Archives for category: Principals

Paul Thomas spent many years as a high school teacher in rural South Carolina before becoming a professor at Furman University. As those of you who have followed his writings know, Thomas is a powerful social critic.


He has recently written a series of articles criticizing the mainstream media for swallowing the corporate reform line about “the crisis in our schools.” He points out that the media have been complaining about our “terrible” schools for over a hundred years and predicting that the schools will ruin our economy (which has never happened).


In his first post on this topic, he cites the article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times about a high school in South Carolina that has rising graduation rates but less-than-stellar test scores. The point of the article is that graduation rates are rising because standards are falling. The article was followed up by an editorial lamenting the crisis in our schools and calling for more testing and more of the reforms that have failed for the past 15 years.



Thomas writes:



Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:


Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.

Metrics such as high-stakes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.

Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.

The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.

Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.

However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.


First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.


Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).


And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.



Paul Thomas received a few complaints on Twitter about his post and he returned with a second post, in which he notes that journalists who write about education seldom seek comments from teachers, principals, and informed education scholars. Instead, they quote think-tank spokesmen, economists, political scientists, statisticians, business leaders, and others who have little or no understanding of the reality of schooling. By bypassing those who actually have experience in education, journalists recycle the “crisis” narrative while ignoring the genuine problems in education and society (e.g., resegregation, inequitable resources, the pernicious effects of high-stakes testing) that should be changed.


Thomas writes:


My argument is that since most political leaders and political appointees governing education as well as most journalists covering education are without educational experience or expertise, these compelling but false narratives are simply recycled endlessly, digging the hole deeper and deeper….


And on the rare occasion that I am interviewed by a journalist, I can predict what will happen: the journalist is always stunned by what I offer, typically challenging evidence-based claims because they go against the compelling but false narratives.


No, there is no positive correlation between educational quality and any country’s economy.


No, teacher quality is actually dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of student achievement.


No, charter and private schools are not superior to public schools.


No, school choice has not worked, except to re-segregate schools.


No, merit pay does not work, and is something teachers do not want. Teachers are far more concerned about their autonomy and working conditions.


No, standards do not work—never have—and high-stakes testing is mostly a reflection of children’s lives, not their teachers or their schools.


This list could go on, but I think I have made my point.


When one of the journalists tweeted that she knows how to be a journalist, “It is my profession,” Thomas felt compelled to write yet a third post on the failures of education journalists in writing about education. Basically, he replies that if journalists expect to be respected as professionals, why don’t they treat teachers as professionals?


He writes:


To be perfectly honest, education journalism has significantly failed to extend respect to educators—for decades.

The entire accountability era is built on the premise that schools are not effective because teachers simply do not try hard enough, that education lacks the proper incentives (usually negative) to demand the hard work needed for schools to excel.

The “bad teacher” mantra that has risen during the Obama presidency, and the increase of calls for and uses of value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers both further de-professionalize and demonize teachers—and the great majority of education journalism has embraced, not refuted, these.


And as I have already noted, the favorite meme of education journalism remains (for over 150 years) that education is in crisis.


How would journalists feel if “journalism is in crisis” was the primary and initial given about their field, for a century and a half? Does that honor your professionalism? Especially if you have little or no power over your field, especially if your voice is nearly muted from the discussion?….


What does it say to teachers when mainstream education journalists are quoting one think tank leader with no experience in education (and a degree in a field that is not education) more than all the quoting of classroom teachers combined?


Anthony Cody read Paul Thomas’s posts about the media and suggested that his ideas should open up a wider debate about whose voices get heard in the public debates about education.


Cody was especially disturbed that the Education Writers Association, which had awarded prizes to his work in the past, would no longer give full membership to bloggers like Anthony Cody, Paul Thomas, and Mercedes Schneider (or me, for that matter). None of them will ever be eligible for prizes for their writing and investigative work. Cody received an explanation from EWA staff saying that the work of bloggers did not meet their high standards for independent journalism. “Among many factors, we look for is the media outlet’s independence from what is covered, institutional verifications, and editorial processes.”


This is almost comical: Are education journalists subsidized and/or employed by Eli Broad, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Michael Bloomberg more independent than bloggers who are paid by no one at all? Should all the education journalists at the Los Angeles Times be excluded from EWA since Eli Broad and a few other billionaires are underwriting education reporting there? What assurance does the public have that they are allowed to criticize Broad, who wants to control the city’s public schools? As between bloggers like Anthony Cody or Paul Thomas and reporters who work for a publisher who loves corporate reform ideas, who do you think would be more independent?


