Greater Greater Education

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is the editor of Greater Greater Education and a member of the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution, an organization that promotes the teaching of analytical writing. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

DCPS and its teachers' union are at an impasse over extending the school day. Could this be a way out?

After experimenting with an extended day for students, one New Haven school realized it made more sense to extend the day for teachers, so they would have time to collaborate. Could that work in DC?


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Citing gains in test scores at charter schools and a few DCPS schools that have tried adding more hours to the school day, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced her intention to extend hours at dozens more schools. But the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) has blocked those plans, saying the school day should be made better before it's made longer.

The experience of one school in New Haven seems to bolster the WTU's positionup to a point. Brennan-Rogers, a pre-K-through-8th-grade school that was one of the city's lowest-performing, extended its students' day by an hour and 25 minutes during the 2010-11 school year. The idea was to close the achievement gap between the school's mostly minority and low-income students and their wealthier peers.

The results: kids felt like they'd been punished, teachers were exhausted, and test scores actually dropped. After one year, the students returned to their traditional 6-and-a-half-hour day.

But the principal felt that the most promising part of the experimentadditional time for teachers to collaboratewas worth keeping. She proposed that teachers show up an hour early every day, and the teachers agreed to try it. They've been doing it for the past 3 years.

Even though the school day is shorter than it used to be, kids seem to be learning more. For the past two years, Brennan-Rogers has posted the largest gains in the New Haven district on state standardized tests. The atmosphere is calm and orderly, and teachers are happy with the arrangement. And the district as a whole has shifted its focus to adding time for teachers rather than kids, starting with 15 minutes a day under the latest union contract.

The power of collaboration

Lately, there's been a good deal of attention focused on the importance of teacher collaboration. A report on ways to increase teacher retention has recommended more time for collaboration, as has a DCPS teacher who recently lunched with President Obama. And a writing program being piloted in DCPS, which is having dramatic results, depends largely on teachers having time to work together on planning.

New teachers obviously benefit from being able to talk with and learn from their more experienced peers. But even veteran teachers value the opportunity to compare data about students, coordinate teaching and behavioral strategies, and discuss the merits of different approaches. That's true both within schools and between schoolsincluding between charter and traditional public schools.

Right now many schools in DC don't allow teachers time for these opportunities, possibly undermining efforts to improve student achievement. Ideally, both students and teachers would get more well-planned time in their day at under-performing schools. But if that's not possible, why not try giving it to the teachers? Many of them might actually jump at the chance.

Morning bell: Answers and questions about DC's schools


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Not taking no for an answer: The plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging school closures say they'll appeal a ruling that DCPS closed the schools for reasons having nothing to do with discrimination. (Post)

What if?: A DCPS teacher reflects on his lunch with President Obama and imagines a world where low-income kids learn to write they way they'll be expected to in college, and teachers get time to collaborate. (Hechinger Report)

Using the summer to catch up: Prince George's County is providing a free 6-week program to 500 rising second-graders who are below grade level in reading and math. (Post)

Rocketship slows trajectory: The California-based Rocketship charter network, which will open a school in DC next year and could ultimately serve over 5,000 students here, has recently suffered a slip in test scores and scaled back expansion plans. Its critics are celebrating, but some say the network is still doing far better than its competitors in the traditional public school sector. (Hechinger Report)

And : American kids are getting healthier and better educated, but progress has been glacial. (Ed Week) A Slate article blaming private schools for Sweden's drop in test scores was full of mistakes. (Education Next) Answers on standardized tests are based on specific textbooks, and many low-income students lack access to them. (The Atlantic) ... What good are "college-and-career-ready" K-12 standards if colleges don't buy into them? (New America Foundation)

Tensions over DCPS-charter planning reflect different perspectives

Recent calls for coordinated planning between the DCPS and charter sectors have led to the fraying of a once-cordial relationship between the two. But the underlying tensions aren't new.


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Recently, the DCPS Chancellor and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) have called for "joint planning" between the traditional public school and charter sectors that would place limits on the growth and location of new charters. The charter sector has adamantly resisted that suggestion.

