Tag Archives: education

Grandpa’s role in an engineering showpiece

Before my maternal grandfather was a traveling salesman for the Curtis Publishing Co., he was among thousands of men who worked on the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana.

When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Fort Peck Dam project through the Public Works Administration in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933, the prospect of paying work probably appealed to men from all over the region, including my grandfather who was just turning 20 at the time in western North Dakota.

Exactly how my grandfather got from North Dakota to Fort Peck is unclear, but my mother guesses he hopped a freight train. “He was a hobo,” she says. He read and understood hobo language which was graffiti designed back then by travelers who attempted to share warnings and tips with their fellow transients. Hobo signs were typically drawn onto utility poles, railroad trestle abutments, outcropping rocks, billboards or even on houses when referring to those who lived inside.

Mother doesn’t know what role her father filled on the dam project, but she guesses he was a construction worker of some sort. What I know of him, I would guess he might be excellent at leaning on a “slow” sign and telling stories to the workers around him. Of course, I got to know my grandfather when he was in his 60s, so I can’t imagine him as a 20-year-old with a spring in his step; mother guesses he might have pushed around wheelbarrows of cement.

A bulldozer is being lowered into the tunnel control shaft at the Fort Peck Dam construction site. In the background, dredges can be seen pumping material into the dam. (Ellis Photo May 30, 1935)

The dam was necessary to control flooding of the Missouri River. Thanks to a little noodling around on Google where I found an entry in Wikipedia and the Fort Peck Dam website, I learned a number of facts about this engineering masterpiece. At its peak, more than 10,000 workers — including my grandfather — were employed to build the dam, named for a 19th-century trading post. It was completed in 1940, began generating electricity in 1943 and today is one of six dams in the Pick-Sloan Plan.

Over 21,000 feet long and 250 feet high, Fort Peck Dam is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States and creates Fort Peck Lake, a mammoth man-made body of water with more shoreline than California’s coastline.

The dam represented a foundation for my grandfather. My grandparents agreed to marry when they could save up $100. My grandmother was earning $1 a day as a waitress in Stanley, N.D., and my grandfather was laboring for the PWA. They accomplished their goal and married on June 12, 1937.

My grandfather at 71 when he attended my high school graduation

Perhaps it is easy to point to such a monumental structure as a legacy of a man’s work. Fort Peck Dam stands today, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what’s it’s like there; check out the Fort Peck Dam Cam here. Yet, my grandfather’s legacy includes other, less tangible reminders of his presence on this earth. Though my grandfather made one of his marks with the result of back-breaking work, he held education in high regard. He had four children, one of whom served his country in the Vietnam War, and eight grandchildren. Seven of those grandchildren have earned bachelor’s degrees; four of them (so far) have earned master’s degrees (my grandfather’s youngest grandson, my cousin, is working diligently on becoming an attorney); and one of them is a pharmacist, which means technically she can be addressed as “Doctor” though she’s too down to earth to demand that.

Isn’t it interesting that a tramp became patriarch of such a well-educated tribe.


I hope the college admissions rep likes a good mystery

Boy, I’m glad I don’t work in a university admissions department.

Marketing anything to a 17-year-old boy is hard enough without having to market an institution of higher learning to a 17-year-old boy and his parents at the same time.

My Beloved and I visited one of those institutions of higher learning with my 17-year-old stepson today. He’s a junior in high school, and it’s time to get serious about what he wants to do when he grows up.

We extracted the bare minimum of information from him (long distance no less because, remember, he lives two states away with his mother) and determined a small, private university in a non-urban setting with degrees in business, environmental science or history might be appropriate.

Today’s campus visit included a tour, chapel service, lunch and a meeting with a financial aid representative.

At lunch, when Caswell went off to check out the offering of buffalo wings, I leaned over to my Beloved and said, “Well, do you think he likes it?”

He shrugged and looked exasperated. “I don’t know.”

Later, when we had Caswell trapped in the car, he said, “It was like the low leagues.”

Huh? Low leagues? “Do you mean minor leagues?”

“Yeah, minor leagues. And lunch tasted like crap.”

Hmm. Well, we can cross this option off the list and I’m not entirely sure why. But lunch didn’t impress him.

I’m a firm believer in gut feelings, so I support Caswell’s decision. But here’s the hard news for the admissions department: I watched him complete his  campus visit survey (a requirement in order to get a free T-shirt). Everything was rated as “good” or “excellent.”

Somebody in the admissions department doesn’t know enough to ask what prospective students think of lunch.

