A new DCPS Strategic plan?


Following brief background material and a tabular summary of the major content of the new plan, immediately below, we go on to present:

o a tabular summary of NARPAC's own comments, expressing considerable disappointment over both a dearth of "first-order" elements, and a wealth of extraneous elements certain to boggle an administratively-challenged management structure;

o an analysis of the plan's few quantitative goals, which appear to be overly optimistic compared to American norms, either in nearby school districts, or across large cities;

o graphic quantitative comparisons of relevant parameters, using 22 nearby school districts and 10 major US cities, and concluding that DC schools aren't doing that badly considering equivalent demographic components, varying teacher proficiency, graduation rates, and school sizes; and

o comparative school district costs and the relative burdens they present, which, along with the DCPS facilities mess, are deflected in the plan.

In short, the Strategic Plan apparently hopes to solve DC's perceived public educational shortfalls with a welter of "inside-the-schools" action items, but with no meaningful programs to rectify , or at least bring a halt to, the self-perpetuating "outside-the-school" problems for which past DCPS failures are largely responsible.

(And almost a year later, the new DCPS superintendent has released his new Master Education Plan, and there are possible implications for a major new effort to downsize aging DCPS Facilities.)


Eight months into his current reign as Superintendent of DC Public Schools, Dr. Clifford B. Janey has released an ambitious "Declaration of Education", his "strategic plan to raise achievement and the quality of education DC public schools provide, which focuses on academics, management systems, and communications". He also expects that "the results will help rebuild the confidence of students, parents and the community and help restore excellence in DCPS."

As summarized by the press release, this plan "follows months of work and collaboration with the DC Education Compact (DCEC) , a group of 300 local parents, officials, teachers, administrators, business representatives, students, and institutions of higher education." In Dr. Janey's own words "the measures in our Declaration of Education will transform DCPS into a world-class school system that the District can be proud of. What DCEC and I are proposing is a fundamental redesign of this school system and it cannot happen fast enough."

The Mayor endorsed this effort by commending Dr. Janey for "providing much-needed leadership throughout our public school system....(and) a framework for strategic and comprehensive improvements to ensure that our children receive the high-quality education they deserve". The Mayor is apparently "particularly heartened by his focus on the need for superior teaching and learning". The School Board President reinforced the effort by acknowledging that "we know we are choosing a difficult path, but it is one that is necessary and long overdue."

Since its publication, the "strategic plan" has gotten strong endorsements from the DC Council, influential members of Congress, and the Washington Post. In fact, the endorsements are so strong that NARPAC is forced to conclude that the cheerleaders probably have not read the report in detail just as they endorsed the GAO's "structural imbalance"report without understanding its dubious content, but simply because they agreed with the help it would provide the District.

It should also be noted from the outset that the DCEC has simultaneously published a research report, prepared by DC's State Education Office in 2004, entitled "Establishing a Baseline". It offers an interesting and valuable summary of quantitative data and relevant recommendations presented by other educational organizations. While NARPAC finds it somewhat long on exposition and short on analysis, it arguably has one of the finest presentations and collections of school-related photographs we have ever seen (photo credits to Rick Reinhard). This supporting report is worth scanning in its entirety by clicking here.

summary of plan

The Declaration of Education can be found in its entirety by clicking here . NARPAC has elected to summarize it on a series of four charts which can be enlarged here, or printed out as separate pages by clicking on the "print out" box below each one. The first one lists the three "core values" and three overall "goals" around which the plan is written. Each goal has a set of 3- 6 "strategies" associated with it, and each of those strategies has a series of different proposed "action items" (NARPAC's terminology) spread across four different time frames. While such emphasis on numerology may not be appropriate, it indicates the scope and detail embodied in this "strategy":

to print out this table, click here to bring up a separate page.

