe that the whole country is in denial of what is going on outside the board room meetings, the country clubs and the martini luncheons. Our own “self-esteem” and the way we credit non-performers by passing them on and awarding them trophies for finishing last, may turn out to be our downfall. The highest priority is the ongoing problems in the public school systems, enrollment over 14,000 in our own School District #150 alone.

JS Business writer Paul Gordon says that the median wage has declined steadily in the past 25 years for those with a high school diploma or less. It stayed consistent for those with some college education and has grown by 16.4 per cent for those with a bachelor’s degree. Another article claims forty two per cent of the managers interviewed said it was difficult to find qualified candidates one year ago and 32 percent say it’s more challenging today. Eight-six percent believe it will be equally or more challenging a year from now.

Too many of us are criticizing “outsourcing” while not understanding why it is growing and will continue to grow.

An article in the 11/28/05issue of a prominent magazine titled “Get In, Show Up, Drop Out tries to learn why so many college students fail to graduate”. I’ll blog on this later.

Our denials of what is happening around us will not stop the pessimism of Dr. Sowell and many of us who think like he does. Our kids can have all the self-esteem in the world; but that won’t get them through school, keep them out of the juvenile courts or prepare them to handle life’s travails or prepare them to get and hold a good job.

Of course, we are doing most things right and we are the best country in the world. France thought they were doing most things right but they couldn’t see the recent troubles coming from their ivory towers.

These times call for strong and fully educated common sense leaders and it appears we may not have enough of them. Chavez, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao and others stepped in while the elite were planning more enhancements and circuses and paying lip service or throwing money at what appeared to them to be small problems. One dictatorship or one uneducated culture can destroy what thousands have built in a lifetime.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Education Battlegrounds

We have been hearing a lot about how government must become more “transparent”. It is time to include schools in that category. Principals and teachers should welcome visitors to their classrooms so these visitors can see first hand the difficulties and joys of teaching and administrating. I suspect, like bad government, bad or weak teachers do not want visitors. Schools must be run more like a business with the school as the retail store and the students, parents and community as their customers.

All stores that sell products (schools) must be open for the customer; (parents and community) to come in and see the product they are going to buy or are buying (what is being taught and how). These customers want to see a clean store (school), lots of products openly displayed so they can make the best choices (the curriculum), knowledge people (teachers, ect.) to assist them in meeting their needs. They want to know about your reputation in the community, how sound your ownership is (the school board) and your financial stability to guarantee your product.

There is a book recently on the market which I plan to read titled “Our School”, a vivid account of the creation and first years of a charter school in San Jose, CA. “Our School” states that most charter schools take a while to succeed. They stress the basic verities of any school; discipline, hard work, an atmosphere of community, the involvement of parents, homework loads, required classes, teaching techniques—everything was a moving target, subject to change. “Our School-Downtown College Prep was able to adapt more quickly and the biggest reason was “attitude”. Admitting mistakes is part of the culture. What is more, the teachers that work there are usually young and open to new ideas, and usually hostile to unions or anything else that gets in the way of a fresh approach to teaching. (That doesn’t mean they are all good teachers; choice schools are subject to the normal variations of human ability).

Public schools have trouble learning from their mistakes and no one wants to admit to making any—the inertia of the status quo is paralyzing. The book details how this choice school takes many of the most difficult, under performing students. They are the least likely to attend school regularly or to graduate. By taking this type of student, the financial burden to the public schools is minimal.

Many teachers in #150 are embarrassed to have visitors in their classrooms. How sad. Yet we have many good schools, principals and teachers in Peoria. Take Columbia Middle School which may be the best kept secret in Peoria. Semi-retired ex-principal Stu Regnier ran a good ship and now Ms. Cindy Lochbaum-Janovetz as Principal, is doing an outstanding job of educating these 75% low income school students. A visit a short time ago found Cindy in the hallway and students passing quietly and respectfully down the hallways. Columbia made the AYP for the first time last year. The classroom or study area where I watched through an indoor window showed every kid involved quietly. Mrs. Janovetz keeps her office door open so she can hear and see what occurs in the hallways near her office. Cindy makes sure to visit classrooms on a regular basis. She welcomes visitors and asked me if I would like to visit a class. She is the type of person this community should be proud to have working with our youth in the public school system.

