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Dashboard February 2018

This Edition's Dashboard

 

aSchools open in Puerto Rico

Although the majority of Puerto Rico’s schools have reopened, enrollment is down and there are concerns about conditions at some of the buildings, Education Week reported. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher told the publication that 1,075 schools had opened (down from 1,200 that were open before Hurricane Maria hit in September) and 38 schools were permanently closed due to structural damage. But she said even among schools that had opened, conditions such as mold caused by water damage were a problem. 

Although the most serious potential problems have been “mitigated,” schools with fewer problems opened due to “tremendous pressure in local communities to get the schools up and running.” Schools on the island re-opened without power, but had to be able to provide water. 

Hackers demand ransom from schools

A small but growing number of school districts are receiving “ransom demands” from hackers who threaten to make public confidential student information stolen from district computers.

In one instance, cyber criminals hacked security cameras at a school in Columbia Falls, Montana, giving them the ability to keep school personnel under surveillance. Hackers threatened to release student social security numbers, phone numbers, and addresses—and warned of violence—unless their demands were met.

“It’s about power and it’s about fear,” Superintendent Steve Bradshaw told NBC News. “Will they dump this information? Will they impact some child to the point that that child could be emotionally damaged for the rest of their life?”

The FBI and U.S. Department of Education are encouraging school districts to strengthen their defenses against hackers. Security audits, training staff not to open suspicious email attachments, and limiting access to sensitive data are recommended.

Voucher programs not clear about disability rights

A new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says many of the nation’s state voucher programs—as well as many private schools—aren’t providing parents with the information about how leaving the public schools may affect the federal protections available to children with disabilities.

As long as students are enrolled in public school, they are entitled to protections provided by federal laws that focus on disabled children, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But, the GAO notes, if parents use vouchers to enroll their child in a private school, they lose those protections.

That’s fine if families knowingly do this, but according to the GAO, parents aren’t always informed about the implications of leaving the public schools.

“Congress should consider requiring that states notify parents/guardians of changes in students’ federal special education rights when a student with a disability is moved from public to private school by their parent.”

Cutting federal regs worries special ed community

The U.S. Department of Education has rescinded 72 federal policy documents regarding the rights of students with disabilities, claiming they are obsolete or are no longer relevant.

An executive order signed by President Trump last April called upon the department “to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” on states and local school districts. The department later announced it had identified 600 pieces of guidance that could be eliminated.

School board members generally would welcome regulatory relief from federal intrusion into local policymaking, but civil rights and special education advocacy groups have expressed concern with the department’s intentions.

The first 72 documents rescinded by the Trump administration were not particularly controversial and included special education guidance letters that provided information to schools about how to apply the law.

But some of policies and rules under review are important to ensure that schools provide students with their full rights under the law. Advocacy groups are paying attention to issues related to how states spend special education dollars—and how states determine if black students are disproportionately classified as disabled.

E-cigarettes sneak into schools as flash drives

Talk about sneaky: These days, a student can leave an e-cigarette on his or her school desk in plain sight, and his teacher probably will never notice.

How is that possible? The hottest new product on the market is disguised as a USB flash drive.

The Juul vaporizer, produced by Pax Labs in San Francisco, is a sleek, rectangular device that’s unlike the more common pencil-shaped e-cigarettes. The vaporizer can pass for a flash drive—and, in fact, it can be plugged into a student’s laptop to recharge.

Some public health officials have expressed concern because the e-cigarette uses a “flavor pod” that offers smokers a powerful dose of nicotine—and even can be filled with marijuana.

The device has become popular with students, a worrisome trend as nicotine is addictive and potentially harmful to brain development. Officials also are concerned about the health impact of breathing the vapor created by the flavor pods—or any “e-liquid”—a brew of chemicals that serve as the “tobacco” of these products.

Students claim retaliation in Pledge protest

Two Houston-area school districts are being sued by students who say they were harassed or wrongly disciplined for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The students independently began their protests long before former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest on the football field put the propriety of such actions on the national stage. 

The lawsuit claims the constitutional rights of the two girls were violated by teachers and administrators who attempted to shame the students into ending their protests and who made no attempt to stop harassment by school employees and students.

One girl was temporarily expelled before her principal reversed her decision due to public scrutiny.

The U.S. Supreme Court already has decided on this issue. In 1943, the high court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that the First Amendment protects students from being forced to salute the American flag or to say the Pledge of Allegiance in public school.

More girls in school may aid boys’ learning 

Boys are more likely to perform well in schools with a higher proportion of girls, finds a study that may shed new light on why girls continue to outperform boys in many educational subjects. The study, published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, looked at reading test scores of more than 200,000 15-year-olds from over 8,000 mixed-sex schools around the world. 

