Some good news for one area school district.
For the fourth year in-a-row, the Lindbergh School District ranked tops in academic achievement in Missouri.
State education officials used data from the MAP test results to create the rankings. Students in the district in grades K-12 excelled in communication arts and math. Lindbergh High School had the highest score of any school in English-language arts. And three of Lindbergh's elementary schools ranked in the top 10 schools in the state.
The impressive performance led Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to label the district "Accredited with Distinction".
Residents of Maaloula said the militants entered the village late Wednesday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighters included members of the of al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Despite heavy army presence in the village, Abdul-Rahman said the rebels patrolled its streets on foot and in vehicles, briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
The rebels launched the assault on the ancient Christian village of Maaloula — which is on a UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites — on Wednesday after an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the mountain village. The village, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
Heavy clashes between President Bashar Assad's troops and Nusra Front fighters persisted in surrounding mountains Thursday, according to the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.
Speaking by phone from a convent in the village, a nun told The Associated Press that the rebels left a mountaintop hotel Thursday after capturing it a day earlier. The nun said the frightened residents expect the Islamic militants to return to the Safir hotel and resume shelling of the community below.
"It's their home now," the nun said. She said some 100 people from the village took refuge in the convent. The 27 orphans who live there had been taken to nearby caves overnight "so they were not scared."
The nun spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Meanwhile Thursday, a car bomb exploded outside a research center belonging to the Ministry of Industry in area of Soumariya near Damascus, killing four people and wounding several others, a government official said. The official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
In Damascus, three people were injured when several mortar shells hit two residential neighborhoods, the state news agency SANA reported. Rebels fighting to topple Assad have frequently fired mortars in the capital to disrupt life there that the regime tries hard to portray as normal and detached from the fighting raging around the country.
In the northern province of Aleppo, a Syrian surgeon working for an international aid group that supports doctors in war zones was killed. Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Thursday that the 28-year-old surgeon, Muhammad Abyad, was killed in an attack. Abyad, whose body was found Tuesday, had been working in an Aleppo hospital run by the group.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. After two years of fighting, the civil war hit a stalemate with the rebels controlling much of the countryside in the north, east and south, and the regime holding on to most urban centers in the west, where the majority of Syrians live.
The four-decade iron rule of the Assad family over Syria long has rested on support from the country's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shiite Muslims and Kurds. The Assad family and key regime figures are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, with nearly 7 million people uprooted from their homes. U.N. officials estimate that five million Syrians have been displaced inside the country while an additional 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. The total amounts to nearly one-third of Syria's population, which stood at 23 million before the fighting began.
United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos met with Syrian government officials in the capital Thursday, lobbying them for access to civilians trapped in areas where fighting has raged.
After a meeting with the President of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Amos told the AP that she is "extremely concerned that the situation on the ground is becoming worse."
An alleged chemical attack near Damascus in August has brought the U.S. at the brink of carrying punitive airstrikes on Syria after the Obama administration concluded that Assad's forces were responsible.
President Barack Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing Assad's regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people.
Obama has called chemical weapons use a "red line." Top administration officials have argued before the Senate and around the world that Assad would take inaction by Washington as a license for further brutality against his people.
So far, however, Obama has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.
At the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Obama will later Thursday confront Syria's closest supporter, Russia, as well as foreign leaders skeptical of his call for an international military intervention in Syria.
Moscow and Washington have sharply disagreed over ways to end the Syria bloodshed with Russia firmly supporting Assad's regime and protecting it from punitive actions in the United Nations. The U.S. has backed the opposition and has repeatedly called on Assad to step down. He has refused and the U.S. has been supporting the rebels with non-lethal aid and by training some rebel units in neighboring Jordan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insists Obama has yet to prove his case for striking Syria, although Putin appeared to have tempered his rhetoric slightly in a pre-summit interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. He said then that he wouldn't rule out backing a U.N. resolution if it can be proved Assad used chemical weapons, as the U.S. has alleged.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy urged U.N. investigators to release information as soon as possible about the chemical weapons attack in Syria so that the international community can decide how to respond.
In unusually strong language, Van Rompuy told reporters in St. Petersburg on Thursday that the Aug. 21 attack "was a blatant violation of international law and a crime against humanity." But, he said, it's too early for a military response.
Pope Francis urged world leaders to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria and work instead for dialogue and negotiation to end the conflict.
In a letter to Putin, the Group of 20 host, the pope lamented that "one-sided interests" had prevailed in Syria, preventing a peaceful solution and allowing the continued "senseless massacre" of innocents.
___ Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.
"We've kind of hit a wall," Obama said of the United States' ties with Russia the day before he arrived in St. Petersburg for a global summit.
With tensions mounting over issues including Syria, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, and human rights, Obama and Putin did not plan to hold a formal bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering. A formal greeting outside St. Petersburg's Constantine Palace was their only planned one-on-one public appearance.
Parsing the body language between Obama and Putin has become something of a geopolitical parlor game every time the two leaders meet. But there wasn't much to work with this time: Their exchange lasted 15 seconds.
