Thursday, February 13, 2014

Area Education Leaders Tackle Tough Issues

By Mary Wilson
The Grandview and South Kansas City Chambers of Commerce hosted area education leaders for a panel discussion at the February 7 legislative breakfast. Dr. Kirk Nooks, President of Longview Community College; Casey Klapmeyer, Associate Superintendent of School Improvement and Accountability of Hickman Mills School District; Dr. Steve Green, Superintendent of Kansas City Missouri Public Schools; Dr. Bob Bartman, Superintendent of Center School District; Ron Slepitza, President of Avila University; and Dr. Ralph Teran, Superintendent of Grandview School District (left to right in above photo), answered a series of questions brought forth.

What is the single biggest issue facing our local school districts? 

Teran: We have worked very hard for a number of years to increase our academic achievement. Coming off of a huge growth in the last several years, we’re in line for Accredited with Distinction when that is awarded if we can sustain that status. The big issue for the Grandview School District is keeping the momentum going, despite turbulence in finances and the piling on of expectations.

Slepitza: Forty-five percent of our students are Pell Grant eligible, which means that they have the least amount of resources available to them to afford college. Also, many students that come to college today are underprepared. How do we keep the costs down, at the same time providing the support necessary to be successful? The difference from our sticker price to our actual price is about fifty-two percent. What you see as our sticker price, it’s actually about half that. The challenge is to provide more for less at a time when aide is shrinking.

Bartman: I’d say poverty and mobility. We have a high number of kids on free and reduced lunch and the majority of those kids that come to school are from economically-distressed homes. They come to school behind. We see families that rotate between our districts and sometimes don’t get connected and miss a lot of school. If we had universal preschool in our South Kansas City schools, it would be a huge step towards helping erase that deficit.

Green: In the short term, our biggest challenge is surviving the current cross-hairs that we’re in with regard to our unaccredited status. In real time, we’re not unaccredited because we scored 84 points, but a two-year-old designation gave us unaccredited status, along with the transfer law that is in play as we speak. Our goal is to climb out of that situation, which we think we’re on course to do. Long term, the way we spin out of remediation and constant catch-up is universal pre-k and early childhood education. Even though we have the immediate threats that we must deal with, we also must strive to continue to increase student achievement and build on some of the things that we already have in place.
Klapmeyer: One of the things we’ve tackled this year is a real comprehensive look at where we’re at as a district. A product of that is the five-year strategic plan. One of the key pieces is when we look at our district, we’re in constant remediation, trying to catch kids up. We’ve also looked at a universal pre-K. We’ll be presenting to our Board to serve all of the four-year-olds within our boundaries starting next fall.

Nooks: One of the biggest challenges we are facing is that in terms of identity. We are looking at who we are, and the population we serve. We put together a strategic document that we are beginning to frame out, similar to Hickman Mills. We try to serve all the different populations with declining resources that are available to us. Longview specifically just had our largest retirement in our history, with over twenty people retiring last year representing close to 400 years of experience. We have a brand new leadership team in place.

What progress have you made towards reaccreditation?

: Under Missouri School Improvement Plan Cycle Number 5, which recalibrated everyone on a 140-point scale. Districts have to have at least 70 points, or 50 percent of that, to get into the accredited area. Last fall, we were at 27.5 points, or 19.6 percent. In August of 2013, we were at 84 points, or 60 percent. We think that given the progress we show in the previous year under the old model and the progress we show under the new model under the higher standards, we should not be in the unaccredited conversation. That being said, I think we’ve built the kind of system that allows us to monitor, measure, intervene and support students. We’ve shown growth in the past year. We’re on the progress side of things and we’re looking for more status, but at the end of the day we expect that we will exceed last years’ performance and we will continue to push for our case to be reclassified.

Klapmeyer: Under Cycle 5, we did move to the provisional category under the last review of our data from last year. Our Board came together over the summer and developed eight priorities, of which the very first one is to become a fully-accredited school district again. We developed a one-year plan that is in action right now that is really our guide. We’re looking at data constantly, measuring the academic successes of our students and getting them into the right programs or right interventions. The one-year plan is helping to guide us into that. It’s going to be a journey. We foresee some good progress and we’ve been very smart in what we’ve targeted this year in making sure our students at the secondary level are taking the right tests, and the right courses that prepare them for the end-of-course exams. We think we’ll see the results this year to move us forward.

What is your position on student transfers and how does that impact your district?
 Teran: It’s disastrous. They (Kansas City Public Schools) scored provisionally accredited as far as I’m concerned. Dr. Green has really brought in some quality people, and it’s to the point where they finally have something good and can’t recognize it even though it’s right in front of their face. There’s the ideal, and then there’s the pragmatic. For God’s sake, give them the provisional. I don’t get it, I just don’t get it. I’m less concerned about Kansas City. I’m more concerned about Hickman. I love what they’re doing, but I’m concerned because we share a border. I really want them to get accredited soon. Grandview has had the highest ratio of growth in Jackson County regular school districts, and we’ve got our plate full.

Bartman: I think it’s craziness, the transfer program. I think it’s an absolute tragedy to allow transfers from one district to another and the district that’s sending them pays the tuition and dilute the resources they have available to the students that remain in their district. Using St. Louis as an example, they had 25% of students transfer, and 75% decided to stay home. They’re going to go bankrupt because they don’t have enough money to attend to those that chose to stay. It’s just an archaic law that serves nobody well. With regards to Center, we’re going to follow the law…once we figure out what the law says. Our hope is that Kansas City will regain accreditation and continue on their upward track to improve student performance in their district.

Green: I’m planning for this to all become moot, but I also have to have alternative plans because politics can have a way of interfering with plans. I think it’s disastrous, and it’s a lose-lose proposition. We’re going to comply with the law. Thirteen of our thirty-one schools are fully accredited with six additional schools provisionally accredited. That leaves twelve that are unaccredited, and yet we’re unaccredited as a school district. The math doesn’t add up. We’ve had two years of a perfect audit, so if something doesn’t change and what’s about to happen is a district that is rapidly improving and financially stable will become financially unstable and be decimated.

Klapmeyer: All of us, I think on this panel, went into education because we have a passion for the students and educating with the district being the core of that community that it serves. One of the biggest things that comes out of this transfer conversation is that it’s very sad that students have become a pawn in a political game. It’s a sad situation when you have students in this back and forth. When you put a kid on a bus to travel an hour to another school, you lose complete ownership as a parent of improving and making a district better. I don’t see a positive outcome. We have eleven buildings that get report cards, and eight of our eleven are fully accredited. You get this imbalance. We hope that the state, with the plans that are out there now, gets this resolved. Right now, the plan that’s out there, we don’t believe is good for kids.

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