Friday, May 23, 2014

St. Cloud School Board Budget Initiatives Part I

  This is the first in a series of posts examining initiatives contained in our 2014-2015 budget.   Last Thursday, May 22, the St. Cloud Board of Education adopted its 2014-2015 budget.  The proposed budget includes significant new investments in textbooks, in technology, in class size relief.  It fosters accelerated efforts to assure that non-English students will become proficient in English.  It launches the first stages of the AVID program--a program designed to increase college and post secondary readiness for all of our students.   I'll discuss these and other initiatives in the posts to come. 

Our 2015-2015 budget is notable, because it is the first budget in many years, where the District has had significant additional resources from the legislature.  Some of the budget initiatives (for example recharging of our textbook resources with a one-time $2.5 million investment) were planned before we conducted this year's strategic planning.   Other budget initiatives (for example, acceleration of English Language Learners, $900,000 investment in technology, $500,000 class size reduction fund) derive directly from our strategic plan.   Some of the initiatives represent a reprogramming of resources.   Others derive from significant funding increases provided to us by the legislature in 2013 and 2014.   Through agreement with our teachers union, we were able to add 15 minutes to the instructional day--the equivalent (if bunched together) of more than a week of additional instruction.   These new resources, and the Board’s decision to reserve some new resources to fund strategic initiatives enabled the Board to fund significant new initiatives in an orderly thoughtful way.   

Our budget process looked very different this year because we were able to set aside revenues and budget reserves to fund strategic initiatives, and it made it a really exciting year for planning.  Our ability to fund initiatives stems from several facts.  

(1) The 2013 legislature signaled early on in the first year of the biennium that House, Senate, and Governor intended to provide significant funding increases to education.   At the end of the 2013, session, I wrote several posts reciting the legislature and governor’s intention that the new funding should support improvements in achievement.   In those posts, I pointed out that  “The decision whether this year's school funding legislation will be historic, or an abject failure, depends upon decisions about to be made when school districts make decisions about how these new resources will be used. “   See May 27, 2013 post.   

    This biennium, the legislature provided us sufficient funding to provide fair and reasonable compensation increases to staff, while preserving sufficient funds to take care of much needed initiatives.  More than  one and a half million in new revenues were allocated to long term initiatives (e..g class size reductions, accelerated English Language learning). Almost four million dollars of one time dollars saved for this purpose were allocated to new textbook acquisition and technology acquisitions).  The Board was committed to meeting the expressed legislative intent of making inroads on the achievement gap and other important objectives, by using some of our new revenues and some of our reserves to fund educational improvements. 

(2) Accordingly, our Board of Education and administration decided that we must set aside a considerable part of that increased revenue to fund improvements in our educational services, to keep faith with the legislature’s intention that increased funding would enable improved education.   We set aside over one million dollars for this purpose at the outset, and were able to find use other resources as well as the state budget evolved.

(3) In the 2014 session, the legislature gave school boards discretionary levy authority sufficient to replace our operating referendum.  Our board, in concert with other boards and superintendents  urged the legislature to give us the right to replace the referendum process with equivalent taxing authority, in the same fashion afforded cities and counties.  We argued that doing so would lead to greater financial stability, and we committed to using those discretionary funds responsibly.   Action in the 2014 session meant that we could be assured that we will not face catastrophic loss of a major part of our funding, and that in turn allowed us to use some of our reserves to fund one time text book and technology needs, instead of holding those funds back to cover a lost referendum. 

(4) During last year’s bargaining round, we asked teachers and other employees  to make it possible for the district to add 15 minutes to the instructional day.    The agreement represented a significant addition to the amount of instructional time we will be delivering, paid for within our budget.  
This post discusses three of the new initiatives.  I'll discuss more in upcoming posts.