Cody suggests that EWA would do well to revise its bylaws and open its full membership to bloggers, because many are current or former classroom teachers and could add different perspectives, different experiences, and expertise to the other members of EWA.















Troy LaRaviere won the Mayor’s merit award for principals in Chicago, for the third year in a row. This is funny, because LaRaviere has been Rahm Emanuel’s most outspoken critic. Troy spoke out against the privatization of janitorial services; he compiled the data to show that public schools outperform charter schools; he endorsed Chuy Garcia, Rahm’s opponent. He urged the parents at his school, Blaine Elementary, to opt out of the state tests. He is fearless and outspoken. But he is also the best principal in the city.


Ben Joravsky writes:


Despite LaRaviere’s record of opposition to the mayor’s school policies, this principal has won three $10,000 merit pay awards (totaling $30,000) for school years 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14. He may have won one for last year—CPS hasn’t announced them yet.


That’s means he’s received more money in merit pay than any other principal in the city—including those from the mayor’s much-adored charter schools.


When I saw Rahm had given Troy so much love, I thought I owed the mayor an apology.


I’d always viewed him as one of those vengeful, cutthroat types. And here it turns out he’s a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. Next think you know he’s going to give me the keys to the city.


Then I called LaRaviere. And it turns out Mayor Emanuel had nothing to do with giving out that merit pay.


Well, OK, yes, it’s true that the idea of giving merit pay to principals is something that Mayor Emanuel came up with back in 2011.


And yes it was Mayor Emanuel who raised the $5 million for the awards by passing the hat among some of his closest political allies, including Penny Pritzker, who donated $1 million, and Bruce Rauner, who donated $2 million.



Joravsky concludes that other principals who have kept quiet should step up and speak their minds. If Troy LaRaviere could win a merit award of $10,000, three years in a row, there is no excuse for anyone to bite their tongue.

In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof offers a list of “gifts with meaning” for Christmas giving.


He can’t avoid making a gratuitous slap at public education.


He writes:


We’re seeing painful upheavals about race on university campuses these days, but the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools. To address these roots of inequality, a group called Communities in Schools ( supports disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino, in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.


I’m all for sending money to Communities in Schools, but it is an outright lie to say that our K-12 education system “routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools.” Some of our nation’s most dedicated teachers and principals are working in schools in the nation’s poorest communities. The children they serve include disproportionate numbers who have disabilities and who don’t speak English. Many live in unsafe neighborhoods, seldom get routine medical care, do not have food security or even a home. Almost all so-called “failing schools” are located in neighborhoods that are racially segregated and impoverished. Why would Kristof smear the professionals who work there in a spirit of service?


I got an email from the celebrated children’s book author Jean Marzollo, who wrote that she was outraged by Kristof’s derogatory comments about the schools:


My anger came from what I thought was a sweeping insult to the people who work in his so-called “worst schools.” When visiting schools over the years as a children’s book author, I have met many wonderful teachers, principals, and other staff members in his so-called “worst schools” that serve our “disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino.” The word “routinely” is a bit insulting, too, because it implies that people in charge of schools don’t care.


I wish Mr. Kristof had said that “…the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which for various legal and financial reasons sends our neediest kids to schools with the highest populations of poor kids. The fundamental problem of our neediest kids and our neediest schools is poverty.”


The civil rights issue of our time is to reduce poverty and eliminate segregated neighborhoods, so that all children have the opportunity to have a good life and the opportunity to go to a good school.


Of all the people writing for the New York Times today, Nicholas Kristof should understand the link between poverty and low academic outcomes.





John Thompson, historian and teacher, says that he usually doesn’t worry about principals, but this piece demonstrates that he knows the stress they are under in the current context of fire first, aim later.

Principals and assistant principals give up the best job in the world, teaching, for one of the most stressful of careers. In my experience, they do it in order to help more students. Three excellent articles describe the additional pressure that is being placed on principals in an age of reform.

Clearly, these efforts will not be sustainable if we do not start treating school leaders as valuable resources that can’t be squandered.

My principals all had to claim to believe that better instruction, data, “High Expectations!,” and leadership were enough to turn around the highest-challenge schools. The few who really believed that systemic progress could be driven by instruction within the four walls of the classroom could be annoying, but they were sincere. For instance, one of those frustrating assistant principals faced down a student with a loaded gun rather than take the safe path and allow the police to handle it.

