Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Papers, Presentations and Projects, Oh My! Tips to Survive the End of the Fall Semester

Papers, Presentations and Projects, Oh My!
Tips to Survive the End of the Fall Semester

by Mikey Smith, M.Ed

It is a ritual as old as the education system itself. The dreaded end-of-semester term paper (or book report, or research paper, or science project). Every year it goes just about the same way: the teacher assigns the paper or project and hands out a rubric or set of guidelines that probably seems simple to her, but seem like instructions for launching the space shuttle to you. There are notecards to be organized, books to be read, dioramas to be built, and sources to be cited. Everyone's life begins to revolve around this paper or project. Finally, as the deadline draws dangerously near, the unthinkable happens.

Unfortunately, the unthinkable can change from year to year, child to child, and assignment to assignment. One time, you might find yourself out of ink, paper, or Internet access altogether. Another time you might discover, while reading your student's paper at the last minute, that he or she has taken some liberties with sources cited (or not cited). Still worse, a family emergency might occur which requires you to be away from home so that your student is not able to finish a big assignment at all. Don't let this be your household this year. With the end of the first semester approaching, take some time to read these suggestions for success from veteran teachers.

Problem #1: Waiting Until the Last Minute
Hands down, teachers will tell you that this single factor is the root cause of most deadline disasters.

Don't let a far-off deadline assigned at the start of the school year lull you into believing that you have tons of time. In August and early September, most students (and their parents) are refreshed and revitalized, and feel like they can tackle the world. After the school year gets going, however, that energy starts to fade and most students, parents, and teachers are counting the MINUTES to the holiday break. What can you do?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Meet the ISEE & HSPT: Private School Placement Tests

Meet the ISEE and HSPT:
Private School Placement Tests

by Mikey Smith, M.Ed

Ninth grader Ann Bennett (not her real name) was terrified. The cause of her fear?  The ISEE, or Independent School Entrance Exam. Even though she had taken some practice tests, Ann still did not feel a sense of confidence when taking the actual exam, which she knew would play an important role in the admissions process at the high school she wanted to attend. "Whenever I took the test I was very scared," she recalls. "The first section was vocabulary. I rushed through that section really fast thinking I wouldn't have time to finish." Hurrying through the test to save time, however, was not the best strategy either. "I ended up finishing 15 minutes early. I went back to check and noticed that I got a lot wrong and had to change them."

Ann's experience is one shared by many students across the country who apply to a private school. Any parent thinking of enrolling a student in a private school will quickly become familiar with either the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) or HSPT (High School Placement Test), or both. These exams are required by many private schools as part of the admissions process. While no school uses a test alone to determine admission, a strong performance on either or both tests certainly can help a student's chances of getting in to a particular school.

Here's how the tests stack up:


The ISEE test is a timed test with several distinct parts. It features verbal and quantitative reasoning questions which assess a student's learning capability,  reading comprehension and math achievement tests which pinpoint areas of strengths and weaknesses in those subjects, and an essay. There are 3 different levels of the test (Lower Level, Middle Level, and Upper Level) based on the grade level of the student at the time of administration, but each level of test has the same basic blueprint. Basically, the time allotted and the amount and difficulty of questions per section differ from level to level. This test is not usually given at a particular school but at a local testing center.

The multiple-choice sections of the ISEE test are scored by the ISEE Operations Office, not by individual schools. The essay is not scored at all, but is copied and submitted to each school indicated by the student at the time of the test administration. A Student Report is generated and sent to parents and to each private school the student has selected. The ISEE test scores are based on the number of correct answers, so there is no penalty for guessing.

For more information on the ISEE, click here: http://erblearn.org/parents/admission/isee/isee-test-overview


The HSPT is typically given to 8th graders to determine placement in 9th grade. Because it is only given to one group of students, not multiple grades, there is only one level of test; however, there are two versions of it.

The Open HSPT is usually given at a particular school and scored by that school's personnel. Skills tested include verbal and quantitative skills, reading, mathematics, language, and at some schools, science.  Testing time for the Open HSPT is close to 2 hours and 30 minutes.

