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2017
November
09
Thursday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

The voters have spoken. But does it matter?

That’s a question that’s coming up in an increasing number of states regarding ballot initiatives, a form of direct democracy in 24 states and the District of Columbia. And it’s being asked with remarkable regularity in the state of Maine.

On Tuesday, Maine voted 59 percent to 41 percent to become the first state to expand Medicaid – a move affecting 70,000 low-income residents. The next day, Gov. Paul LePage said he wouldn’t implement the expansion unless the Legislature agrees to fund it. (Since 2013, the Legislature has voted five times for the expansion – and Governor LePage has vetoed it five times.)

In 2016, Mainers voted to pass five of six initiatives on the ballot. Four have been overturned, altered, or delayed. Some of the issues: legalizing marijuana for those over age 21, raising the minimum wage, and increasing taxes on households that make more than $200,000. With the fourth – which would have made Maine the first state to implement ranked-choice voting – legislators tried a repeal, but, after widespread outrage, decided in a special session in October to delay implementation until 2021.

“This isn’t how democracy works,” Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told The Atlantic. “You don’t get to pick and choose when you like a process and when you don’t.” 

Ms. Sarver is among those who say there is a trend of state officials either ignoring or overriding the will of the people who elected them to office. 

We trust voters to decide who represents them, these experts say. Shouldn’t we also trust them to decide issues that affect their lives? 

Here are our five stories of the day, designed to show equality, perseverance, and empowerment.

1. Democrats gain, but is it a wave?

Not every Democrat was giddy after Tuesday night's wins. To really take back the House, Rep. Cheri Bustos told congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer, Democrats will have to show up in areas that they have largely ignored and stay focused on an economic message.

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Even before Tuesday’s elections, a number of House Republicans – despite holding the majority and, in many cases, chairing committees – had announced they were heading for the exits. Reasons for leaving vary. But hovering in the background is the knowledge that the party occupying the White House historically loses seats in the first midterms after a presidential election – and a growing concern that a controversial president such as Donald Trump might intensify those losses. Tuesday’s state and local electoral gains for Democrats only magnified that concern. Yet it’s one thing for Democrats to win in blue states – as with the gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey – or to reclaim from Republicans suburban districts that Hillary Clinton won, which was the case with many of the Virginia state legislature seats. To take back the House, however, Democrats will need to make inroads in areas that went for Mr. Trump. “What we still haven’t seen is a key Democratic victory in a Trump-leaning district, and I think that needs to happen to signal a larger wave,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the independent Inside Elections. So far, he says, Republicans are winning in Republican areas, and Democrats in Democratic areas.

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Democrats gain, but is it a wave?

When Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania announced in September that he would not seek reelection next year, political pundits speculated this might be an early sign of trouble for Republicans. His seat, which Congressman Dent has held for seven terms, would become a target for Democrats in their march to take over the House of Representatives in 2018.

Since Dent’s announcement, a slew of Republicans have followed suit. Reasons for leaving the House vary. Some plan to seek higher office back home or run for the Senate. Some are getting timed out of their chairmanships by party term limits. And some, like Dent, are tired of the dysfunction and division, and are ready for life after Congress.

But hovering in the background is the knowledge that the president’s party historically loses seats in the first midterms after a presidential election – and a growing concern that a controversial president such as Donald Trump might intensify those losses.

Tuesday’s state and local electoral gains for Democrats magnified that concern. Dent called it a “horrible night” for Republicans, with county losses in the suburban collar around Philadelphia and in his own district. He chalked part of it up to historical norms and part of it to anti-Trump fervor. In an interview, the congressman, who co-chairs the moderate “Tuesday Group” of House Republicans, said he now sees his district – which Trump won by 8 points – moving from leaning-Republican to a toss-up. Dent did not vote for Trump.

Yet it’s one thing for Democrats to win in blue states – as happened with Tuesday’s big gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey – or to reclaim from Republicans suburban districts that Hillary Clinton won, which was the case in many of the Virginia statehouse races.

It's quite another to take back the House. Democrats will need to make inroads in areas that went for Trump – like Dent’s district. This is even more true in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim two-seat majority, but where Democrats are defending many more seats in 2018, and in mostly red states to boot.

“What we still haven’t seen is a key Democratic victory in a Trump-leaning district, and I think that needs to happen to signal a larger wave,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the independent Inside Elections. So far, he says, Republicans are winning in Republican areas, and Democrats in Democrat areas.

Others analysts agree. While the numbers in the House look tantalizing for Democrats – they need 24 seats to take control, and 23 of those seats are in districts that Mrs. Clinton won – they’re not likely to win all 23 of those Clinton districts, says Kyle Kondik, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. Incumbents are often hard to beat.

Mr. Kondik estimates Democrats will need to win about 10 districts that went for Trump – and “that’s a challenge,” he says.

The Virginia gubernatorial election results show why: Even though Democrat Ralph Northam trounced Ed Gillespie by 54 percent to 45 percent overall, “in a lot of rural parts of the state, Gillespie did fine," Kondik notes. "It’s just in the big cities and suburbs that he got crushed.”

Nervous Republicans

Even so, some Democrats on the Hill are sensing a wave, while many Republicans are nervous.

“I’ve been worried since the day after the [2016] election,” Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the historic pattern of losses that typically accrue to the president’s party.

Congressman Cole saw Tuesday’s elections as “a warning shot” that Republicans in Congress aren’t getting enough done. It increases the pressure on the party to pass tax reform, he said, adding, “I take it as much as a congressional failure as I do a shot at the president.”

The outlook for a tax overhaul remains uncertain, with House and Senate Republicans working on different versions and dealing with different dynamics. Some House Republicans from wealthy high-tax states have already stated their opposition to eliminating or reducing certain individual deductions, particularly those for state and local taxes. Many of these members occupy the types of suburban districts that Democrats hope to win back.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia (left), shown here speaking with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina on the House floor in January, announced Thursday he would not run again. He will step down as his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee expires.

