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Pushing For More Preschool

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a small round table for editors in Washington D.C. Monday, and I was among those in attendance. Duncan invited us to discuss what he and President Obama hope will be their biggest legacy in the area of education: the vast expansion of public preschool availability for America’s children. In particular, the proposed initiative is designed to reach underprivileged kids who have no other quality early-education option. “The average child from a disadvantaged community enters school 12 to 18 months behind,” says Duncan, who adds that the U.S ranks 25 out of 29 industrialized nations in offering quality public preschool. Only 28 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded programs. And, sadly, the trend appears to be headed in the wrong direction. According to a study released yesterday by the National Institute for Early Education Research, state funding for pre-K fell by more than $500 million dollars last year, the largest one-year drop ever. Funding has fallen more than 20 percent during the past decade.

To change that, Duncan is proposing a $75 billion plan over the next decade to support states that expand their preschool offerings, at first to those that live near the poverty line but also, eventually, to middle-income families as well. The Administration has proposed funding the program with a 94-cent tax on tobacco products, in part because he cites projections that the added tariff will prevent nearly 250,000 kids from developing a smoking habit during that time.

At a time when Washington is mired in legislative gridlock, the preschool plan seems ambitious at the least. But Duncan believes it is essential to help our nation make up ground with other countries so that our kids are well-prepared for school and ready to succeed in an ever-more-competitive global economy. Duncan cites surveys showing that for every dollar that goes into preschool and early-childhood education, there’s a 7-to-1 return in the future payoff. “It’s the best bang for an educational buck,” he says. Children who attend quality preschool enter kindergarten with better prereading and social skills, stronger vocabularies and math knowledge, and a greater chance of graduating from high school and becoming productive members of the work force later on. That’s why the Federal government would pay states up to 90 percent of the preschool expansion costs at first (though that figure would diminish over time). In return, the program would require that the pre-K programs be high-quality and, ideally, full-day, taught by certified teachers and with an instructor-to-student ratio of 10 to 1 or less. Can Duncan and the Administration rally Congress to allocate the money and convince states to play ball? Duncan concedes it’s a challenge. But as he and other supporters are quick to point out, this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American issue.

What do you think—would you support a tobacco tax to be used to expand quality public pre-K programs?

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Palm Beach Balm

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Kids (my kids), don’t read this. Because if you do, you’re going to want to go to Palm Beach, Florida, where your mom and I escaped for a rare and well-deserved getaway. Yes, we framed it as a business trip, and there was some “research” involved. But truth be told, it was the type you both love—infinity-edge swimming pools, white-sand beaches, expansive ocean views, fancy restaurant meals. Okay, really. Stop reading.

Our visit took us to two of the nicest resorts in the area. First was The Ritz-Carlton (pool and ocean view pictured to the right), a Spanish-style low-rise that’s quietly elegant, with intimate service (the waiters knew my name by the second evening at Temple Orange, which features local grouper and a wonderful Friday night seafood buffet), terraces so close to the ocean you can sit out and listen to the surf (we did—often), and one of the coolest spas I’ve ever seen. At Eau Spa we were treated to a couples massage and dry float, after which we relaxed in hanging chairs that were reminiscent of baby swings—and just as comforting. The kids wouldn’t have liked our abandoning them to be personally pampered, but they would have been in good hands: Their stay in the kids club, Aquanuts, for ages 5 and up, is complimentary while you’re having your spa treatment. And it looks like a blast: During our visit the kids’ indoor room was decorated like a Halloween fun house, so the little ones could trick or treat when they’re weren’t swimming or playing games. This resort definitely likes families: It recently started a special meal plan for guests 12 and under, including fun-but-healthy choices for $35 a day. And while it’s not cheap, low-season rates start for a relatively modest $199 per night.

To my surprise our second stop, The Breakers (pictured to the right), was equally child-friendly. I had images that this grand dame, built by Henry Flagler in 1896, might be stodgy. But the owners have invested $250 million during the past decade to ensure that it is the very model of a modern luxury resort, with a spa, four pools (some designed for families, some for quiet), yoga and Zumba classes (my wife raved about them), snorkeling right off shore, paddleboarding (it’s a lot harder than it looks!), two golf courses, and 10 tennis courts (I got rained out—frown). But it also has mosaics and tapestries straight out of the gilded age. Our Sunday brunch at The Circle, a gorgeous room with sweeping ocean views, featured a chilled seafood bar with Maine lobster and a dessert bar to die for. It was truly among our most amazing dining experiences ever. Since this wonderful extravagance might have been wasted on our kids (or at least an extra drain on our wallet), we likely would’ve put them in the Coconut Crew Camp (for ages 3 and up). But The Breakers has plenty else to keep young children busy and happy (we saw many of them during our visit). The Family Entertainment Center has a game room, craft room, arcade, movie room, playground, and outdoor sports court. If you eat at the adjacent Italian Restaurant, the kids can run off and play (fully monitored) for no extra charge while you enjoy your meal in peace. While undeniably a splurge, The Breakers is worth it, especially during low season, when rates start at $289 per night, including continental breakfast and kids meals and day camp.