The Closed HSPT is administered at a particular school, but the tests are not scored by school personnel. Instead, test materials are returned to Scholastic Testing Service and an individual report is generated for each student. In addition to the areas tested by the Open HSPT, schools may also include tests in mechanical aptitude and Catholic religion.

Whether tests are scored at the school itself (Open HSPT) or at the testing service (Closed HSPT), the results are forwarded to parents and schools. Like the ISEE, there is no penalty for guessing on either version of the HSPT.

For more information on the HSPT, click here: http://www.ststesting.com/hp_1.html

Although Ann was nervous when she took the ISEE, she did end up doing well on the test and was accepted to the private school she wanted to attend. Why take a chance on your student's ISEE and/or HSPT performance? Enrolling in a targeted test prep program can give your student the tools needed to perform confidently and capably on any private school exam.

With most testing dates in the Houston area scheduled for January 2014, now is the time to start preparing for success!

Raising the Bar offers test prep for both the ISEE and HSPT. For more information, contact us at:


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Decoding the NNAT, by Mikey Smith, M. Ed.

Decoding the NNAT
by Mikey Smith, M.Ed

SAT, STAAR, AP, PTO. . . the World of Education is filled with some fairly familiar acronyms. One acronym, however, may not be so familiar: NNAT. It stands for Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, a test that might play an important role in your student's academic life. Jennifer Smith, veteran educator and administrator, helps break down the basics of the NNAT (or Naglieri) test.

In a nutshell, what is the NNAT?

The NNAT, also called the Naglieri, is a test commonly used for identification of students for Gifted and Talented programs. This test assesses a child's spatial intelligence (visual skills).

How is the NNAT different from other standardized tests?

It is different from other tests because there are no passages to read or math questions to answer. In fact, there are no words at all! The test is made up of only pictures that students have to analyze.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

21 Questions to Jump-Start Conversation With Your Kids

21 Questions to Jump-Start Conversation With Your Kids
By Lara Krupicka

It's evening. Maybe you're lucky enough to be sitting around the dinner table as a family. Or perhaps you've got a few moments in the car with your child between activities. So you ask, "How was your day?" But all you get are grunts and shrugged shoulders. Instead you try asking, "What did you do in school today?" This time you get the customary one-word answer: "Nothing."

What's happening here? You're simply trying to connect with your child. And while it seems like he's brushing you off, he may just be trying to disengage from school business. And your questions prevent that. Or he's so used to the question rolling off your tongue as a form of greeting, that he doesn't think you expect a real answer.

Rather than push harder for answers to your standard end-of-the-school-day questions, why not try some new conversation primers?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Preparing Your Child (and YOU!) for Middle School

Preparing Your Child
(and YOU!)
for Middle School
Suggestions for MS Survival
by Lisa Fegen - Head Honcho, RTB

As the elementary school chapter of your child's life ends, you now find your child embarking on a new, strange voyage full of mystery, intrigue, and plenty of drama: middle school! While parents oftentimes see middle school as a time to step back and let their children take control, the truth is that in reality, most students lack the skills and maturity to take this step on their own. To help successfully navigate through this sometimes rocky (but always eventful) transition, you will need to guide your child with a steady hand.

You should maintain a strong involvement in your child's school, just as you did when he or she was younger; however, it is probably time to re-think your family's current plan for managing homework, school, and extracurricular activities. If you didn't have one before, you definitely need one now! Doing some research about adolescent brain development is also a great idea so that you have a better understanding of what your student is going through. Accomplishing all of these tasks may seem like a tall order, but following some simple advice and guidelines can make the middle school transition manageable for both parent and student.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Let's Focus on You. . . Programs for Parents

Let's Focus on You...
Programs for Parents
by Mikey Smith, M.Ed

You've read every article and watched every television special. You've gone to Open House and parent-teacher meetings, and you read the school newsletter each week. You EVEN know your child's teacher's blog address. But still. . . you don't feel like you're "doing it right." Your child doesn't seem to be performing as well as he or she could be in school, and your house is chaos from August to May. Your child demands independence, but you don't want to see him or her fail. How can you find the right balance? If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, why not try something different? What about a workshop created especially for YOU, the parent who WANTS his or her child to succeed but can't quite seem to figure out the formula for success?