Senate Republicans seem more concerned with the deficit, and Thursday unveiled a proposal that eliminates the state-and-local tax deduction. 

“They’re in a pretzel,” says Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, talking with reporters on Wednesday. Democrats – and independent analysts – maintain that the House GOP plan would mostly benefit the wealthy and big corporations, and that many middle-income families would actually see their taxes increase over the long run. Republicans say it is squarely focused on the middle class, pointing out that the average American household will get a tax break of $1,182, and arguing that economic growth unleashed by the plan's corporate tax cuts would increase wages and jobs.

Senator Schumer says the current political climate reminds him of the run-up to the 2006 midterms, when he led the Democratic campaign to retake the Senate. “By the end of 2005, we were smelling a wave,” he says, adding: “We’re getting the same feelings now,” though “it's not there yet.”

Schumer points to indicators such as strong Democratic candidates, party unity, winning in places they had not previously won, and GOP infighting.

Until this week, the point about Democratic unity might have seemed laughable, given the vicious infighting on public display in the wake of a critical book by longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile, who essentially accused the Democratic National Committee of working with the Clinton campaign to help Clinton secure the party's nomination. For now, Tuesday's electoral wins appear to have helped smooth over party divisions. Meanwhile, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon is working mightily to challenge GOP incumbents.

The open-seat factor

One of the biggest factors helping Democrats in 2018 may be the Republican retirements. Of course, many retiring Republicans are from safe seats – such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, whose decision not to run again, just announced Thursday, coincides with the end of his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. But others, such as retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) of New Jersey, hail from districts that present real opportunities for Democrats – opportunities that might not have existed had the incumbents decided to run.

Dent says he believes that Tuesday’s elections will spark even more retirement announcements, as Republicans look at the mood in their districts.

That said, not all Democrats are as giddy as Schumer. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D) of Illinois, whose district went narrowly for Trump while she trounced her competitor by 20 points, says suburbs and urban areas will not be enough. Democrats will have to show up in areas that they have largely ignored, she says, and stay focused on an economic message that's not just anti-Trump.

A lot could happen between now and next November, Congresswoman Bustos points out. A star athlete in college, she looks at elections through a sports lens. Tuesday, she says, “was just one game.” If you want to take the tournament, “you’ve got to keep winning, and winning, and winning.”

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2. Trump, Putin meeting an unlikely lever on Pyongyang

Russia and the US both want to see North Korea’s nuclear ambitions constrained – what should be common ground. But the Kremlin views President Trump’s hard line on Pyongyang as fruitless and is skeptical about his recent, more diplomatic tone.

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Russia enjoys even better political relations with North Korea these days than Pyongyang’s erstwhile protector, China. So when it comes to curbing the burgeoning crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programs, Moscow might be able to mediate a deal between Washington and Pyongyang. But when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet on Friday in Vietnam, they are not likely to find themselves close to an accord on North Korea, Russian experts say. The Kremlin seems certain to reject any US proposal for piling on greater sanctions and political pressure. And while President Trump hinted earlier this week at a more diplomatic solution, any settlement is probably going to have to accept that North Korea will keep its nuclear arms. “The North Koreans have seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, and they have drawn their conclusions,” says Andrei Klimov of Russia's upper house of parliament. “So, from our point of view, to find a solution now means the US needs to rethink its whole strategy. What are the chances of Trump doing that?”

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Trump, Putin meeting an unlikely lever on Pyongyang

On the face of things, the burgeoning crisis over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs is an issue where Russia, China, and the US are basically on the same page. All want to curb the Pyongyang regime's nuclear ambitions, and ought to be able to work together.

But when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet on Friday on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam, Russian experts say Mr. Putin will probably come to the meeting with open ears but virtually zero expectations.

If Mr. Trump continues to beat the drum for greater sanctions and political pressure against Pyongyang, Mr. Putin seems certain to reject any US proposal, experts say. And while Trump has offered hints of a more diplomatic solution this week, the Kremlin – burned more than once in recent months by Trump's foreign policy vacillations – is not likely to buy into such a plan without evidence that it's a real break with what it sees as failing US policy.

“It's extremely unpleasant to make this observation, but so far North Korea seems to be winning this game [with the US] of escalating insults and threats that's been going on,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Of course Russia wants to be helpful. But we can't help but notice that the current US tactics are not working, and are not likely to ever work. Why would we want a piece of that?”

Yuri Maltsev/Reuters
A guard walks along a platform past signs, which read 'Russia' and 'DPRK' (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), at the border crossing between Russia and North Korea in the settlement of Tumangan, North Korea in July 2014.

Making a deal?

Russia has a common border with North Korea, and enjoys even better political relations with Pyongyang these days than its main trading partner and erstwhile protector, China. As a result, Moscow might be able to mediate a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.

But Trump's stormy tweets and threats directed at North Korea, combined with the near unprecedented convergence of US military forces on the region, has until now clouded prospects for diplomacy and created what Russian analysts describe as a dangerous perception of unavoidable and maybe even imminent war.

However, speaking in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Trump executed one of his trademark rhetorical turnabouts by declaring that Washington has been making “a lot of progress” on the problem and suggested the time has come for Pyongyang to “make a deal” on its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“I believe it makes sense for North Korea to do the right thing, not only for North Korea but for humanity all over the world,” Trump told journalists in a press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He added that China is “trying very hard to solve the problem,” and hoped that “Russia will likewise be helpful.”

