Kansas: Association Partners with Districts to Work with SIG and the “Slippery Slope.”
By Peg Dunlap
This work actually started before the School Improvement Grant process. Because we had a number of districts on improvement for Title One, the Kansas State Department of Ed decided that since they didn’t have the capacity to provide assistance they would contract with an outside entity, they chose to use Christopher Cross and Scott Joftus, who have a consulting group, to come in and work with the school districts to help them figure out what could they be doing that would make it more likely that schools in their districts would be successful.
They started with a cohort of five school districts and then in the second year they added another group of about 15 and then in this third year, which is the current year, they’ve added another group of eight, based on the districts on improvement. What they did was to bring in a protocol that’s kind of a self study for the school districts, and it focus at the central office. It really asks the district to look at its hiring practices, its administrative procedures, its curriculum alignment, you know, all of those things that tend to happen centrally that can often get in the way of schools being successful with students and teachers being successful.
What they found in almost every instance is that indeed there were things either happening or not happening at the central office levels that were making it very difficult, if not impossible, for schools to be doing the work that they needed to be doing for student learning, and they focused their efforts at the central office level. Meantime the SIG grants came out and the schools that were identified as the lowest performing – and we went with numbers, not percents – happened to be in districts that were already participating in this Kansas Learning Network, which is what they call it, so there was a very tight coupling between the work of the Kansas Learning Network and the development of the individual grants at the six or seven schools that we have and then the work that’s going on in those schools.
We, Kansas NEA, have been active participants in the Kansas Learning Network since it began. We work very closely with our local presidents in those school districts so that they know what’s going on. The State Department of Ed has been about as insistent as I’ve ever seen them get, that school districts in developing their teams needed to involve the association and particularly the association president on those teams. Some did, some didn’t. But most of them did. So we’ve had a tight connection and it’s made it possible for us to stay actively engaged with our locals and the UniServ staff that work with those locals to make sure that the work that’s being done really is making sense for the folks.
In a couple of the SIG schools we’ve been more successful than others in helping the teachers have a stronger voice in what’s going on. A lot of that relates back to the relationships that exist between the school district and the Association, not surprising. And because of this ongoing work and the flood of resources that have hit those SIG schools, we’re focusing our efforts on the schools that are on watch; meaning they’re a year away or maybe two years away, but they’re on that slippery slope down.
And so what we’ve decided to do is to focus on those, partly because the SIG schools all said we like getting the information, we want to stay closely connected with you, but do not give us any more help. We’ve got more help than we can deal with and it’s not helpful to have more people coming in here bringing us stuff, so what’s when we kind of shifted our focus to that batch of schools that are on watch.
We have a couple of schools in the urban areas; a couple in Kansas City, Kansas, one in Topeka, one in Wichita, one in Liberal, which is far southwest rural, Kansas, and heavily Hispanic because of the meat-packing industry, and the other one is a tiny little school district in southeast Kansas, just outside of Pittsburg.
I would say that our schools reflect what we’ve heard several other states talk about that while people are initially angry, disappointed, hurt, they are beginning to see it as an opportunity to do things differently and to see some different results for kids. They’re seeing the SIG process as an opportunity to take advantage of rather than something that just is going to be used as a club to beat them even further down.
In Topeka we’ve seen the neighborhood get a whole lot more involved. The school in Topeka is Highland Park, which is on the west side of town, which is the highest minority concentration. And there was quiet talk about the need to go to two high schools instead of three. And because that one was the oldest building in town they were really worried that maybe they were going to be phased out of existence.
So being designated as this school in need of a school improvement grant really caused the community to come together and get actively engaged with the district and with that school in ways that they hadn’t before, which has been very, very positive. So I think they’re beginning to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Peg Dunlap is Director of Instructional Advocacy with Kansas National Education Association. Her areas of work include school improvement/effective schools efforts, teacher quality issues (preparation, licensure, mentoring/induction, professional development, evaluation, national certification, alternative compensation systems), and policy analysis for KNEA. Formerly a teacher in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Community School District, her degrees are from Cornell College and Northwestern University. Dunlap is a member and former president of the National Staff Association for the Improvement of Instruction. She was a member of the national Board of Directors of CREATE (Consortium for Research on Educational Accountability and Teacher Evaluation).