Lisa Fegen, parent, veteran educator and owner of Raising the Bar, knows exactly how parents feel.  "I think parents want to stay involved but simply aren't sure how to do so without feeling like they're inhibiting their child's independence," she says.  "But I know from teaching middle school for 14+ years one thing is for sure:  kids need their parents during this stage of their life more than ever." She adds,  "Unfortunately, this tends to be the time when parents feel it's time to 'let go'.  The results of letting go too soon can be very disappointing on all fronts:  academically, socially, and emotionally."

Parent Stephanie Walton agrees with Fegen about the importance of parental support, especially for students transitioning into middle school. "Setting up homework routines and home organization is critical for students as the homework load increases. While your middle schooler is screaming for more independence, they actually need you more than ever as they begin navigating the waters of middle school," she says. To ensure that her son "got off to a great start in middle school," she sought out ways she could support him at home. She discovered Raising the Bar's "It Takes a Village" workshop, and signed up along with several of her friends who also had students making the jump from elementary to middle school.

Was it worth it? In a word, yes. Walton says she uses tips learned in the workshop every day with her now-middle-school-aged son. "The workshop gave my family fabulous talking points and new ideas for setting up our family routines. Keeping up with homework assignments, upcoming tests, and extra curricular activities is a full time job." She adds that the workshop helped her family get - and stay - organized.

If this sounds like just what the doctor ordered, keep reading! Raising the Bar offers several programs to help parents equip their students for academic and social success and to help restore sanity to the home front:

"It Takes a Village" is a parent study-skills workshop that helps parents learn how they can best help their child at home when it comes to study skills and organization. While many students participate in study skills courses themselves, their success may be limited if mom and dad don't know the tips and tricks their kids have learned so they can continue to support their child during the school year.  Think of this course as a Tupperware party, but for study skills.  You provide the group, and we'll bring the know-how!

"The Perfect Fit" program is a single-family home consultation in which a Raising the Bar specialist visits the home to assess what's working and what's not with the current academic routine and gathers details about the student, the school, any extracurricular activities, etc. Since no family is exactly alike, following the first visit, families are provided with a customized plan of action that is tailored to fit the family's needs and helps establish a home routine and homework regimen that will work with the family's style and schedule - hence, "The Perfect Fit".

 "Organization 911" - Home Rescue for the Organizationally Impaired is also a single-family home consultation that has the feel of The Super Nanny meets Extreme Home Makeover.  For those of you who are not up to date with your pop-culture, this is a program in which a Raising the Bar specialist visits your home, helps establish an academic routine for the family and then makes over a part of the house that will serve as the at-home hub for homework, supplies and all things scholastic.

Fegen and her team of certified academic professionals called upon their years of education (and parenting) experience in order to develop programs that help real families deal with real concerns. "Nothing matters more to us than the happiness and well-being of our families," Fegen says. "I feel we come with a wealth of knowledge and resources to help our families, yet we are humble enough to admit we don't know everything, at which point we begin our search to find the answers!  The more parents can learn about how to best help their kids, the better.  Information is powerful."

This last point is one that Walton agrees with wholeheartedly after her experience with a parent workshop. "I think every 5th grade parent needs to attend this workshop," she says.  "Middle school is a huge transition from elementary school, and this helped make it a little easier."

To discover the right parent workshop for you, visit our website!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Back in the Groove: How Summer Classes Can Help Your Child Start the New School Year Smoothly

Back in the Groove
 How Summer Classes Can Help Your Child Start
the New School Year Smoothly
By Mikey Keating Smith, M. Ed

Every year it happens. You and your child are enjoying a perfectly wonderful summer vacation when you stop off at the store to pick up a few items for dinner. You turn the corner onto aisle 13 and there it is. . . The SCHOOL SUPPLY display, where everything from backpacks to book covers is piled sky high from one end to the other and back again.  You break out in a cold sweat and your neck kinks up as you think back to the beginning of last school year: the battles over bedtime, the wars over waking up, and the struggles over supplies. You back quickly out of the aisle and head to the pharmacy for some ibuprofen (or the beverage aisle for some Chardonnay). You hope to yourself that this year will be different - this year, it won't take until Thanksgiving break for your child to get back into the school routine.

