Growing pains

Teachers aren’t the only only ones facing new evaluation system

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.

Since a landmark piece of school reform legislation passed in 2010, teacher evaluations have become a hot topic in Colorado education circles. What’s lesser-known is that the system ushered in by Senate Bill 10-191 extends to thousands of school employees who don’t work in classrooms, but rather counseling offices, health rooms and other school spaces.

Starting this year, the law requires annual evaluations of counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other staff labeled “Specialized Service Professionals” or SSPs. These employees fall into nine categories, number about 4,700 and make up around 9 percent of the licensed school workforce.

As with the introduction of statewide teacher evaluations last year, the evaluation process for SSPs has brought some predictable bumps in the road: anxiety, confusion and a steep learning curve.

“The details of it are huge,” said Anne Hilleman, director of exceptional student services for Montrose and Olathe Schools. “It’s a bear.”

It’s a sentiment familiar to Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education.

“There was a big fear factor with Senate Bill 191,” she said.

Despite concerns, there’s a sense among some SSP staff that the new system offers meaningful professional feedback and concrete avenues for improvement.

“I was kind of excited to have a useful evaluation tool,” said school nurse Jackie Valpiando, who came to the Widefield School District last year after working in other districts. “Before, we were kind of evaluated like a teacher because they didn’t know what to do with us…Most of the time I wasn’t evaluated.”

Widefield is one of 19 sites—mostly school districts and BOCES—that piloted SSP evaluations last year. So was the Montrose district. Previously, evaluations there were conducted using generic rubrics that didn’t always fit well with the employees’ responsibilities.

Under the state model system, which districts can use to guide the evaluation process, there are rubrics defining high-quality practice for all nine SSP categories.

“These rubrics [are] very detailed, very specific to each specialty area, which in terms of morale had to feel good to folks,” said Hilleman.

“Before last year, we were like, ‘Which rubric do you put an audiologist on?”

New model includes student outcomes

While many states have implemented evaluation systems for teachers and principals, mandating evaluations for other licensed school personnel is less common.

SSP Numbers in Colorado

    • School counselors: 1,617
    • Speech language pathologists: 1,065
    • Psychologists: 738
    • Social workers: 461
    • School nurses: 357
    • Occupational Therapists: 325
    • Physical therapists: 79
    • Audiologists: 67
    • Orientation and mobility specialists: 12
*Numbers are from the 2012-13 school year

“We’re probably in a small grouping [of states] that includes the specialized services professionals,” said Anthes. “Our state was pretty all-encompassing and comprehensive when the law said all licensed personnel must be evaluated.”

By the end of this school year, Colorado’s SSP staff will earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, partially effective, effective or highly effective. Eventually, the ratings will be posted publicly in the aggregate, but individual employee ratings will not be available.

While all Colorado SSPs must be evaluated this year, districts do have some leeway in how they come up with the final rating. They can choose to weigh only professional practice scores—those based on the SSP rubrics—in the final rating. That will change next year when 50 percent of the final rating must include “measures of student outcomes.”

Those outcomes, usually three to four different measures, are defined by each district and will vary by SSP category. For example, nurses may be asked to ensure that a certain percentage of asthmatic students can demonstrate the proper use of inhalers. Meanwhile, a counselor may be judged on students’ acquisition of knowledge after a social skills program.

In some districts, student outcomes measures may include things like state test scores. That may sound counterintuitive since SSP staff don’t provide academic instruction, but the rationale is that all school staff have ownership of student achievement.

“Interestingly, a lot of the SSPs are including some portion of student growth in the collective measure,” said Anthes. “Kind of as a nod to saying, ‘We’re all supporting students. We’re all contributing to the environment that helps them learn.’”

In Widefield, state test scores will count for 5 percent of SSP evaluations.

“They want us to have buy-in and I agree with that 100 percent,” said Vialpando. “We need to make sure the kids are successful too.”