The next three charts summarize (in very few words) the major thrust of each "action item" in each time frame under each of the five strategies associated with Goal 1. While priorities are not stated anywhere, it seems obvious that higher quality teaching should be at the head of the line. Whether this also produces higher quality learning is perhaps a matter of interpretation:

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The second major goal deals with increasing the efficiency of management and operations support:

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And the third goal, which seems driven by the huge number of participants in the DCEC process, is expanded below

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return to the top of the pageNARPAC commentary

NARPAC has tried to summarize its own comments in bullet form (a much harder job, of course) on the next three charts: The first chart notes nine items which we believe should be considered "first order terms", in mathematical terminology, along with another ten items which NARPAC finds significant by their absence. The "appropriate items" should be relatively self-evident:

The "not included" items may be somewhat less obvious. NARPAC is concerned that there are absolutely no quantitative projections concerning the number or type of students to be expected, or of the characteristics of their parents. There is no indication that school authorities are concerned that student performance is related to parental capacity, particularly their (her) own education level. There is also no indication that the school system accepts any responsibility for "trying again" to educate those young parents that dropped out, often due to teen pregnancies (or conflicts with the law). And considering the very high costs of special ed programs to DCPS, it seems strange that the plan devotes so little space to its peculiar demands, to say nothing of some of its local causes.

In other areas, the plan indicates no sense of priorities or resource costs, and essentially puts off any consideration of the massive inefficiencies associated with the surplus DCPS properties discussed elsewhere. There is no acknowledgment of the influence of entrenched unions. There is no consideration of the relative ability of various school districts to pay their differing school costs. And despite all the talk of developing a "culture of transparency, communications, and collaboration", there is not one word to indicate that the District is surrounded by at least a dozen neighboring school jurisdictions doing better jobs than DC is. Some of these issues are treated further below.

The second chart on NARPAC's comments lists a baker dozen "action items" which appear of marginal, if not negative, value. We see little need, for instance, to establish five different levels performance among DC schools. doubt the need separate DCPS "leadership academy its principals, or (further down) another train parents how be community leaders and, presumably, school activists. There is even program teach other (dumber?) interpret assessments their kids' performance. were also surprised that security responsibilities are now being transferred Metropolitan Police Department, rather than maintaining separate, specially honed, cadre guards. this gimmick foist off normal costs agency having troubles own?>

In summary, NARPAC, some of whose officers have considerable experience in long range planning (in different domains), conclude that this may be some sort of "declaration of education", but it hides a possibly worthwhile strategy in a welter of secondary issues that could well clog the (evidently) limited capacity of the DCPS school staff. But more to the central point, it seems to set goals for the city's "education providers" that will forever exceed their grasp. It also seems to assume that kids half way through their learning process (and already depressingly "street-wise", and pubescent) are susceptible to re-direction in the near term. There is no shortage of quantitative statistics and reports indicating the undeniably primary effect of extra-school influences on kids' receptivity to learning. This report seems to ignore the virtually irreplaceable role of parents and community. It is also moot on the virtually indisputable fact that this same school system helped create those failing parents (and mostly quite recently), and accepts no responsibility for "recycling" them, or less crudely, offering them an opportunity to "try again". The goals being set for rapid educational improvement would seem to fly in the face of statistical evidence and analysis. This is treated in subsequent sections.

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page quantitative goals

The only quantitative goals set forth in this new DCPS Strategic Plan consist of a projected annual improvement in test scores between 2005 and 2009, as well as significant increases in attendance and graduation rates, with equivalent (but not necessarily consistent) reductions in truancy and drop-out rates. NARPAC's analytical bent welcomes the inclusion of such numerical goals, but is concerned that they may not be related to the real world potential for improvement.

We have explored the correlations between kids' scores in schools and their parents' "scores" in their communities on several occasions. We have looked and the relationships between poverty and ignorance and particularly at the role of parents , and the undeniable relationships between 'NAEP' test scores and race. We have also proposed the establishment of formal live-in facilities on school grounds for the purpose trying again to provide a minimally acceptable level of school for drop-out moms.

The chart below points out the trap of establishing NAEP score improvements without understanding the vast differences between the performance of different groups of school kids. Although these charts appear to make race the issue, skin color is only a "convenient" label for what is more basically a substantial gap in income levels, and those income levels are, in turn, directly and indisputably connected to both parental education levels and the additional economic hardships of single parenting.