We all know that summer classes for kids help stave off learning loss (also known as Summer Slide) in students and salvage parental sanity. Enrolling your child in a camp or class close to the start of school can also, however, serve another purpose. It can help make the transition from the lazy days of summer to the crazy days of school a little easier.

Parent Elizabeth Anderson's daughter Lindsay has already attended several camps this summer and has several more scheduled before the school bell rings for the first time in August. She agrees that attending camps and classes will help her daughter once school starts.  "It's about keeping on track, on a routine," she says, adding that although her daughter doesn't have to get up quite as early for summer camps as she does for school, she does still have to be up by a set time, which helps ease the pain of early rising once the fall semester rolls around.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Can I Get a Volunteer?

 Can I Get a Volunteer?:
How Kids Benefit From Serving Their Community
by Lara Krupicka  

Mitchell Smith hadn't done any sailing before he joined the Topsail Program at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute at age 12. But now his mom says he loves being aloft aboard the 100-foot brigantines. "He found a passion for sailing," says Mitchell's mom, Sandy. "It opened him up to a whole new world." In fact, Mitchell often volunteers as an excuse to get in more sailing. In a word, he's hooked.

Volunteering gives kids a chance to try new things. In the process they can uncover talents and interests they hadn't been aware of. Some may even go on to pursue college studies and careers inspired by their volunteer experiences.

Increased Confidence-
Youth volunteers gain valuable exposure to interacting with the public they couldn't get anywhere else. It requires them to exercise their communication and public speaking skills. In turn, this fosters confidence as students see the positive impact of their interactions. Carly Mulder, a junior interpreter at the Naper Settlement living history museum in Naperville, Illinois learned early on that part of her role involved greeting museum visitors and fielding questions about the games and other activities she demonstrates. Karin, Carly's mom, notes she's seen Carly's confidence improve from her involvement at the museum. "She's learning how to interact with the public and how to have confidence in dealing with other people." Wearing a costume and imagining herself as a person from a different era helped. So did special training provided by the museum.

Even behind-the-scenes roles can instill confidence as kids find success in completing the tasks they're given. And connecting with fellow volunteers and coordinators can be enough to help reticent youngsters come out of their shells and develop valuable social skills. For some kids, simply the act of sharing their time and being valued for their service can build self-assurance.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Get off the Couch! Keeping Your Family Healthy During the Summer (and Beyond)

As the dog days of summer set in, your child might want to burrow into his favorite spot on the couch with a bag of chips in one hand and a game controller in the other. While it might be tempting to join him, DON'T! Research shows that exercise isn't just good for your body, it's also good for your mind. This week we are focusing on ways you can help your child stay active during the summer and hopefully, for life.

Get off the Couch!
Keeping Your Family Healthy During the Summer

(and Beyond)

by Mikey Smith, M.Ed


It used to be that the start of summer meant that our parents would push us kids outside, lock the door and tell us not to come home until dinner unless someone was bleeding profusely. Nowadays, however, more and more kids are spending more and more of their summer sitting on the couch playing video games and watching TV. We all know that kids and adults and people in general are more sedentary. What can we do to reverse that trend in our own homes?

Make it a Family Affair

As with everything, parents can start by being positive examples. It's hard to expect your kids to go outside when you're sitting inside watching TV with a snack in one hand and the remote in the other hand. Go on family hikes or walk the dog together, or even get down and dirty with yardwork. Taking care of chores is a great way to make them go faster as well as to burn calories!

Be Adventurous

Let's face it, walking up and down the same old streets in your neighborhood can get a tad boring. Houston is home to dozens of sites great for exploring. Find parks, trails, campgrounds, outdoor places and events with -

 The National Wildlife Federation's Nature Find Website

The National Parks and Forests

and local playgrounds.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Social Media: How Much Do You REALLY Know?

