Work-study money flatlines after stimulus boost

Students nationally participate in federal work-study programs to help pay for college, like these women at the University of Missouri. In Colorado, a growing number of students are seeking a limited number of work-study jobs.

While it may not seem like much, Red Rocks Community College student Neal Porter says he got more than just the $8.75 hourly wage at his work-study job in the school’s financial aid office.

The 21-year-old, who lives at home to save money, got an insider’s view of the complicated world of financial aid that he believes will help him enormously when he transfers to the University of Denver and pursues a pre-med track. He made close friends. It was only a tad less than he earned working at Water World over the summer and he didn’t risk sunburn. He spent the money he earned on gas, his cell phone bill and food.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Porter said. “They work around your schedule, and give you time off for finals if you need it. It gave me independence, which is kind of nice.”

The community college, in turn, received low-cost staffing help, mostly paid for by state and federal dollars.

But Porter was among about 55 students told to leave their part-time work-study jobs earlier than they wanted to this semester because the college ran out of money for the program. He was able to tap into another hourly student employment program, but the lack of adequate work-study dollars to meet student demand is a growing concern statewide, financial aid officials say.

The pool of state dollars available for work-study programs has grown 16 percent over the past decade, from $14.3 million in 1999-2000 to $16.6 million this academic year, but state and federal work-study dollars have stagnated for the past five — despite growing numbers of students with demonstrated financial need who are interested in working their way through school. While the average work-study award increased 8.5 percent from 2004 to 2009, to $2,160, the number of work-study students is now essentially the same as it was six years ago, up to  8,360 from 8,278 in 2004.

Work-study makes up 16 percent of the state’s financial aid pool, with most of that pool – or 71 percent – going for need-based aid. The cash-strapped state of Colorado has no plans to increase the amount of work-study money in fiscal 2011 despite wait lists reported at many public colleges universities.

“In order to expand it, something else would have to be reduced unless we find a funding source,” said Celina Duran, financial aid administrator for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “The state has restored cuts that were made to work-study during the last recession and with the current downturn there has not been an opportunity to increase it. Work-study is particularly in demand during an economic downturn.”

Stimulus funds help, but not enough

President Obama increased federal dollars available for work-study – which encourage work in community service areas or fields tied to the student’s major  – through one-time stimulus funding, which helped a few more students get jobs this year. But the money won’t last. And some schools didn’t get a dime of it.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs would have seen its federal allocation cut if not for federal stimulus dollars, but the net amount of federal funding did not increase this year. UCCS staff had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to keep the funding it has by reclassifying its existing federal work-study money, said Mark Hoffman, the campus’s student employment and AmeriCorps coordinator.

In Colorado, more work-study dollars come from the state than the federal government. At least a quarter of it comes from the institutions themselves.

UCCS is one of the fastest growing campuses in Colorado, with enrollment that rose 7.1 percent this spring over a year ago, bringing its total enrollment to 8,500 students. Work-study funding has grown only 10 percent over the past decade and isn’t coming close to meeting student need, Hoffman said.

“The people that come to our school are people that need some financial assistance,” Hoffman said. “We have a high percentage of students with Pell Grant eligibility.”

About 500 students hold work-study jobs, but the campus “could easily award triple that amount,” he said.

“We’re cutting off students with an (expected family contribution) of $2,000,” Hoffman said. “That’s a lot of need. We didn’t get halfway through the Pell Grant people before we ran out of work-study. We have a population that is willing to work and wants to work.”

UCCS students who do have work-study tend to work an average of 15 hours per week at $9 per hour. The school tries to award $2,000 per semester, but that’s down from $2,250. Tuition and fees this year totaled $6,470; but cost of attendance, which includes housing, books and other expenses, is $21,792.

The campus received $577,539 from the state this year for its work-study program and $458,381 from the federal government. Hoffman said his office alone hires 20 to 30 work-study students every year.

“We literally could not get our work done without them,” he said.

Red Rocks pulls the plug early on some work-study students

Red Rocks Financial Aid Director Linda Crook said the school received $26,000 in additional federal stimulus dollars for work-study this year, which paid for five additional students in the program. The state kicks in $309,066 to Red Rocks, while federal funding is $150,000.

“Generally, we have about 110 students working on campus, from the cafeteria to the media area setting up projectors for instructors,” Crook said. “They might work in admissions, financial aid and advising, or as dispatchers for the police. They’re everywhere on campus. We have lots of jobs that could be work-study if there was funding.”

This year, Red Rocks had a wait list of about 180 people who “would have liked to do work-study and were eligible” – up from a typical wait list of 100 students.

“People on the list are coming in every week to see where they are on it,” Crook said. “Sometimes, students quit the job mid-semester. Now, they’re not quitting the jobs. They need the funds.”

Crook is a major proponent of work-study as opposed to grants.

“People are working for it. You’re actually a getting a service as opposed to free money.”

Typically, Red Rocks has some work-study money set aside so it can extend work hours for students who max out their allotment before the semester ends. This spring, that wasn’t possible.

“We had to switch to where the department was paying them or they had to quit their jobs,” Crook said.

The University of Northern Colorado has about 600 work-study students. So far, UNC has been able to keep up with student demand, UNC spokesman Nate Haas said. Generally, work-study awards total $3,000 per year and students must not work more than 40 hours per week. The Greeley campus received an additional $35,000 in stimulus funding this year, bringing the total in federal dollars to $400,000. State funding totaled $1.1 million.

The Metropolitan State College of Denver, meanwhile, received the largest allocation of state work-study dollars of all Colorado campuses this year, or $1.9 million. Its federal funding totaled just over $754,758. About 480 Metro students are earning it. The maximum allowable is $2,500 per semester.

“We always could use more work-study since we typically have a wait list of around 250 students,” Metro’s Director of Financial Aid Cindy Hejl said.

Front Range’s work-study coffers also depleted

Front Range Community College is also experiencing a surge in work-study applications, said Collegewide Financial Aid Director Carolee Goldsmith. This year, Front Range received an additional $66,000 in stimulus funding and $21,000 through FEMA because of the tornado that ripped through Windsor two years ago, bringing the federal work-study total to $300,000. The college also received $752,359 from the state. About 500 students participate in the program across Front Range’s Fort Collins, Boulder and Westminster campuses.

“We’re still going to run out of work-study funding for the summer term,” Goldsmith said. “As an institution, we have decided to continue funding students but we’re going to be funding them through the institution.”

That means Front Range will divert $115,000 from its general fund to continue work-study this summer.

Goldsmith said she is fielding calls every week from students who have recently been laid off or been out of work for a while “wanting to come back to be retrained.”

“They’re looking for different types of funding,” Goldsmith said. “You can’t really put a price tag on (work-study). I think students gain not only work experience, especially if they’re working in a department that’s going to keep tabs on them, I think they are more likely to succeed if they have that connection to the campus.”

Colorado Work-Study Allocations by Fiscal Year

2010: $16,612,357

2009: $16,280,110

2008: $14,884,300

2007: $15,003,374

2006: $15,003,372

2005: $15,030,062

2004: $16,612,357

2003: $15,359,754

2002: $14,811,367

2001: $14,248,944

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.