Parents: Is YOUR lesson plan ready?

School is back in session around Minnesota Transplant’s house, so kids must be soaking up lessons in the three Rs: Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

Oh, wait a minute. Scratch that. Not writing. Illinois schools are cutting back on writing tests and teaching cursive writing in elementary schools, according to today’s Daily Herald.

Apparently, the elimination of cursive writing lessons stirs controversy across the nation. National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm recently devoted a whole hour to the subject of “Handwriting in the Digital Age.”

I wrote an entire manuscript on computer, and honestly, I think better while typing than while writing. Proponents of cursive writing point out how signatures should be written in cursive. “How will you endorse a check?” they wail.

Huh? What’s a check? I use a debit card almost everywhere I go, and pretty soon, Americans will be using their cell phones to pay for all the junk they buy (just you wait — it’s coming).

Personally, I like cursive writing, but I don’t think it must be part of a third grade teacher’s lesson plan. Teachers can only squeeze so much into the school day, and parents are responsible for teaching what they think is important, including reading and ‘rithmetic. If you are one of those people who complains about high taxes and about what’s not being taught in today’s classrooms, you’re a big, fat hypocrite.

High on the list of subjects that ought to be taught at home are sex education, money management and religion, all matters that carry a moral component incumbent on the parents to impart. Lessons on these subjects should be woven into conversation and activities on a weekly, if not daily basis.

Depending on what’s important to them, parents might consider including other subjects into their home lesson plans:

  • Manners.
  • Nutrition and fitness.
  • Gardening.
  • Housecleaning, laundry and cooking.
  • Relationship issues (how to get along, how to share, how to disagree).
  • Politics.
  • Hunting and/or responsible fire arms handling.
  • Swimming.
  • Sewing.
  • Driving and car maintenance.

Kids might learn a little bit about some of these things in school, but they will live more fulfilling lives if they learn at least the basics about all of these things at home. If cursive handwriting is important to you, weave lessons about it into your daily interactions:

  • Encourage a child to add items to the running grocery list on the kitchen white board.
  • Have children write notes inside birthday cards to parents, siblings and grandparents.
  • When a child begs for something, tell him to make an argument for it in writing. Imagine how much less wheedling you’d have to listen to when you demand “Write down five reasons why you think you should have a sleep-over this weekend” or “Write down the top three reasons you should get your ears pierced.”
  • Hand-write the annual missive to Santa.
  • Give a lockable diary to your child (and respect the kid’s privacy). I kept a diary for five years from eighth grade to 12th grade, and I believe that regular writing is part of the reason I’m a writer now.
  • Teach kids to write thank-you notes. (At this point, I’d settle for thank-you text messages, but a written thank-you note is a thing of beauty.)
  • At a certain age, time outs can be spent writing, a la Bart Simpson. “I’m sorry I pinched my brother” written 10 times might get the point across.

A letter to the teachers union

Dear District 300 teachers union,

I appreciate the hard work you do. Educating our youth today is not an easy job, and it’s important. It’s important to the health of our families and to the economic health of our country. I appreciate the abuse you take on a daily basis just to teach a kid how to read, how to do algebra and how the North triumphed over the South in the Civil War.

I’m writing you today to implore you to step back a minute and look at your current squabbles with the  school board from my perspective. To be clear, you’re not locked in tough negotiations with the school board — you’re locked in tough negotiations with me — your average property taxpayer in the school district. The thousands of dollars I pay every year in property taxes are entrusted to the school board to spend judiciously, so when the board is demanding concessions from you, it’s because they have to answer to me.

People like me — your friends and neighbors in this community — have been victims of the American economy during the past three years. While the teachers in the teacher’s union were collecting 3% pay increases in 2008-2010, folks like us were taking pay cuts, losing our jobs and foreclosing our homes. The economy has sucked … the wind out of our sales and the value out of our homes.

Don’t get me wrong. Sure, I think you deserve to get a raise. But the fact is, so do I. And I haven’t gotten one in three years. And I’m now doing the work of three people. It’s how the world works right now in this economy.

As far as I know, the administration and the unions representing other staff members have already taken wage freezes or cuts, benefits reductions and other cuts. From what I read in the newspaper, the teachers union and the school board are $83,000 apart in concessions totalling $4 million. That $90,000 you want for teachers who haven’t received raises in the past year or two because of their position on the salary schedule is a petty point. They should be grateful they even have a job. I’m sorry they don’t get a raise again this year, but the money just isn’t there. You can’t get blood out of a turnip, and frankly, my house is a big, fat turnip right now with a whole bunch of worthless paper value.