Richwood High School is under the capable hands of John Meisinger who replaced Jeanne Williamson who is now area leader Dunlap’s gain and District 150 loss. In a recent visit to Richwoods, I got a number of “you can’ts” from a person behind the front office counter; not a good way to greet a customer, but John showed up with “Hi, Mr. Widmer, can I take your coat. What would you like to do”? I said “I would like to have lunch; I’ll pay for it, and then visit a math or English class”. Principal Meisinger said “sign in and I’ll take you to cafeteria, then after lunch, you’ll find me in the hallways and I’ll take you to a classroom”. After a nourishing lunch (for $2.15) and friendly service from the lady behind the lunch bar, and eating in a well monitored cafeteria, I found Mr. Meisinger in the hallways and he took me to an algebra class being taught by Ms. Julie Robinson. What an engaging and energetic teacher! She involved everyone in her classroom, capturing their attention and creating an ideal learning environment.

As I’ve said in other blogs, I sometimes visit District #150 schools, going first to the office and signing in or as at Manual where I signed in at a security desk. At Manual, I was treated with courtesy by the people in the front office, the monitors and especially the janitor who was very much interested in the success of Manual.

People who live in School District #150 have the right (and obligation) to visit any school, follow proper procedure, sit where the teacher tells them to, do not look at the students who are sometimes trying to “cut up” in class and say nothing unless the teacher asks the visitor to make a comment to the students. On my visits most teachers do ask me to make a short comment at the end of the period as did Ms. Robinson. My statements are always positive and short and I appreciate this short time spent encouraging students to succeed and recognize their achievements.

District 150 will have a great deal of difficulty in winning the battle with the community. Even with some new board members with good ideas, I do not see an overall blending. When under attack, you can not “hunker down or strike back”. Instead admit your mistakes, open up your doors; hire principals who are like “sales managers” who know how to develop good attitudes of their salespeople (teachers and staff). Under present conditions I as a customer would only do business with about half of their stores (schools). I would be very concerned about the major move they are probably going to make Monday night. As a lender, I would look for more information as to how this plan is going to help make 150 succeed. At this time, based on the limited amount of information made public, I would not lend the money (taxpayer’s dollars). I would keep my money available for a better investment which might be in more schools of choice.

I know that this blog will irritate some and they will strike back with how great Washington Gifted School is. Of course it is and so is Whittier, Columbia, Richwoods, Hines, Northmoor and other schools. That’s why I paid $3000.00 of my property taxes to support #150’s $140 million dollar budget last year. Sorry. Peoria County Jail and Juvenile system passed 18,000 arrestees thru their doors last year, mainly very young, many members of the Vice Lords, No Loves, and Disciples. Most of those arrested come from Peoria. A Manual “lead teacher” told me that “there are no gang members attending Manual High School; that they all come from the area surrounding Woodruff and Peoria High”. When I told a leading security officer what she said, he laughed. But it was a sad laugh.

Why do kids join gangs? Gang members are disciplined and made to feel part of something. Too many kids in classrooms do not feel like they are engaged or fit in. Fewer schools and larger classes are not a solution for kids that are headed for the penal system. Why does the School District that needs it most still give lip service to Vo-Tech.? At least these kids might learn how to “flush a stool” or raise a kid or even learn how to get and hold a job.

The community knows the problem but as long as we have a goodly number of successful schools (stores), some community leaders can spend their time planning enhancements and eventually building more security buildings (warehouses).

Those coming out of “warehouses” with little education, no work ethics, disrespectful and undisciplined (no, the discipline they get in incarceration will not teach them respect) and with bad attitudes; many of these newly released are and will be a rising menace to the community.

“Pay me now or pay me later” as the saying goes. $30,000 to $40,000 to incarcerate yearly. Compare that with preventative and rehabilitation costs. No comparison.

And no, we can't prevent and rehabe all who are heading toward being a liability to society. But any additional successes are an improvement over what we are accomplishing now.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Arbitration Fair? Not Hardly!

