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Archive for March, 2010

Spring break!

Hello, dear reader!

This is Molly, the assistant city editor for the education beat. Usually, I’m in the newsroom, whipping our reporters into shape, making them blog and contribute to our democracy through top-notch journalism. However, this week is spring break, so there will be significantly less activity on our humble blog.

Have a wonderful last week of March! See you in April!

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I know it’s Spring Break in Columbia, but there’s still a school board election and bond issue to think about. Here’s some more info that might be useful to readers.

A school board candidate forum at the Columbia Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon (the last forum before the April 6 election) brought up some interesting statements about the $120 million school bond issue being presented to Columbia voters.

Columbia School Board member James Whitt said that the board’s decision to hire a construction manager rather than a general contractor was a choice which should have positive economic side effects. He said the construction manager for the new high school would be able to “break bids into smaller pieces.” This would help smaller contractors in the Columbia area be more successful in competing for work, since bids would be for jobs of smaller size and duration, Whitt said. He said, “this will help the local economy if they are successful” (in competing for bids).

Several bond issue-related stories by fellow education beat reporter Kourtney Geers appeared in the Missourian last week. Here are links to those:

Breakdown of the proposed bond issue.

Here is a detailed report looking at what it would mean to Columbia and the school district if the bond issue passes – or if it does not.

That’s Not All

There is one local group opposing the bond issue, named “It’s Okay to Vote No.” The group favors leasing existing buildings around the city as a more economical way to reduce overcrowding of district classes. There’s an interesting story in the Missourian from last week concerning the group, which printed handbills on paper taken from an exhibit table for the  Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis at an MU conference the Foundation participated in earlier this month.

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The knots in my shoulder, the cramps in my hands and the loud ring of my cell phone will soon fade into the background for a week as I leave for Spring Break. Of course, the news never stops, but for a moment, just a moment, I will put the Columbia School Board race to rest.

It has been a busy month of kickoffs, forums and getting to know the candidates as I work on a couple profiles. As I remember back to my first meet and greet with candidates and how absolutely awkward I felt, latching on to my notepad, I can’t help but appreciate where I am now. After a short period of time, I have created a relationship with the school board and have them to thank for being so helpful as I tiptoe my way through an intimidating world for a young journalist.

I admit, I was not incredibly interested in school issues before this semester. And why wasn’t I? I’m a student; shouldn’t I be concerned? But the fact is, I was like many other students – oblivious to decisions being made that affect our everyday lives. Now, I find myself a link in the chain of Columbia education. Suddenly, I am one of the regular faces in the board room and actually have an idea of what in the world is going on (for those of you who haven’t been to a school board meeting, it isn’t exactly the easiest or most interesting thing to follow).

Now I can’t imagine reporting anything better. I have gotten to know the people who have a hand in what happens to Columbia kids – the people who could have a hand in my kids. I may be years away from being a parent, but I have grown to understand how parents think, what affects them and what they want to know, as if I was one myself.

When I come back from Spring Break, BAM!, it’s election time. I’ll be back to making my fingers sprint across a keyboard and serving Columbia to the best of my ability. Candidate profiles are coming soon, I swear, and don’t forget the election is on Tuesday, April 6.

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In the wake of the Obama administration’s announcement that sweeping changes are slated to be applied to No Child Left Behind, I came across a blog post from Washington Post’s “Class Struggle” that had some interesting things to say. Well, really one interesting thing: we may just be wasting our time and money with school improvement programs, because schools don’t improve.

What?

That was my initial reaction. But according to blogger Jay Matthews — and the Brown Center study report he cites to back himself up — significant school improvement in a study done of California public schools from 1989 to 2009 was, well, not really present. Apparently two-thirds of the schools in the bottom quartile of the study in 1989 were still in the bottom quartile in 2009, and only four schools out of 290 had moved from the bottom quartile to the top.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me a little bummed.

Reading further, however, yielded some relief. Matthews doesn’t seem to think failing schools are doomed to — for lack of a better word, failure — but rather that some schools have a persistent culture that can keep a vicious cycle of students expecting poor performance going.

Matthews ends by saying that a lot more research is needed on the subject before anything definitive can be said about the nation as a whole and the effectiveness of improvement programming, but he doesn’t seem optimistic about the current methods. He suggests that starting new schools with new teachers might be one possible solution.