As NARPAC has described in those references above, the NAEP scores divide the test results for each grade and subject into four categories: ranging from "below basic" (the bottom), and "basic" (not good enough to get by on) to "proficient" (solid understanding of the subject matter) and "advanced" (exceptional performance). We present these scores with the latter two categories "above the line"(green and purple), and the lower two categories as "below the line" (red and yellow). It should be noted that virtually all public school systems are heavily weighted below the line, with only a third to a tenth assured of meeting the needs of economically successful adulthood.

The chart should be reviewed as follows: the four horizontal bars in the center of the chart (top to bottom) are the goals established by the DCPS Strategic Plan for score improvements for 8th Grade reading improvements from '03 (now) to '05, '07, and '09. In short, the objective is to shift from 10% above the line to 22% above the line within six years, while reducing the "below basic" category (those risking a life of poverty) from 53% of the class to 38%. Surely not an unreasonable goal? This is where the comparisons are important, and unfortunately, tell a different story.

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The seven bars on the upper part of the chart above show the average scores for several different sets of students ranked in decreasing order. Best NAEP scores are achieved by the total for all US Catholic schools, next come the overall state averages for Virginia and Maryland. A bit lower than those is the US national average for all public schools; followed by a lower New York State average; an even lower average for all major US cities; and, lastly, "DC now". Comparing these scores to the projected goals for DC by 2009, DC's goals seem somewhat more ambitious, exceeding the average for major US cities, and equaling the national average (is this its origin?).

But the problems with matching this national average are more subtle: DC kids' parents are considerably less likely to be part of the kid's upbringing (particularly fathers); and parents' educational achievements are considerably less, leading to many more kids below the poverty line. Statistically, this converts to the need to "compare black apples" rather than the total apples in the classroom. And the lower bars on the chart above (missing only the Catholic component) show that the projected improvements in DC black kids' performance, which is now about average for US cities, would, within the six years, end up substantially higher than for the US national average and the states of Maryland, Virginia and New York. As was pointed out in this earlier reference, it is a sad fact that black kids in DC aren't doing much worse than black kids all over the US. Similar statistics can also be generated for higher drop-out and lower graduation rates. But the even more important implied conclusion is that the endemic educational problems for black kids are more related to outside-the-school problems than to inside-the-school problems. So much for the major focus of the new strategic plan!

To demonstrate this same conclusion with a different sample, NARPAC took the scores of the 10 big cities used in the DCEC Baseline (the same cities we used in 2004) shown on the graphic below. The same result shows through. DC's strategic plan goals look quite credible relative to the average scores for total enrolled students, but look substantially overblown relative to the accomplishments of black kids in any of those nine other cities.

the world around DC

While it is almost an article of faith that "urban schools" are different than their suburban counterparts, it is also true that "the suburbs" also run the gamut from almost-rural to "just as citified". NARPAC's analytical article of faith is that core cities like DC have a lot to learn from, and benefit from, closer alliance with their surrounding jurisdictions in their "extended metro area". To this end, we have looked at the latest available school data in the context of some 22 other school districts within east driving distance of our nation's capital: these range from Baltimore City (and suburban Baltimore County) in Maryland to the North, down to Richmond City and lush Fairfax County in Virginia to the South. (The full list is shown three charts further along.) The charts that follow summarize the gamut of parameters, and the ranking of DC among them.

As shown on the bar charts above, DC is the sixth most populous of the sample jurisdictions considered, but third from the bottom in terms of median household income. It is fifth from the top in terms of total households, and fourth from the top in terms of the share of those households led by single parents with kids. It is fourth from the worst in terms of the share adults lacking a high school diploma, but it is also fifth from the bottom in terms of adults who finished high school but not college. It is somehow symptomatic of a community whose middle class is boxed in by too many uneducated on one side, and (perhaps) too many well-educated on the other.

With regard to inside-the-school statistics, DC is the sixth largest in terms of enrollment, third from the bottom (again) in reading and math proficiency scores, the "darkest" in terms of skin color, but not by much. DC has only the fifth largest share of special ed kids, and third largest share of kids in poverty, but a relatively small quotient of ESL kids (for whom English is a Second Language). In short, DC schools are not as unique as some of their fiercely independent protagonists would claim.