“It's encouraging that Trump has hinted at making a deal. We think it's possible,” says Alexander Zhebin, head of the Center for Korean Studies at the official Institute of the Far East in Moscow. “But no deal can be simply imposed by pressure and threats. There has to be a return to negotiations, and all sides will need to demonstrate great patience and effort to accept this path. The UN resolutions that imposed sanctions on North Korea, supported by Russia and China, also say negotiations are indispensable. Unfortunately, that's the part Washington keeps forgetting.”

‘The US needs to rethink its whole strategy’

Russia and China advocate a starting-point agreement that would freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, in exchange for the US and South Korea radically scaling-back military drills near North Korea. Mr. Zhebin says the widespread perception that Pyongyang would never stick to any agreement is wrong, and that when the US made efforts in the past – under the Clinton administration in the 1990s – real progress was achieved.

“When US negotiators took the other side's interests into account, we saw that it was possible to find common language with North Korea,” he says. “Unfortunately when the George W. Bush administration came in, they changed the whole approach and the deals collapsed.”

Russian trade with North Korea has always been a tiny fraction of China's, and it has more than halved in the past few years to about $100 million last year. But Russian experts say there are ambitious plans – still mostly fantasies floated by Kremlin think tanks – to extend an existing railroad line from the Russian Pacific city of Vladivostok through North Korea to Seoul, thus connecting South Korea to Europe by rail. A gas pipeline from Russia's far east to South Korea via the North is little more than a twinkle in the eyes of Russian economic planners, but a political settlement in the region might rapidly change all that.

“The card Russia has to play in this crisis is a relationship of better trust with North Korea,” says Georgi Toloraya, head of Center for Asian Strategy at the official Institute of Economy in Moscow. “We find it possible to hold dialogue with Pyongyang. We have a road map, agreed with the Chinese, for a double freeze that both North Korea and the US would accept in order to get negotiations going. If Putin can persuade Trump of this approach, it may not be so difficult to convince Pyongyang as well.”

But Russian experts add that any settlement is probably going to have to accept that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons and missiles.

“The North Koreans have seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, and they have drawn their conclusions,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. “We are ready to work with the Americans, and we certainly don't want to break off contacts. But this problem with North Korea today might have been solved long ago if not for the global military machinations of the US, and its constant threats to North Korea.

“So, from our point of view, to find a solution now means the US needs to rethink its whole strategy. What are the chances of Trump doing that?”

SOURCE: United Nations, BACI, MIT Observatory for Economic Complexity
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Karen Norris/Staff
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3. How Indiana puts high school students ahead of the curve

What if "underserved" students were automatically enrolled in challenging courses? Would they wash out or would they walk onto college campuses better prepared?

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Alfredo Sosa/Staff
In September, a John Adams High School freshman English class took part in a phone-based activity in South Bend, Ind. A counseling team visits with students to explain the course requirements and diploma options designed to prepare them for both college and careers.

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Nationally, high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, with 83 percent of students finishing within four years. But the requirements for gaining a diploma vary widely. Low expectations and fewer opportunities for challenging courses are a big reason many “underserved” students, such as low-income, minority, and first-generation college applicants, tend to finish high school less prepared than their more advantaged peers. But a number of states are showing that when they set high expectations, students rise to the occasion. Indiana is one of 19 states that automatically places high school students on a pathway to graduation that includes enough challenging English and math courses to qualify them for postsecondary work. Indiana hasn’t closed all its racial, income, and other gaps among students. But it offers a good case study, because it has shown that the more rigorous the path in high school, the better the outcomes once students get to college. One beneficiary, Destiny Castillo, a junior at John Adams High School in South Bend, has “big dreams” and envisions herself as a dentist, running her own business and maybe even employing her mother. “I’m the first one that will graduate high school from my family...,” she says. “There was a lot of help and support with my teachers.”

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How Indiana puts high school students ahead of the curve

Destiny Castillo, a junior at John Adams High School here, says she has “big dreams.” She envisions herself as a dentist, running her own business and maybe even employing her mom.

She expects to earn six college credits for free through South Bend’s career and technical education courses. Thinking ahead is part of students’ experience here starting in middle school.

“I’m the first one that will graduate high school from my family.... There was a lot of help and support with my teachers,” says Destiny, her big hoop earrings nearly touching the shoulders of the royal blue scrubs she wears for dental-careers class.

In some states, students like Destiny have a much harder time exploring their interests and understanding which high school courses will qualify them for college. In places with the lowest standards, they may succeed in high school only to find out that their diploma holds little value in the eyes of employers and college admissions officers.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
Destiny Castillo, a junior at John Adams High School in South Bend, Ind., is a beneficiary of Indiana's rigorous approach to graduation requirements. She says, 'I’m the first one that will graduate high school from my family…. There was a lot of help and support with my teachers.'

But Indiana is one of 19 states that automatically places high school students on a pathway to graduation that includes enough challenging English and math courses to qualify them for postsecondary work. Here it's known as the Core 40 diploma.

And there’s new evidence that higher expectations can make a big difference. When states require schools to place students in a “college and career ready” (CCR) curriculum by default, students meet those benchmarks at higher rates, and narrow the gaps.

“When a state sets expectations high for all kids they are sending a certain message: ‘We want these kids to have access to a university if that’s what they want to do.’ Not automatically placing them in a CCR pathway … you’re just having them fend for themselves, and if a district does not raise requirements, it’s putting certain kids at a disadvantage,” says Monica Almond, a senior associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that advocates for college and career readiness. She recently authored a report on CCR diplomas. 

Graduation requirements vary

Nationally, graduation rates are at an all-time high, with 83 percent of students finishing within 4 years. 

But the requirements for gaining a diploma vary widely. Low expectations and fewer opportunities for challenging courses are a big reason many “underserved” students, such as low-income, minority, and first-generation college applicants, tend to finish high school less prepared than their more advantaged peers.

For example, a recent analysis of more than 2 million ACT tests for college admissions found that among students who fit in all three of those underserved categories, only 9 percent showed strong readiness for college coursework, compared with 54 percent of students who were not underserved.