Researchers found that boys’ performance was significantly better in schools where more than

60 percent of the pupils were girls. That may suggest that the higher the number of girls in the school, the more productive the learning environment. The authors theorize that characteristics more commonly associated with girls’ academic behavior, such as higher levels of concentration and motivation to perform well, may help to explain their positive influence, sciencedaily.com reported. The findings, if corroborated, could provide evidence that single-sex schools and vocational education, where subjects are often heavily weighted towards a single gender, may not be in the best interest of boys’ learning. 

Detroit enrollment rises 

For the first time in a decade and a half, the Detroit school system has reported an enrollment gain—a nearly 5,000-student increase to 50,100 children.

The enrollment boost is attributed partly to the dissolution of the state-run Educational Achievement Authority, a state reform district that was responsible for the city’s worst-performing schools. Last year, those schools returned to the control of the local school board.

Another factor in the enrollment increase is the return of hundreds of students who previously attended charter schools that had closed.

District leaders also attribute changes in leadership, a new strategic plan, and a high-profile push for student achievement for a renewed public confidence in the district.

“There are few indicators more important than enrollment to determine the health of a district, because it reflects the intentional decision on the part of parents to place their children where they believe they will receive the best education,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

Concussions down among high school athletes

The number of recurring concussions among student athletes has declined noticeably in the past decade, the result of new state laws designed to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injuries experienced on the playing field.

The laws, passed between 2009 and 2014, were followed initially by an increase in the number of concussions, reported a study published in the American Journal of Public Health

But that increase could be attributed to improved reporting of student head injuries, researchers suggest.

What’s more important is that, a few years after each law was passed, the number of students suffering repeated concussions began to decline. The laws generally require athletes to be removed from play after a concussion and prevent them from returning to the field until cleared by medical experts—a practice that limits the likelihood that a student will suffer a second concussion with more serious health risks.

More than 2.7 million concussion injuries were reported from the fall of 2005 through the spring of 2016, with the greatest occurrence among high school football players.

Utah law on partisan state board elections challenged

A new Utah law that would have made state board of education elections partisan beginning in 2018 was overturned in a court decision that ruled the change violated the state constitution.

For years, a nominating committee interviewed candidates for the state school board and passed its findings to Utah’s governor. The governor then would select two final candidates to appear on the ballot for each board seat.

After that practice was struck down in court, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 78 that approved a traditional partisan election. But opponents of the law successfully argued in court that partisan elections violate language in the state constitution that prohibits the use of partisan tests for employment in public education. 

State officials contend the law is not in violation of the state constitution—and some legal experts predict the state will appeal the ruling.

School Reform Commission disbands in Philadelphia

After overseeing the Philadelphia school system for 16 years, the state-run School Reform Commission (SRC) is disbanding and turning over the city schools to a nine-member, locally appointed school board. 

The SRC was controversial when created. Over the years, it drew criticism for its rush to invite charter school operators into the district, for its closing of dozens of schools, and for repeatedly failing to sign a contract with Philadelphia teachers.

With state funding for the school system declining—and the city facing the need to make up the shortfall—public calls increased for a return to local control. In 2015, city voters approved a nonbinding referendum calling for local control, and Mayor Jim Kenney last year asked the SRC to dissolve.

By this summer, a new nine-member school board, appointed by Kenney and approved by the city council, should assume control.

West Virginia schools lose students for fifth year 

For the past four years, West Virginia’s public schools have seen a decline in enrollment, and the 2017-18 school year is no different. The state lost approximately 2,460 students this year, bringing the state’s total public school enrollment to 270,708.

The loss of students means public schools may see an estimated $5.9 million drop in state aid funding in the next fiscal year. 

In recent years, school districts have had to contend with mid-year cuts in state education funding, which is disruptive to local budgets. To the relief of many of the state’s local school leaders, a midyear cut is not anticipated for the current fiscal year.

When enrollment figures were released, state officials offered no explanation for the enrollment decline. It is unclear if the decline can be attributed to students moving out of state, being homeschooled, or to a decline in the school-age population.

Short-changing students with special needs

It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities can graduate high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way. But just 65 percent of special education students graduate on time, well below the 83 percent four-year rate for American students overall, according to an investigative article by the Hechinger Report. Many of those that do earn their diplomas find themselves unprepared for the real world. After high school, students with disabilities have lower college graduation rates than their peers and earn less once they join the workforce. 

The Hechinger special report points to numerous culprits, starting with systemic problems in high school special education programs such as teachers inadequately trained to support special education students; districts lacking the funding to provide needed supports; expectations so low that they harm, not help, students; and capable students being pushed into “alternate” diploma programs that limit their future options.