        Class Size Relief ($500,000 increase):   Although our average class size has remained stable (students per classroom teacher), and in fact declined somewhat since 2003, some of our schools that don’t receive much state compensatory funding have been struggling with unacceptable class sizes.    The Superintendent recommended, and the Board of Education approved, $500,000 in class size relief to give management the ability to lower class sizes at non-compensatory schools when deemed appropriate.   The first draft of our budget proposed $240,000 in relief, but after discussions with parents and executive leadership, we decided to include $260,000 more in category, drawing on the additional funding provided to districts in the 2014 session.   This initiative reflects widespread concerns expressed by parents in schools not provided much compensatory funding, but adding teachers in this way, creates space challenges in some of those buildings. 

  Textbook/Instructional Materials Initiative ($2.5 million from one-time reserves):   The Board of Education requested a comprehensive review of the state of our textbook stock and requested that the administration conduct an inclusive process to determine where relief should be provided.   We learned that a number of areas needed significant support, and the Board appropriated $2.5 million in one-time money to upgrade textbooks and related material in reading and literacy, mathematics, and a number of other areas.   The work in this area was conducted through an inclusive process that gave teachers an opportunity to pilot materials where necessary, and which focused on finding the very best most recent quality texts.  The selected texts generally provide robust support for technology, including support for web based demonstrative materials and a variety of other digital classroom supports.  In addition to the two major target areas, we funded significant upgrades to hands on science kits, foreign language, music and art and social studies.  New mathematics texts will be piloted next year with adoption to follow in the year after that.  

Additional English Language Staffing  We want to accelerate the progress of students who come to us speaking no English.  The longer that they lack proficiency, the harder it is for them to learn, and the more difficult it is for teachers to teach them in ordinary classrooms. Several initiatives target the objective of all students proficient in English.  Before recommending these initiatives, our Superintendent asked ELL leadership to conduct a comprehensive review of other programs in the State of Minnesota, so that we could assure that we are following best practices.

Under the new initiative, s
ix additional staff members will serve in a variety of capacities to support the new plan for English Learner service delivery at the secondary level. North, South, Tech and Apollo will be allocated an additional teacher FTE for the extension of Jumpstart to two years. The Jumpstart program extension will allow students new-to-country and new-to-English to be in an intensive English acquisition program for two academic years if deemed necessary based on assessment scores and teacher recommendation. With this extension, the students can continue to build academic vocabulary in a variety of subject areas while increasing their literacy skills in English. The extension of this program will allow for a much more fluid transition to mainstream and co-taught classes for our English Learner population.

Two additional FTEs (.5 at each secondary school) will be utilized to provide co- taught course opportunities for our secondary English Learner population. These courses are designed to specifically meet the needs of English Learners while meeting the rigorous benchmarks of core area classes at the secondary level. EL students will be enrolled in these co-taught courses based on assessment data, teacher recommendation and area of challenge for the student. The rationale for co-taught courses is to ensure EL students have appropriate access to grade level curriculum that is delivered at their current level of English acquisition. The cooperation and collaboration of the EL and core content area teacher is key in providing instruction that is understandable and accessible to all learners.
  These three initiatives represent important forward steps, but there are more.  In future posts, I will write about other initiatives launched this year and describe the new funding provided.  You can find the draft budget summary documents on the District's website here, however, those summary documents aren't all that helpful in analyzing the source of funds.   A more detailed budget document, with six year trend summaries will be posted in the near future. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Take Courageous Community Action to Enhance Pre-K Education

The purpose of this post is to urge that our community needs to develop an ambitious, aggressive, comprehensive strategic plan with measurable community objectives and a timetable leading to a pre-k program that is equal to or better than any community program in the Country.   I believe that it is not enough to simply try to do more.  I believe that we need to do what is required, and what is require is to develop a plan to meet all of our needs, not just to do as much as we can. 

A number of communities in the United States have undertaken truly ambitious pre-K community programs.   The City of Tulsa has recently been covered in a National Public Radio program, Early Childhood Education, Tulsa, Stands out.   Union City, New Jersey, one of the nation’s poorest urban centers, armed with funding provided as a result of groundbreaking state constitutional litigation, has allegedly made significant progress in part by adopting a major pre-K initiative in coordination with its public school systems.  Itasca County’s public school districts and others have combined to initiate Invest Early.”   Cincinnati Strive has made early childhood education a central shared objective of the public schools, municipalities and counties, and the diocese among other partners. 