To Chancellor Kaya Henderson and DME Abigail Smith, along with some DCPS parents, joint planning signifies rationality and an end to a wasteful duplication of resources. To many in the charter sector, the phrase smacks of bureaucracy, centralization, and dangerous inroads on the autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

As someone with a foot in each education sector, I can understand and sympathize with both points of view. I'm a member of the board of a DC charter, and I've tutored in two DCPS high-poverty schools. I've contributed financially to both DCPS and charters. And I've had both formal and informal conversations with educators and officials in both sectors, from classroom teachers to top administrators.

DCPS's perspective

DCPS wants to ensure that the plans it's making aren't undermined by charter competition. Henderson would like to avoid situations where charter schools locate close to DCPS schools that have a similar focus, as will happen in one DC neighborhood this fall, and lure away students the system expects to serve.

Henderson has said that she would like to see a process that allowed officials of DC's Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to join with other DC policy-makers in identifying which neighborhoods most need new schools or specialized programs. The PCSB, which is the District's charter authorizer, would then use those priorities when it considers new charter applications.

The DME's recent proposal to redraw DCPS boundaries and feeder patterns has put a spotlight on the difficulty of making plans for DCPS without knowing how many more charters will spring up and where they will locate. The proposal, for example, calls for DCPS to open several new middle schools. But what if, after DCPS spends millions of dollars renovating or constructing these schools, new charter middle schools locate nearby?

As the charter sector has grown rapidly, DCPS has faced significant challenges. The District now has the third-largest charter sector in the nation, enrolling 44% of the students here, and it's poised to grow larger.

When students leave DCPS for charters, they take money with themaround $10,000 per student, per year. You might think that DCPS's costs would go down commensurately. But there are fixed costs associated with maintaining under-enrolled school buildings. And it's hard to provide a full range of programs at schools with few students. Those are the reasons that prompted Henderson's decision last year to close 15 DCPS schools, in addition to the 23 closed by her predecessor.

As Henderson tries to plan to serve students in the future, not knowing where or when competing charters will pop up, she may feel like a bride reciting her wedding vows while the groom eyes the attractive bridesmaids standing nearby.

The charter sector's point of view

The charter sector, for its part, wants as few restrictions placed on it as possible. Leaders of high-performing charters in DC feel, justifiably, that their relative nimbleness and freedom to experiment has enabled them to devise ways of educating kids more successfully than DCPS. And they want to expand, rapidly, in order to bring the benefits of their innovations to more students.

They also argue that DCPS enjoys advantages that charters don't, particularly when it comes to buildings. DCPS is able to draw on hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds for renovated or new buildings, many of which are dazzlingand, in some cases, half empty. Charters receive far less to fix up, rent, and maintain their facilities and often have to draw on private contributions to do so.

More fundamentally, it's notoriously difficult for charters to find suitable space at all in DC, and charter leaders complain that DCPS has been slow to release its vacant school buildings for their use. While some have been leased to charters in recent years, securing one is a lengthy, uncertain, and time-consuming process. And there are still around 20 buildings DCPS is sitting on, hoping to use them again someday.

In fact, the charters point to the lack of available space as one reason that joint planning between the sectors wouldn't work. At the time they apply for authorization, prospective charter operators never know exactly where they'll be able to find a place to locate.

Charters are proud that, despite these obstacles, they've been able to compete and generally outperform DCPS, especially in raising the achievement of low-income students. Competition, they say, has improved the quality of education for allincluding, to some extent, those remaining in DCPS.

And, unlike DCPS, charter advocates see no reason to limit that competition. If DCPS students leave for the charter across the street, so be it. Why, they ask, doesn't DCPS just make its schools better? Privately, they may attribute DCPS's lagging performance to incompetence and overspending on a bloated bureaucracy.

I can see legitimate points in both the charter and DCPS perspectives. But I also see what appear to me to be some blind spots as well. In a future post I'll elaborate on those and discuss how the two sectors may yet be able to work together towards their common goal of raising the quality of education for DC's students as quickly as possible.