So when you meet with the school board tomorrow for the 10th time since March, please think of me and be reasonable. It is certainly within your rights to hold things up until the 11th hour when your contract is up June 30, but honestly, I think you’re trifling and being short-sighted and frankly, kind of selfish. Make the concessions and then send out a press release on how you did it because you empathize with the rest of us. You’ll earn my respect for taking that stance instead of my resentment for thinking you should somehow be spared the repercussions of a bad economy. We’re in this together.

A District 300 tax payer

How much does your kid’s teacher get paid?

Some parents attend their kid’s football games.

Some parents read the school district’s annual report.

I am not attending Caswell’s football game an hour away from home tomorrow; Tyler’s on that. But I did review District 300’s annual report.

As I was reviewing the pretty-much glowing report, the staff profile page caught my eye. As a former reporter who sat through hours-long school board meetings long ago, I was familiar with such statistics. For instance:

  • District 300 (which has three high schools) employs 481 secondary teachers.
  • The majority of teachers have a master’s degree plus 30 credit hours (and, conveniently, tuition reimbursement is part of the fringe benefits).
  • Average years of teaching experience: 10.27.
  • More than 93% of teachers in the district are white, which is higher than the state average and much, much higher than the percentage of students in the district who are white (61.2%).
  • Student to teacher ratio at the secondary level: 21 students for every teacher.

Something was missing, however, to this reporter’s eye: Salaries. Small print said, “Staff Salaries and Benefits: To view the contracts for each of D300’s employee groups, click here. [This link was updated 6/25/13 with the most current contract; the numbers recorded in this blog were current in 2009].

OK. So I did.

I had to download an 8.52 MB document with 155 pages. I don’t suppose a lot of tax payers are going this far, but I’m willing to make sacrifices for my blog (in the name of public information). I know teachers and administrators really don’t like this at all — that their salaries are public information, but they are paid with public tax money. District 300 wasn’t making it easy to get.

The index sent me to the wrong page for salary schedules, and when I found the right page, it references an appendix. When I finally found the appendix, I learned a teacher with a master’s degree and 30 credit hours with 10 years experience is paid $58,446 (that’s the “gross amount of actual pay” not including retirement). That’s a 3% pay increase over last year. I’m not sure even teachers merit a pay raise in this economy — I took a 10% pay cut in the past year — but that’s the value of teacher unions, I guess.

By the way, I also learned an assistant football coach (from whom Caswell derives direct benefit) is paid $3,837 to $4,780 a year, depending on his experience.

So, I looked at my property tax statement to see how much of a teacher I paid for. I paid $4,231.28 in property taxes to District 300 in tax year 2008 (couldn’t find my 2009 bill). That’s 7.2% of one teacher. Of course, according to the student : teacher ratio, Caswell is getting only 4.7% of a teacher, so I’m not getting my money’s worth, but that’s the drawback of having a big house and a lot of District 300 overhead, I guess.

For the most part, I think public education is a good deal. Even when I didn’t have a child who was benefiting from public education, I knew schools were educating the next generation and keeping them busy (so they weren’t vandalizing my property and stealing from me). I would never, in a million years, be able to keep 21 kids interested in anything (except possibly sex education, but that class opens all sorts of other problems in discipline), so I’m grateful for teachers.

But I’m not sure they deserved a raise this year, when so many people lost jobs, took pay cuts and saw the value of their homes plummet. Just my two cents.

4.0 ain’t what it used to be

Can someone explain to this old-timer why schools nowadays don’t all use a 4.0 scale?

When I was in high school, an A equaled 4 points, a B 3 points, etc. If you got all A’s, you had a 4.0 grade point average.

Nowadays, if you take Honors classes, an A equals 6 points. Or if you take Advanced classes, an A equals 5 points.

So now Cas thinks he can get a C in his Honors class because it won’t hurt his 4.0 grade point average.

Hmm … it doesn’t quite work that way, Honey. Because there’s somebody in that Honors class who’s getting an A and is working on a 6.0 grade point average (well, la ti da!).

It prompted me to look up the requirements for Northwestern University, which has been mentioned as a university Cas might someday want to attend. Did you know 70% of applicants are rejected at Northwestern? Ouch. I wonder how many of them got C’s! In Honors classes or otherwise!

It was easy for me, back in the ’80s. I got all A’s. But I guess a 4.0 GPA doesn’t give you insight into all of the mysteries of the modern world.