Arbitration. A nice sounding word. Definition; if you have a dispute, you can settle it easily without a lot of cost to you. Wrong. Let me tell you from first hand experience how arbitration works if you as, say, a stockholder, have a dispute with your stock broker or brokerage. I will summarize how it actually DOESN’T work:

1. First you will get a batch of papers to fill out to detail your claim. Unless you are adept in understanding complicated forms, you will find you need an attorney.
2. The attorneys will probably only be interested in your case if it is in their field of expertise. (In Peoria, few if any attorneys are interested in helping you with an arbitration case concerning stockbrokers and brokers, especially if it is against a local stockbroker or broker).
3. Once you find the right attorney with a good win record who specializes in suing brokers and stockbrokers and who will take your claim to arbitration (your claim will probably not even be considered unless it has a potential settlement of at least $50,000.00), you will be asked to put down a retainer of probably at least $5,000.00. This could be your first concern that you might be throwing good money after bad.
4. The attorney will want to review the case taking the cost of reviewing from the retainer check you just handed over. After a review, the attorney should tell you what your chances are of winning at arbitration.
5. If the attorney says your chances of winning are good, ask if your attorney will take your case on a percentage of the amount you will win. If your attorney says yes; the amount will likely be 33% to 40% of the settlement. You will then be informed that you will need to pay all expenses. These expenses can range from the cost of copies plus the cost of the person doing the copying all the way up to the cost of an expert; experts come from $1000.00 a day up plus per diem. You will be told you will get this money back when you WIN the case. You probably should continue on because now you have a partner.
6. If the attorney says no, it usually means you are going to make this attorney a lot richer and this attorney is going to make you a lot poorer. I suggest giving up now and accept your loss; by continuing with this attorney, your losses are probably going to get bigger. You make another bad decision and press on.
7. So the claim is filled and a battery of the defendants lawyers sends back their first reply, often many pages long and informing your attorney that you have no case even though you do. (It’s like an attorney defending a murderer by telling the murderer to plead “not guilty”. The defendant will have a large number of attorneys, interns and clerks so expect a sequence like this. Your attorney and his staff answer the defendants attorneys and your claim is again rejected with volumes of pages; some assaulting you personally in every way imaginable, including what a bad guy you are by asking your opponent to spin a racquet to determine who serves first. Your attorney interviews you with the clocks running at $175.00 to $250.00 an hour and then sends a reply back to the defending attorneys. They in turn deny what you are saying and ask you for, say, another thousand documents. (Or send your attorney another thousand forms to fill out) Then your attorney asks you for another $5 or $10 thousand because the case has gotten more complicated.
8. This scenario is repeated over a period of a year or so and your attorney has now 25 or 30 other cases going at the same time and will be asking you for more reviews of your original complaint and for more documentation all the time with the clock running. Your attorney has to refresh his memory at your expense because he has a new secretary or misplaced your file or realizes you aren’t going to win after all. (Most attorneys will not take a case on a percentage of your win because they usually know that if a big firm with batteries of lawyers, secretaries and interns makes up their mind they are not going to lose a particular, case they usually don’t).
9. Somewhere along the line you are out an additional $10 or $20 thousand and you are wondering what you are doing. Your chances are becoming slimmer and slimmer especially if you ask your attorneys how your case stands now and they say “about a fifty-fifty chance. You say, what do you mean? You told me when you took this case you could win it! Then your attorney makes a statement that sounds something like this: I’ve got to have another $10 to 20 thousand as the defendant is bringing up things; well like this tennis thing, which of course has nothing to do with the broader scheme of things but all these claims and counterclaims are costing more money to answer.
10. At this point, you are probably going to say, well, can we settle this without spending more money; such as on the three arbitration judges (who might come from Timbuktu) and who also get salary plus per diem and the expert witness for our side who also might come from Timbuktu. Then you might suddenly realize you are NOT going to beat “city hall” and you are going to be stuck with EVERYBODIES EXPENSES.
11. You are probably going to scream “why didn’t you tell me all this in the beginning”. You will of course not like your attorneys answer so your next statement is “find out what they want will settle for”. You’re thinking you now will maybe get half of what you were asking for and your attorney; if by then you still have the same one; your case may have now been turned over to a younger attorney who is only charging $150.00 an hour; this attorney informs you that he will try to get your expenses back. After you are through screaming and throwing tantrums, your attorney offers to get the best deal he can.
12. When two years of frustration, worry and expenses on top of your original loss, the attorneys office calls and suggest you accept the defendant and his battery of lawyers offer which, of course, won’t cover all your expenses. You then remember that is why they took your retainers. Some day, you’ll get back what’s left from your thousands of dollars in retainers and a thank you note and a request that if you ever need their services again they would be glad to be of service.
13. You remember that the Federal Securities Commission assures you that you will never be cheated because they have established that dissenting parties will settle by arbitration that will be fair and not costly to all parties. You realize they lied.
14. At this point you look at the check you received, look at yourself in the mirror, see your wife and kids packing to leave you, the gray hair and worry lines in your face and suddenly remember you still have your life insurance policy. Vowing to leave something to cover your burial expenses and a few dollars to your kids, you probably commit suicide.