Social Media:
How Much Do You REALLY Know?
by Mikey Keating Smith, M.Ed
Many parents are familiar with Facebook, the ubiquitous social networking site, and some also know about twitter (although they might not understand exactly how it works). Unfortunately, when it comes to social networking, Facebook and twitter are just the tip of the iceberg. Tumblr, Instagram, Keek, Vine, ask.fm. . . Social networking sites are exploding, and while there are many wonderful uses for each one of them, there are also many pitfalls and opportunities for kids to become targets. How can we keep our kids safe on websites we don't even know exist?

*Leigh Stewart thought she had covered all her bases when it came to keeping her 11-year-old son safe online. Her son's emails were forwarded to her cell phone, and she knew he had several social networking accounts, including one with ask.fm. What she didn't know, however, is that ask.fm, a seemingly harmless website where users can post questions and answers, has no privacy settings. That means that anyone, anywhere, is free to comment on anyone else's account, with no filter. Anonymously. The site, which has more than 40 million users, has come under fire in England recently, where it has been blamed for the suicides of several students who were reportedly bullied mercilessly thanks to ask.fm's anonymity.

Because ask.fm emails users when posts are made to the account, Stewart was able to see responses to her son's questions. She was shocked to see the responses grow more and more inappropriate, and worse, obscene. Her son was hurt and humiliated by the anonymous bullying. "I went in my son's room and he was crying under the covers so I wouldn't hear him," she says. "He was embarrassed but he showed me all the other comments that he never replied to - thank goodness he was smart enough to not reply."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

House Rules! Set Expectations NOW to Ensure a Sane Summer

by Mikey Keating Smith, M. Ed

Summer is almost here, and with it may come the urge to throw rigid routines out the window. Research (and experience) shows, though, that most kids thrive when they have clear expectations and routines, even in the summer months. Parent Ellen Dunlap used to greet each summer vacation with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was excited to be free of the grind of the school year and able to spend more relaxed, quality time with her son, Ryan. On the other hand, however, she dreaded the onset of Ryan’s summer ‘personality shift.’ “After 3 or 4 days I started to see that he was short-tempered and grumpy,” Ellen says. “Most of his responses had an underlying tone of annoyance and he appeared to look and feel frustrated and uncomfortable.”

As her son got older, the pattern of behavior continued. Each year after the initial excitement about the summer break wore off, her son’s personality would abruptly change. His increasingly surly behavior put a damper on summer fun for everyone in the household. Then, she says, she had an ‘aha moment’: “It took me a little while to figure out the root of his frustration. Although he will argue otherwise, my son really craves the comfort that structure brings.”

Ryan is not alone. Experts agree that while children and adolescents do benefit from the downtime the summer brings, downtime should be balanced with structured activities and clear expectations. While some children do fine without a set schedule, many others struggle with the excessive free time and lack of routine the summer break often brings with it. Otherwise happy and well-adjusted kids might begin acting defiant and downright rude, and you might notice arguments increasing among siblings. Kids with too much downtime also may experiment with risky behaviors and wind up getting into trouble both at home and with friends. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer Reading. . . For PARENTS! by Mikey Keating Smith, M. Ed

On the last day of school, the one item in many kids’ backpacks is the dreaded summer homework packet. More and more schools are hoping to fight summer slide by assigning kids reading and math work over the summer, and usually several books to be read. What about parents, though? What better way to encourage our kids to be lifelong learners than by setting a positive example by taking on some summer reading ourselves?

Since summer tends to be a bit less stressful than the jam-packed school year, it’s a great time to pick up a new book. You can take one on vacation, suggest one for your book club, or, even better, read one as a family. This summer, though, how about making that book one that can help you better understand your child and the world he or she inhabits? There are hundreds of books on parenting and adolescents, but because everyone’s time is precious, below is a sampling of well-reviewed books on a variety of topics. Hopefully one will make your summer reading list!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Summer Slide by Mikey Smith, M. Ed

Each year around the end of May, the school year ends and a countdown of sorts begins as parents wait for their children to utter those two little words: “I’m BORED!” While it can be annoying to hear your child complain about boredom incessantly, enrolling him or her in some sort of summer program or camp might not only save your sanity, it could also help your child avoid something researchers have termed “Summer Slide.” 

