loose ends

Funding for no-longer-turnaround schools still an open question

Rejoice is turning to concern about funding at schools newly spared from an aggressive overhaul process.

The seven schools — all with top grades on the city’s performance metrics — pulled from the Department of Education’s “turnaround” roster on Monday were positioned to receive about $15 million in federal School Improvement Grants next year.

Being taken off the turnaround list means the schools won’t have to replace half of their teachers, lose their names, or get new principals. But it also means that they might not receive the funds: A letter distributed by the Department of Education to students at the schools on Tuesday states, “We regret that this [change] may result in the loss of federal resources for your school.”

The funds could make the difference between continued improvement and backsliding for the schools.

Five of the seven schools had received SIG funds in 2010 and 2011, enabling them to pay for enhancements that their principals said led to quick improvements. At Brooklyn’s School of Global Studies, nearly $1 million received under “transformation” allowed the school to buy new technology and hire expert teachers. William E. Grady Career and Technical High School paid for tutoring, college trips, an extended program, and Saturday school for students who had fallen behind. Both schools scored B’s on their most recent city progress reports after years of low grades.

“If we don’t get the money we wont be able to finish what we started,” Geraldine Maione, Grady’s principal, said this week. “We started out on the premise that we were getting this money for three years because that is what we were told.”

The city has signaled that it would like to see the schools get the extra aid. When he announced the turnaround changes, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth.” On Thursday, he said the city was examining its capacity to provide extra funding.

But Walcott did not specify whether the schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround. He also did not specify whether the schools would be able to carry out the enhancements, such as restructuring into small learning communities or adding new technical programs, that the city had detailed in public proposals for each school. Department officials have declined to answer those questions this week.

There are three ways the funding question could be resolved.

The city could ask the schools to carry on without any extra funds — but that would risk setting the schools back, exactly the outcome that Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said was undesirable when she spoke out against turnaround at Grady and other schools that had shown improvements.

Plus, the seven schools are still on the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, so the city must submit new plans showing how it will help them improve. Plans that do not call for extra funding could run into trouble getting approved — particularly after the city briefly argued that the schools desperately need additional funds. If city officials suddenly say they were wrong about the schools’ need, their credibility in requesting turnaround funding for 26 schools still slated for the process could be damaged.

Another option, to try again to seek federal funds for the schools, would require new teacher evaluations to be in place so the schools could be restored to “transformation” and restart, the federal reform processes most of them had already been undergoing. The city’s letter to students at the seven schools suggested that this option is on the table, saying, “However, we are continuing to press for an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, to implement a strong teacher evaluation system” that would allow “a different school improvement model.”

In some ways, an agreement seems within reach. After all, the union and city have announced an agreement on a key point of dispute from the failed talks, and union and city officials are scheduled to have their first session next week with a mediator who is charged with jump-starting evaluation talks for the schools that were undergoing transformation and restart.

But the city bristled at being ordered back into talks, and it is hard to imagine the city and union working out and implementing new teacher evaluations in seven schools when they failed reach a deal for 33 schools — giving rise to the impasse that prompted the turnaround plan in the first place.

Finally, the city could simply come up with funds from its own coffers to make up the difference. Funding enhancements at seven schools with top grades would raise issues of equity, and the city has signaled that it has limited tolerance for paying a bill it believes the state should cover with federal funds. When the Panel for Educational Policy last month approved a contract for nonprofit partnerships at 11 schools that were undergoing “restart” this year, department officials said the schools would cease to receive funding if the state does not approve SIG funds for next year.

But there are also signs that the city could shoulder the costs. In its plans for the schools, the Department of Education suggested that it might be able to foot the bill, saying that it would carry out turnaround even if the state did not agree to fund the efforts. And $15 million is a tiny line item for a department with a total budget of more than $20 billion — especially when the city is receiving more school aid from the state this year than it had anticipated.

On Thursday, Walcott said the department was exploring how to meet the seven schools’ funding. “I’ll be talking to the principals and getting more information from them and listening to their feedback and then we’ll be making the determinations,” he said. “What we’re doing is looking at our finances as well and how we could financially support them. We want to make sure we can continue their progress.”

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for hundreds of educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.