Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

List of schools impacted

  • Fulton Academy of Excellence
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary
  • William Smith High School
  • Tollgate Elementary
  • Vista Peak Exploratory
  • Vista Peak Preparatory

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”