Cafeterias share unwanted food

Unwanted but wrapped single servings of food don’t fill up the trash containers at some Central Florida public schools. They go to the “share table” where students are free to look over the shared items and take what they like. What remains on the table is often donated to charities. 

The effort aims to eliminate food waste and to provide extra nutrition both to hungrier kids in the cafeteria and to needy residents in communities in Orlando and Osceola counties, among others, the Orlando Sentinel reports. It notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal lunch program, endorsed in a 2016 memo “share tables” as an “innovative strategy” that food service directors should consider. Because of state health code requirements, the share tables cannot accept hot food or food that isn’t in sealed containers.

Personalized learning lags

The hoped-for boost in personalized learning under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) rules hasn’t materialized in most states’ first-year plans, an analysis by The Hechinger Report concludes. “We’re not quite seeing the bold jump to innovation that we would like to see,” Chip Slaven, a senior advocacy advisor for the Alliance for Excellent Education, which works to improve high schools, tells the publication. New Hampshire, Oregon, and Vermont are among the few states that have been building personalized learning systems¬which tailor instruction to students’ individual interests and learning speed—for years. “Their ESSA plans detail systemic transformations of assessment methods and other practices,” according to Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks. 

About 20 other states sprinkled elements of personalized learning into their plans. New assessment systems would be a key component of personalization taking off, but developing such systems is complicated and most school systems and states have yet to figure out those details. 

Bill aims to curb suspensions in D.C.

School leaders in Washington, D.C., are protesting a proposal by the city council that would limit school administrators’ authority to suspend and expel students. If passed, the measure could “endanger teachers and usurp their ability to discipline students,” the Washington Post reported. Council member David Grosso, who wrote the proposed bill, said it is an effort to encourage wider use of alternative disciplinary practices. “We’re really afraid that this disparity in suspensions is a result of racial bias,” said Grosso, whose measure is co-sponsored by three other council members.  

Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Antwan Wilson said student suspensions and expulsions have dropped in recent years, a sign that the school system is addressing discipline issues and does not need the intervention. D.C. schools faced scrutiny after a Washington Post investigation in July reported that “some high schools had kicked students out for misbehavior without calling it a suspension and in some cases even marked them present.”

Virginia mandates computer science education

Computer science education will become a mandatory part of everyday curriculum in Virginia high schools, following a unanimous decision by the state Board of Education. Other states have advisory standards, but Virginia will be the first to set mandatory computer science requirements, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported. The board’s vote follows legislation passed in 2016 requiring that computer science education be integrated into the state’s Standards of Learning. 

“These are not meant as aspirational standards. They are meant as a mandate that our teachers need to be able to teach,” state board member Anne Holton told the newspaper. 

Bullied students more likely to bring weapons to school

About 20 percent of high school students in a survey reported being victims of bullying at least once in the past year. And these victimized teens were about twice as likely to bring guns and knives to school than their peers who were not bullied, finds a study of 15,000 students in the medical journal, Pediatrics

Three factors were linked to greater odds of high school students carrying a weapon during school hours: fighting at school; being threatened or injured at school; and skipping school out of fear for their safety. “If kids were being bullied, but not in fear of their physical safety, then there was not an increased risk of carrying a weapon,” lead researcher Andrew Adesman told CBSNews.com. However, “almost 50 percent of kids who felt all three... carried a weapon,” he said.

Poverty not always achievement predictor 

Students beginning their schooling in low-income communities may start out with low test scores but can display substantial academic gains over time, a Stanford University study finds. Researchers examined test scores for students in third grade through eighth grade in 11,000 school districts across the country. Results showed that third-grade test scores—whether they were higher or lower than the national average—did not correlate to students’ academic growth through elementary and middle school. 

In fact, growth rates in many low-income districts outpaced those where students had greater access to learning opportunities in early childhood. “There are many relatively high-poverty school districts where students appear to be learning at a faster rate than kids in other, less poor districts,” said lead researcher Sean Reardon. He said the findings can help in the work to identify districts that are outperforming expectations and explore what they have done to produce these results. 

Helping teachers afford housing

Florida’s Broward County School Board is exploring affordable housing options for middle income families, including teachers. Board members recently discussed viable options, including a waiver of fees to developers who offer more affordable housing. Developers now pay school impact fees that range from about $279 per unit for a high rise to $8,241 for a four-bedroom single family home, according to a Sun Sentinel report.

The fees are usually passed on to home buyers. The median home price in Broward County is about $355,000, out of reach for many teachers, who make a starting salary of about $40,000. “We have a drastic need for teachers and many of them can’t afford to live in the county,” school board member Patti Good said. An attempt about 10 years ago to work with a developer to build a housing complex for teachers was derailed due to the recession, board members said.
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