Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I didn't get to do

Today is my last day as a school board member and I am in a reflective mood. Starting  at Thursday’s reorganization (5/16 @6pm at Catto Elementary School), I can only hope that the process for initiating some of the goals I strived for be accomplished and continue with the new and existing board members.

  1. Special Education - Before I was on the board, I learned about the multiple issues related to special education in Camden. While on the board, I had more complaints from parents and teachers about how special needs students are treated than any other issue. The most glaring of issues is the insubordination of certain staff by not following the Individualized Education Program of particular students. IEPs are specifically designed to help direct staff on how best to treat a student with special needs. The goal is to group students in classrooms based on specific disabilities so that the student will have individualized educational attention. Unfortunately, that is not being implemented in some classrooms and, as a result, staff is not aware of how to best treat students with disabilities.  Although funding is in place to send students “out of district” for advanced special education services, that protocol is not always followed.
That’s the bad news. 
The good news is that there is now a state monitor that focuses on Human Resources and Special Education Services. I encourage this individual to be firm and work with the superintendent to improve the department and nurture the process of growth for education in Camden.  Whenever I brought complaints to the attention of the central office, the problem was fixed. But that’s because I had status. That system needs to be fixed. It is addressed in the Strategic Plan and will be addressed. Hopefully sooner than later.
  1. The Policies - There are a multitude of policies that the board should review and update.  Among them:
      1. Code of Conduct – The number of students getting suspended for numerous infractions is excessive and extremely too high. The current code of conduct is inadequate. It suggests treating 1st and 12th graders the same way. It mandates 10 day suspension for various infractions. Students and principals worked together with the Policy Committee to make the necessary changes, but were not able to meet the goals in the time frame allotted.  
      2. Gifted and Talented - There may be a program reinstated in the upcoming 2013-2014 school year. There has to be an updated policy that explains the criteria for being accepted into the program.
      3. Attendance - What counts as a full day of school? Is the “street pass” allowed based on current policy? These are questions that need to be answered going forward.
  1. Dropout rate - Over half the people that enter 9th grade end up graduating. This is a crisis. The term used is drop out but those young people are in the streets, having babies, and don’t even possess basic skills. There was never a meaningful conversation or serious effort asserted by the board to address this issue. I think many people were overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue. The moment that I shed light on this issue, I was dismissed.  
A confidential report that an assistant superintendent created in 2012 showed the various reasons those students do not remain in the public school system.  Some become incarcerated, some become homeless and some are “signed out” by their parents (we still have yet to determine the definition of “signed out” and why that’s allowed by law). As a board, we talked more about the chocolate cookies than the dropout rate. I hope that there is serious attention brought to this issue, especially as it is likely connected to the Special Education issue.  
  1. Partnerships - Partnerships with businesses and the community are crucial to the success of districts. There needs to be meaningful relationships with more groups. Some foundations, like Campbell Soup’s Healthy Initiatives, are already doing important things in our schools, which supplements what happens in the classroom. We can do more. We can connect to more groups and institutions. There are organizations and community institutions that provide services that we need. I’ll discuss this more in future blogs. 
  2. Committee Structure - The current committee structure of the school board is outdated and slightly ineffective. There is a system in place that allows one board member to head a committee with no other school board members to attend. As it pertains to anatomy, the head cannot function properly without the agreement of other functioning body parts and as should be so with the committee structure. It is imperative to have feedback and movement from other members in order to be an effective unit.
Sara Davis, as the head of the Negotiations Committee, leads negotiations with the CEA - the teachers union, the administrators, and the other three unions. The district is in perpetual negotiations, where the labor attorney’s firm is paid over $150 an hour to end up with contracts that look a lot like the previous one. Education standards have changed over the last forty years. Teachers should be observed more frequently and for a longer period of time than the current contract allows. Paraprofessionals, which are aides in the classrooms, starting salary is about $19,000. So are the security officers. How can this be? We can’t recruit enough talented people with pay that isn’t even competitive with Wal-Mart. 
There are many other examples of meetings with no clear purpose that certain board members have been allowed to head. The superintendent and board president must take a strong stance on controlling rogue members that use their committee to exert power.  

  1. Understanding Data - In a board retreat in 2011, Dr. Young sent every board member dozens of reports. One was the school report card, which is a summary of data reported to the Department of Education every year. I still remember the mint green cover of the reports for every school. We were in the middle of a conversation about test scores, as someone presented “internally collected data” that showed student improvement that I thought was contrary to what I knew to be true. I picked up the report and Dr. Young shook her head and said “no" forcefully. Her exacts words were, “We’re not going to look at those today”. I asked “How can we possibly have a conversation about student data and not look at NJASK and HSPA scores that compare consecutive school years?” No one else spoke up. The conversation ended there. 
It was a sad moment that repeated itself in various ways throughout my three years on the school board. Understanding education outcomes and other data can be overwhelming. People can manipulate data. Knowing how well our students do on a regular basis matters. The Regional Achievement Center does view data. The school board never formally learned what matters, requested it, discussed it, or set policies and goals based on it. This is the board of education’s primary responsibility.  

  1. Social Media - The district needs a greater online presence. With 12,000 students, parents can learn about school closings, events, issues, deadlines, and tips on Facebook and Twitter. Cell phone numbers change and rumors are inevitable. Any organization that takes communication seriously should use modern free tools.

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