Posts Tagged ‘Parent engagement’

Union District in Oklahoma Exemplifies Network School Model

April 3, 2017 Leave a comment

David Kirp’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes, “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?” describes the success experienced in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Like most districts in Oklahoma, Union is woefully underfunded. But despite the shortage of money, it is doing an amazing job of educating its largely Latino and poverty stricken population. How? By accepting full responsibility for the well-being of the children who attend and by offering all the children in the school a challenging STEM curriculum…. But I believe the acceptance of responsibility for well being and the caring for each and every student that goes with it are the primary factor.

“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

The school operates like an institution that is the parent who can show the way and a one-stop community service center:

The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

This integration of social services is a universal key component to every high performing public school, as is are the extended hours for child care and/or extra-curricular activities. And while the services offered in the “neighborhood hub” model don’t add a dime to the school budget, they DO require the school to re-format itself, to adopt a new algorithm for success apart from preparing students for the next standardized testing cycle.

Mr. Kirp concludes his article with a paragraph consisting of two questions:

Will Ms. DeVos and her education department appreciate the value of investing in high-quality public education and spread the word about school systems like Union? Or will the choice-and-vouchers ideology upstage the evidence?

I trust he knows the answer… and I sense he shakes his head in dismay as he poses the questions.

Supreme Court Decides in Favor of Special Education Parent, Sets Stage for More Downshifting of Costs, Public School Budget Increases

March 25, 2017 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously supported the parents of an autistic child who unilaterally withdrew their child from school and sought tuition reimbursement. In what will surely become a landmark case for public education, Politico writer Caitlin Emma reported that the judges all concurred that “school districts must go the extra mile to accommodate students with disabilities“, overturning the 1982 Supreme Court ruling that individualized education plans must provide “some educational benefit”. Ms. Emma offered some details on the Chief Justice Roberts’ written decision:

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that a “child’s education program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

“The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. This standard is more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”

Roberts declined to interpret that FAPE provision or elaborate on “appropriate” — “mindful that Congress has not materially changed the statutory definition of a FAPE since Rowley was decided.”

But he said the requirement must be “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

During the years I served as a school administrator I witnessed the advent of PL 94-142 and subsequent court fights over what the term “Free and Appropriate Education” (FAPE) meant. At the same time I heard endless excuses from the US Congress as to why they could not find the promised funding necessary for schools to implement the laws and regulations that mandated FAPE. In 1982, when the Rowley case was decided, districts had some degree of clarity on what they were required to provide to students with special needs: they needed to demonstrate that a child was receiving some educational benefit from the IEP developed in team meetings with parents. Because this was a low bar, over the years many parents pushed to change this standard, to no avail until the Endrew v. Douglas County case decided on Wednesday.

The consequences of this decision will take some time to work their way through the system. Students’ IEPs are reviewed annually and many 2017-18 plans are already adopted. It will take time for parent advocacy networks to gear up and time for school district attorneys to get a clear picture of what this will mean for the development of future IEPs. The budgetary and educational impacts of this bill will likely occur in 2018-19 onward, but here are three budgetary predictions I will offer:

  1. The Federal government is more likely to change the definition of FAPE than it is to provide the 40% funding promised when 94-142 was passed: Given the budget presented by President Trump in accordance with the GOP platform, I do not see any possibility of an increase in funding for Special Education. Indeed, given the broad outlines of the budget thus far, it is more likely that the current budget will be frozen or possibly diminished.
  2. The State budgets for the coming year will not include additional funding to help underwrite the costs district will incur: Given that the GOP controls 35 of the States and they are universally intent on containing taxes and spending, it is unlikely that they will find room in their future budgets to accommodate the additional spending that will inevitably result from this decision. Moreover, given the nascent movement that directs more state funds toward de-regulated charters, homeschool students, or students enrolled in sectarian schools, the pool of funds available for public schools is likely to diminish without the additional burden of providing expanded programs for special needs students.
  3. Local budgets will be required to absorb all of the budgetary impact that results from this decision: If, as a result of this decision, more students are placed in specialized programs like the one Endrew sought, their tuition costs will accelerate and local taxes will increase or programs will be compromised. If, as a result of this decision, districts decide to independently or collaboratively develop specialized programs, the additional costs for those programs will be drawn from local taxes or programs will be compromised.

Given those budgetary predictions and the impact of the State’s movement that allocates more funds for parents whose children attend de-regulated charters, are homeschooled, or enrolled in sectarian schools, the diminishment of funds and resultant diminishment of offerings for regular education students will likely result in flight from public schools.

