About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson no Mayberry, R.F.D.


Opinions flew following last night’s grand jury report exonerating police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old who refused his order to stop walking down the middle of the street in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson told the jury the teen yelled at him, “What the (expletive) are you gonna do?” after which the officer was attacked as he struggled to get out of his police car. What happened next, leading to Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the street for four hours is being hotly debated, with opinions divided mostly by race and political persuasion.

Those who disagree with the grand jury’s decision tend to agree on what led up to the tragedy in Ferguson, a city of 21,000 with a nearly all-white police force “protecting and serving” its 68 percent African-American population. It makes you wonder about the altercation between a white symbol of authority and a young black man doing what many young men at that age do, resist authority. Most agree a more representative police force, with more training on how to defuse a volatile encounter without using lethal force, might have prevented the tragedy.

It called to mind the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, made famous by the Andy Griffith Show, a sitcom running from 1960 to 1968. I imagined Sheriff Andy Taylor confronting a boy walking in the middle of the street in Mayberry. I think it might have gone something like this:
Sheriff Taylor (gets out of his patrol car): “Howdy, son. Nice day for a walk, huh? Sure glad it stopped rainin’.”

Opie: “Yes, sir. I like to walk down the street on a sunny day.”
Sheriff Taylor: “Well, you see, a car could come down this street at any time. Wouldn’t want to see you run over. How ‘bout usin’ the sidewalk?”
Opie: “I’ll just jump out of the way, sir.”
Sheriff Taylor: “Can’t let you do that, Opie. Wouldn’t want to call Deputy Barney Fife to have you locked up now. Know what I mean? How ‘bout I give you a ride home in my patrol car?”
Opie: “Gee sir, that would be swell!” (gets in the car and rides off with the sheriff).

I know, I know, that’s just a dream of a place that never was. But I wonder if Officer Wilson had a little more of Sheriff Taylor and a little less of Deputy Barney Fife in him Michael Brown would be alive and Ferguson’s Seasons Greetings overhead sign would not be hanging above police cars aflame in the street last night.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rest In Peace Dialup Dad

I've just returned from my Dad's funeral. He turned 95 two weeks before and after celebrating with Mom their 73rd anniversary in August. The only serious illness he'd had in his life was the mild heart attack that hit him a month before he died. Four years ago I began saving Dad's emails, 323 of them in all. He didn't own a computer, relying on WebTV's glacially slow dialup connection to send and receive messages. That presented a never-ending string of technical challenges for him. His emails invariably began with "Howdie," and were mostly responses to my blogs and newspaper columns, which I called my daily rants, as well as updates on his favorite sports teams and reviews of the books he was reading. Mom's began with "Hi," and chronicled the happenings of the day.

May 15, 2010
From Mom
Hi: It's "Viking Fest in Poulsbo. We'll go for Breakfast tomorrow at the Armory, sponsored by the Lions club. It's fun to see all the OLD LIONS. Dad used to be one of them. In fact, one year he was KING LION.

May 17, 2010
Howdie: We wonder whether our machine is working because we haven't been getting any e-mail.  Please try us and see if it flies.

July 9, 2010
Howdie: Did you receive Mom's message about our dinner and waltz during the Lawrence Welk program? Her "Three little boys" were the only thing missing from our evening with Lawrence Welk!

Sep 13, 2010
Howdie: This has been an exciting weekend in Seattle. The Huskies beat Syracuse big time and the Seahawks thoroughly beat San Francisco. On Friday morning Mom had symptoms like a heart attack. They whisked her off to the hospital.

Oct 19, 2010
Howdie: Us "Ancients" from North Dakota are still low on the learning curve. You mention "Kindles." Explain, please! 

Oct 21, 2010
From Mom
Hi: In my last e-mail I wrote, "I best go see what Dad was doing under the Sink in the Kitchen." Well, the plumber arrived a couple hours later and put everything back in order.   