Morning bell: Transparency, ethics, and a space crunch in the charter sector

Charter management scrutiny: Some charters have contracts with outside management companies that aren't transparent enough to ensure the schools are operating appropriately, according to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB). (Post)

Ethics question: The PCSB has asked for an opinion on whether it's okay for one of its members to work as a consultant for one of the charters the board oversees. (Post)

Charter space race: Shining Stars Montessori suddenly found itself without a home after a landlord signed a more lucrative lease with another charter school for a Petworth location. (Post)

School closure lawsuit: A federal judge has definitively rejected a lawsuit alleging that DCPS had discriminatory reasons for closing 15 schools. (WUSA)

Tests that boost learning: Unlike the once-a-year standardized tests that are accorded so much importance, frequent low-stakes testing actually helps students retain information. (NYT)

Choice leads to sorting: In Chicago, a choice system for high school has led to high-achieving students going to one set of schools and low-achieving students going to another. (WBEZ)

Increasing brainpower: A program that tells kids their intelligence isn't fixed can lead to higher GPAs for struggling students. (KQED)

More like Finland?: More states are raising barriers to entering the teaching profession, a trend that will result in a better educational system and more respect for teachers. (Slate)

One charter pleads for the right to give neighborhood kids a preference in admissions, with Henderson's apparent support

Should some charter schools be able to decide for themselves whether to give a preference to applicants who live in their neighborhood? The leaders of at least one DC charter think so, and the DCPS Chancellor seems to agree.


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At a DC Council hearing last month on proposed new boundaries and feeder patterns, two top officials at a highly ranked charter school in Ward 8 pleaded for a change in the law that would allow them to give an admissions preference to families who live nearby.

Later at the same hearing, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expressed surprise at the charter school's stance, given the general lack of enthusiasm for such a change in the charter sector, and seemed supportive of its plea. She also connected the issue to the charter community's recent opposition to joint DCPS-charter planning. Charters have said such planning would infringe on their autonomy.

"If that's not autonomya school saying I would like to be able to serve neighborhood kids," Henderson said in exasperation, "then what is autonomy?"

Under current law, charter schools must admit any child who applies and must hold a lottery if there are more applicants than seats. A task force that considered the neighborhood preference issue two years ago recommended against it, saying it might exclude low-income children in Wards 7 and 8 from high-performing charters elsewhere in the District.

For example, if highly sought-after charter schools in gentrifying areas, such as the vastly oversubscribed Two Rivers, exercised a neighborhood preference, low-income applicants from other areas would be shut out.

The task force did consider allowing individual charters the option of adopting a neighborhood preference, as Eagle Academy wants to do, provided that it would be "educationally advantageous to the city as a whole" and would not harm "disadvantaged populations." But no charter leaders indicated strong support for that idea, and the task force didn't recommend it.

In fact, Eagle Academy's founder, Cassandra Pinkney, was one of two charter leaders who spoke against neighborhood preference when the task force held a public hearing. But she says her understanding was that the task force was only considering a mandatory neighborhood preference rather than an optional one.

"You cannot require charters to be neighborhood schools, because some are specialized," said Joe Smith, Eagle Academy's chief operating and chief financial officer, in an interview. "We are a community school, so for our own school it would be very important to set aside a number of seats for kids in the neighborhood."

But it's not clear how many other charters feel the same way. When Smith testified at the DC Council hearing, he acknowledged that the school's position was "a little heretical."

Eagle Academy isn't typical

Eagle Academy, which serves 3-year-olds through 3rd-graders, is in an anomalous position. Most charters in low-income locations already draw largely from their neighborhoods, so a neighborhood preference might not make much difference. In 2012, the neighborhood preference task force found that over half the charter students attending schools in Wards 7 and 8 go to schools within their own wards.

But recently, according to Smith, some parents from affluent Ward 3 have begun enrolling their children at Eagle Academy's Ward 8 campus, drawn by its innovative technology program and award-winning new building. Meanwhile, the school has to turn many neighborhood applicants away.