Indiana hasn’t closed all its racial, income, and other gaps among students. But it offers a good case study, because it’s ahead of the curve in terms of tracking students’ achievement once they leave high school.

Those who struggle to meet Core 40 requirements don’t lose the opportunity for a diploma. They can still opt out and earn a general diploma, but only after they and their families get counseling to understand the implications, usually in 11th or 12th grade.

The state offers more-challenging diplomas too: technical and academic honors. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Students at John Adams High School take a class in the machine shop on Sept. 13, 2017, in South Bend, Ind.

Half of Indiana’s class of 2014 graduated with a Core 40 diploma, and another 34 percent with honors diplomas. The more challenging their diploma pathway, the more likely they were to go on to college, the less likely they were to need remediation, and the higher their grades were in their first year of college, the Alliance reports. (Since then, the numbers opting for the general diploma have continued to shrink.)

SOURCE: "Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal," Alliance for Excellent Education
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

A more equitable approach

Indiana and several other states’ approach to college and career readiness also holds lessons for creating a more equitable educational pipeline.

Overall, African-Americans and Latinos were significantly less likely to graduate with CCR diplomas than their white peers – in nine states with enough data broken out by race and ethnicity, the Alliance reports.

But the gaps were smaller in Indiana, Texas, and Arkansas – which made the CCR pathway the default – and some gaps closed entirely. In Arkansas, for instance, 88.4 percent of African-American graduates earned a CCR diploma, slightly outpacing the 88.2 percent of white graduates.

SOURCE: "Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal," Alliance for Excellent Education
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The Alliance report used English and math curriculum requirements as a proxy for college and career readiness, but some states – including Indiana – set more specific criteria.

Indiana grades schools partly on the percentage of students that meet at least one of four indicators of readiness: passing an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam, earning dual college credit, or gaining an industry credential. By those measures, 65 percent of graduates counted as college and career ready in 2017. 

District-by-district support

Much of the state’s progress comes down to how students are supported, district by district.

In South Bend, a set of themed magnet high schools and career and technical education (CTE) options have created a culture where students explore what credentials they’ll need (and sometimes even start earning them) to achieve their goals. For some technical careers, an industry certification and two-year degree might lead to less debt and to a higher paying job than a four-year college degree, for instance. 

“We’ve talked about ... how there are so many more opportunities if you graduate from college with the degree, but there are also options you can take if you don’t go to college,” says John Adams High School freshman Brigid Reilly, referring to conversations in a required course on college and career planning. 

Early this fall at John Adams, an imposing tan brick structure with nearly 1,900 students, the guidance staff made the rounds to freshmen English classes. They introduced themselves and offered up a quiz game as students tapped answers into their cellphones and saw the tallied results projected on the smart board.

No matter what diploma type they opt for, they will need four years of English and math or quantitative reasoning courses, director of counseling Tammy Berebitsky explained as students perched on cupboards and rows of desks facing the center. “You’ve got a good start with Mrs. Drake,” she said, with a nod to their English teacher keeping busy in the back corner. 

Destiny, the aspiring dentist, says she and her friends all want to go to college, because “if you finish it, you’re going to do a career you enjoy” and not just a mundane job. 

South Bend high-schoolers get bussed all across the city for part of their school day depending on which courses they want to take. The main draw at John Adams is its optional college-prep International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

Between 2011 and 2016, the portion of John Adams students meeting one of the state-tracked college and career criteria grew from 27 percent to 62 percent.

The school and district work at boosting the message that CTE classes and IB classes can be the right fit for students of all different backgrounds.

“I’ve seen students that may not have succeeded in Core 40 coursework find a new life, a new set of ambitions … by jumping into a class like precision machine technology, automation,” Ms. Berebitsky says, crediting much of the boost in the school's CCR rate to the district's dual-credit career-tech programs.

Increasing minority participation in IB has been another goal – “a collaboration between teachers looking for students with potential and the counselors trying to encourage students to take that challenge,” Berebitsky says. The portion of IB students at John Adams who are minorities has risen from 25 percent to about 40 percent in recent years, she says.

'Graduation coach' helps with planning

Choosing a diploma pathway isn’t a one-time deal. Students meet with counselors, schools send home course description books, and plans can shift along the way.

At John Adams, each senior gets a “graduation coach,” someone on staff – often the student’s choice – who checks in weekly about their progress toward finishing high school and planning their next move.

Melissa Blossom, Indiana’s assistant director of secondary curriculum, took a similar “all hands on deck” approach when she was associate principal at Marion (Ind.) High School from 2007 to 2014. The majority of students there are from low-income families. “We came up with an individualized plan for every single student for eliminating their barriers to graduation. To me that’s the only way you can do it,” she says.

Counselor caseloads are infamously large, but Ms. Blossom decided to carve out enough time for them to meet with students about their college and career plans. “I took testing and scheduling off of counselors…. I can’t think of anything more important than planning a student’s future with them,” she says.

Since 2012, Marion High School’s graduation rate has been above 90 percent and has been surpassing the statewide average. Now, the state education department is looking at how to encourage more districts to replicate some of the approaches taken there.

Tracking student success

CTE programs throughout the state also have to closely track student success, and set up intervention plans if subgroups of students fall behind, says Chris Deaton, the state’s assistant CTE director. And they’ve made concerted efforts to integrate more core curriculum into those programs.

As a result, ”High school graduation rates are higher for CTE students than for other students. That’s an incredible statistic,” Blossom says. 

Indiana, like many states, is now considering a host of new policies as it works to conform to the requirements of the federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Groups like the Alliance are watching closely and urging states not to lower their high school graduation requirements in the process. But it’s a perpetual challenge for states to strike the right balance between high expectations for all students and creating too many barriers that could result in more disadvantaged students failing to earn a high school diploma, Almond says.