There will be exceptions to this flight from public education, however. Affluent communities who value their schools and want the best for all students enrolled in the schools and already pay higher taxes may not experience higher costs. Many of these districts are already providing programs for special needs children that are, in Judge Robert’s words,  “…reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Districts offering programs that already meet this standard will not feel the same pressures as districts who strictly adhered to the de minimus standard set by Rowley. Those districts, whose barrier to entry is the need to qualify for a mortgage on an expensive home, will continue to thrive.

The districts who will suffer the most and experience the most flight will be those with limited tax bases who serve low income children. As costs are shifted downward and mandates for special education and costs escalate, their budgets will become increasingly tight and they will be forced to cut programs. As programs diminish, the parents who are most engaged in their children’s education will withdraw and the district will be serving the most difficult population: children raised in poverty whose parents are also struggling.

I do believe the Supreme Court did the right thing in this case. I wholeheartedly concur with Judge Roberts’ assertion that a child’s education program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances”. My fear is that while the courts will continue to rule in favor of children and parents, the legislature will continue to shirk it’s responsibility to provide the means for ALL districts to provide an appropriately ambitious program for ALL children. I would love to be proven wrong.


An Unsettling eSchool Article Describes What Happens When You Give A Kindergartener a Chromebook

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

I am an an advocate for using technology to individualize and personalize instruction, but I fond myself getting a know in my stomach as I read Laura Ascione’s eSchool article titled “If You Give a Kindergartener a Chromebook”. The article described the experience Jamie Morgan, a Kindergarten teacher in Wichita Falls TX, has using Chromebooks in her classroom of children, many of whom had special needs. This paragraph gave me my first knot:

Because her class from the previous year was high-achieving, no one expected this new class to achieve the same test scores. And although Morgan’s new class entered with “scary” test scores, by the end of the year, their test scores surpassed the high scores of her previous class. Much of that achievement is due to the Chromebooks, Morgan said.

My reaction to this paragraph: TEST SCORES to determine “achievement” for Kindergarten students??!!! Have we lost our collective minds?

As I read on I learned that the students in Ms. Morgans class spend hours on end in front of a computer mastering the use of various Google applications. I have five grandchildren whose ages range from 4 to 11 and I cannot imagine wanting the to spend classroom time on a computer. They enjoy engaging with each other, playing pretend games, writing “plays” to present to us, and engaging in physical activities. My children do everything possible to keep the children off screens.

After reading the article I was more convinced than ever that the last thing Kindergartners need is a course based on Chromebooks. Far better for them to use their open minds to learn another language or, better yet, learn how to ride bikes, hit a tennis ball or baseball, or enjoy walking in the woods.


Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos “Parent-Teacher Conference” Grossly Under-represents PUBLIC School Parents

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a report on President Trump’s so-called “parent-teacher conference listening session”, pasted from the Politico feed I get each morning:

(Betsy) DeVos attended an education-focused White House event Tuesday during which President Trump decried “failing schools,” particularly in the African-American community, and said his administration wants “every child to have a choice about where they go to school.But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten questioned whether public school families – including African-American parents – were adequately represented in the event, which was billed as a “parent-teacher conference listening session” and held in the Roosevelt Room. “Trump talked about African-American children. Did he have black parents or educators at his photo op? Not that we saw,” she tweeted.

– In a letter to DeVos after the event, Weingarten wrote that “90 percent of children in America attend public school, including children whose parents voted for Donald Trump. Yet, from what we could discern the president’s first meeting in the White House on education was used as a platform to denigrate – not strengthen – public schools with primarily private and home-schooling educators and parents as a backdrop.” Weingarten invited DeVos to visit public schools.

– The guest-list breakdown: When asked about Weingarten’s comments, a White House spokeswoman released a list of 10 teachers, parents and administrators who attended the event. Three came from public school backgrounds, three from private schools, two represented home-school families, one came from a charter school and the tenth attendee was a president of a “dropout prevention program.” The White House did not immediately respond to a question about the number of African-American attendees.

I continue to be astonished at the current administration’s willingness to ignore public school parents in favor of parents whose children are home schooled or attend private schools. I am also astonished that no one ever calls Mr. Trump or other “reformers” who claim they want every child to have a choice about where they go to school but refuse to promote the notion of allowing children in overcrowded urban areas to attend nearby suburban schools with available space… or- if they insist on providing vouchers- provide large enough vouchers that would enable a poverty stricken parent to send their child to ANY school that they choose. Finally, the glaring lack of African American parents or the parents of immigrants is noteworthy.

During President Obama’s eight years, I felt that the White House was doing everything possible to reinforce the notion that we are the UNITED States of America. During the 28 days of the Trump administration, I fear that unity is all but vanished.