Obama's black armored limousine pulled up to the palace where Putin was waiting to greet each of the leaders. The U.S. president was the only leader who used his own official vehicle for the arrival, opting not to use the summit-issued Mercedes the other 19 leaders used.
The two leaders, both smiling, greeted each other with a handshake. Obama gestured toward the palace and the bright blue sky, declaring the location "beautiful."
Obama and Putin may talk again on the sidelines of the summit, including Thursday night at a leaders' dinner where Syria was expected to be discussed. But any discussion would be private.
Differences over Syria have heightened tensions between Obama and Putin since the civil war there started more than two years ago. While the U.S. president has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad's ouster, the Russian leader has helped prop up the Syrian government, both economically and militarily.
Putin also has criticized Obama's push toward potential military action against Syria to punish it for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. Obama is seeking congressional authorization for a military strike, an endeavor with uncertain prospects.
Upon coming into office, Obama made a high-profile effort to "reset" relations with Russia. He made progress with former President Dmitry Medvedev, including on missile defense and opening more transit lines from Afghanistan. But the relationship began to fray when Putin reassumed the presidency.
Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings on the world stage, where their stiff body language has signaled a troubled relationship. During a news conference, Obama described Putin's notorious slouch that made him look like "the bored kid at the back of the classroom."
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Putin played down the notion of personal tensions with his U.S. counterpart.
"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," Putin said. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone, either."
The relationship hit perhaps its lowest point this summer when Russia granted temporary asylum to Snowden, the former government contractor. The Kremlin's decision came despite pleas from the Obama administration to return Snowden to the U.S. to face espionage charges after he absconded with a trove of documents detailing secret U.S. surveillance programs and leaked them to the media.
In retaliation, Obama called off plans to meet one-on-one with Putin in Moscow ahead of this week's summit.
___ Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
Men at the forefront of the geopolitical standoff over Syria's civil war sat around the same huge, ornate table Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia: President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Saudi Prince Saun Al Faisal al Saud, among others.
The world's unemployed and impoverished may get short shrift at this summit, though activist groups are pleading with leaders to join forces to tackle corruption and tax-avoiding corporations, in hopes that stabilizes and better distributes economic growth.
Here's a look at what's happening at the two-day summit of the G-20, nations that represent two-thirds of the world's population, 85 percent of its GDP and its leading armies:
Western bombs are unlikely to fall on Syrian government targets during this gathering. The U.S. and French presidents are readying possible military strikes over what they say was a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad's army, but both are waiting for the U.S. Congress to weigh in first.
In the meantime, Obama and Hollande came under pressure and criticism Thursday from opponents of intervention, as China and EU leaders urged restraint. The U.N.'s Ban is pressing for diplomatic action.
Putin, on his own turf and looking strong in the face of Western hesitancy to tangle militarily with the Russia-backed Assad, told The Associated Press this week that any one-sided intervention would be rash. But he said he doesn't exclude supporting U.N. action — if it's proven that the Syrian government used poison gas on its own people. And China is among those warning at this summit that oil price volatility resulting from an international Syria war could threaten global economic recovery.
US-RUSSIA BODY LANGUAGE
Even without Syria, Obama and Putin had plenty to disagree about.
Obama snubbed the Russian leader, cancelling a one-on-one meeting over lack of progress on other issues too — including Russia's harboring of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed U.S. surveillance of emails and phone calls of Americans and foreigners. The U.S. also strongly opposes arrests of political opponents and a new law against gay "propaganda."
Body language may be key to understanding where the U.S.-Russia relationship is going. The two leaders shook hands as the summit opened, but Obama's face was stern as he watched Putin open the G-20 talks. Will they relax and make small talk over over dinner at Peter the Great's resplendent Peterhof Palace? Will other leaders take sides?
The goal of some leaders at this G-20 is to get major cross-border companies such as Google and Starbucks paying more taxes instead of using loopholes and tax havens.
Laudable to the general public, it's complicated both practically and politically. It would require cracking down on well-connected companies registered in Delaware or the Virgin Islands, for example.
But if any forum can tackle this, it's the G-20, with all the major government decision-makers at the table. Some leaders also want to rein in so-called shadow banking and regulate hedge funds more.
FED UP WITH THE FED
The developing economies whose vigorous growth helped the world economy survive the financial market meltdown five years ago are now starting to falter. And they're placing part of the blame on the U.S. Federal Reserve's expected moves to wind down stimulus measures. China and Russia started off the summit by warning the U.S. to consider international fallout as they set monetary policy.
That expectation has pushed up long-term U.S. interest rates, which has in turn led investors to pull out of developing countries and invest in U.S. assets instead. The leaders of Russia and Brazil and others may appeal for the U.S. to coordinate with other governments when it changes financial policy.
With Russia set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in five months, this summit is THE place for other leaders to pressure Putin to open up his country and himself to criticism, opposition and public debate.
Activists want pressure against Russia's gay propaganda law, a law banning adoptions by Americans, and legal cases targeting Putin opponents. The Russian leader, for his part, wants global recognition, and revenue, from these games.