Caring relationships key

As state policies evolve, one factor that’s unlikely to change is the degree to which caring relationships with an adult in school can influence students’ futures. 

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
Nada Abu Sheikh, a senior at John Adams High School in South Bend, Ind., says that at her school, “each person has an adult they can lean on.”

Nada Abu Sheikh, a John Adams senior who’s exploring entrepreneurship in a countywide program called Startup Moxie, says that at her school, “each person has an adult they can lean on.”

For her, it was Savino Rivera Jr., a bilingual specialist who sponsors the international student organization. Some students think they aren’t smart enough, or they can’t afford college, she says, “but he gives them hope and options.... I know a lot of people who wouldn’t have gone to college if not for him.”

Not all high school diplomas are created equal

SOURCE: "Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal," Alliance for Excellent Education
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Protect, or pan-fry? Avian revival thrills bird lovers, and hunters.

When threatened species rebound, should hunters be allowed to control their population growth? In Michigan, environmentalists and bird lovers are thrilled that the sandhill crane is flourishing, but farmers say hunting is needed to keep flocks from decimating crops.

Yvonne
Steve Gettle/Minden Pictures/Newscom
A pair of sandhill cranes tends a nest at Kensington Metropark in Milford, Mich. After almost entirely disappearing from Michigan, the sandhill crane is returning to the state, much to the delight of bird lovers – and the dismay of local farmers.

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At its root, Michigan's debate around the proposed hunting of sandhill cranes represents a fundamental clash of worldviews, between people who see the natural world as something to be protected and preserved and those who view the bounty of the land as a resource to be managed. Michigan's local population of sandhill cranes, a migratory species known for its striking crimson forehead and rattling cry was once feared lost forever. In recent decades, however, the majestic birds have returned to Michigan. Local bird lovers are delighted. But farmers have come to view the birds as crop-devouring pests. Last month, the Michigan House of Representatives proposed a controversial solution: Allow hunters to cull the flock. Environmental groups are horrified by the idea of hunting a species so soon after its recovery. But these once rare birds are likely to continue to clash with farmers because the two are essentially competing for limited resources, as one environmentalist explains. “This really comes down to a habitat loss issue,” she says. “Where else is wildlife going to go?”

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Protect, or pan-fry? Avian revival thrills bird lovers, and hunters.

Lisa Johnson has spent her life coaxing corn, soybeans, and “potato chip potatoes” out of the ground in rural Montcalm County, Mich. In the past couple years however, her job has become considerably harder as her crops have faced a new threat: sandhill cranes.

The sandhill crane, a tall, migratory species known for its striking crimson forehead and rattling cry, was once nearly extinct in Michigan but has surged in recent years. Local bird watchers flock to Michigan wetlands to catch a glimpse of the majestic birds gathering in hundreds, even thousands, to breed.

But from Ms. Johnson’s perspective, the lanky birds have become “a pest.” And she’s not the only one who thinks so.

In the kind of clash between conservation and economic interests that’s become familiar across the country, Michigan’s new abundance of sandhill cranes has excited environmentalists and birdwatchers but also agitated farmers, who complain the birds damage crops and decrease yields. On Oct. 18 – in a move swiftly opposed by environmental groups – the Michigan House of Representatives proposed a controversial response: allow hunters to cull the flock.

“I think it’s a win for sport hunters,” says James Lower, the state representative who sponsored the resolution recommending the state’s Natural Resources Commission classify the birds as a game species. “It’s a win for farmers, and it’s a win for the cranes, too,” he added, referring to evidence suggesting that regulated hunting can keep overpopulation in check.

A familiar quarrel

The debate unfolding in Michigan follows a recurring pattern of sometimes-bitter battles between wildlife conservation and industry. At its root is a fundamental clash of worldviews between people who see the natural world as something to be protected and preserved and those who view the land as a resource to be managed.

It’s a tension that reverberated through the Pacific Northwest for decades as the timber industry and environmentalists feuded over territory in the Pacific Northwest that was home to the threatened northern spotted owl. In recent years, it has echoed through the Western Plains in debates over the sage grouse, a strikingly-plumed prairie bird whose protection efforts conflicted with the interests of ranchers and drilling. 

Successful conservation efforts, coupled with diminishing natural habitats, have exacerbated such tensions around the resurgence of wolves in the Northern Rockies, rattlesnakes in New England, panthers in Florida, and now sandhill cranes, in the Great Lakes region.

A conservation success story

Sandhill cranes are believed to be among the world’s oldest surviving birds. The variety found in Michigan, belonging to the Eastern Population of the greater North American subspecies, ranges from southern Ontario to central Florida and primarily nests in wetlands or grasslands around the Great Lakes region.

In the late 19th century, the local population teetered on the brink of extinction as a result of habitat destruction and rampant hunting. The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, a federal law intended to protect hundreds of vulnerable species from hunters, set the stage for the local population's return. But the cranes' low reproduction rates – the birds are monogamous, and females typically lay only two eggs – meant that recovery came slowly. It's only in the past few decades that the Eastern Population began to rebound.

By 1996 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s fall survey of the cranes, the most widely used population barometer, counted more than 30,000 Eastern Population cranes; in 2015 the count topped 90,000.

The comeback has been particularly pronounced in Michigan, where many of the cranes nest. From 2004 to 2015, fall survey counts in the state increased an average of 9.4 percent annually, according to a February state Department of Natural Resources report. The 2015 count of 23,082 cranes in Michigan was more than double the 2004 figure.  

“Michigan’s iconic Sandhill Cranes, majestic and standing three to four feet tall,” Howard Myerson wrote in Michigan Audubon’s magazine, Jack Pine Warbler, in 2014, “are by all accounts an example of conservation success.”

But it’s also the birds’ success that led to farmers’ troubles.

