Dashboard August 2016

This Edition's Dashboard

Active shooter drills questioned

Even before the 2012 school shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary, school districts had begun instituting “active shooter” or “intruder” safety exercises to help students and staff prepare for possible threats. According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 67 percent of school districts now conduct such drills.

Age-appropriate exercises that help prepare school communities to respond in emergency situations are necessary, says Melissa Reeves, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. But Reeves questions the value of overly realistic simulation drills. She told The Associated Press: “We do not light a fire in the hallway to practice fire drills, so why do we feel the need to bring in a fake gun, people screaming and people with makeup that looks like blood? There are other ways we can train staff members and students to be prepared.” For more on this topic, see “Keep Schools Safe”.


(Percentage of U.S. school districts that perform these exercises)

Fire 97%

Lockdown 97%

Evacuation (non-fire) 81%

Natural disasters 80%

Shelter-in-place 74%

Active shooter 67%

Source: GAO Report: Emergency Management -- Improved Federal Coordination Could Better Assist K-12 Schools Prepare for Emergencies, March 2016.


Hidden epidemic of chronic absenteeism

You can’t teach students who don’t show up. A new U.S. Department of Education report shows that 6.5 million students -- 13 percent of all students nationwide, or 1 in 8 -- were chronically absent from school in 2013-14. Chronically absent is defined as missing 15 or more days in a school year for any reason -- excused or unexcused. Absenteeism rates worsen with age, according to the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Almost 20 percent of students in high school are chronically absent compared to nearly 12 percent of students in middle school and 10 percent of elementary school students.

Disparities also exist based on race and ethnicity: American Indian and Pacific Islander students are over 50 percent more likely than white students to lose three or more weeks of school; black students, 30 percent more likely; and Hispanic students, 9 percent more likely.

An Obama administration initiative launched in 2015 to raise awareness and support coordinated efforts to address the “hidden epidemic” of absenteeism cited “poor health, limited transportation, and a lack of safety, which can be particularly acute in disadvantaged communities and areas of poverty” as underlying causes.


Should noncitizens vote in school board elections

A charter amendment proposed for the November ballot in San Francisco would allow noncitizens to vote for local school board members. Eric Mar, former school board president and current member of the Board of Supervisors, put forth the proposal. It would allow “noncitizen parents, legal guardians or caregivers of students 18 and younger enrolled” in the San Francisco Unified School District “to vote in school board elections whether or not they have a green card, a visa, or are living in the country without documentation,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The proposal was put on the ballot before -- in 2004 and 2010 -- and rejected. But anger over racists and anti-immigrant election year rhetoric could produce a very different result this time, Mar said.


Reader Panel: Disciplinary Actions

For our security issue, we asked our Reader Panel members about their districts’ student discipline policies.

Does your school board regularly examine disaggregated data on suspension and expulsion rates -- and watch for disproportionate rates of disciplinary action based on race, gender, disabilities, or other factors?

Yes: 62.5 percent

No: 37.5 percent

Has your school board changed district policies or practices in recent years to reduce the rate of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in your district?

Yes: 37.5 percent

No: 62.5 percent

Has your school board approved (or allowed the superintendent to pursue) any of the following strategies to reduce the rate of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions?

The creation/expansion of alternative schools: 66.67 percent

Expanded counseling services: 66.67 percent

Creation of mentorship programs: 33.3 percent

Additional training for teachers and principals in using alternative strategies to deal with student misbehavior: 66.67 percent

Creation of a restorative justice program: 16.67 percent

Other: 16.67 percent


“In our K-8 suburban district with an approaching minority majority population, we have rejected the political calls for a zero-tolerance policy because it limits the appropriate responses from our professional team of educators, deans, principals, and counselors. We look at each individual incident and determine the proper response for both the student and the school. While a zero-tolerance policy sounds tough, it reduces the ability to weigh circumstances and other factors that could be addressed in less punitive, yet appropriate means.” Phil Pritzker, school board member, Illinois

“Our administration doesn’t want to take limited resources from other programs to deal with the problematic student. Resource officers are quick to arrest (disturbing school law), and arrests keep students out.” Jim Vining, school board member, South Carolina

“Our policies are so counterproductive that a third-grade student was kept out of school for a week because he had a plastic toy gun in his backpack, a toy that he didn’t even get out, but he made the mistake of telling his classmate that it was there. If this makes sense to you, please explain because it doesn’t make sense to me.” School board member, Ohio

To join ASBJ’s Reader Panel, go to http://bit.ly/1M96PtR.


Pa. districts facing grim financial outlook

Across Pennsylvania, school districts say continued cuts are needed to offset mandated costs that are growing faster than revenues, according to a survey of superintendents and school business officials. Seventy-one percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts participated in the annual survey of school district budgets conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO).

Calling the findings, “the worst outlook for public schools of any of our previous surveys,” the report says all of the districts surveyed projected increases in mandated expenses for pensions (100 percent), health care (84 percent), special education (88 percent), and charter schools (77 percent) -- higher in every category than in previous reports.