Feb 18, 2011
From Mom
Hi: The guy just left who had to come to fix our Toilet. Dad tried to fix it, but it wouldn't stop leaking because one of the parts (Dad put it there) was supposed to be outside the tank instead of inside the tank.

Feb 27, 2011
Howdie: You mentioned you had sent us a message. It did not reach us, so there must have been a "Glitch" somewhere.

May  27, 2011
Howdie: Did you receive Mom's letter on May 21st? We wondered because there have been problems with the mail not "Flying."

August 14, 2011
Howdie: The "Fatted calf" is awaiting the slaughter when you arrive!

August 26, 2011
We just received your message in address only----there must have been a glitch, gel (the German word for the Canadian expression, "Eh")?

September 10, 2011
I think the family philosophy had much to do with the two Doctorates and two Masters degrees among the seven of us. It was the philosophy of our parents regarding the importance of education and their insistence we must continue in school despite the financial  situation! 

Dec. 17, 2011: In response to a Christmas gift we sent to them, using the Amazon address to Dad.
I feel bad because it was addressed to me only. We both feel bad because it looks as tho it doesn't include the other person. We never do anything on our own unless the other person is included. Perhaps there was an error so please give us a report.

December 18, 2011
Thank you for  your prompt reply.  Our official address is:  Gene and Rose Riehl.  We are so happy that the matter is now settled.

Dec. 19, 2011
We are unable to bring up the Google that you mentioned. We may have to wait until Jim returns to see if we can reach Google.  We might have to see if he can reach it with his computer.

Nov. 15, 2012: In response to our concerns about his driving
Howdie: We now only drive to church and the grocery stores which is less than a mile away.  Mother is always in the car doing vigilant duties. In nice weather we walk to the church or don't go at all when the weather is bad. Thank you for your concern. We'll keep you informed if we have any problems.

July 15, 2013
Howdie: We finally were able to bring up your picture. Mom insisted it was a picture of me. It proves the truth of an old saying, "You can't tell the difference between an old stud and a young one."

Oct. 19, 2013
Will this fly?

Nov. 15, 2013, a year ago to the day of his funeral.
I now found  a way to roll the text up and down, so please send me a new copy of your rant!

Rest in peace, my Dialup Dad. May all your heavenly emails fly without a glitch, gel?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unarmed Heroes

Our son is currently an International Medical Corps aid worker, stationed in Lebanon. Maybe that’s why we were hit so hard by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s cavalier attitude about the treatment Kaci Hickox was subjected to upon her return after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. 

For nearly 20 years Dave has been engaged in humanitarian aid work, beginning with a two-year stint in Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps. He was working in Afghanistan the day the Twin Towers fell 13 years ago. From there he spent a year in Darfur, Sudan, providing primary health care, maternal and child health, water and sanitation to a village of 13,000 in an area ravaged by war. Other hotspots have been Niger, Nigeria, and Congo. 

We hold our breaths daily as we watch the news of hostage-taking and beheadings. He’ll return to his wife and our six-year-old granddaughter at his home in London next week after six weeks in Beirut, overseeing the nine mobile medical units and 45 health facilities serving more than 680,000 Syrian refugees with health awareness sessions. 

Our family has a history of holding its breath while loved ones were at risk overseas. During World War II my uncle Al went down with his ship shortly after Pearl Harbor, during the battle of the Java Sea. He was captured by the Japanese and held in a POW camp for the rest of the war. For three years my grandparents knew only that he was missing in action. My uncle Richard was captured by the Nazis in Belgium and held as a POW for a year. Both of them returned home, but Uncle Richard spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. 

During several of our son’s country assignments we could not communicate with him for weeks at a time. Fortunately, we have been able to stay in touch through Skype during his Lebanon assignment. 

Which all brings me back to Gov. Christie’s take on the way Hickox was treated upon returning home after her heroism in West Africa, passing it off with, “There’s been all kinds of malarkey about this. She was inside the hospital in a climate-controlled area with access to her cell phone, access to the internet, and takeout food from the best restaurants in Newark. She was doing just fine.” 