“The problem is you don’t see one or two,” says Ms. Johnson, who has come to detest the birds’ piercing cry. “You’ve got eight, 10, 12, or more out in the field.... They pluck the planted corn right out of the ground.”

Hunters to the rescue?

Representative Lower, a Republican from heavily agricultural Montcalm, says he was inspired to propose a state sandhill hunt after fielding repeated complaints about the birds, which typically eat corn or wheat seedlings and otherwise damage vulnerable young crops.

“I hear about this all time from constituents,” he says. “Essentially they felt that the population had gotten to a point they are out of control.”

Sandhill cranes are currently hunted in 16 states, mostly in the West, where the birds are part of different subpopulations. (Many hunters praise the meat as the “ribeye of the sky.”)

In Michigan, farmers can apply for special permits to kill a given number of cranes in a year based on crop damage under federal law. In 2012, a peak year for the permits, 1,136 Michigan cranes were killed. But the guidelines prohibit collection of the carcasses, so they’re simply left in the fields, a requirement Lower criticizes as wasteful.

“As somebody who hunts and fishes a lot, that’s pretty offensive to not be able to harvest the meat,” says Lower. “The hunting season would solve that.”

Environmentalists disagree. Before the resolution even made it to the House floor, groups including the Audubon Society and the Green Party launched an opposition campaign, highlighting the bird’s precarious history, local symbolism – many consider Sandhill cranes, Michigan’s tallest bird, an area treasure – and spiritual importance to some Native American tribes. Bird lovers in Michigan and across the country were outraged.  

“We’re not an anti-hunting group,” says Rachelle Roake, conservation science coordinator for the Michigan Audubon. “But we really support scientifically sound management practices, and this isn’t what a sandhill crane hunt in Michigan would be.” 

There simply isn’t enough viable data on the cranes’ Michigan population to responsibly manage any kind of hunt, Ms. Roake says. The state’s apparent sandhill resurgence should be celebrated, she says, but it’s only in the past several years that the population appears to have stabilized to healthy levels. And the data that does exist, including from the US Fish and Wildlife's fall survey, may show a strong positive trend but still varies wildly. In the Michigan Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, another barometer, the state’s estimated spring population actually dropped from 115,000 in 2015 to 49,000 in 2016.  

“Overall it’s not a well-understood population,” Ms. Roake says. “And there are huge standards of errors on all of the numbers that we actually have.”

Sandhill cranes’ slow maturation and low breeding rates also make any impacts difficult to detect, Roake argues. Because the Eastern Population’s numbers were so low as recently as a couple decades ago, the birds in Michigan likely have low genetic diversity, leaving them especially vulnerable to any changes. “It’s just kind of a slippery slope,” she says. “Once you open that door to hunting, it’s hard to go back.”

A loose concept

At this point, it’s unclear what a Michigan sandhill crane hunt would actually look like. The resolution passed by the House is non-binding. A spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources tells the Monitor that the agency is advising the Commission on science but has no position on the matter. If the Commission does accept the legislators’ recommendation, hunt parameters, including the length of the season and number of eligible birds, would be set in accordance with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Advocates argue this serves as an important safeguard, and that any hunt would be limited to levels that wouldn’t damage the population’s overall health. “I personally, and I think the legislature, prefer that [guidelines] are set by wildlife experts,” says Lower, who has provisional plans to lead a sandhill hunt for legislators if the measure goes through.

Another way?

Environmentalists counter that even a highly regulated hunt would kill birds without actually solving the problems faced by farmers. Instead many advocate a different solution: Newly developed seed coatings for the crops that irritate cranes’ stomachs without actually harming them, training the birds to stay away from the crops. The most common is Avipel, a nontoxic repellent developed in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation. “It’s been shown to be effective,” says Roake. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Opponents fire back that modifying the seeds is expensive and impractical. In Montclam, Johnson, says she’s wary of any crop modifications, partly because of a negative connotation that might hurt sales. “I’m skeptical,” she says of the coating idea. A new crane hunt, she adds, “would be fine.”

In the absence of some intervention, however, the reality is that the cranes are likely to continue to clash with farmers because the two are essentially competing for limited resources.

“This really comes down to a habitat loss issue,” says Roake. “Michigan has lost so much of its wetlands, and a lot of that wetland habitat has been farmed.... Where else is wildlife going to go?”

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5. For women of color, more diversity at the makeup counter

Madam C.J. Walker launched her beauty empire for black women in the early 20th century, becoming a self-made millionaire and philanthropist. But the rest of the cosmetics industry has been slow to embrace a more inclusive sense of beauty – until now.

Yvonne

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It’s a makeup-counter issue, but one that’s more than skin-deep. Traditionally, cosmetics producers have focused mainly on creating products for white women who, until recently, made up a majority of their market. Many women of color faced having to blend multiple products until they got the right match for their skin tone – or just going without. But those norms are poised to change. Part of that is simple demographics; babies of color now outnumber non-Hispanic white babies. Also, women of color, specifically black women, make up a majority of black spending power in the United States. Black Americans spend approximately $1.3 trillion today, and that number could reach $1.5 trillion by 2021, according to a 2017 Nielsen report. The trend toward more inclusive beauty products isn’t exactly new. But recent trends, such as the sellout success of pop star Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty products, suggest that those homemade remedies may soon become a thing of the past. Black women are increasingly able to influence the cosmetics market through their purchases. And it’s sending a deeper cultural message than just creating a fresh face.

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For women of color, more diversity at the makeup counter

When Wanja Ochwada dropped by cosmetic store Sephora recently she encountered a scene she describes as “coming into a sisterhood”: women excitedly trying out a new brand of makeup and offering up their opinions to their friends.