For us, though, it was romantic, and a reminder of how relaxed vacations used to be before kids (sigh). Still, we would have liked them to be there for two off-site activities: Lion Country Safari, a drive-through zoo and safari-themed amusement park; and the Loggerhead Marinelife Center (pictured to the right), where injured sea turtles (which nest by the thousands on the adjacent Juno Beach) are rescued and rehabilitated. My daughter fell in love with Winter the dolphin when we got to meet her a couple of years ago, and I have no doubt that she would have an instant crush on these cute creatures too. Next time we’ll have to bring Matthew and Isabella along. Maybe.

Photo 1: The Ritz Carlton
Photo 2: The Breakers
Photo 3: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

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Tennis Made Easier

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

While Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic often make it seem that way, tennis is not a simple game to master. I’ve been playing for years, and there are days when I still feel like a novice on the court (mixed in with some rare in-the-zone moments that make me dream of greater, all-too-unrealistic accomplishments). But it’s even more difficult for young kids. Tennis requires keen hand-eye coordination that tends not to kick in until much later (there’s a reason why Little League starts out with kindergartners hitting off a tee) and an ability to anticipate where a fast-moving yellow ball is going in time to strike it. Perhaps the biggest reason it’s challenging for preschoolers and early grade-schoolers, though, is that they tend to start playing it with Mom or Dad on a full-size court. That’s like asking a 5-year-old to shoot a basketball at a 10-foot-high hoop or to play baseball on a Major League field.

Fortunately, that’s changing. A few years ago, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) introduced 10 and Under Tennis, designed to help young kids be successful and get hooked on the game rather than become frustrated by it. As well as having them start with shorter junior racquets (as little as 19 inches vs. the full-size 27 to 28 inches), the program starts kids on smaller courts—36 by 18 feet, as opposed to the full-size 78 by 27 feet. It also has them begin hitting with low-compression balls that move slower and don’t bounce as high, so they’re easier to strike.

Tennis Courts
It makes a lot of sense. In fact, earlier this year the International Tennis Federation mandated that all 10-and-under tournaments must be played with slower balls and on downsized courts with smaller, lighter racquets. The move is controversial. Some parents of aspiring young players feel that since former American champions like Andre Agassi grew up playing on full-size courts and with full-size equipment, their kids should do the same. But Pat McEnroe, the USTA’s director of player development and a former top 30 player (and yes, the younger brother of John), believes otherwise. “Most of the best 8- to 11-year-olds I see have technical flaws in their games, and that’s due in large part because of the bounce of the ball. They’re not tall enough or strong enough to play with a regular ball on a full-size court yet,” he says. The new approach will help developing players acquire proper swing techniques and let them slowly advance to faster, higher-bouncing balls and bigger courts as they grow and improve. In the long run, he believes it will help produce more great U.S. players—a welcome possibility, given that America hasn’t produced a Grand Slam male champion in 9 years and that there are few top U.S. women players on the horizon once the great Serena Williams leaves the stage.

Chances are your priority is not to have your child wind up playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows one day. Rather, it’s that she has fun playing the game from the very first ball. These new developments should help make that possible. And if you’re looking for a great way to get her started, try this: USTA Free Tennis Play Days take place September 1 through October 6. It provides kids of all skill levels with the chance to experience tennis 101 in a social setting—and on a just-right court (the USTA has installed more than 3,000 youth-sized courts around the country). Visit youthtennis.com to find a participating tennis facility in your area. And bring your own (full-size) racquet: Adults are welcome to participate too.