The sequel is that your insurance policy has a disclaimer (in very small print on page 63 of your policy) that if you take your own life the policy is void. (Your family now hates you but at least you are not there to take more abuse).

The first moral of this (sad, but partly true) saga is that you as an individual, have two chances when you sue a large corporation; slim and none. The second moral is that almost all stockbrokers are in business to make money for themselves. If they do make money for you too, so much the better for them as they can use you as a reference for new clients. The third moral is to never buy stocks from a friend or a relative. The fourth moral is before selecting a broker, be sure you have more money than the broker. But then, why would you select a broker that didn’t know how to make money on the market for themselves? The fifth moral is never trust your money to someone just beginning in the business. They are learning the business with YOUR MONEY! There are more morals but it’s getting late ad I’m not being paid for this free advice

When you go to arbitration as an individual, never do so if the attorney won’t take your case on a percentage of the win. Is the system fair? Fair? No, whoever told you life is fair knows better. Does the system of arbitration for the small guy need changed? You bet. How; probably only if some foundation or group of wealthy attorneys decides to enter on the side of the small guy and make the term arbitration mean what it was meant to mean; an inexpensive way to win a claim against the big guys who screwed you. On class actions suits the attorneys or sometimes tort attorneys will charge you nothing but they get a major part of the settlement. And class action attorneys have no interest at all when you have a small case against a major corporation.

My next blog will be a positive blog on my visit to Richwoods High School and my observations of the apparent battleground between the schools and the public and how it can be a win-win for most all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

You Bought a What?

I’ve probably been too embarrassed to write this document but here goes. An article in Forbes Magazine dated 9/19/2005, is titled “You Bought a What”? Yes, I’m sorry to say I fell for a stockbroker’s pitch about how he had made his clients 20% a year thru their purchase from him of American Skandia variable annuities. Within 3-4 months I lost on paper over $30,000.00. My broker had led me to believe I would by now have added approximately $150,000.00 to my account. What a sucker I was. To date this investment has never recovered, yet I am paying a large amount in yearly fees. The article says “A reader told me that he had bought a variable annuity and wanted advice on what to do next. The damage, though, had already been done. Broker-sold annuities levy killer annual fees, in large part to compensate the brokers who sell them. You are required to keep your money in place for a while – seven years is typical. (Mine is 8 years) You can get out early by paying a huge exit fee to make up for the vendor’s lost chance to extract that annual fee”. The article continues “The only ones benefiting from annuities are the insurance companies selling them and the sales reps selling them. Sales reps never tell you the whole truth. That is, they may mention the annual fees and the exit penalty you are committing to, but they never mention how strongly motivated the broker is to push you into this particular product. The sales commission can easily be 8% to 16% of the amount you invest. And almost never does the salesman disclose the fundamental fact that you would be better off investing similarly outside the annuity-for example, in a plain old mutual fund”.

Even worse, while my total amount is covered by insurance, the (actual amount I invested only) that insurance disappears unless I renew the annuity for another 8 years and keep paying the huge annual fees. If I die before the policy expires in approximately four more years, my estate will get back my original investment only; minus withdrawals. If I outlive this annuity, I will have lost over $30,000.00 on my investment and will have also lost the insurance policy. I did withdraw up to !0% of my total investment yearly without penalty but each withdrawal meant paying income tax and each withdrawal lowered my death insurance coverage.

I have no doubt, a few people made money during the boom years of the 90’s in variable-annuities. Some “investors” even come away from the Paradice as winners.

An article in the WSJ on 12/24/05 says that the company I had purchased from, American Skandia (through a local broker) had been sold to Prudential Financial Services. It further says “American Skandia guaranteed annuity holders that their investments would double in 10 years. Few companies were as aggressive in enticing investors as Skandia’s U.S. unit”.