“[There were] maybe 14 or 15 other black women … [saying] ‘Do you think this works with my shade? Could I get away with this concealer...?’ Everyone’s hopping in being kind of like a bossy older sister with each other. It was great,” recalls Ms. Ochwada, who was looking for a foundation in the new Fenty Beauty line to match her dark skin tone.

But the color she wanted was already out of stock. Instead, the communications specialist from the Bronx in New York had to settle for sampling shade 420 while in the store.

Mega pop star Rihanna is the celebrity prowess behind Fenty Beauty. The line, launched in September and marketed as “Beauty for all,” features a foundation that comes in 40 different shades ranging from very light to very dark. It sold out almost immediately.

In Ochwada’s experience, options at the makeup counter have been limited. “You have to make do with what you got, basically,” she says.

Many women of color tell stories of having to blend multiple products until they get the right match for their skin tone – or just going without makeup at all. But recent trends, such as the sellout success of Fenty Beauty products, suggest that homemade remedies may soon become a thing of the past.

Traditionally, cosmetics producers have focused mainly on creating products for white women who, until recently, made up a majority of their market.

“Because we live in a society where white and/or light-skin is still considered the norm (or at least is associated with power, privilege, and positions of authority), the mainstream beauty industry has focused primarily on products for women who fit this category,” writes Shauna MacDonald, director of programming for the gender and women’s studies program at Villanova University in Villanova, Penn., in an email.

Deeper cultural message

But those norms are poised to change. Racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States are outpacing whites, with babies of color now outnumbering non-Hispanic white babies, according to the 2016 US Census. Further, women of color, specifically black women, make up a majority of black spending power in the US. Black Americans spend approximately $1.3 trillion today, and that number is expected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021, according to a 2017 Nielsen report.

In short: Black women are increasingly able to influence the cosmetics market through their purchases. And it’s sending a deeper cultural message than just creating a fresh face.

“I think we also have a tendency to – when we are talking about things like makeup – to really trivialize it,” says Professor MacDonald, an associate professor of communication, in a phone interview. “[B]ut it really says a whole lot about who we value, what we value, what we consider to be beautiful, and then that’s linked to whose lives do we value….”

The trend toward more inclusive beauty products isn’t exactly new – celebrities facing the challenge of finding makeup for their skin tone have helped to expand or create lines in order to fill in the color gaps within the cosmetics industry over the past several decades at least. In 1994, supermodel Iman, noting the lack of makeup options available, created Iman Cosmetics, marketed specifically to women of color with the tagline, “Beauty for your skin tone.”

Recognizing a growing market as ethnic demographics expand, established brands have increasingly worked to partner with celebrities of color. Neutrogena began to offer darker shades of foundation and lip stick after it signed Kerry Washington, the star of TV show “Scandal,” as a creative consultant and brand ambassador. Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award in 2013 for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” was named a Lancôme ambassador in 2014, the first black woman to be the face of the company.

In a recent interview with the Times of London Ms. Nyong’o said she sees expanding product lines as a sign of progress.

"Even during my time with Lancôme, they have expanded their range of skin tones," Nyong’o said. "I remember a time in my teens when it was impossible to find my color of foundation. When I began going on red carpets, we used to have to mix different colours to get the right one for my tone. I don't have to do that any more...."

Consumers weigh in 

In the world of social media, where word travels faster than gossip in a beauty salon, consumers offer their marks of approval of products like Fenty Beauty, as manufacturers watch reactions closely.

“[T]he online word of mouth, the reviews and feedback has helped consumers drastically, and then it helps companies direct feedback about their products so they can then adapt, adjust, create new lines,” says Sally Baalbaki, an associate professor of marketing at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Social media also has the power to fell misdirected efforts. Dove recently posted a three-second video on Facebook showing a black woman in a nude shirt take off her shirt to reveal a white woman in a beige shirt who then takes off her shirt to reveal an Asian woman in a nude shirt. Frames of the first two women were posted on the internet, drawing comparisons between Dove and old soap commercials that advertised the power to wash the “blackness” off of dark skin.

Responding to the social media backlash, Dove deleted the clip and posted an apology on Facebook, stating that they “missed the mark.”

“In some ways consumers are in a position to demand a diversity of images that they weren’t able to demand [before], and they’re also able to point out when certain messages fail,” says Afshan Jafar, an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College in New London, but notes that more change will come more quickly when women of color are represented in the top levels of cosmetics companies.

While some consumers think Rihanna’s launch comes at a timely moment in the current dialogue on race in the US, others feel the issue of inclusivity in the beauty aisle comes down to profit margins.

“[I]f the line does extremely well for Rihanna, I think you’ll see more companies … diving in,” says Kimberly Norwood, a professor of law and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not really about inclusion…. It seems to me that the driver here is, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a lot of money to be made here. Let’s hop on it.’ ”

SOURCE: Fenty
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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The Monitor's View

An awakening to end mass shootings?

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If rapid-fire guns are not going to be curtailed anytime soon, Americans can at least awaken to the profound need for multifaceted ways to prevent individuals from conducting wholesale killing. A good example of a country that has experienced a profound shift in public attitudes is Morocco. After a series of terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003, the North African nation launched a holistic and proactive approach aimed at reaching deep into society to avert further attacks. It has made social reforms, such as granting rights to women in hopes they might better prevent radicalization. It made economic reforms aimed at its poorest regions in order to reach marginalized youth. It encouraged Muslim preachers to promote a peaceful version of Islam. And if radicalized Moroccans are captured, the government tries to deradicalize them and reintegrate them into society. Perhaps it is time for the United States to become a leader in how to end them. The first step is a public awakening, driven by a desire to reach individuals prone to kill – before they act.

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An awakening to end mass shootings?

Other than small efforts by a few states to better regulate guns, does the United States have a grand strategy to end mass shootings? Given recent statistics, the lack of one seems odd.