Images via USTA

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New No Child Left Behind Rules

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

For years, the Obama Administration has tried to reform the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. The law holds schools directly accountable for student progress in reading and math and leads them to face sanctions, including potential closure, if they don’t meet set standards. NCLB’s criticisms have been manifold: that it forces schools to teach to the test and deemphasize (if not outright ignore) other subjects; that it is a negative, punitive approach; that it doesn’t truly reform the educational system; and that the standards are unrealistic (48 percent of the nation’s 100,000 public schools were labeled as failing under the law last year).

With no consensus in Congress on how to fix the problem, the President has taken matters into his own hands. In a press conference this afternoon, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that 10 states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—have agreed to work within the Administration’s reform guidelines and will thus receive a waiver from the potential sanctions slated to go into effect in 2014. These states will continue to set a higher bar for achievement—including college- and career-ready standards—but now have more freedom in how they implement it. More important, they can focus on tailoring solutions to the individual needs of poor-performing schools and students. They’ve also agreed to reward schools ranked at the top and that display clear gains (something NCLB didn’t do), and to implement meaningful teacher and principal evaluation systems.

This NCLB bypass effectively puts more control of education back in the hands of individual states. Assuming the states follow through as promised and look at long-term structural fixes, granting them waivers should be a good thing for public students in these states. But it is also a clear acknowledgment that that the United States is nowhere near to achieving the law’s goal of getting kids up to grade level in reading and math within the next two years. No wonder 28 other states have indicated that they, too, plan to seek waivers.

What do you think: Are the NCLB waivers a good thing or merely an admission that our system remains broken with few signs of improvement?

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That’s Cheesy!

Monday, March 15th, 2010

6a01053704bb64970c012877571569970c-250wiNew York chef Daniel Angerer has set off a wave of controversy by using his wife’s breast milk (they have a baby daughter) to make cheese for adult consumption. He hasn’t sold maple caramelized pumpkin encrusted cheese with textured concord grapes (pictured) at Klee, the Manhattan restaurant he owns and runs. But he has let friends sample it and has even posted recipes on his website. La Leche League, the lactation advocate group, has predictably scolded Angerer for the practice because breast milk is intended for a baby’s nourishment, not an adult’s whimsy. And they may have a point. However, Angerer defends his “Mommy’s Milk Cheese” because his baby has plenty of backup milk (in fact, they had run out of space in the freezer) and his wife was okay with it. And I gotta say, his creation does look good. Still, there’s an “Eww!” factor at play here. Personally I’d be more inclined to bite into the same gastronomic delicacy made with goat’s milk.

What do you think? Is it acceptable to use breast milk for adult consumption?

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School Read-a-Thon

Monday, February 15th, 2010

100sq_100458837If your child is in grade school, he probably reads every day, whether for homework or pleasure. And if she’s in preschool, you read together every night (right?). So why not help your school in the process? Encourage your kid’s teacher (or parent coordinator, principal, etc.) to enter our Raise a Reader School challenge. Parents will reward one $5,000 library grant to the school whose students log the most minutes per student. The free program includes a personalized school page where you can chart your school’s progress. Hurry—the deadline for entering is February 28th. Visit parents.com/reading/school for more information.

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The Doctor Won’t See You, Dad

Monday, February 8th, 2010

ibMy 5-year-old daughter came down with strep last week. It was pretty obvious what the problem was: She had a sore, red throat, a stomachache (which later turned into vomiting), and a fever in the 102-degree range, yet she wasn’t coughing and had no ear pain. My wife and I both diagnosed her without seeing a pediatrician, and we were right. Trouble is, since neither of us has a medical degree we weren’t able to write a prescription for amoxicillin (aka “the pink stuff,” as Isabella calls it). We had to get an appointment. And since all the evening slots were taken, that meant one of us had to leave work early. Guess which one of us went? Right, it wasn’t me. Now, I go to my share of wellness visits, and I’ve been known to accompany both of my kids solo to the doc, which in some circles makes me an anomaly, in some circles a hero, and in some circles (including around here) simply a parent doing his job. But the point here is that we’re both beyond busy at our jobs and we’re exactly the same distance from home. Yet my wife ended up escorting Isabella (I’ve included a happy picture of our princess, since she’s all better and even got to be “Star of the Week” at kindergarten) instead of me. Why? Maybe it’s because even though we (I) like to think of us as 50-50 parents, it’s probably more like 55-45. Or perhaps it’s because it’s still more acceptable for a mom to leave the office than a dad when a child gets sick. Whatever the case, I decided that if it’s at all possible I should be the one to dash from my cube next time—not that you need to get sick again anytime soon, honey!

Who handles the doctor visits for your kids in your household?

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