An article in the WSJ dated 9/17/05 titled “Variable-Annuity Charge Decline”. It says “As the variable-annuity industry comes under legal and regulatory pressure for allegedly coercive sales tactics, some big financial services companies are seeking to cut through the controversy by reducing fees”. Prudential Financial Services did not.

If anyone knows an attorney locally who would help me sue America-Skandia, now Prudential Financial, have that attorney give me a call. I would only work on percentages as I’ve also been stuck in the endless “so much an hour game” before. I cannot sue the salesman.

You can reach me thru my listing in the phone book or my email.

This is not intended as a sob story, just a reminder how gullible we can sometimes be when listening to a stock broker you are convinced has “only your best interest” at heart.

In my next blog called “Arbitration” I will tell you what a joke arbitration is to the individual stock holder and how you can seldom win and why not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Countries Like Neighborhoods

Quoting from the book “The World is Flat” chapter “I Can Only Get It For You Retail”, the author asks the question “What if the world were like the neighborhoods of a city”? What would the world look like?

Western Europe would be an assisted-living facility with an ageing population, lavishly attended by Turkish nurses.

United States would be a gated community, with a metal detector at the front gate and a lot of people sitting in their front yards complaining about how lazy everyone else was, even though out back there was a small opening in the fence for Mexican labor and other energetic immigrants who help make the gated community function.

Latin America would be the fun part of town, the club district, where the workday doesn’t begin until 10:00 P.M. and everyone sleeps till midmorning. It’s definitely the place to hang out, but in between the clubs, you don’t see a lot of new businesses opening, except on the street where the Chileans live. The landlords of this neighborhood almost never reinvest their profits here, but keep them in a bank across town.

The Arab street would be a dark alley where outsiders fear to tread, except for a few side streets called, Dubai, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Morocco. The only new business is gas stations, whose owners, like the elite in the Latin neighborhood, rarely invest their funds in the neighborhood. Many people on the Arab street have their curtains closed, their shutters drawn, and signs on their front lawn that say “No Trespassing. Beware of dog.”

India, China and East Asia would be “the other side of the tracks.” Their neighborhood is a big teeming market, made up of small shops and one room factories, interspersed with Stanley Kaplan SAT prep schools, and engineering colleges. Nobody ever sleeps in this neighborhood, everyone lives in extended families, and everyone is working to get to “the right side of the tracks.”

On the Chinese streets there area no rule of law, but the streets are well-paved; there are no potholes, and the street lights all work. On the Indian streets, by contrast, no one ever repairs the streetlights, the roads are full of ruts, but the police are sticklers for rules. You need a license to open a lemonade stand on the Indian street. Luckily, the local cops can be bribed, and the successful entrepreneurs all have their own generators to run their factories and the latest cell phones to get around the fact that the local telephone poles are all down.

Africa, sadly, is that part of town where the businesses are boarded up, life expectancy is declining and the only new buildings are health-care clinics.

The point made is that every region of the world has its own strength and weaknesses, and all are in need of reform retail to some degree. What is reform retail? It’s more than opening up your country to foreign trade and investments and making a few small changes at the top. That is reform wholesale. Reform retail presumes you have already done your reform wholesale. It involves looking at four key aspects of your society--infrastructure, regulatory institutions, education, and culture (the general way your country and its leaders relate to the world) – and upgrading each one to remove as many friction points as possible. The idea of reform retail is to enable the greatest number of your people to have the best legal and institutional framework from which to innovate, start companies, and become attractive partners for those who want to collaborate with them from elsewhere in the world”.

Anyway, if you are interested in the way the world is flattening out and who will fall or is falling over the presipice, the book is highly recommended reading.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The World is Becoming "Flatter"

“The World is Flat” is a year 2005 book by columnist and scholar Thomas L. Friedman. I thought I was one of the first to read this book of what I would call serious content that should shake America’s leadership types to their very roots. Then I attended a county government meeting with an audience of about 60 people where the speaker asked how many in the room had read this book. I was the only one. Later, a friend of mine (Kenny Carrigan) sent me a review of the book published in the June 19 issue of the Financial Times and another review of the book in the April 25 Business week.

It sometimes takes a while for good subjugative literature to reach the hinterlands. It is said of Friedman “he never shrinks from the biggest problems and the thorniest of issues”. I learned Mr. Friedman is a three time Pulitzer Prize winner for his work in the New York Times where he serves as the foreign affairs columnist. He knows his subjects and can express his thoughts in a manner that makes you think and may make you worry.