For over a decade, the prime method of turning around schools with the highest concentrations of generational poverty and kids who have survived extreme trauma has been to use up and throw away dedicated teachers and principals. Chalkbeat NY’s Geoff Decker, in “Q&A with Automotive High’s Principal: ‘There’s Always Pressure in This Building,’” featured one of those principals, Caterina Lafergola. She has fought the good fight at New York City’s Automotive High School since 2011.

Lafergola says, “You can’t do this work unless you love it because it will chew you up and spit you out. I love the work. I love the kids.”

The principal cites two huge problems, the “compliance issues” that a school leader must handle, and students’ trauma. Lafergola says of her students, “They’re traumatized. Last year, one of our babies was murdered. Died like a dog in the street.”

Automotive is no longer a “madhouse,” where it took 20 minutes to transition between classes and where there were rampant gang affiliations and drugs. If the standard school improvement model was working, by now Automotive would be creating some stability. But, of Lafergola’s 32 teachers, 14 are brand new. On the other hand, perhaps under Chancellor Carmen Farina and Mayor Bill de Blasio and with the implementation of Restorative Practices, more improvement will be possible.

In a second instructive article, the Hechinger Report’s Peg Tyre featured New Orleans charter school principal, Krystal Hardy. Significantly, it is entitled, “Why Do More than Half of Principals Quit after Five Years?”

When Hardy first took over, Tyre reports that her office “became something of a war room. Colorful line graphs affixed to the walls showed student progress on interim standardized tests.” The young principal “planned every school day around maximizing opportunities to provide guidance to her staff. She assigned daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals for teachers. All were written out in crisp detail and color-coded.”

Every day, the former TFA instructional coach “gave teachers a mini-lesson on instruction,” then “checked her teachers’ lesson plans, and once a week she issued a newsletter that “singled out teachers for ‘glows’ and ‘grows,’ and set goals for the coming week.

Despite the principal’s all-consuming dedication, test scores were disappointing, evaluations further stressed out teachers, and five of the 14 teachers in the kindergarten through fifth-grade classes left. The article ends with possibly good news; Hardy’s “tenor has softened.” Tyre describes the principal’s evolution as a lesson for reformers. She concludes, “In their zeal to create new models to help vulnerable children, mission-driven education reformers across the country have created schools where the days are demanding and the goals grueling. It’s why even the most gifted principals and teachers leave so quickly.”

Third, Stanford’s Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban published an excerpt from Kristina Rizga’s Mission High. This features San Francisco principal Eric Guthertz. Guthertz almost lost his job in 2009 due to School Improvement Grant regulations, but he was fortunate that the district has been supportive of his pedagogy – one that is a challenge to the S.I.G. norm.

Guthertz says that “most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms,” but he and his team “spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms.”

Mission High’s administrative team also observes classrooms regularly, studies the data, especially referrals and suspensions and the number of Fs and Ds disaggregated by ethnicity and race. The purpose, though, is to support students and teachers. One-on-one teacher coaching is provided and teachers plan units together and analyze student work collectively. Consequently, “Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a ‘hard-to-staff school’” The district’s chief communications officer says, “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work.”

Teaching in the inner city has always been tough, and being a principal even harder. After NCLB ramped up the pressure, my school rarely had year when a principal or an assistant principal did not require hospitalization in the spring. Most were hit by heart-related illnesses and probably all of their conditions were complicated by the stress of the job. Of course, many veteran teachers were also felled by the conditions in the inner city. For the life of me, I can’t understand why reformers have been so cavalier about using up and throwing out educators. But, maybe articles and books like these will make a difference and, to borrow Cuban’s phrase, we will stop disposing teachers and principals like worn-out tissue paper.

Education is a profession that is supposed to be about nurturing, developing, helping, supporting, and building not only intellectual competence but affective qualities. Race to the Top, with its harsh and punitive approach to school reform, ruined the lives and careers of many dedicated educators. Many were harmed, not only children, who were tested endlessly, but teachers and principals who were unjustly fired.

What happened to the principals who were fired because their school had low test scores? Carole Meyer of Washington State was one of them. She was fired in 2010 because her school was among the lowest performing in the state. She decided to write a dissertation about what happened to her and others similarly placed. She interviewed six other principals who were fired in 2010. She earned her doctorate. She is now a principal in a middle school that she has led successfully for the past five years. Her dissertation can be found here:

The title of her dissertation is “School Principals’ Reassignment Under Race to the Top Legislation: Washington State Principals’ Sense Making and Affective Experience”

She writes:

The purpose of this qualitative interview study was to explore how K-12 public school principals in Washington State “made sense” of the experience of being reassigned under the provisions of Washington State’s version of RTTT.