St. Johnsbury (VT) School Board Member’s Op Ed Piece Captures Spirit of Democracy

February 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Regular readers of this blog know that I am distressed over the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and equally distressed over Frank Edelblut, the NH nominee for Commissioner of Education. Both of these individuals view public education as a commodity and seek to introduce “market forces” in an effort to “reform” schools. But making public education into a marketplace will ultimately lead to the demise of one of America’s great democratic institutions: the local school board.

For the past three years I’ve spent many hours working as a consultant with school districts in Vermont as they struggle to find ways to consolidate. During the time and throughout my 29 years as a Superintendent and six years as a building level administrator, I’ve been impressed with the commitment and dedication of locally elected school board members. While I’ve not seen eye-to-eye with Board members on every issue we’ve faced, I’ve never felt that any of them wanted to compromise the quality of education— even those who wanted to see less spending or fewer “frills”. I’ve wanted to capture the spirit of a “typical” school board member in this blog, and on Wednesday I read an op ed piece in the Caledonian Record by a Saint Johnsbury, VT Board member that seems to do the trick better than I could. Christopher Wenger, a relocated Bostonian, describes the factors that led him to seek a board position and the role he intends to play as a board member overseeing Saint Johnsbury’s K-8 school that serves his children and scores of others in his small town. Here are the concluding sentences to his piece:

I decided to run for the school board in 2016, and I can definitely say that it has been a labor of love. “Why are you doing that?” asked several friends. “It’s a thankless job,” I heard over and over. Well I can tell you, over the last year, I have found this job anything but thankless. In fact, I have been thanked by many people in the community—people who care for this town, for its children, and for its future.

This job is not without challenges, of course. In the past year I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I also feel it’s just the beginning. There are amazing things happening at St. J. School—things I wish more people knew about. The biggest priorities for me in the coming year are to try to get more members of the community involved, and to learn to work more effectively as a board. So please, come to a meeting. Come to a school event. Stop me in the supermarket and I’ll be happy to tell you what I feel both the strengths and the challenges are in this district. Invest some time in learning about the school; your interest and involvement will pay dividends for all of us in the long term. We need to move past the headlines, engage with, and listen to one another in order to make things better. I look forward to continuing to serve you in this role.

Like the hundreds of School Board members I’ve worked with, Mr. Wenger is desperately seeking public engagement, intent on championing the public schools in his community, and intent on making improvements. Read the last sentences and ask yourself: would Betsy DeVos set foot in a supermarket to seek feedback? Would either Ms. DeVos or Mr. Edelblut, neither of whom ever sent their children to a public school, ever say “amazing things are happening” in their public school? Are either Ms. DeVos or Mr. Edelblut interested in keeping democracy alive by helping Board members like Mr. Wenger achieve his goals?

School Choice Week Poses Yet Another Dilemma for Democrats

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Valeris Strauss, the Washington Post‘s education writer posted an article today that included a cross-post from Georgia blogger Bertis Brown that opened with these three paragraphs:

This is School Choice Week, the annual exercise when well-funded, corporate school reform outfits pour money into advertising and marketing to promote charter schools as well as vouchers and other programs in which the public pays for private and religious school tuition.

School Choice Week coincides with the confirmation drama of President Trump’s nomination of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary, who has said the public education system in the United States is a “dead end,” and who is seen by critics as a supporter of privatizing public education. DeVos stumbled at her Senate confirmation hearing last week, displaying a lack of understanding of key education issues, and Democrats have sought — unsuccessfully — a second hearing before the Senate Education Committee votes on whether to approve her nomination.

After years of supporting traditional Republican corporate education reform ideas, many Democrats seem to now realize how bad her policies to “voucherize” American education would be for teaching and learning as well as the principle of educational equity. The opposition to DeVos has brought people together across education reform philosophies, a dynamic similar to recent ballot measures in Georgia and Massachusetts, when people of different political beliefs chose local control of public schools rather than increasing the influence of the political and private sector.

Like many public school advocates, I have been disappointed in the Democratic Party’s decision to support “…traditional Republican corporate education reform ideas” and I have not been surprised to see how this embrace of corporate reform has ended with policies that will ““voucherize” American education” and, in so doing, undercut any advances made in the past decades to bring about educational equity. As noted in previous posts, I fear that no matter how the DeVos hearings come out, the Republicans will prevail in their effort to get a corporate minded pro-voucher pro-privatization “reformer” in place and if they fail with DeVos because of her inexperience they will ultimately find someone with more burnished credentials will do their bidding. When that happens, we will have nearly two decades of public eduction where “quality” was defined by test scores, two decades where districts who educate children from affluent and highly educated children have a distinctly different and superior educational opportunity than those children who are raised in poverty. And the parents in those affluent school districts will wonder why there is so much concern over test scores and why so many parents in “other school districts” are upset about the narrow curriculum their children have.