Although it sounds like a cool ride at a water park, Summer Slide is no fun at all -- the term refers to the learning loss the average student suffers each summer. Research shows that many students, particularly those not involved in some sort of engaging, constructive summer activity, start the next school year a month behind where they should be. For students who are on grade level, the idea of losing a month or more of learning is alarming, but for those students who might not be performing at grade level in the first place, Summer Slide can be catastrophic.  As students get older, the subject material covered in every subject each school year becomes more and more complex, making it harder and harder to re-learn topics at the beginning of each year. Moreover, many concepts build on one another because courses are vertically aligned, meaning that if a student lacks the basic concepts, it is impossible for them to move forward in their learning. 

While Summer Slide clearly affects individual students each year, teachers also suffer the consequences as they must start each new school year not with new material, but with in-depth reviews of material that was learned the prior year. Bertha Bishop, who teaches multiple grade levels, has a unique perspective on Summer Slide. Since she teaches Spanish to students in many different grades, she is able to chart the progress of students from one year to the next. She also knows exactly what she teaches from year to year, and where students should be upon entering the next grade level. In her experience, however, most students do not start the year ready for new material, and Bishop, like most teachers, must review for the first few weeks of school. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Test Anxiety- How to Help Your Student Cope by Mikey Smith, M. Ed

It's human nature to feel nervous and stressed out before a test, especially a high-stakes test that might determine whether or not you get into a program or a school or get a certain grade. Just about everyone knows the feeling of having butterflies in the stomach before a big test.

For some students, though, stress brought on by testing goes far further than simple nervous stomach and sweaty palms. An estimated 20% -- 30% of students have 'test anxiety,' which can manifest in a variety of ways. Some students get physically ill before tests, experiencing symptoms like dry mouth, rapid heart beat, and even vomiting or fainting. Others might not really feel ill, but might fabricate illnesses or other conditions to avoid a stressful situation altogether. A third group of students simply freeze up when required to take tests, seemingly forgetting all information they have learned in preparation for the exam. 

I was a member of the last group of students for most of my academic life. Although I did not become physically ill when faced with a testing scenario, on math tests I would completely freeze up, even though I always studied and could do the homework. It was like I had never seen the material before. My grades suffered, and so did my confidence. My teachers (and parents) were mystified by my behavior, until one teacher named it: test anxiety. This teacher devoted hours of her own time to helping me, even writing entire math tests on the chalkboards in her room and having me work each problem as she scrutinized each step to see where I was making mistakes.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Organizational Tutoring: A Sound Investment in Your Student’s Future

Organizational Tutoring: A Sound Investment in Your Student's Future
by Mikey Keating Smith, M. Ed

“So, how was school today?” Remember when your student was younger, and he or she would respond to this question with breathless excitement, regaling you with every detail of every day, from who got in trouble (never your child, of course!) to what was for lunch? Even if your student skipped important details like spelling tests or field trip forms, you more than likely had a backup – the weekly homework folder and/or the trusty planner. Early elementary teachers spend great amounts of time writing copious notes in students’ planners, stuffing homework folders, and making sure students remember assignments and events. 

Ask the parents of an older student about what sort of response they typically get when asking their child about their school day, and you most likely will get an answer along the lines of, “I have no idea – they don’t ever tell me anything about it!” Couple this with the shift in responsibility for remembering homework and assignments and copying information into a student planner from teacher to student, and you might have a recipe for disaster. 

It’s not that teachers of older students don’t WANT their students to succeed or are less concerned about parent communication; to the contrary, many upper-elementary, middle and high school teachers use more sophisticated methods such as websites, blogs, wikis and weekly email blasts for publicizing events because they simply don’t have the time to customize communications. While most lower elementary school teachers typically have only one class of students to keep track of during any given year, upper elementary, middle and high school teachers can have upwards of 150 students per semester in a content area class, plus 30 or so more in an elective. It’s just not possible for teachers to personally monitor every student’s planner usage, organizational skills, and homework habits. Additionally, students at this level are expected to take more responsibility for their own learning in order to prepare them for ‘the real world.’