Doctors agree that Hickox has been symptom-free and incapable of passing along the Ebola virus since her return to this country. But even if she had been infectious, treating her like a pariah and not the humanitarian hero she is only shows how driven Christie is by political opportunism than responsible leadership. 

At a public event every time a speaker invites members of the military to stand and be recognized for their service I applaud loudly together with everyone else. But I also wonder if there ever will come a day when others who served this country heroically, but without bearing arms, will get equal recognition.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Class Sizes in Carlsbad Schools: Fact or Fiction?

Much has been said about class size in Carlsbad schools by candidates running for the school board. All agree they’re too large, some citing reports of classrooms filled with more than 40 students. One candidate, claiming the average class size stood at nearly 30 students compared with under 23 in all of San Diego County, cited a three-year-old report issued during the recession, before Prop 30 brought more school funding and after a -6.4 percent drop in per pupil spending over the previous 4 years (Legislative Analyst’s Office Report, February 7, 2011).

I asked Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Rick Grove for this year’s actual numbers. He reminded me of the district’s funding plan to reduce class sizes this year and next, pointing to the 23 new teachers who’ve been added since last year’s school year began. The district’s average class size alone can be misleading, he told me, because of the differences in school populations and the requirements for smaller classes to accommodate science labs and special needs students. So district-wide grade level averages provide a more meaningful picture of what students and teachers are experiencing. Here are this year’s numbers:

K-3 -- 27 (State law requires a reduction to no larger than 24.1)
4-5 -- 32
6-8 -- 34
HS --- 37

As a high school teacher many years ago I remember well the challenges of teaching English to a classroom filled with 37 hormone-happy sophomores. Yes, CUSD classes are too large. The board and administration show they are working on that. When voters go to the polls in two weeks they may want to consider which candidates are most likely to collaborate, rather than grandstand to solve the problem.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Picks for Carlsbad School Board: Partnership Over Partisanship

I haven’t met any of the eight candidates vying for the Carlsbad school board’s four open seats. Nor have I attended their public forums. My choices are based on their campaign websites, the voter’s pamphlet, and fact-checking.

I’m voting for incumbents Veronica Williams and Claudine Jones to fill two of the three 4-year positions.

Williams, a technology professional for 20 years, owns a small consulting business. She holds a degree in mathematics, the California School Board Association’s Masters in Governance, and speaks Spanish. She worked with fellow board members to open Sage Creek High on time and under budget, save more than $1 million by refinancing Prop P bonds, reduce class sizes, and avoid deficit spending in 2012-13 and 2013-14. She promises to base investments on classroom impact, eliminate spending unrelated to student achievement, and seek resources beyond the district.

Jones was appointed to the board last year to fill a position vacated by Kelli Moors. In addition to her 20 years of financial management experience for Fortune 500 companies, she’s been a leader in PTAs, school site councils, the technology advisory committee, the Carlsbad educational foundation, grant writing, and co-founding the parent budget task force.

Maria Rosino-Miracco is my choice for the third position. Facing financial constraints, the board could use an attorney with executive experience managing multimillion dollar budgets. She supports a balanced curriculum of college/career readiness, while keeping the arts and sports alive, spending conservatively, involving parents, and supportive technology for safe/effective schools.

Realtor/Businessman Gil Soto has been an active volunteer in the district but the depth of his experience doesn’t match the three above.

Kathy Rallings’ financial disclosure statement was a deal breaker for me. Of her $12,300 in campaign contributions, $10,000 comes from the Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association. I’m a supporter of organized labor, but that much financial backing from a special interest group makes her an easy target for critics.

Nineteen-year-old Sage Naumann chose to launch a political campaign, rather than continue his education over the last two years. He’s courted Republican and Tea Party leaders throughout the county in this non-partisan election. His strategy is clear. Forty percent of Carlsbad registered voters are Republicans, 28% Democrats, and 25% decline to state. It makes you wonder why Carlsbad city leaders, elected officials, and educators can’t be found among his long list of Republican Party endorsers.

