moving the bar

Principals wonder how last-minute graduation rule changes will affect their students

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

As students across New York began taking mandatory Regents exams Tuesday, some of their principals were wondering whether their scores would matter at all.

That’s because the state’s Board of Regents passed a new set of rules this week that eliminate the need to earn passing scores for an estimated 2,200 students with disabilities. Those students will be able to earn a less-rigorous “local” diploma by passing just two Regents exams in math and English, but will not be required to pass tests in other subjects.

The decision left some educators wondering how the new rules, which take effect this month, would affect students with disabilities who are just weeks short of graduation, and what alternate measures would be used in place of the usual Regents exams.

“I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what [the requirements] will look like,” said Abraham Lincoln High School Principal Ari Hoogenboom. “I have no sense at all.”

Under the new rules, it will be up to local superintendents to determine whether students who did not pass their additional Regents exams have demonstrated proficiency in those subjects and should graduate. They will be expected to review students’ final grades and coursework completed throughout the year, according to the rules.

Some principals saw the changes as positive. But most said they still don’t understand how they will work — or how the new rules will interact with the state’s existing appeals process for students with disabilities who are on the cusp of passing the tests.

For a student who doesn’t pass five Regents exams, “Do we appeal the score or do we demonstrate mastery to the superintendent?” Hoogenboom asked. “We’ll have to go down a list of all our students who were unable to graduate and say, This one is eligible for this program, and another student is eligible for another program, this other one is eligible for everything. What do we do?”

The principals didn’t anticipate a flood of students graduating who otherwise wouldn’t have. Hudson High School for Learning Technologies principal Nancy Amling said she thought only one or two of her students would be affected.

Still, the principals wondered if they would have to scramble to pull together examples of student work to show superintendents in the next few weeks.

“Are we supposed to create portfolios?” asked one transfer high school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how they would do that by the end of this year.”

City officials did not have specific answers Tuesday about how they would help principals and superintendents implement the new policy, or how many students they anticipated would be affected this year. An education department spokeswoman said the city is waiting for guidance from the state, and will work closely with superintendents and principals.

The changes are the latest battleground in a debate over how to balance rigorous graduation requirements against the reality that some students with disabilities struggle to meet them.

Several advocates for students with disabilities said easing graduation standards could help students earn a diploma and enable them to apply for a vocational program, get a job, or join the military. Those options were not available under a previous credential New York offered for students with disabilities that has since been eliminated.

“We have some of the most onerous exit exam requirements in the country,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who runs the organization’s statewide coalition that advocates for students to have more options to earn a diploma. “We’re hoping this is the beginning of thoughtful changes to exit exam requirements more broadly.”

Indeed, the changes are part of a wider effort by policymakers over the past two years to ease graduation requirements.

But others are worried the new rules will lower the quality of the education a student with disabilities would receive.

“Teachers are going to try to push students there, and now we’ve lowered the bar,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at a Bronx middle school.

Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.

“There are ways to show potential and demonstrate [proficiency] without taking a test,” he said.

“Is there an implementation concern? Yes,” he added. “But I’m confident it’ll be carried out.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”