Future of Schools

Dougco vouchers moving forward

CASTLE ROCK – It will take a judge or two to settle the legal challenges swirling around Douglas County’s pilot voucher program but Gretchen Immen already has her verdict: “Dream come true.”

Gretchen Immen and son Sam hug Wednesday after learning he's received the last voucher slot.

Wednesday, during a lottery held in a former school here, Immen learned her son Sam was picked for the last available slot – seat no. 25 – for a voucher that will allow him to attend a private school this fall.

“We feel so blessed,” Immen, a Parker resident, said after bursting into a smile and embracing Sam, 15, who hugged her tightly back.

About a dozen parents and students attended the district’s first voucher lottery, held to determine which of 76 applicants would get the last 25 seats – and which would go on a waiting list.

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Dougco’s pilot, the first district-driven voucher program in Colorado, is capped at 500 students for 2011-12. A first round of applications netted nearly that number but some students were found ineligible and others dropped out, leaving 25 spots in a second application round that drew more than 70 families and prompted the lottery.

Families participating in the program will receive four checks during the school year, totaling either the cost of tuition at their chosen private school or 75 percent of state per-pupil funding, whichever is less. That 75 percent figure works out to $4,575.

They’ll sign the checks over to the private schools, which must have signed contracts as “partners” with the Douglas County School District.

At least, that’s how the pilot is set up to work. Two lawsuits filed Tuesday, by legal heavy hitters such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are seeking to stop the program before a single voucher check is issued.

Vote set Monday on “voucher charter”

Dougco district leaders responded to the lawsuits by vowing that they’ll continue moving forward until a court orders them to stop.

“Voucher charter”

So Wednesday’s lottery continued as planned, and Douglas County school board members are expected Monday to approve a charter application for the Choice Scholarship School – a charter that will serve as the administrative home for voucher students though they’re physically attending private schools.

Part of the Choice Scholarship School resolution that board members will vote on Monday describes the grouping of students in a charter as “the most efficient way of maintaining … the numerous district reporting and financial obligations.”

State Board of Education members are expected in August to consider approval of waivers for the scholarship or voucher school. Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday that such waivers are typically sought by Colorado charters and he does not anticipate any problems.

The voucher or scholarship school application does not include names of staff or governing board members. Dougco spokeswoman Michelle Tripp said the district’s school board is expected to discuss those topics Monday but it’s unclear if the names of charter school board members will be released before the board vote.

Legal, administrative issues not on families’ minds

But if lawyers and district staff are occupied with program structure and legal strategy, those details are not on the minds of families such as the Immens.

Gretchen Immen said her husband began researching a private school option for Sam several months ago but their choice – Parker Lutheran High School – was out of financial reach without a voucher.

“Without this type of voucher system, that would not have been possible,” she said.

Sam is slated to be a freshman this fall in a school, Ponderosa High School, that has received the state’s top rating of “performance.” But when he and his mom toured Parker Lutheran on a “visit day,” they were impressed.

“I just think it’s better academic-wise,” Sam said. “It’s a nicer place … and I think I’ll be able to make a lot more friends there.”

Gretchen Immen said the family isn’t Lutheran – that’s not a condition of enrollment – but their values are similar.

“It’s a good fit,” she said, noting Sam’s already applied and been accepted, though they weren’t sure of a voucher slot. “We did it on faith.”

As for concerns that the legal action could halt the pilot, the mom said they’re taking it one step at a time.

“We’re no. 25,” she said. “We could have been 75 or 100. So … so far, so good.”

Reactions to lawsuits filed this week challenging Dougco’s voucher pilot

    • “I am extremely disappointed that liberal activist groups continue to assault education reform in Colorado. The lawsuit against the Douglas County School District is nothing short of an all out attack on our teachers, parents and students by national liberal groups. Colorado families deserve better than to have these national attack dogs waste money that would otherwise go into our classrooms.”

— Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

    • “We believe the interests of students and parents are paramount. We believe the Choice Scholarship Program is a wise use of taxpayer dollars that will also result in a significant return on investment for the District. Great Choice Douglas County, representing many hundreds of parents and citizens in Douglas County, who support school choice, is eager to see the implementation and future expansion of this program.”

— Great Choice Douglas County. See full release.

    • “The lawsuit is disappointing, but really not surprising. Opponents of parental choice and educational freedom have tried this approach many times before. For the sake of the families who will benefit, we hope it fails.”

— Pam Benigno, Independence Institute. See full release.

    • “The Institute for Justice will move to intervene in the coming days on behalf of Douglas County parents and children to defend this choice program from legal attack. IJ has defended school choice programs from legal attack every single day from the time we opened our doors 20 years ago. We know what it takes to make a school choice program constitutional, and there is no question the program passed in Douglas County will pass constitutional muster.”

— Michael Bindas, senior attorney, Institute for Justice. See full release.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.