A look at West Virginia’s new superintendent

July 2, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

Decision or indecision?

June 27, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

Pay as you earn, but you still have to pay

June 10, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

President Barack Obama’s expansion of the “Pay As You Earn” program on Monday may have some college goers ready to pump their firsts in victory, but that excitement should be tempered because there’s a hidden gun: You still have to pay. Well, at least for 20 years.

By signing a memorandum to extend such benefits to those who borrowed from the federal government before 2007, the president is certainly helping low-income 20- and 30-year olds who are struggling to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year term.

As part of the plan, monthly payments can be reduced to 10 percent of a person’s income — which is reasonable — but paying less each month means it will take longer to pay off the loan. After 20 years, the remaining balance is altogether forgiven.

It’s bound to help millions of Americans, but it fails to address the underlying problem plaguing higher education: The cost of college has tripled in the past 30 years, causing most students to wager their entire futures on the hopes that a college education will land them a good job.

College tuition has skyrocketed since the 1970s. So has student debt, which now tops $1 trillion.

While 1,000,000,000,000 may not look like much on a computer screen, it’s about 10 times the amount of people who have ever lived on earth. Think about that for a minute.

West Virginians are not immune to loan debt even though college comes relatively cheap for in-state students compared to other states. Still, more than 50 percent of graduates are burdened with at least $26,000 in loan debt.

Those numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon. According to the latest data compiled by the state Higher Education Policy Commission, almost 53 percent of students attending four-year public institutions in West Virginia have loans. A shade over 11 percent of those students default on their loans.

For a state with a shaky economy and limited job prospects for graduates, lingering college debt is enough to kill any prospect of achieving the American dream in the Mountain State.

College is still worth the investment though, as those who earn a degree on average earn $20,000 more each year than those who only have a high school diploma.

But, at what cost?

Paying as you go may help millions finally pay off their debt, but rethinking higher education at a federal and local level may be the only way to prevent future students from ever entering it.

Handwriting is key to education

June 4, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

cursive2It’s been nearly two decades, but I remember that dreaded part of the school day when the teacher asked me and my fellow classmates to take our pencils out for the daily penmanship assignment.

As I frivolously drew a chain of circles and lines at the top of the page — this was a warm-up we were required to do without question — the only thought on my mind was how much I hated writing in cursive.

Satisfaction would have come to 6-year-old me if he could have traveled to the future a la Marty McFly to see the lack of cursive writing in adult world. But, looking back, I mourn the “deathblow” the computer keyboard has dealt cursive and handwriting in general.

Unaware to my younger self, writing by hand triggers neural circuits in the brain that are vital to cognitive development and the retention of information. This is why we remember more when we take notes by hand (pay attention college students).

It might be quicker to take notes on a computer, but studies show areas of the brain linked with memory are not as active when we type — if they are active at all.

In a New York Times article about what is lost by forsaking handwriting, writer Maria Konnikova reports that students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard, not because a computer might distract the student but because writing by hand allows them to better process the information and commit it to memory.

What does this mean for the future of education where Common Core standards do away with penmanship and as more and more schools favor tablets over paper and pencil?

Well, education does need to adapt to the new digital world we live in as more archaic learning methods are replaced — there’s no bypassing that — but, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater because writing by hand is still needed even if it means it’s taught at home instead of in the classroom.

National Spelling Bee finals

May 29, 2014 by Brad McElhinny

Varun Kukkillaya, the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s sponsored contestant in the National Spelling Bee, missed the cut for today’s final rounds by a mere single point. He spelled his two words correctly onstage but his score on a written teste was not enough to advance.

West Virginia’s other spellers — George Andrew Triplett of ElkinsRaimah Hossain of Morgantown and  Lillian Taylor Bischof of Wheeling, likewise did not move on to the final rounds.

Nevertheless, spelling bees are fun. So, herein is continuing coverage, brought to you by the Daily Mail’s education writer, Samuel Speciale.

Follow along for the National Spelling Bee

May 27, 2014 by Brad McElhinny

Follow along for updates from the National Spelling Bee.

John Adams Middle School seventh grader Varun Kukkillaya is competing in the bee as the Gazette-Mail’s representative. Cheer for Varun as he goes through the preliminary rounds and then competes on the national stage.