She added, “I’m glad it’s 5 percent and not 50 percent.”

Adjusting to a new system

While most district administrators have always had some role in evaluating SSP staff, most agree that the new system is far more time-consuming. Hilleman, who evaluates SSP staff as well as other employees, said the new system has tripled her evaluation workload.

“You are more frequently engaged in coaching and evaluative conversations with people,” she said.

Overall, she believes the process is valuable, but given the time commitment wonders if “rock star” employees truly need annual evaluations.

James McGhee, assistant director of special education in Widefield, said the district’s old process, which entailed a written narrative about the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, took about an hour to complete. Not only do the new write-ups take 1.5-2 hours to complete, the district opted to move from one formal evaluation a year to two though that’s not required by the state.

“It’s a big shift,” he said, one that was rough at first but ultimately more informative for staff.

“The feedback is more specific in helping them grow as professionals.”

SSP staff have noticed the increased time commitment too, but some say the close examination of their day-to-day work is welcome.

“It’s a chance to be acknowledged and validated for what we do as special service providers,” said Christine Gray, a counselor at Aspen Elementary School.

Working outside the classroom sometimes gives SSPs the sense, “You’re an ‘other,’ a  little out of the mainstream,” she said.

The evaluation process–time-consuming though it is–helps remedy that feeling. For Gray, the new system has also meant more on-going reflection. Under the previous system, she’d usually turn her attention to her evaluation for a day, maybe two.

Now, she says she can’t quantify the minutes and hours she spends preparing for, having, or reflecting on her evaluation because it’s woven throughout her job.

“Its not something you put to bed anytime,” she said. “Hopefully its something you carry with your and it guides your practice.”

Moderating expectations

Aside from the extra time investment, many SSP employees find the new system challenging because earning top ratings on the professional practice half of the evaluation is tougher than under most previous evaluation systems.

Under the state model system, SSP staff can earn one of five ratings for professional practice: exemplary, accomplished, proficient, partially proficient and basic. While “proficient” meets state standards, it can seem like a mediocre rating to employees who are used to superlatives.

Valpiando said she earned “exemplary” on a few standards last year, but overall would have fallen into the proficient category.

“I’ve always thought of myself as better than proficient….so that was hard for me to take,” she said.

One of the criteria that distinguishes proficient from “accomplished” or “exemplary” for all types of SSP staff, is whether they move from carrying out required duties to empowering students, parents or teachers around certain professional goals. For example, a proficient employee might make a recommendation to a student, whereas an exemplary employee prompts the student to act on the recommendation.

“That is a really unique piece of all of our rubrics…the same things happen with principal and assistant principal rubrics,” said Anthes. “When you move to accomplished or exemplary it’s what has the work you’ve done enabled others to do?”

Hilleman said while her SSP staff all scored well into proficiency based on the rubric, few were exemplary.

“I did really have to frontload especially with my overachievers…Don’t feel like this is a ding.”

Impacting personnel decisions

With many SSP staff employed on single-year contracts, their employment status may depend more on student enrollment and district needs than evaluation ratings. Still, those not on single-year contracts who score below effective for two years in a row can lose non-probationary status. Technically, this could make it easier for districts to dismiss them.

“It is easier to fire you if you don’t have non-probationary status,” said Anthes. “Whereas if you had non-probationary status… it might take a district longer to remove you.”

No SSPs will lose non-probationary status till the end of the 2016-17 school year at the earliest, since this year is considered a hold-harmless year. Even then, districts will not be required to dismiss partially effective or ineffective employees, though administrators will have that option.

Despite the potential influence of SSP evaluations on job security, Anthes said, “That’s really not the main point of the law…We really try to emphasize…it’s about professional growth.

As always, she said, districts should use evaluation ratings for personnel decisions, such as determining what professional development to offer, how to draft professional growth plans or where to place staff.

“Every professional in public schools deserves meaningful practice.”

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.