Failing schools
4:51 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

Plan To Help Struggling Missouri Schools Wins Approval

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri state Board of Education voted Friday to approve a plan to intervene in struggling school districts. It also sent the message that it will become more active in making sure districts adopt policies that will result in success.

The plan, revised from a draft version presented to the board last month, spells out various avenues of support that would be provided to or required of school districts depending on how well they score on their annual performance review.

Margie Vandeven, deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education, explained the rationale for the plan this way: “The intent of this plan is that we never see another unaccredited district in this state.”

The plan was prompted primarily by two factors:

  • The transfers from unaccredited districts that began at the beginning of this school year, after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law allowing them;
  • A law that took effect last summer that gives the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a wider range of options for intervening in underperforming school districts.

Much of the discussion by board members centered on making sure that the state moves quickly enough when a district or any of its schools shows evidence of poor performance. It may be too late for the three districts that are not unaccredited — Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City — but board members said they wanted to have early warning systems in place as well as actions to deal with problems when they become evident.

Board President Peter Herschend, who joined the meeting by telephone, noted that previously, intervention has been delayed for two years, which he noted is one-sixth of a child’s time in elementary and high school. That interval, he argued, is too long for a school that is clearly failing.

“I don’t see how we can afford to let that happen,” Herschend said. “When the house is on fire, we don’t have a discussion about observing the fire and discussing whether to call the fire department. We call the fire department.”

The message from the board, he added, must be clear: “When we spot failure, then either the school or the district must act, or the state board will.”

That point led to a more philosophical discussion of how the factors in the intervention plan would lead the board of education and DESE to take a more active role in dealing with underperforming schools and districts than they have in the past.

Mike Jones, the board’s vice president, noted that historically the state board has deferred to local boards in such situations. He noted that Normandy was provisionally accredited for 20 years while a succession of local boards and administrators tried to turn things around.

While he and others wanted to make clear that running school districts will remain the responsibility of local boards, they also wanted schools to know that the state board would step in earlier and more forcefully when it feels it is necessary.

“The real message that we’re sending,” Jones said, “is that we’re moving from a passive position to an active position in terms of our responsibility for accountability and performance.

“The tradition of education as a local responsibility is no longer totally true. ... We are managing that process and are a player in that process.”

But to make that new attitude stick, board members said, they are likely to need two things: more legal authority and more resources for DESE.

“If we’re responsible for all children having a quality education in the 21st century,” Jones said in an interview after the vote, “we need to exercise that responsibility in a proactive manner. So the mechanics that we’re putting in place are really just designed for us to be active in being responsible for what we’ve always been responsible for, the education performance of children in Missouri.”

He acknowledged that getting districts to accept the new authority may not be easy.

“You’ve got to listen,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to absorb some anger, disappointment, tension people have. You’ve got to let them get past that moment so you can have a conversation that gets everybody to a better place.”

But persuasion may not be enough, said board member John Martin of Kansas City.

“When governance won’t cooperate,” he said during the board debate, “ there needs to be a hammer big enough to require cooperation.”

Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said that her department will need more resources and perhaps more specifically defined authority to carry out the board's wishes and new approach. But, she emphasized, the state is not trying to usurp the traditional local control of schools.

“We can’t run schools from Jefferson City,” she said in interview after the vote. “As someone said, we shouldn’t, and we don’t want to. But what we do want to do is ensure that that the local board of education, the local administration, are taking the steps necessary to improve their schools.”

Herschend put it this way:

“Ultimately, what really really gets done is going to get done through a leader or a  small group of men and women who will be able to lead a district that is in trouble out of trouble.”

What the plan says

According to the details of the plan, for schools that are accredited or accredited with distinction — a status earned by scoring 70 percent or more on the annual school evaluation — no special action is recommended, though resources would be available from the state as needed.

But if schools score below 75 percent, or drop 5 percent or more on their annual performance report, an early warning system kicks in, where the state asks for an improvement plan from the district and makes available a variety of resources.

If that situation persists for more than two years, the intervention is stepped up.

When school districts range between 70 percent and 50 percent, they become provisionally accredited and monitoring becomes more strict and more tightly focused. A regional school improvement team reviews relevant data, and the district enters into a performance contract with the state.

The contract would require the district to provide a number of improvements, including early childhood education, an extended school year and school day, participation in a state-run leadership program and possibly wraparound services like nutrition and health.

At this point, districts become subject to a number of possible audits, looking at factors ranging from community and parental involvement to curriculum to data to finances. Another approach is a community-school compact, which would take into account conditions in individual communities and the recognition that the success of schools and the success of communities are invariably linked.

Districts that become unaccredited are subject to all interventions for schools that score above 50 percent, but the focus becomes even more intensive.

At that point, changes in governance are considered, including allowing the existing elected school board to remain in place under conditions established by the state board; replacing the elected board with a special administrative board, as exists now in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens; or replacing the elected board with a different structure that reports to the commissioner of education.

If an unaccredited district shows improvement under its new structure, officials may recommend its classification be upgraded. But if it fails to improve enough in a certain period of time, state officials may recommend to the state board that the district lapse.

If that occurs, the state could operate the district’s schools directly or under contract, or develop contracts with high-performing neighboring districts to operate them. Or the district could be divided into one or more new districts. Another option is that its students could be assigned to other districts that are accredited.

The plan calls for districts to be judged not only on their overall performance but on the performance of each individual school.

Many provisions of the plan have been incorporated in legislation introduced in the Missouri House.

How the plan changed

The challenge now, Vandeven said, is to take the principles and processes in the plan and put them in place, starting with possible help for the state’s three unaccredited districts: Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City.

“We realize that will take time,” Vandeven said.

Asked whether the Normandy school district will even still exist after the current school year, given its budget difficulties, she said that legislation currently being debated by lawmakers in Jefferson City could change the transfer law. The law’s requirement that unaccredited districts pay for tuition and in some cases transportation for students who opt to transfer has brought Normandy to the brink of bankruptcy.

The state school board put the district’s finances under DESE’s control last month, and Nicastro has assured Normandy students they will be able to remain in their classrooms through the end of the current school year.

The district has said it needs $5 million to make it to the end of the school year. Legislation to provide emergency funds is moving through the General Assembly, but the amount has not been agreed upon between bills in the House and the Senate.

Vandeven said that the new version of the plan, which was first presented in draft form to the board last month, is not substantively different. But it has a greater emphasis on community and parental involvement, and it makes clear that the current system of accreditation now used by the state is not changed by the new guidelines for support and intervention.

“Our primary focus is that the accreditation system remains intact,” Vandeven said in an interview before Friday’s meeting. “It remains the same.”

The new emphasis on community and parental involvement was added to the report following public comment sessions held in St. Louis and Kansas City plus comments submitted to the department.

“That is certainly something we heard,” Vandeven said, “how critical that involvement is.”

The five tiers of schools that were included in the draft plan – accredited with distinction, accredited, provisionally accredited, unaccredited and lapsed – was compressed into four, with the lapsed category eliminated as a separate tier and lumped in with unaccredited.

Vandeven said that a lapsed district really was not in a separate category since such districts cease to exist if they have not improved sufficiently after being unaccredited for a certain period of time.

Asked what surprised her in the development and revision of the report, Vandeven said she was impressed by both the breadth and the depth of discussion of school improvement, by the public at large, by educators and by lawmakers in Jefferson City.

“I shouldn’t say it’s surprising,” she said, “but actually it’s been inspiring in a way. So many people have come out to rally around our underperforming schools.

“I have not seen this level of conversation about the question of what are we going to do to make sure every child has a high-quality school in their community.”