Finally, DC does seem to have some unique qualities in its math and reading scores. The sample is smaller in the chart above because Maryland does not (yet?) break out its students' scores by racial and/or disadvantaged categories. In comparison to 10 Virginia school districts, however, DC's (tiny) share of white kids rank third from the top, whereas their Asian, black and Hispanic kids all score significantly lower than the rest of the sample in both English and math. The same applies to DC's ESL kids, their special ed kids, and their kids in poverty (which influence the aggregate scores above. Is there something wrong with DCPS performance (or its testing system)? These comparisons would indicate there is room for improvement. But it does not say whether these improvements will be more effectively applied inside or outside the classroom.

cities are diverse too

To satisfy those who believe that DC should only be compared to other cities, NARPAC has also derived equivalent school-related data from nine other well-known American cities. They do help fill in the gap toward the upper end of the minorities and poverty spectrum. In fact, however, DC is small as cities go, and presents a few somewhat inconsistent qualities:

DC is in the middle of the ten-city sample although its school population is very much smaller than that of the really big US cities. DC has an unusually small number of kids per school coupled with an unusually high expenditure of school dollars per kid. DC has an above-average median household income, and MHI per kid as well. DC has a relatively low fraction of its kids in poverty, but an above-average number of single parents, and the highest fraction of blacks and Hispanics in its classrooms. DC parents have a somewhat above normal 'education score' (indicator of education level), and their kids appear to have average math and reading proficiency scores themselves. Compared to this sample of American cities, the DCPS isn't doing all that badly other than how much it is spending (!). Dispassionate analysts cannot help asking how much better should they be expected to do. In fact, the new strategic plan's goals for scholastic performance appear unrealistic.

return to the top of the page interrelated parameters

Reasonable analysis, then, should be able to estimate just how much better DC's city kids should be expected to do, and to check if Janey's new strategic plan deals effectively with the first order terms that seem to impact on those kids' educational performance. The first order of business is to develop an understanding of the interrelationship between school-related parameters. The second is to take an objective look at whether the influential parameters are basically inside-the- school or outside-the-school problems. For instance, extensive past NARPAC work points to the role of disadvantaged single moms in the poor performance of disadvantaged kids.

The complex 6-part chart below presents six different community- and school-based parameters as they relate to the census-reported percentage of single parents in each of these city and county school districts. It is important to understand here that to the extent that each of these parameters are clearly related to the baseline parameter (% single parents), then they are, per force, related to each other. In essence, this chart tries to summarize with 30 quite different, but consistent, data sets, that several of the outside-the-school parameters are related to each other and, ultimately, to inside-the-school performance. We have added crude trend line arrows to simplify the visualization: the arrows are not mathematically "pure", but they are adequate to emphasize the point.

In short, and within the bounds of statistical scatter, the following observations apply:

As the percentage of single-parent school district families increases from zero to 25%:

o Median Household Income drops from about $100,000 to near zero;
o "Adult Education Score"* drops by half (* = a simple NARPAC "indicator" composed of the % parents with HS diploma, or more + the % parents with a college degree or more);
o the share of "economically disadvantaged" kids approaches 100%;
o the share of black students rises towards 100%;
o the kids' representative "math + reading" scores drops three- or fourfold;
o the ratio of school costs per kid to available household income per kid rises steadily, making the 'affordability' of schooling harder and harder to bear.

Please note that these are relationships and do not necessarily represent direct "cause and effect". Nevertheless, it seems abundantly clear from the two central charts that both parents' educational achievements and their kids' educational accomplishments are directly related, and can be expressed by using household income and/or economically disadvantaged share as proxies. This is shown below by plotting parents 'education scores' directly against their kids' math + reading scores. Careful readers may note some extra points on this chart relating to DC education scores broken out by the city's eight wards. They are disregarded in choosing an oversimplified trend line for reasons given further along.

It is of some interest to note that the "state reports" provided by "School Matters" include a technically precise trend line between students' reading and math proficiencies and the percentage of economically disadvantaged kids in each sample. The scatter chart reproduced (purloined?) below shows the considerable regularity of the trend line for the 636 school districts (!) within New York State. NARPAC strongly recommends visiting this fascinating web site. Unfortunately, this group has not yet extended these trend lines to include the other parameters noted above.