While the number from Ward 3 is smallfewer than 20 children out of over 700 enrolledthe school wants to ensure that it primarily serves students from the surrounding low-income community.

Still, some charters in predominantly low-income neighborhoods oppose the idea of allowing charters a neighborhood preference option. That's the view of Diane Cottman, executive director of Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), a school near Military Road and 13th Streets NW that is popular with middle-class parents from around the District.

She acknowledged that LAMB staff members find it difficult to turn away parents from the neighborhood who come in hoping to enroll their children, not realizing there were application deadlines and a lottery that they missed.

"In my heart of hearts," Cottman said, "I'd say yes, we might want to reserve 10 or 15% of our slots" for neighborhood kids.

But, she continued, "the devil is in the details." She questioned how a neighborhood would be defined, and what would happen with a "hardship case" a block outside the boundary. She also said that some bilingual schools, like hers, might prefer the option of a preference for children who speak languages other than English, and that other charters might lobby for other kinds of preferences.

"Once you inject preference," she said, "it opens a wide array of what people would like to include."

Those kinds of questions appear to have kept change at bay. Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill last year that would have allowed new charters to give a preference to neighborhood children, but it hasn't gone anywhere.

And a spokesman for Councilmember David Catania, chair of the education committee, echoed Cottman's concern that the neighborhood preference issue was complex.

"We would need just as thorough an analysis of it as any other issue, like boundaries and feeder patterns," said Brendan Williams-Kief, adding that Catania has been talking to "lots of different folks" about the idea and is "willing to have conversations about it."

DCPS's position

You might expect DCPS to oppose allowing a neighborhood preference for charters. After all, a charter that draws primarily from its neighborhood could lure away students from a DCPS school in the same area, leaving the DCPS school underenrolled.

But Henderson's impassioned statement at last month's Council hearing indicated that she supports the idea, at least in some cases. (To watch that part of her testimony, click here. It appears about 5 hours and 35 minutes into the hearing.)

A DCPS spokesperson said that a neighborhood preference for charters would "require lots of planning and lots of conversation." But Henderson is particularly interested in a certain kind of preference: she wants a charter that takes over a building vacated by a closed DCPS school to be able to guarantee admission to the DCPS school's former students.

That's not allowed under current law, a problem that has derailed Henderson's plan to have a high-performing charter in Ward 8 take over a struggling DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X. Still, that proposal appears to have a better chance of becoming a reality than the kind of preference Eagle Academy would like to exercise.

True, guaranteeing slots for students from a closed DCPS school is a more pressing need than a general neighborhood preference. And it would encourage the kind of DCPS-charter collaboration that could lead to better outcomes for many students.

But, as Henderson said in her DC Council testimony, it's hard to see why Eagle Academy shouldn't be allowed to give priority to low-income kids in its neighborhood, even ifor perhaps especially ifit's the only charter that wants to do so.

Morning bell: Summertime brings sleepy elections and losses in learning


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A new face on the DC State Board of Education: Only 3% of eligible voters turned out for Tuesday's special election for the vacant Ward 8 seat. But that was enough for Tierra Jolly, who won with 704 votes. (Post)

Time to do away with summer vacation?: Low-income kids fall farther behind their wealthier peers every summer. Now that schools have air conditioning, can we justify closing them? (Politico)

School choice in Sweden: A voucher program seems to have led to grade inflation and a decline in student achievement. (Slate)

Beefing up preschool: One year of pre-K isn't enough for at-risk kids, according to a report. And preschools should have well trained teachers, along with funding and hours comparable to elementary school. (Post)

Repeating 3rd grade: Under policies in place in Florida and other states, 3rd graders who flunk reading tests are held back. But it's not clear they're learning to read, and some have been in 3rd grade for as many as 3 years. (Politico)

Philanthropists take note: Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million didn't end up helping Newark schools, and other funders should ensure their contributions go to changing a system's educational trajectory rather than sustaining administrative bloat. (Ed Week)

The DCPS-charter relationship is getting heated in this education "hot spot"

An op ed in the Washington Post on Sunday said the balance between the DCPS and charter sectors resembles a "thoughtful weave of charters and traditional schools." It's not clear many others would agree.