The research questions this study attempted to answer were:

(a) How do principals describe what happened when they were reassigned?

(b) How did principals work with staff, students, district, and community around the issue of being reassigned?

(c) How did reassignment impact principals emotionally, personally, and professionally?

(d) What are principals’ evaluations of this type of policy approach?

And (e) What were the human costs/benefits associated with reassignment?

Conceptual frames related to human costs (Rice & Malen, 2003), sensemaking (Weick, 1995, 2005, & 2007), and Kübler-Ross’s Grief Construct (1969) were used to guide the study. Extensive in-depth interviews were conducted with six selected principal participants to explore their experiences of reassignment.

The major themes that emerged from the data analysis were (a) costs of reassignment associated with RTTT policy implementation, (b) principal critique of this type of policy approach, and (c) the sensemaking journey of each principal impacted by reassignment. This study found that reassignment had substantial impacts on principals, their critiques of the policy included: (a) unintended consequences; (b) the number of years required to successfully turn around a low-performing school; (c) lack of alignment with good practice in schools; (d) SIG grants’ failure to demonstrate notable benefits to students; (e) the mistake of funding education through competitive means; and (f) the importance of political action and principal “voice” in shaping education policy.

However, over time, the participants were able to resume a sense of normalcy in their work.

The following four major conclusions from this study can be stated: (a) RTTT is a draconian approach to education reform and its costs outweigh the benefits; (b) RTTT policy’s restrictive requirements were seen as unfair and left little choice for districts; (c) principal “voice” is a critical component in education reform; and (d) conceptual frames of Rice and Malen (2003), Weick (1995, 2005, & 2007), and the Kübler-Ross Grief Construct (1969) describe participant’s experiences.

Who stands up for the neediest, most vulnerable children in Chicago? Not Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Not the Mayor’s hand picked Board of Education. Not the Superintendent Forrest Claypool, who imposed what he himself calls “unconscionable” cuts to special education.

Who stands up for the children? Educators.

Principal Troy LaRaviere (who was previously warned by CPS about speaking out too much) describes here the principals’ revolt, and the CPS officials’ sneaky effort to announce the cuts in a Friday afternoon (when they would get minimal media attention), with only one day to appeal.

If this what reformers stand for? Hurting defenseless children?

LaRaviere writes:

“Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more. This time, they’ve targeted special education students. Obscured in the latest round of CPS budget cuts is an unprecedented move to cut legally required special education services. Educators are often asked if a school based budget cut will affect students. The answer is always “yes.” Each person in a school provides a service to a group of students. When CPS decides to cut the dollars that fund a school-based position they are, in effect, taking the service away from students.

“One district official was quoted in the Sun-Times stating, “CPS continues to work with our principals to prepare for these adjustments.”

“Adjustments” is CPS’ latest euphemism for cuts to student services. If they keep it up, they’re going to “adjust” students out of their education entirely. CEO Forrest Claypool often repeats a talking point that the cuts CPS will “have to make” are “unconscionable.” If one thinks the cuts are “unconscionable” then one does not give those cuts a false euphamistic name like “right-sizing.” Yes, that’s the actual term they use to describe their efforts to reduce services to special education students. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, CPS took an additional $13.3 million worth of services from CPS students with their latest “adjustments.” The article includes a spreadsheet detailing the cuts to schools across Chicago. For example, Ogden school lost five special education teachers and three special education assistants, while Austin High School lost two teachers and four assistants.

“Chicago’s mayor and CPS officials often cite the need to “sacrifice” in order to “save money” as a justification for such cuts. However, all too often CPS and City Hall pretend not to see opportunities to save money by making those who can most afford it sacrifice. Instead they turn their avaricious eyes toward those who can least afford it: our students. They didn’t make the banks that swindled CPS out of $100 million sacrifice by suing them to recoup their losses; they prefer to make students sacrifice by increasing their class sizes. They didn’t makes SUPES Academy sacrifice by denying the organization a $20 million no-bid contract; they prefer to make students suffer by cutting their sports programs. They didn’t make the scores of basement dwelling for-profit charter school management organizations suffer (88% of charters are in the bottom half of CPS performance in student reading growth); instead they took funds used to provide programming for students in more successful neighborhood schools. They didn’t make Aramark and Sodexo Magic (an Emanuel campaign contributor) suffer by canceling their custodial management contracts when they failed to keep schools clean; CPS and City Hall prefer instead to make special education students sacrifice by cutting their legally required educational services.”