But what troubles me more than Naumann’s lack of education and inexperience is his fact-free, negative campaign. The latest example is posted on his Facebook campaign website, claiming next year’s school district budget will require $5 million in deficit spending he promises to stop. Had he done his homework he would have discovered next year’s budget will not be up for approval until June. The deficit in this year’s budget has been covered with reserve funds.

Naumann does not bother to cite sources for several other claims, including his comparison of class sizes in the Carlsbad school district with those in San Diego County. I couldn’t find that information in a careful search of both the district’s and the California Department of Education’s websites. He didn’t respond to my two requests for a source. In making the case for no new taxes,

Naumann claims, “California has thrown more money at their schools than most other states.” But according to a 2012 US Census Bureau report, California is 36th in the nation in per pupil spending, ranking just below Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas.
While the young candidate’s political savvy is impressive, the issues facing the board require experienced partnership over youthful partisanship.

Jenae Torgerson gets my vote for the 2-year seat. Ray Pearson has a longer resume, but includes his opposition to opening Sage Creek last year, despite 70 percent voter approval of Prop P. His campaign seems to be more about saving money than serving students. Torgerson may lack experience, but a new face with no political agenda, open to learning, will be a good addition amid the seasoned veterans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

It's Not Too Late To Learn

Eight months ago, shortly after my 70th birthday, I began my quest to conquer calculus. I justified my interest in higher-level math by recalling what I missed in skipping fifth grade. I was able to keep up in all other subjects, but I never made the transition from whole numbers to fractions. Throughout the remainder of my schooling, I decided I was just not good in math, crossing off all careers that required training in it.

I became, instead, a teacher of high school English. After five years of that, having no interest in school administration or counseling, I accepted a position as an admissions officer at a local university. Thirty years later I retired, still lacking fifth grade arithmetic skills.

Unwilling to return to the classroom, I enrolled in the online Khan Academy, which enrolls about 10 million students worldwide, most of whom are decades younger than I. Currently, I’m struggling to graph quadratic equations, enjoying the freedom to learn at my own pace, without a teacher prodding me along. I also like Khan’s requirement for mastery of a concept before being permitted to move on to the next. That’s a far cry from the days I earned a grade of “C” in Algebra I and be happily passed on to earn another “C” in Algebra II, without mastering either level.

A few months after I began my math quest, my wife and I signed up for our first adult education class through California State University San Marcos. It was titled Unbridled Obsessions: The Uncommon Interests and Bizarre Tastes of the Victorian Age, a fascinating class conducted by a fascinating lecturer. It was offered by the University’s Osher Institute, a program designed for students 50 years of age or older. The 30 of us attentive senior students were enraptured by Dr. Jack Williams’ rendition of a quirky time in history with remarkable connections to our own.

We liked the class so much we enrolled in another Osher class last month, titled, Oil, Politics, and the Mideast, taught by an Iraqi-born American, Farouk Al-Nasser, formerly the Executive Director of Iraqi Operations for a San Diego Fortune 500 company. The title caught our interest, not only because of the current world turmoil, but because our son is currently an aid worker stationed in Beirut. Dr. Al Nasser’s presentation has been far more insightful than anything we’ve seen on TV.

Cal State San Marcos is one of 122 colleges and universities from Maine to Hawaii offering Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes designed for students age 50 and older. The founder, Bernard Osher, well known as “the quiet philanthropist,” created the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977, seeking to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. In 2008 the Foundation provided CSUSM with a $1 million endowment for its program, which now enrolls more than 500 students each year in 13 locations throughout North County.

I’m not sure why going back to school has become so important to me. Maybe it has something to do with my 93-year-old mother, who had to quit high school to help out on the family farm and is struggling today with dementia. It might also be the absence of assignments and grades. This time I go to class only to learn, not to be judged.