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Richard Whitmire, the author of a biography of former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and a recent book on the Rocketship network of charter schools, dubbed DC an "education hot spot" in his Post opinion piece. He noted the high proportion of top-ranked charter schools in the District and praised both Rhee and current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson for making DCPS "the fastest-improving urban district" in the nation.

No doubt there are those who would quibble with some of these statements, but at least they're based in fact. Where Whitmire really goes off the mark is in characterizing the current relationship between DCPS and the charter sector as harmonious, and the pattern of DCPS and charter schools as "thoughtful."

Whitmire seems to have somehow overlooked the recent flap about joint planning, which has brought to light tensions that have been lurking under the surface of the generally cordial relationship between the two sectors in recent years.

DCPS and the Deputy Mayor for Education want limits placed on where charters locate and on the number of charters that can be approved. The charter sector is adamantly opposed to that idea, saying it would threaten the very autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

Recently, irked by the announcement that a new charter will open across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus and serving the same age group, Henderson compared the situation to "cannibalism." The charter sector's response, although phrased slightly more diplomatically, is that DCPS simply can't compete. Harmony? Hardly.

One thing both sectors would probably agree on is that Whitmire's characterization of the district-charter landscape here as a "thoughtful weave" is way off base. Both sides see waste and duplication. Some DCPS schools, even some that were recently built or renovated at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, stand half-empty.

Meanwhile, charters scramble for space, often spending millions to retrofit buildings that were not designed for school use, while DCPS hoards its mothballed vacant buildings in hopes it will be able to use them again.

Thoughtfulness implies planning, and that's one thing we don't have. At least, not in any truly thoughtful sense. That is, plans can be made for DCPS, as in the recent proposals for new boundaries and feeder patterns. But charter schools can then completely upend them.

Even one member of the PCSB had to take issue with what she called Whitmire's "overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration."

DC isn't different

One of the most puzzling things Whitmire says is that the "DC model is different" from that in other cities, where "it's a matter of market share," and the traditional public schools "view every child in a charter as a revenue loss." He follows that by explaining that DC has had a "liberal charter school law and generous per-student payments that allowed for quick growth."

But DC isn't different from those other cities. When a child leaves DCPS for a charter, she takes that generous per-student payment with her, making it more difficult for DCPS to sustain programming for those who are left. And the charter sector's "quick growth" has only made the problem worse, from DCPS's point of view.

DC charters now serve 44% of the "market," if that's how you want to characterize the student population. And that has led DCPS to close almost 40 schools over the past 6 years.

What's remarkable is that, despite this competition, DCPS and the charter sector have managed to work as cooperatively as they have. This year the common school lottery was a huge step towards rationality in school admissions, even though some charters chose not to participate. And Henderson has shown her willingness to enter into partnerships with charter organizations that want to collaborate with DCPS to improve outcomes for DC's most disadvantaged kids.

But given the recent heated rhetoric, it's not clear how long that kind of cooperation will continue. I certainly hope that both sides find a way to resolve their differences. But ignoring their existence, as Whitmire does, won't make them disappear.

Morning bell: Report on school discipline prompts legislation and yields some surprises


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Ease up on preschoolers: Reacting to a recent report on school discipline from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, DC Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill that would prohibit DCPS and charter schools from expelling or suspending pre-kindergarteners. (Post)

Which sector is more likely to suspend students?: DCPS students get suspended more than charter students, according to the OSSE report. Perhaps less surprising, poor, minority, and learning-disabled students are far more likely to be suspended than others. (Post)

Charter competition an opportunity?: Former DC Councilmember Kevin Chavous argues that the opening of a charter school across the street from a DCPS school is an opportunity rather than a threat. Another charter advocate agrees. (Post, Examiner)

Too rosy a picture?: One member of the Public Charter School Board says Richard Whitmire was a little optimistic in his depiction of the potential for DCPS-charter collaboration in Sunday's Washington Post. (Eduwonk)