Where are the lawyers?

Troy LaRaviere is a prominent elementary school principal in Chicago. He has been outspoken in his opposition to Rahm Emanuel’s budget-cutting and his preference for privately managed charters. He is on the honor roll of this blog for his courage and articulate support of the children and educators of the Windy City.

He recently spoke at the Chicago Club and titled his address, “A Love Letter to Chicago’s Teachers.”

Much to his surprise, he received an anonymous love letter from a teacher. She was deeply inspired by his speech.

Her letter to Troy begins like this:

I’ve been reading and listening to your love letter over and over the last few weeks. Your passion is contagious. Your sweet words, hard and true, light the darkness in my heart; the light I had forgotten. Although, your words I hold dear to my heart…I cannot leave my man (CPS). He provides for me…without him…I don’t know how I would be able to feed my kids. Yes, he is abusive…He constantly threatens to quit me. He reminds me annually that I can be easily replaced by someone younger, cheaper and less experienced. He doesn’t respect me…in fact he constantly belittles me with tests that constantly change and evaluations that are subjective and punitive…as if I haven’t proven that I am worthy or good enough despite the years that I have sacrificed for our relationship. He sends people to check up on me in hopes of catching me doing wrong.

Troy says he is a shy man by nature, but clearly he was moved by this letter. You can bet he will fight even harder now for justice and equity and respect for the city’s teachers, parents, and children.

Troy LaRaviere is the outspoken principal of Blaine Elementary School. He has spoken out repeatedly and publicly against Mayor Emanuel’s policies. He wrote an article showing that Chicago public schools outperform its charter schools. He chastised the Illinois State Board of Education for neglecting the children of Chicago. He encouraged the children in his school to opt out of the state tests. He supported Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in his challenge to Rahm Emanuel.

Then last week, he spoke on a panel at the Chicago Civic Club, and he lambasted the status quo and the Mayor’s policies.

That did it! The Chicago school board passed a “warning resolution,” which may be a prelude to firing him.

Still defiant, LaRaviere wrote on his website:

“That resolution had absolutely no effect on me curtailing my desire to articulate and help the city of Chicago understand how backwards and corrupt this system is,” he said. “If anything, it intensified that desire.”

With a few people like Troy in every city, we could send the privatizers back to their country clubs, shamed by the righteous wrath of the brave and the bold.

Marc Tucker’s blog reports how top-performing nations select school principals. Most require several years of teaching experience and a long and in-depth course in leadership skills. The report, by Jennifer Craw and Jackie Kraemer, describes the high professionalism required in top-performing nations.

By contrast, some states in the U.S. allow non-educators to become principals.

The U.S. is definitely an outlier.

Carol Burris recently retired as principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center on Long Island, Néw York. She is now executive director of the Network for Public Education. She read recently that MaryEllen Elia, the new Commissioner of Education in New York, said that she would be “shocked” if any educators encouraged parents to opt out of state testing, and she said such educators (if they existed) were “unethical.”

Burris wrote:

“Well, Ms. Elia, be shocked. I am turning myself in to your ethics squad. I absolutely encouraged the opt-out movement last year. In fact, I did so right here on the Answer Sheet. I don’t think I could have been clearer when I wrote this:

‘But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to opt out is now.'”

Yes, indeed, Burris encouraged opting out, as did many other administrators, both superintendents and principals.

Burris believed it would have been unethical to stand by in silence.

She wrote:

“It would have been unethical to not speak out after watching New York’s achievement gaps grow, indicating that the tests and the standards on which they are based are not advancing the learning of the state’s most vulnerable kids.

“It would have been unethical to ignore watching the frustration of my teachers whose young children were coming home from school discouraged and sick from the stress of test prep designed to prepare them for impossible tests.

“It would have been unethical to not respond to the heartbreaking stories that I heard from friends who are elementary principals—stories of children crying, becoming sick to their stomach, and pulling out hair during the Pearson-created Common Core tests.

“And it would have been unethical to not push back against a system of teacher evaluation based on Grade 3-8 test scores that is not only demeaning and indefensible, but also incentivizes all the wrong values.

“So if there is a place called Regents Jail, I guess that is where I will have to go.”

Burris noted that Elia would have to lock up her boss, Regents’ Chancellor Merryl Tisch as well, since Tisch recently said that if she had a child with disabilities, she would “think twice” about allowing the child to take the state tests.

Who is “unethical”? The educator who complies with orders regardless of her personal and professionsl values or the educator who refuses to do what she knows is wrong?


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