Identical trend lines can be developed for individual schools, as shown to the left for the 45 public schools in nearby Virginia's Arlington County and Alexandria City. These schools should be of particular interest because their jurisdictions are clearly as "urban" as DC, although demographically more diverse. To the extent that they perform better or worse, local exchanges might provide useful inputs in leveling the regional educational playing field. Unfortunately the local Council of Governments, which has well over 30 different policy, special, independent, technical and professional committees, does not appear to have any group working cooperatively on improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids or their disadvantaged young parents.

Finally, it is also possible to look for similar trend lines within DC's eight wards, although it is not clear that the data are as easily or accurately allocated between these internal political boundaries. The four charts below are based on the same now-defunct DC Agenda data as are presented in the DCEC Baseline report. It is also more of a credibility stretch to add straight-line arrows to so few data points. On the one hand, NARPAC realizes that the trend lines shown above are almost certainly not linear as they approach asymptotes at each extreme. But we are also concerned that the data are not entirely consistent with those in "SchoolMatters" reports. For instance, unless the parental education cohort is limited to those with kids in public schools, the relationship between kids' scores and adult scores is almost certain to be flatter, as demonstrated three charts earlier. But it remains undeniable that more and better educated parents have a first- order impact on the school performance of their kids.

teacher proficiency

It is also clear that teacher proficiency must enter the equation somewhere. Next to parental example and "sidewalk influence", the teacher can obviously increase kids' willingness and capacity to learn. Surely at least a good portion of the scatter in all these data charts can be attributed to in-school factors, including environment and successful teaching. It is nonetheless more difficult to quantify based on statistics turned up by NARPAC so far. The chart below presents the raw facts concerning the influence of teachers' formal education on a number of variables. NARPAC has adopted a simple teacher's "education score" awarding one point for each percentage of teachers with Bachelor's degrees and two point for each teacher with a Masters or better. These scores for various jurisdictions of interest (as above) are then compared to six other relevant parameters.

Reading from left to right and top to bottom, the conclusions are often not as might be expected: a) there is no positive correlation between teacher's education score and the graduation rates of their students; b) there is no evident proclivity for favoring better educated teachers for the white and Asian students who appear to get far better grades; c) there is no evident trend to favor better educated teachers among jurisdictions with a greater ability to pay (i.e., a higher median household income); and d) only a weak indication that better educated parents somehow end up with better educated teachers; e) there is some definite correlation between kids' scores and their teachers' education levels; but finally f) only a somewhat odd correlation between the overall school costs per kid, and the education level of their teachers.

It might be noted that there is no data point for DCPS on these charts because the necessary information is not available. It is an astonishing fact that the DC school system does not have good information on the credentials of its teaching staff. It is not surprising that better records for teachers and school staff turn up as Action Item #6 of Strategy #2 of Goal #2! Nevertheless, it is by no means clear to NARPAC that DC needs teachers with stronger academic skills rather than greater skills in substituting for missing parental inspiration.

graduation rate goals

NARPAC also hoped to be able to use relevant "SchoolMatters" statistics to confirm or deny the realism of the Strategic Plan's push to raise graduation rates almost 20% in the next few years, from 70% in '03 to 82% in '09. This seemed somewhat overambitious if, as stated, graduation requirements are to be raised at the same time. There is no way to gain any insight into the equivalence of various jurisdictions' standards for graduation. In fact, we were startled to see how few of the major American city school districts even provide statistics on their graduation rates. Among those cities not reporting graduation data are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Rochester (from whence Dr. Janey came), Syracuse, Detroit, Phoenix, and New Orleans. (There is an unfortunate amount of missing data or inconsistent reporting on the SchoolMatters web site, but it is clearly not their fault!) Nevertheless, NARPAC has cobbled together the single chart below presenting some indication of the (expected) decline in graduation rates with increasing minority enrollments. There is a paucity of data among cities with higher minority shares (like many of those noted above), and the seven NARPAC found (Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are all over the map. In any event, DC's current graduation rate of 70% does not appear to be far from the norm, and the likelihood of raising it as far as the Superintendent proposes appears slim.