Two of the worst mass killings – in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas – took place in the past two months. They have helped make 2017 the deadliest year for such tragedies. Over the past five years, the US has experienced four of its five most lethal mass shootings.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US created a comprehensive strategy to counter terrorists. But that national effort has mainly worked overseas. Inside the US, “lone wolf” killers inspired by radical Islam, such as those responsible for the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015 and Orlando, Fla., in 2016, have been difficult to detect ahead of time. It’s also been difficult to identify non-Muslims, who, motivated by racism, revenge, or anti-Islam bigotry, have planned attacks, and prevent them from carrying them out. 

No matter what the motive, mass shootings are mass shootings. And if rapid-fire guns are not going to be curtailed anytime soon, Americans can at least awaken to the profound need for multifaceted ways to prevent individuals from conducting wholesale killing.

A good example of a country that has experienced a shift in public attitudes is Morocco. After a series of terrorist attacks in Casablanca that killed 45 in 2003, the North African nation launched a holistic and proactive approach aimed at reaching deep into society to avert further attacks. A US State Department report last July praised Morocco for its multidimensional strategy, “which places at the top of its priorities the objectives of economic and human development, vigilant security measures, as well as regional and international cooperation.”

Morocco has made social reforms, such as granting rights to women in hopes they might better prevent radicalization. It made economic reforms aimed at its poorest regions in order to reach marginalized youth. It encouraged Muslim preachers to promote a peaceful version of Islam. It beefed up security agencies to provide community-based policing and better track individuals supporting the Islamic State group. And if radicalized Moroccans are captured, the government tries to deradicalize them and reintegrate them into society.

Morocco is now considered a “leader in the battle of ideas taking place in the Muslim world,” according to an article in Foreign Affairs magazine last year, and in forging “a more inclusive society.”

Perhaps it is time for the US, with its sad history of large-scale shootings, to become a leader in how to end them. The first step is a public awakening, driven by a desire to reach individuals prone to kill – before they act. The statistics on gun deaths point to such a need.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Celebrating the International Day of the Bible

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Sunday, Nov. 12, is this year’s International Day of the Bible. What a welcome invitation to all to discover the Bible’s universal healing message. The Old and New Testaments alike tell of men and women from every walk of life who discovered they have a direct relation to their spiritual creator, and show how understanding that can turn us from despair to hope and from brokenness to wholeness. God isn’t a far-off God, but ever-present divine Love, as today’s contributor proved when she had a healing of partial paralysis of her body. The Bible’s ideas are for everyone to put into practice and experience healing. Its healing message goes far beyond denominational loyalties. It’s about the liberating transformation open to each of us and to the world.

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Celebrating the International Day of the Bible

Sunday, Nov. 12, is this year’s International Day of the Bible, and people from every country are invited to pause at noon their local time to express, in their own unique way, their love of the Bible.

But this doesn’t need to be limited to those already familiar with the Bible. It’s an invitation to all, even those who may feel that the Bible is irrelevant or even detrimental to their lives, to discover its deepest healing ideas, which are life-changing, colorblind, gender-indifferent, and age-oblivious. Sincere seeking can bring insights and clarity that go to the heart of salvation itself – finding a path to freedom from all kinds of impositions, whether in finances, relationships, health, or any other area where we feel stuck or afraid.

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is practical in a profoundly simple way. It helps us understand that we are the spiritual image of God, good, the divine Spirit, and shows us how to get along with each other (for instance – “Do to others as you would have them do to you” [Luke 6:31, New Revised Standard Version]). The Hebrew Scriptures (also commonly known as the Old Testament) and the New Testament alike tell of men and women from every walk of life who discovered they have a direct relation to their spiritual creator, and show how understanding something of that can turn us from despair to hope and from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ’s healing ministry showed that God isn’t far-off, but is ever-present divine Love, healing the sick and stilling life’s storms.

Perhaps the most remarkable point about the Bible is that it points to spiritual laws – laws that are universal, reliable, always available. The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, ascertained these spiritual laws and named them Christian, or divine, Science. As a science, these laws can be put into practice and proved by anyone, with healing results.

I experienced this one time when I developed a frightening physical condition during a tough time at work. Colleagues had been let go over differences with management, and feelings of anger, resentment, and even despair took over my thought. How could people I had respected make what seemed to me to be terrible management decisions?

Simultaneously, an infection developed that escalated to symptoms of blood poisoning, resulting in partial paralysis of my body. While this was frightening, I also knew problems even more difficult than this had been overcome in biblical times, as related in the scriptural record. I thought about how, in many of those accounts, the first step in healing was the removal of fear through feeling the peace of God’s loving presence.

I decided to pray about this, and what came to thought was a Bible passage I was very familiar with. I read it again, astonished at how specifically it spoke to my situation. Speaking of how we are all children of God and can progress toward expressing more of the love and trust in God that Christ Jesus did, it reads, “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (I John 3:3, NRSV).

In a flash, I realized I had lost my hope, wrongly placed in an organization instead of God, divine Love. What needed purifying was my thought, to better see that everyone’s true nature as God’s creation is loving, peaceful, and whole. I prayed to not just feel God’s loving presence, but to feel a spiritual love for each decisionmaker at work. As I did, not only did the feelings of despair and resentment lift, but it was an awe-inspiring moment when the infection began to drain and complete movement was restored.

The Bible’s healing message goes far beyond denominational loyalties. If you’ll let it speak to you, it’s about a liberating transformation – your transformation and the world’s.

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Viewfinder

Never failing to remember

Toby Melville/Reuters
A wooden cross with a poppy is installed in the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey in central London Nov. 9, in preparation for Armistice Day Nov. 11.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte, Jacob Tourcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 10th, 2017 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks so much for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We're working on a story about how in the ruins of Puerto Rico, lies an opportunity to build back better.

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 09, 2017
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