The book is a must read but unless you are very technologically versed, you may do like I did and skim some of the “heavy” parts of the 500 page tome. As Friedman describes the “flattening” of competition worldwide he says “Every law of economics tells us that if we connect all the knowledge pools in the world, and promote greater and greater trade and integration, a global pie will grow wider and more complex. And if America or any other country, nurtures a labor force of men and women who are specialized, special, and constantly adapting to higher value added jobs, it will grab its slice of that ever growing pie. But we will all have to work at it. Because if current trends prevail, countries like Indian and China and whole regions like Eastern Europe are certain to narrow the gap with America, just as Korea, Japan and Taiwan did during the cold war. They will keep upping their standards”.

The newly coined word “versatilist” describes people with the ability to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles. People who are “specialists” generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by their peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain. When their jobs are eliminated they have no place to go. People who are “generalists” have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers. When needed to perform at a higher level, they are usually found wanting. He says “people should be more like a Swiss Army knife”; versatile or “versatilists”.

If the flat world is about connecting all our knowledge pools together, we want our knowledge pools to be the biggest. The more lifetime learning opportunities that are provided, the skill base of any workforce is widened fulfilling a moral obligation to those whose jobs are being outsourced and to see to it that they are more employable that when they first came in.

David Baltimore, the Nobel-winning president of Caltech, knows what it takes to get your child ready to compete against the cream of the global crop. Almost all the students who make it to Caltech, one of the best scientific universities in the world, come from public schools, not from private schools that sometimes nurture a sense that just because you are there, you are special and entitled. He says “I look at kids who come to Caltech, and they grew up in families that encouraged them to work hard and to put off a bit of gratification for the future and to understand that they need to hone their skills to play and important role in the world. I give parents enormous credit for this because these kids are coming from public schools that people area calling failures. Public education is producing these remarkable students—so it can be done. We need a revolution in this country when it comes to parenting around children”. Merle’s comments; “We are on a battleground where the public schools system must not lose”.(I’ll blog more on how this battle can be a win-win situation for both the public school system, the business community, the parents, and the general public).

Friedman says that “One of the greatest virtues a country or community can have is a culture of tolerance. When tolerance is the norm, everyone flourishes-because tolerance breeds trust and trust is the foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship. Increase the level of trust is any group, company or society, and only good things can happen”.

He predicts the rioting going on now in France. He says Islamic youth particularly these living in Europe, can and do look around and see that the Arab-Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the planet. It is not living as prosperously or democratically as other civilizations. How can that be? these young Arabs and Muslims must ask themselves. If we have superior faith (Islam) and if our faith is all encompassing of religion, politics, and economics, why are others living so much better? This is a source of real cognitive-dissonance for many Arab-Muslim youth—the sort of dissonance and loss of self esteem, that sparks rage, and leads some of them to join violent groups and lash out at the world. (Watch how this rage unfolds in France) It is also the sort of dissonance that leads many other average folks, to give radical groups like al-Qaeda passive support. Again, the flattening of the world only sharpens this inharmonious feeling by making the backwardness of the Arab-Muslim region compared to others, impossible to ignore”.

Friedman talks about the extreme poverty of India and that thousands line up to attend schools where only hundreds of the best and brightest are admitted. He explains why there are so few skyscrapers in parts of the third world; the power might go off three or four times a day, stranding people in elevators. He says that China and India with populations three and four times ours has more poverty but a greater pool of eager youth willing to work and learn for small amounts of money. He talks about the “untouchables” in India who one day will break out of the caste system of inequality and enter the work force as hard working intelligent people giving more competition to America and add to our outsourcing to hard working people who have a much lower standard of living than ours.

For non -Bush lovers, he has a couple of paragraphs stating how he believes that many mistakes have been made and new approaches demanded the this and future administrations as the world get more flat, more competitive and more equal.

Anyway, please read this book. I can’t do it justice on this site, but I can tell you is harder to put down than a good mystery unless you are not really interested in your kids future or even your own. After reading or skimming this book, I believe you may see both a future you like and a possible one you won’t like.