Arts education is integral to student achievement

May 20, 2014 by Samuel Speciale
Justin Skidmore and Olivia Morris rehearse a scene from “Voices of the Mountain,” a collection of one-act skits written by Van Junior and Senior High School students. This skit is called “The Darkness 1,” written by Skylar Stark. It also features actors Mariah Plante and Tyler Eldridge.

Justin Skidmore and Olivia Morris rehearse a scene from “Voices of the Mountain,” a collection of one-act skits written by Van Junior and Senior High School students.

When I first came to the Daily Mail in February, all news on the education front involved lingering problems from the water crisis at schools and the closing of Kawnaha County’s three public day cares.

To tell you the truth, it was kind of depressing.

Then, later in March, I was asked to write an advance for a collection of one-act plays reacting to the water crisis written by high school students from Van Junior and Senior High School.

Not only were these plays about complex issues most of us are still trying to figure out, they were all from the perspective of school-aged kids expressing pain and frustration with a helpless situation they could do nothing about.

As someone who went to a private school without any real arts education, I feel like I missed out, but I have found art provides a much-needed outlet for young people — sometimes an escape.

Not only is art a means for people to express themselves, it is an integral part of receiving a well-rounded education.

Studies have shown that the arts are associated with gains in math, reading, critical thinking and communication skills as well as improvements to motivation, concentration and confidence.

“Today’s generation is a generation of cellphone kids,” said Leah Turley, founder of the Appalachian Artists Collective. “Their ability to speak is lessened because of a reliance on technology. I think theater is the answer to that.”

For some kids, the arts can help them communicate. For less-fortunate kids, it enriches their lives with cultural experience and puts them on the same level as children of affluent or aspiring parents who expose them to arts at an early age.

Art also is something that brings people together, something I think is desperately needed in a culture that seems to give too much focus to the things that divide.

Thankfully, their is push from local, state and federal education officials to encourage the incorporation of arts in schools.


School board election 2014

May 13, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

An off-year primary election seldom stirs up the interest a presidential election does — school board elections even more so.

But, the school board election is one of the most important ones a voter can participate in according to Pete Thaw, a five-term member of the Kanawha County Board of Education and its current president.

“The board of education is kind of left behind, and people forget we spend 70 percent of every tax dollar in Kanawha County,” Thaw said in an interview about the many issues the school board is facing and could face in the future.

While Thaw consistently is the lead vote-getter, he faces several newcomers who have the potential to unseat him and inject the board with new ideas.

Ryan White, Vic Sprouse, Tracy White and Curtis Robinson are all parents of children in the school system and want to see positive changes made for the betterment of all students. Calvin McKinney also seeks to make improvements, but is by far the most experienced of the new candidates with 40 years as a teacher and principal.

Also running is Becky Jordon, a three-term board member seeking re-election. While her attempt to enact a teacher dress code policy this year was met with heated opposition, she expects excellence from students and teachers alike.

The school board sets the school calendar as well as policies that affect more than students and teachers. While its five members do oversee the school system, they are also the most powerful policy makers at the local level.

In the words of Thaw himself: Voters should have an interest in the board and get involved “regardless of who gets elected.”

There’s still a few hours left until we know which of the seven candidates will take the three open seats. For live coverage of the school board election, follow @charleywest and @wvschools on Twitter.

Live coverage: School board and other local elections

May 13, 2014 by Brad McElhinny

Follow along for coverage of Kanawha and Putnam school board elections, as well as other local races:

Are students having problems taking the Westest?

April 23, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

As many know, this is the first year the Westest will be delivered completely online.

Sounds like a good idea. West Virginia schools need to embrace technology to be able to compete with schools across the country and world.

But, as can be expected with anything new, there have been some issues with the transition.

Capitol High principal Clinton Giles and John Adams Middle principal John Moyers said some students have had problems logging into the test website. There have also been problems with exceeding network bandwidth and website crashes.

The two principals said these problems were only a factor Monday and have been corrected, and they are prepared to deal with any other glitches.

So, how has this affected students? These tests can be stressful in and of themselves, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to have “will my computer crash in the middle of my test” in the back of my head.

So, I ask parents and students alike, aside from a frustrating start, has the transition been smooth? Are the tests easier to take? Or is it too much too soon?

Feel free to let me know by sending an email to sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com, or commenting on the Daily Mail’s Facebook page.