clinging to small schools

If there is any one inviolate article of faith amongst DC school advocates, it is that small schools will produce better teaching and learning than larger schools, apparently particularly for larger minority populations. (Note that we are referring here to how many kids there are in one set of school buildings, not how many there should be in any one classroom.) On the other hand, if there is any one article of faith among business analysts, it is that bigger is better because the "economies of scale" generate more efficient operations. If this DCPS plan, for instance, were to accept the average school size of the 22 regional and 10 big city schools used throughout this analysis, the system could get along with a full one-third less school properties, principals, and outmoded physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, this plan does not address the contentious issue of inefficient facility utilization: much to NARPAC's surprise, it leaves this key subject for later consideration.

In any event, sooner or later this issue will arise. It is not unreasonable then to look to see if this sample of school jurisdictions can support the small neighborhood school advocacy. According to the chart below, there is no clear advantage in kids' recorded proficiency scores as school size drops from, say, 800 to 400 kids per school. In fact, if it were not for three wayward data points (upper left: the cities of Atlanta, GA, and Richmond, VA, and the rural jurisdiction of Washington County, MD), there would be a clear trend in the opposite direction: scores in 800- kid schools are on average almost double what they are in 500-kid schools.

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of the page education costs

The new DCPS "Declaration of Education" is virtually silent on the matter of school costs or, for that matter, the ability of the jurisdiction to support those costs. While education advocates tend to dismiss cost considerations, the fact is that they are bound to color both school and student accomplishments. It is ironic that school districts with the highest percentages of "disadvantaged" students, are also the districts with the least capacity to pay the additional costs they incur. Since "outside help", be it state, federal, or private, is likely to depend on those outside perceptions of their efficiency and effectiveness, "disadvantaged districts" can ill-afford not to be cost-conscious.

For whatever its worth, DCPS provides plenty of ammunition for those who would deign to question its cost-consciousness. The charts below provide comparisons with the 22 near-by school districts (same as used earlier).

As indicated on the charts above, DC already has the highest total school costs per teacher in this part of the world. On the other hand, since DC insists on maintaining relatively small (and frequently under-utilized) schools, the total costs (budget) in each school, the total teachers in each school, and the funds spent on facility costs in each school are all significantly below regional averages. Whether these lower totals reflect in easier management responsibilities or just a demand for more accountants, NARPAC cannot judge.

In terms of costs per student, this next chart set indicates that the total operating+ capital costs for DC is second only to one other jurisdiction (Arlington, VA). It is second only to Arlington and Alexandria in the total costs of instruction and support, and higher than all other chosen samples in all aspects of school non-instructional costs, including administration, food, transportation, and facilities operations and maintenance. This is particularly suspicious because DCPS is for all intents and purposes "average" in terms of kids per teacher. Where DCPS does lead the pack is in how few kids there are per school. How could any analyst avoid suspecting that the unrealized "economies of scale" are working against DC in this regard? The analyst becomes even more skeptical when, as shown above, there is no evidence in these data that small schools have produced a significant beneficial effect on student scores virtually anywhere else.

Finally, NARPAC cannot avoid returning to the issue of the ability of any jurisdiction to support its school costs. Four different aspects of this real-world problem are shown above. First and foremost, of course, is that total DC school spending per kid is matched by only one other jurisdiction, and is just about 60% greater than the sample average. At the same time, its mean income per household (MHI) is just over 30% below that average. However, these numbers have to be (or should be) adjusted for the numbers of kids per household. In this regard, DC ranks near the middle in in MHI per kid in school, due to the relatively low number of families with kids in the city. Then again, however, costs are significantly higher for disadvantaged kids than for those with substantial resources of all kinds outside the schools. In this respect, the more significant criterion is probably an estimate of the jurisdiction's income per disadvantaged kid. NARPAC concludes that DCPS school funding demands are relatively "unaffordable" (27% short) compared to other near-by school districts. Any indication or plan suggesting that DC should welcome any more kids to educate in its oversized, overaged facilities would appear to be sheer folly.


New chapters have been added in April 2006, discussing the new DCPS superintendent's new Master Education Plan, and the possible implications for a major new effort to downsize aging DCPS Facilities

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This page was updated on April 5, 2006

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