The most successful people I have ever known are well-rounded people. Isn’t that the way we should view the learning process in the home, the schools, in our careers and shouldn’t this learning continue until death?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Peoria School District #150 Possibilities

An article in the Oct. 31st issue of the U.S. News and World Report titled “Thriving in the Zone” reports on the work of one of America’s best leaders, 53 year old Geoffrey Canada. He heads what is known as the Harlem Children Zone, serving 8600 low income children on 60 New York City blocks, which he says “isn’t doing much new”. It has all-day preschool; it’s phasing in a K-12 charter school. It has tutoring and mentoring and antiviovilonce initiatives. It provides a full network of services to an entire needy neighborhood. It combines educational, social and medical services, covering participants from birth all the way through college.

The angel is in the details-in the superior way the zone delivers its programs is with the help of a skilled staff, wealthy backers and a leader who can talk to the block and the boardroom. Canada and his supporters have two key aims: to rescue large numbers of impoverished Harlem children; in so doing, provide an irresistible model for policymakers. He says “if we can get Harlem to the place where passing is the normal thing, staying out of jail is normal, guys growing up and getting jobs is normal; that to me is victory”.

One hundred percent of the past three preschool classes tested “school ready”. Only 11% of 100 kindergartners initially tested above grade level; 80 % had reached that point by the end of the school year. Canada says “older children have been more challenging. Of last years 100 sixth graders, only 10% initially tested at or above grade level. At the end of the year, 19% reached that point in math, 39% in English. The six graders may improve more gradually and at greater expense, but by 12th grade, it will be clear we can save them”.

The picture accompanying the article shows all these black kids neatly dressed and groomed. Mr. Canada dresses like a professional although when parents are invited to watch a series of impressive children’s performances, he dresses in a baseball cap, Khaki pants and a HCZ Team T-shirt. He steps to the mike before 4,000 parents and kids and says “This is the hope of Harlem we’re looking for.”As Peoria Public School District #150 plans it’s school closure and building options, more thought should be given to plans to go back to K-8 or go to freshman attending a ninth grade class as is being done in the Adline Independent School District in Texas, the Grand Prairie Independent School District near Dallas and Edison High School in Philadelphia. All of these ninth grade classes have been in effect long enough to track results and they are positive.

The School District in Philadelphia is in the midst of a five year plan to do away with many of its middle schools-reducing the number to 21 from 36 by 2008. An article dated 4/7/05 in the WSJ is titled, (ok, entitled if you wish, both words are proper I’m told by a retired English teacher), “Middle School Goes Out of Fashion-Amid Evidence Kids Struggle With Move to Junior High-- Districts Shift to K-8 Model.” “At that age, they don’t know whether they’re adults or babies. Our whole theory was let’s keep these kids babies as long as we can.”

An analysis of standardized test scores show that reading and math scores are consistently higher for K-8 schools compared with those in traditional middle schools. Not only are scores higher, attendance rates are higher and there are fewer incidents of student disciple.

In studying the recommendations of the task force and administration, Dr. Gorenz is quoted “You can’t decide to do anything in regards to facilities until you know what kind of model you use.” Superintendent Ken Hinton says “I would think with something of this magnitude, it would take a lot of time for consideration and input.” These quotes were reported in the JS on 5/17/05 so only 5 months have elapsed. This Monday evening the School Board will probably give the go ahead to proceed with at least part of the Task Force recommendations.

Construction of a math, science and technology middle school with questions of how to staff, has also been under consideration. Unfortunately, the community heard these promises from Dr. Royster and some of her predecessors without much action. A greatly expanded Vo-Tech is way past due and the lack of hand, head and work ethic training has cost this community millions of dollars. The lack of a greatly expanded Vo-Tech in both the K-8 and K-12 will prevent some companies from locating here and allow more non-citizens to take jobs from locally unskilled drop-outs and graduates. (On my next blog on schools I will take count of those who do not participate in classroom instruction in the classes I visit and give you some accurate figures).

It is way past teaching kids more than reading, writing and computer skills, although all three of those are a “must”. Today’s Parade Magazine has an article about training inmates in correctional centers, skills they should have been taught years before their first visit to juvenile court. District #150 has lagged behind its local counterparts yet has the greatest need for teaching lifestyle programs. If they are not getting it elsewhere than home economics, welding, vehicle maintenance, health skills and taking care of a family and home they will have, some before they are even out of the 12th grade, must be taught BEFORE they drop-out or graduate with no skills and no way to get or hold a well paying job.