What are the elements of a successful Pre-K community initiative?   The literature seems to support the following objectives.

A.                All students whose families want Pre-K education, receive it.  To provide children with a solid foundation for success before they enter school, we need to start treating pre-K as a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on.  Universal access to voluntary, High quality pre-kindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want pre-K. “America’s Vanishing Potential: The Case for PreK-3rd Education” (New York: Foundation for Child Development, 2008.)   I believe that we have not yet as a community accepted this as a community mission.   Adopting this as a central mission—objective—would require us to assess the cost of meeting this objective, and then undertaking to find additional resources to meet that objective.    Transferring scarce funds out of elementary and secondary education is not sufficient, because the research makes it clear that early childhood initiatives only pay dividends when they are followed by outstanding elementary and secondary programs. 

B.                 Properly Trained Teachers.   Pre-K programs employ highly skilled teachers who have appropriate credentials. “Teachers working with young children must have higher education levels that enable them to support that development.” In a truly successful program,   Qualified teachers with both a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in how young children learn.”  

C.                 Outstanding Curriculum.  Pre-K programs must also have clearly-defined, developmentally-appropriate curricula and expectations of children’s learning that are aligned with expectations for elementary and secondary students. Quality, developmentally appropriate curriculum and standards aligned from pre-K through third grade.    

D.                Monitoring/Continuous Improvement.  Equally important, policymakers must develop systems and infrastructure to monitor the quality of pre-K programs and hold them accountable by tracking comprehensive indicators of child development and long-term effects of pre-K programs on children’s academic performance in school.

E.                 Integration with K-3 Education.  Research that shows that pre-K programs can improve student learning also shows that they are not as effective if children move from quality pre-K programs into poor- quality elementary schools that are ill-equipped to sustain pre-K learning gains.  Strong leadership committed to providing children with a seamless educational experience.  We must ensure that all educators working with young children in this age range have a solid understanding of early childhood development, recognize the importance of the PreK-3rd years in children’s development, and are committed to creating a seamless educational experience in these years.   Merely calling ourselves “partners” cannot achieve this objective.  It is easy to form a partnership in name, but actually assuring robust and coordinated curriculum demands developing concrete mechanisms to make the objective a reality. 

F.                  Emphasis on both academics and social/emotional development in early grades. If our schools are to be effective in preparing our youngest children for success—in school, work, family, and life— they must prioritize social and emotional development in the PreK-3rdyears,  as well as academics.

G.                Alignment  of Standards, curricula, formative assessments, and instructional strategies must be aligned with one another so that all work together to support children’s learning. This alignment must be both vertical—from grade to grade—and horizontal, so that all elements work together and children in different classrooms have a common learning experience. Standards must be aligned from grade to grade and over the course of the year, so that children’s learning builds in a seamless progression on top of what they already know.

H.                Parental Engagement.  Effective PreK-3rd educational systems do not operate in a vacuum, but actively establish connections with the parents and communities they serve. Parental engagement is important at all levels of the educational system, but it is particularly important in the early years. PreK-3rd programs must also respect and reflect the broader cultures and communities their children come from. 

I.                   Coordinate with University Education   Actually transforming university education requires courageous action at the university level, because the Minnesota University culture is not always ready for change.

J.                  Develop Targeted Programs for Non-English Speakers and their Parents

Meeting these objectives cannot be accomplished by any public entity alone.   Early childhood education starts with parents, of course.    But a few communities across the country have discovered that by acting courageously and ambitiously, they can significantly enhance the quality of education of the entire community.   To date, we in Minnesota and in the St. Cloud community have barely scratched the surface of what can be done. to accomplish the objective of universal quality pre-K.   The choice we face as a community, I believe, is whether we want to make incremental change, inching our way forward, as resources permit, towards the ultimate but unreachable goal, or whether we want to set ambitious objectives, funded by grants, or special taxing authority, or special legislative authority, or by a constitutional litigation like that which resulted in the funding of Union City.   At the rate we are now moving forward, it is not at all clear that in two decades time we will be any further along towards the objective of universal pre-k than we are today.