As a result, 46 percent of districts say they will cut staff before the 2016-17 school year, 34 percent plan to increase class sizes, and 50 percent plan to cut academic programs and extracurricular activities.


Academic gains make schools safer

The road to academic improvement begins with improved school climate, right? Not necessarily. A study finds that schools that reduced violence and improved school climate tended not to produce academic gains afterward. But schools that upped academic performance first tended to get large reductions in school violence. Other school climate indicators, such as whether students feel safe, also improved in schools that first increased test scores.

The study in the Educational Researcher journal analyzed student survey results on school climate and violence at more than 3,000 middle and high schools across California between 2007 and 2013. According to The Hechinger Report news website, the unexpected findings suggest that “school leaders won’t be successful if they focus on school culture and safety in isolation. Strong academics and teaching need to be part of the plan.”


States sue over transgender bathroom rule

Texas, Tennessee, and Wisconsin are among 11 states and state officials that filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its directive that schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he filed suit after hearing from parents opposed to the directive in Fort Worth and in a district near the Oklahoma border, the Los Angeles Times reported. Paxton told the paper he had not spoken to parents of transgender students, but added, “I represent the entire state, so I’m open to meeting with anybody.”

Also joining in the lawsuit: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia, Maine Gov. Paul Lepage, Arizona’s department of education, and two school districts, the Heber-Overgaard Unified School District, northeast of Phoenix; and the Harrold Independent School District, near the Texas-Oklahoma border.


Help for high-schoolers taking college course

A new U.S. education department program will allow high school students from low-income backgrounds in 23 states to access up to $20 million in federal Pell Grants to pay for a semester of college credit. Forty-four colleges, 80 percent of them community colleges, have been chosen to participate in the federal Dual Enrollment Pell Experiment.

The selected institutions have proposed programs that offer not just academics, but advising and counseling supports, and “a clear pathway” to a degree. Many emphasize local workforce needs, such as advanced manufacturing, computer-related disciplines, or health sciences, NPR reports.

Many community colleges already waive tuition for admitted high school students, but this funding will open the doors to many more students who can’t afford books or fees, experts told NPR. Research suggests that taking rigorous college coursework while still in high school leads to better grades in high school, increased enrollment in college following high school, and increased rates of degree completion, according to the Education Department.


Stress relief for students

Mindfulness exercises, meditation, and similar strategies are increasingly being used by school districts to help students deal with excessive stress and trauma in their lives. The efforts are motivated by neurological research showing that “traumatic experiences such as being abused, witnessing a violent crime, or even living in a neighborhood where crime is pervasive can transform the developing brain … making it more difficult for children to concentrate, create memories and build trusting relationships -- all fundamental skills for performing well in school,” The Washington Post reports.

The Post notes that San Francisco has been using “trauma-informed” practices since 2008 that include training teachers about the effects of trauma on the brain and the behavior of children. Houston last year contracted with an advocacy group that works to make schools more responsive to children affected by trauma. Boston received a federal grant this year to hire trauma specialists to work in 10 public schools. District of Columbia Public Schools is doing similar work, providing grief and trauma counseling to groups of kids who have lost relatives, conducting play therapy, and offering instruction in mediation.


Farewell valedictorians and salutatorians

Wake County Public Schools will stop naming high school valedictorians and salutatorians -- titles that go to the seniors with the two highest grade-point averages -- with the Class of 2018. The board for North Carolina’ largest school district voted 8 to 0 to end the policy.

Starting with the Class of 2019, high schools will adopt the Latin honors system commonly used by colleges and universities (summa cum laude; magna cum laude; cum laude) and recognize seniors if they have a weighted grade-point average of at least 3.75. The change is a better way to recognize students who may have barely missed being named valedictorian or salutatorian by several decimal places, school board members told the News & Observer. State law will still require class rank to be listed on student transcripts.

District officials said they wanted the change to go into effect in 2019 because that will be the first senior class affected by new statewide grading changes that will result in more top students having the same GPA, the paper reported.


Oldest public school newspaper lives on

Pennsylvania’s Wilkes-Barre area School District intends to demolish the century-old Coughlin High School building in downtown Wilkes- Barre, but the school’s storied newspaper, the Journal, is expected to live on. Widely recognized as the nation’s longest continuously published public high school newspaper, the Journal definitely will be going into its 124th year, school newspaper advisor Heather Johnson told The Citizens’ Voice newspaper. “I don’t see that ending,” she said.

Although Coughlin High School opened its doors in 1911, the school newspaper is older because it started publishing for Coughlin’s predecessor, Wilkes-Barre City High School, according to The Citizens’ Voice. Moving more than a century of school newspapers to storage offered an interesting window into some long-forgotten school history, the paper noted: Decades ago, Coughlin had an in-school day care center; in 1969 a gifted program was referred to as “extra work”; and the school business department formerly sold and designed ads for the school newspaper.


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