Sticker shock

A Colorado mom asked for records about her son. The school district billed her $567.

Connie Sack was stunned when she received two invoices from the Keenesburg school district after asking to inspect records regarding her 16-year-old son, Logan.

The fee for research and retrieval: $438. The fee for copies: $129. Total charges: $567.

“Four hundred dollars is basically the budget we have for his school clothes and supplies every year,” Sack said. “To pay that just to view his education records seems ridiculous.”

Sack made the request under the Family Rights Education and Privacy Act (FERPA). The federal law protects the privacy of students’ education records but also affords parents and students the right to access those records.

Under the law, schools must let parents and students inspect education records within 45 days of a request and “may not charge for search and retrieval of information from education records,” according to a statement provided by Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

Logan Sack
Logan Sack

A school is not obliged to provide copies unless “circumstances effectively prevent a parent from exercising his or her right to inspect and review education records,” such as if a parent lived far away from the school. But if copies are provided, the fee must not be “prohibitive.”

The invoices from Weld County School District Re-3J in Keenesburg break down like this: The first hour of research and retrieval was free but another 14.6 hours were billed at $30 per hour. The district charged 25 cents per page for 516 copies.

The charges are in line with those authorized in the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). But Sack made the request under FERPA, not CORA.

CORA’s research-and-retrieval charges don’t apply because a parent’s entitlement to inspect the records arises under the federal statute, not the state statute, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“They definitely don’t get to do that,” he said. “…I would absolutely push back on that one.”

Meleia Monsey, executive area administrative specialist for the Keenesburg school district, acknowledged that FERPA allows parents to view their students’ education records at no charge. But she makes a distinction between records kept in a student’s cumulative file – such as report cards, transcripts, test scores and Individualized Education Programs – and other records such as emails that concern a student.

She said a parent is welcome anytime to view his or her child’s cumulative file at a school, but records such as emails must be reviewed and redacted to protect the privacy of other students who are named. “Those are not considered part of the student’s educational record,” Monsey said, and therefore are subject to research-and-retrieval charges outlined in a school district policy.

LoMonte disputes that interpretation. “Neither the FERPA statute nor regulation contemplates any fee for search, retrieval or redaction, and charging for those ‘services’ goes against the intent of FERPA to make those records freely available,” he wrote in an email to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

The U.S. Department of Education defines “education records” to mean records “directly related to a student” which are maintained by or for a school. What that means exactly never has been conclusively determined, according to LoMonte, but “it has generally been the position of schools that ‘directly related’ includes any record in which a student is named or identifiable.”

A class attendance sheet, for example, is not a record of any particular student and will not appear in any particular student’s file in the school office. “Nonetheless,” LoMonte wrote, “the school undoubtedly would take the position that an attendance sheet is a FERPA record if a requester sought access to it.

“Once something is a FERPA record for privacy, it must necessarily be a FERPA record for disclosure.”

Sack said she used a nonprofit’s template to make a broad request under FERPA for Logan’s records, and the school district never gave her the opportunity to narrow the request to make it less expensive. “But now that I know there are 516 pages on my son, I need to see what’s in that file.”

Sack originally asked to inspect the records for several reasons, she said, which include helping Logan challenge a school committee’s decision to reject his application for National Honor Society admission. Logan, who recently finished his sophomore year at Weld Central High School, runs his own technology company and umpires baseball games.

“One thing he wants to do is send part of his educational records to the national level of NHS,” Sack said.

The CFOIC asked spokespersons for the Jefferson County, Denver and Cherry Creek school districts if they had charged parents to research, retrieve and redact student records. Each said they had not done so.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”