This community has abundant number or retirees with skills that have gone largely untapped by our school district. These volunteers, with teachers to help maintain disciple and teachers willing to continue to learn, would be more than willing to assist to make our schools better.

Some will scoff at this article and say “we are doing all these things”. Sorry, the results of some home, school, social agencies and court failures are over burdening our police force, our judicial systems, our jails and our prisons, our welfare system and even cause our health costs to escalate. Many people are becoming more and more concerned about their safety; they are more afraid of local terrorists than they are of foreign terrorists. As I wrote early on, many in Peoria are in a state of denial and feel they can help cover our failures like the Romans did; build more circuses. We should be learning from history.

I suggest that those who are living in denial or even if you are not, please read “The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman. You may feel a little dismayed as he details how we are falling behind other countries in more important things than spending large sums on pork projects and more circuses. (I have said before that most of us are not opposed to more “circuses” as long as the people that want them and can afford to pay to build and maintain them). When we visit we will be glad to pay the fees. In the meantime, most of us feel the community has higher priorities.

Whatever happens in School Dist. # 150 over the next few years will not leave much room for failure. Most teachers feel they are doing the best they can under existing situations. Some schools in the public sector are doing quite well and many teachers are pleased with their results. The “customers” served by these schools are seemingly pleased. (We have to run schools more like a business and welcome everyone into our “business” and help them get involved.)

The shortage of well trained good teachers, plus the negative effects of good teachers taking early retirement (about 20% says the Regional Superintendents office, down from a few years ago when the state government had a senior moment), has allowed more than a few teachers and school leaders to enter and stay in the system who are not as the one’s described in the Harlem article. In the article above it states the leader was able to fire four teachers because the teachers didn’t measure up to the expectations his administration had for them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in the public sector for reasons most people understand.

The possibility of more privately funded schools and the possibility of more parents moving out of the area or sending more of their kids to private schools already in existence like the one described above, may shrink the number of public school building needed. Instead of approximately 70% of the student population now classed as “in poverty”; this figure could increase to 90%. Growth in the downtown area and in the center, south and middle of Peoria will then be basically dead and all the “Heart of Peoria” plans, despite their best efforts, will not save these areas.

Let’s do more of what we can now without putting more burdens on the property tax payer. With the growing deficits in state government, we shouldn’t count the money before we receive it.

I have been visiting Peoria schools, even coaching, teaching (Concordia Lutheran, Junior Achievement) and mentoring since 1994. I know we can do better. But only if the wealthy recognize the public school systems that are in trouble and make them more of a priority for their expendable dollars.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Local Private Ownership of our Utilities?

Today’s JS headline titled “Illinois-American up for sale” appears to be great news for local entrepreneurs. Opportunity is now here to buy the water company from its German owners, for local investors to invest, make profits and reduce water rates to the public.

A few years ago a headline in the JS said “Mayors back local control of Cilco”. Pekin Mayor David Tebben said 25 communities “spoke with one voice”. Chuck Grayeb from the City Council said “This vote tonight is a tremendous victory”. City Councilman Eric Turner said “We’re at a crossroads. All our support is needed to assure local ownership”.

The community missed out on that opportunity; Ameren bought Cilco and renamed it Ameren/Cilco. Ameren/Cilco recently said they would possibly face bankruptcy if the ICC wouldn’t allow them to raise rates. Five days ago, the questionable ICC Board did approve the rate hike and Ameren/Cilco did RAISE rates to area users substantially. You will see the increase reflected in your December utility bill. Remember this is the same Ameren/Cilco that pledged $500,000.00 of YOUR MONEY in THEIR name to the proposed new $5 million plus Children’s Playhouse in the soon to be vacated Glen Oak Park Pavilion.

We know that excessive profits are being made by Illinois-American; that’s probably why they want to sell it. Also the PAAG, five City Council members, Terry Kohlbus, EDC chief, the Executive Board of the Peoria Chamber of Commerce, ex.-Mayor Lowell “Bud” Grieves and a number of other community leaders all said so. They should now take the lead in buying this company from the Germans. The company would then remain under the regulation of the ICC (our legislators should take steps to ask the Governor to appoint members to this commission who would both represent the private and public sector fairly), the ICC would have lost jurisdiction over the City owned water company. Under local ownership the entire region will then benefit by lower rates and we will have water lines that seldom will leak.

Let the raising of capital and negotiations begin. Count on my non financial support.