Boundary overhaul for Montgomery?: The county council urged school officials to consider redrawing school boundaries to try to address the gap in achievement between the poorer eastern part of the county and the more affluent west. (Post)

The perils of high-stakes testing: A portrait of one school's involvement in the Atlanta test-cheating scandal shows the effect an unrealistic system can have on well-intentioned educators. (New Yorker)

Another teachers' union wants Duncan out: Echoing the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution calling for the Education Secretary's resignation if he doesn't adhere to an "improvement plan." (Politico)

Education elsewhere: Massachusetts exceeds the state average on most education measures, though not on closing the achievement gap (Post) The state is also in the middle of a polarized debate over charter expansion (Boston Globe) California focuses on giving schools funds to meet the needs of foster kids (Huffington Post) And one New Orleans charter school has a special program for kids with mental health needs. (Hechinger Report).

Morning bell: Progress and delay on the special education front

Special ed legislation advances: The DC Council's Education Committee unanimously approved legislation that would speed the delivery of services to children with disabilities. The full council will vote on it in the fall. (Post)

But lawsuit against special ed charter is delayed: A DC Superior Court judge ordered the parties in the civil lawsuit against Options Public Charter School to hold off on exchanging documents for 90 days, to allow time for a parallel criminal investigation to develop. (Post)

Did you know there's an election tomorrow?: Candidates for the open Ward 8 seat on the State Board of Education are having a hard time drumming up interest in the special election, especially because the board's role isn't entirely clear. Nevertheless, one of the candidates has attracted enough attention to get contributions from donors outside DC. (Post)

DC as an education hot spot: Richard Whitmire praises both DC's traditional public and charter school sectors and says the relationship between the two should continue to evolve in the direction of cooperation. (Post)

Test score drop not a surprise: Scores on Maryland's state tests decreased significantly because of a mismatch between what is being taught and what is being tested. Teachers have switched to a Common Core-aligned curriculum, but the Common Core-aligned test won't be given until next year. (Post)

But summer school is, for some: Many Montgomery County students had to change their plans after a high failure rate on final math exams triggered summer school requirements. (Post)

Can new building save struggling school? Jefferson-Houston, a K-8th grade school in Alexandria, was almost taken over by the state, and it's not clear that a new $45 million facility will turn it around. (WAMU)

Texting parents to boost kids' literacy: Parent University uses text messages to prompt low-income parents to engage in literacy-related activities with their babies and toddlers. The parents not only engage in the activities but they like doing them. (New America Ed Central)

And...: The AFT will give teachers grants to come up with Common Core reforms (Post) ... A new model for school health emphasizes collaboration between schools and communities (Ed Week) ... The FCC will spend $2 billion on WiFi for school and libraries. (Post)

Morning bell: Do DC's test results paint too rosy a picture?

No real progress?: Critics charge that the apparent rise in DC's standardized test scores is the result of manipulation of the data, and that the improvement reflects an influx of wealthier students. DC officials disagree. (Post)

Does it matter if they keep the Chancellor?: It's more important that the 3 mayoral candidates articulate a clear and coherent vision for education, including whether they support a moratorium on new charters. (Jonetta Rose Baras, Post)

Laptops for Montgomery students: Starting in August, the County plans to provide 40,000 tablets and laptops to students in some grades as part of an initiative that will expand in future years. (Post)

Is it worth it? Why spend $300,000 on an under-the-radar special election for the open Ward 8 seat on the State Board of Education, a body that has little power? (City Paper)

Resistance to boundary plan continues: A DC Council hearing last month was dominated by Northwest DC residents who voiced their opposition to the proposed new boundaries and feeder patterns. (Current)

POTUS lunches with teachers: The President asked questions of 4 teachers at high-need schools, including one from DC, and listened to what they said about the need for teacher collaboration, whether there's too much testing, and other issues. (Politics K-12/Ed Week)

No wonder they can't sit still in class: Kids aren't getting enough physical activity in school, which leads not only to fidgeting but also to problems with balance and core strength. And kids just aren't as fit as they used to be. (Post, NYT)

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