As mildly depressing as this was to read, it got me thinking: how much have schools nationwide really improved as a result of programming efforts in the last several decades, long before No Child? If the same study were done in Missouri, what would our numbers look like? I’m not willing to condemn our nation’s struggling schools just yet.

What do you think, Columbia? Have you come across similar studies? What do you think of the idea that improving poor performing public schools might be an nearly impossible task? Read this post and let me know what strikes you. I’m certainly intrigued.

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Here’s a video by fellow education beat reporters Lauren Rauth and Doug Davis.

The video is an interview with Taylor Arnold, a Hickman senior who directed the one-act comedy “!Artistic Inspiration” for the annual Hickman One-Act Play Festival last week. The actors we interviewed are Jessi Greer and Adam Sperber.

Enjoy the work of the Hickman director and actors.

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Getting enough information about the new Blueprint for Reform proposal released by the Obama Administration last week, and deciding whether it is a step back or forward for public school education, is no small task.

The Missourian has an article on the proposal that discusses the potential changes at the district level, and has reactions of local school officials.

This article comparing Blueprint for Reform’s ambiguity about Title 1 funding to Title 1 problems under the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB) reminded me of the school board candidate forum at MU’s college of education on March 9. A question about NCLB from an MU student prompted nearly as much discussion by the candidates as all other questions from the audience combined. It showed just how much NCLB is on the minds of educators, school board members (Jan Mees and James Whitt) and board candidates (incumbents Mees, Whitt, and challengers Dan Holt, Phil Peters, and Jonathon Sessions).

Lack of specifics is the problem in Blueprint for Reform

The new proposal is not specific about Title 1 school funding, according to the article’s author, Jennifer Cohen. Cohen is a policy analyst for the New America Foundation, a non-profit public policy think tank in Washington , D.C..

The problem is in the Blueprint’s language concerning “Title 1 comparability,” a requirement that school districts direct equivalent amounts of state and local funding to both lower-income Title 1 schools and higher-income schools. It is meant to ensure that states and school districts use Title 1 funds for their intended purpose –  financial help for schools with economically-disadvantaged students.

According to Cohen, this is where the Blueprint for Reform is unclear:

It only says: ‘Over time, districts will be required to ensure that their high-poverty schools receive state and local funding levels (for personnel and relevant nonpersonnel expenditures) comparable to those received by their low-poverty schools.’

This does not clearly specify the nature of the expenditures that will be used to demonstrate comparability, Cohen says. She says that lack of clear language about comparability requirements might have a negative effect on low-income students, depending on how states and school districts interpret it.

NCLB comparability verification was not stringent

Uncertainty about Title 1 comparability is not unique to the Blueprint, as Cohen cited shortcomings in that area under NCLB, which gave school districts wide latitude in how they demonstrate Title 1 comparability. This made it difficult to determine how much state and local funding really went to Title 1 schools, Cohen said in the article.

For example, districts can demonstrate comparability by comparing student-instructional staff ratios between Title I and non-Title I schools or presenting the federal government with a district-wide salary schedule that demonstrates that all teachers with similar qualification earn the same amount of money across the district. These current methods overlook the variation in teacher pay due to years of experience, a significant factor in teacher salaries. Without a dramatic overhaul of the comparability provision, higher-income schools will continue to monopolize state and local resources, short changing low-income students and schools.

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Bright colored construction paper art, the smell of packed lunches and Elmers glue, the feel of a soft stuffed animal, the sound of small voices singing round every corner: this is West Boulevard Elementary.

Over the past few weeks, a profile has brought me into West Boulevard’s magical world. Walking through the door I felt the need to be six again. Suddenly, I was like Alice in Wonderland, looking down on a world I would never be a part of again and wishing I could shrink my 5 foot 10 inch frame to fit in the miniature sized chairs that fill each classroom.

Being from Kansas City, I have not been pre-conditioned with knowledge of school stereotypes, so I was going in blind. All I could see was the joy on the kids’ faces and the passion in Principal Peter Stiepleman’s eyes.

Stiepleman will soon be taking over as assistant superintendent for elementary education, leaving his award-winning elementary school behind. Some are thrilled with his new move and some are disappointed to see him go after he turned the “model school” into the successful elementary school it is today.

Check out columbiamissourian.com next week for my profile on the man behind the school, Peter Stiepleman.

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