I am choosing to take heart in the recent results of statewide referenda in Massachusetts and Georgia where voters turned down propositions that would expand the number of charter schools. Why? Because voters in those states came to understand what the idea behind these propositions REALLY was and what the effects of the vote would REALLY be. And when the public understands that more charters REALLY means more opportunities for profit and no more opportunities for learning, they will “…(choose) local control of public schools rather than increasing the influence of the political and private sector.”

The President, Republican politicians in DC, and the 35 capitols where Republicans are in the Statehouse are participating in “…the annual exercise when well-funded, corporate school reform outfits pour money into advertising and marketing to promote charter schools as well as vouchers and other programs in which the public pays for private and religious school tuition.” It would be wonderful if there was a public school education week when students, parents, and teachers could flood the streets the way women did last weekend. Maybe a display of solidarity will get the message to our elected politicians: we want to choose locally controlled well funded public schools over those run by for-profit entrepreneurs on Wall Street.

Successful School Integration Requires Grit: On the part of Teachers, Administrators, and the Community

December 12, 2016 Leave a comment

A story on the Morris NJ schools by Kyle Spencer describes the incredible effort— and, yes, money— required to maintain a desegregated school district in this era. Mr. Spencer’s article also describes the painful history that led to this success story and the tenuousness of the success.

A brief overview of the Morris Schools:

  • The district was created by court order in 1971 in response to a suit filed by parents who wanted to maintain racial balance in the schools in the region.
  • The district demographics have shifted over the past five-plus decades, particularly in the past 15 years with non-English speaking students increasing from 909 to 1,698 while African American enrollments dropped from 815 to 546 during the same time period.
  • The district has made extensive use of technology to individualize instruction in an effort to meet the wildly diverse educational and cultural backgrounds of students and maintain some degree of integration in all of its classrooms.
  • To assist non-English speakers, the district has extensive supports in place.
  • Parent organizations in the district provide translators at their meetings and workshops to ensure the engagement of the burgeoning non-English speaking parent population.
  • To attract and retain affluent families with high achieving students, the district has pull-out gifted and talented programs throughout its elementary schools and a wide array of STEM and AP offerings at the high school level.

Even with all of these supplementary programs and efforts at engagement, the district faces challenges that would daunt other communities. For example:

  • The population churn has increased, particularly among the non-English students, adding to the workload for teachers and administrators and reinforcing the notion that money is being spent on “illegals” that could be spent on resident children with special needs and/or special interests.
  • Some parents avail themselves of the rich programs available to students in PK-8 but then abandon the high school in favor of private schools. Indeed, Mr. Spencer cites data indicating that over 22% of the students who live in the most affluent community feeding the high school opt to attend private schools, nearly double the State average.
  • The top tier HS courses and gifted and talented programs have a disproportionate number of white students— unsurprising given the challenges non-English speakers face but a problem in the eyes of those who aspire to equity across-the-board.

The story concludes with this anecdote, which exemplifies the value of attending a diverse school:

Nile Birch, a high school junior who is black, said that most of the students in his honors and A.P. classes are white. “In total, they are not very diverse,” he said about the higher-level classes.

Still, electives, clubs and required classes have provided him the opportunity to learn about people whose lives differ from his own.

He recalled being in a health class during his freshman year, with a quiet Hispanic girl who barely talked. One day, it was time to recite a written monologue: She stood up and told the class she was a single mother who had made it across the border and eventually to New Jersey, where she dreamed of getting an education.

“It really moved every single person in that class,” he said. “Before that she was just the quiet girl in the corner.”

After reading this heartwarming conclusion, I was overcome with sadness because, as Mr. Spencer notes, this is an extraordinarily exceptional district. Mr. Spencer notes that “…New Jersey has one of the strongest laws against segregation, but at the same time has some of the most segregated schools in the country.” And, as noted in many earlier posts, resegregation is on the increase because of residential patterns and the public sentiment the opposes efforts to address this issue. I was also saddened because I can see the tenuousness of this segregated school. It requires grit on the part of teachers, administrators, board members, parents, and taxpayers…. and if any one of those players decides to let up on the effort required to maintain the nurturing and inclusive environment in the school district, the entire construct will collapse. And here’s what saddens me the most: if a voucher program like Betsy DeVos advocates is ever put in place in NJ, the out-migration of affluent parents will increase, the taxpayer support for the existing framework will collapse, and fifty-plus years of work to create a desegregated success story will go down the drain. At a time when forceful positive leadership is needed in the White House and the State House, NJ has the opposite. I sincerely hope the grit continues in Morris NJ— they will need even more of it to sustain their success.