Pre-K payoff

North Carolina just countered Tennessee’s findings on pre-K fadeout. Here’s the difference, according to researchers.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Policymakers across the country have debated how to build effective public prekindergarten programs.

A new study suggests that Tennessee might want to up spending and look toward its neighbor to the east if it wants to get prekindergarten right.

This week, Duke University released research showing that North Carolina’s investment in public pre-K programs led to better outcomes for its students. Its researchers found that the positive effects — including higher test scores, less grade retention, and fewer special education placements — grew or held steady over the years.

At first glance, the findings seem to contradict those released last year by Vanderbilt University researchers about Tennessee’s public pre-K programs. That study’s authors concluded that by third grade, the students who attended pre-K actually fared worse academically, calling into question how much return states and communities can expect from their investments in early childhood education.

“Money does matter,” said Helen “Sunny” Ladd, a co-author of the Duke study. “It’s important that (it’s) used well. But if something is important, like preschool, it seems to make sense to spend money on it and keep improving it.”

In fact, the Duke results echo what Vanderbilt researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey have said all along: that pre-K’s promise can only be realized if programs are high-quality and work in tandem with other parts of the education system. They theorized that a lack of support before children turn 4, as well as the low-performing elementary schools that those children attend after pre-K, might be to blame for the Tennessee’s program’s disappointing results.

The Duke study looked at more than 1 million North Carolina public school students born between 1988 and 2000, and how their counties funded two early education programs: Smart Start, which focused on ensuring that infants through 4-year-olds entered school healthy and ready to learn, and More at Four, a pre-K program.

 By the end of fifth grade, children living in counties with average levels of early education funding saw a gain of more than six months of reading instruction and more than three months of math instruction, regardless of poverty level. The children also had significantly higher mean math and reading scores in grades three, four and five, and their odds of needing special education during elementary school were lower.

Ladd said several factors might put alumni of North Carolina’s pre-K programs at an advantage: Smart Start served as a foundation for pre-K, and North Carolina historically has had higher-performing elementary schools than Tennessee, which might help sustain pre-K gains. Tennessee also spends about $500 less than North Carolina per pre-K student, up to $10,000 less per classroom.

“The effectiveness of preschool undoubtedly depends both on what happens before and what happens after,” Ladd said, adding that it was impossible to separate out the effects of Smart Start on North Carolina students.

“There’s evidence from lots of studies across the country that preschool is important,” she said. “What the Tennessee study suggests is that maybe Tennessee needs to keep working on their program.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”