District taps community in school reform

A Kentucky school district superintendent has taken community involvement to new heights with a bold program that asked parents, supporters, and other stakeholders to help redesign the district’s curriculum for the 21st century.

Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Stu Silberman’s 2020 Vision program began with a simple idea and evolved into an effort to improve schools in every facet, aiming to provide students with a “world-class” school district within the next 15 years.

“We asked people in the community to take a look and see where we want [the district] to go in 10 or 15 years and what it should look like then,” said Silberman, a former eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner while he was superintendent of the Daviess County, Ky., Public Schools (see our 2002 “Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3551). “I know that when you put great minds together from a community, they’re going to come up with some pretty powerful recommendations on how to move forward.”

Using technology as a way to facilitate collaboration among stakeholders, FCPS officials created community-led task forces to address 21 key areas ranging from school safety to the district’s use of technology.

The district’s charge was to provide a world-class education for every child, and Silberman took that charge one step further by wondering what a world-class district actually looked like.

“When Stu came in, he brought this fresh sense of enthusiasm,” said Lisa Deffendall, director of communications for the district, who helped coordinate the 2020 Vision project.

Deffendall joined the district in December 2004 and, along with others, offered to help Silberman when he asked for volunteers to help him involve the community in school improvements.

“We wanted to come up with the very best ideas for kids based on what research has told us,” she said. “When we’re in decision-making meetings, we ask how things will affect the kids–that’s the focus, and the community was so thirsty for that.”

Deffendall helped take charge of the effort, formulating 16 topic areas that the school board would take to the community. Each topic area would have a working group that would strive for six months to develop concrete recommendations for improvement.

Silberman got the community involved last May. “Stu wanted to begin with a community summit, and we sent an open invitation to everyone,” Deffendall said. Volunteers ran ads in local newspapers, canvassed neighborhoods, contacted faith-based organizations and neighborhood associations, and sent letters to elected officials. Thus, “2020 Vision: Transforming Education in Fayette County” was born.

Held at the Lexington Convention Center, the summit attracted 1,300 participants who wanted to offer their ideas for creative improvements in Fayette County education. Additional working groups formed, resulting in 21 total groups. Each group met several times to develop recommendations for changing education in the district, based on proven ways of building children’s capacity to learn.

Working groups had three leaders–a community leader, a staff support member, and a specially trained facilitator to ensure that things worked democratically. Group leaders were chosen based on their expressed advocacy for children and an approachable personality.

“We asked the groups to focus on three things: the current situation and existing recommendations, possible resources in the community for those recommendations, and … research [on] best practices nationally [to] see what other districts were doing,” Deffendall said. “Then we asked them to make their recommendations on what would improve that specific topic area, what would help us raise the achievement levels of every child, and what they envisioned for the children in Fayette County.”

During the meetings, each working group focused on a particular area of education, such as science and technical education, music, literacy, technology, student leadership, and service learning.

“It was very refreshing to have a superintendent who didn’t feel obligated to do something for the district, but who did something because he wanted to,” said Ray Forgue, who joined the Financial Literacy group. Forgue, a family financial management professor at the University of Kentucky, was elected as one of the group’s leaders.

“We concentrated on what can be done to get more financial literacy education, and essentially the idea was to form, within each school, a group of teachers who had an interest and some aptitude for this, and they would serve as the mentors, leaders, and coaches for the rest of the teachers to adopt the curriculum,” Forgue said.

“We recommended that [financial literacy education] be incorporated into math, social studies, science, and wherever it can be brought in, starting with the kindergarten age,” he said. “One of the biggest problems in this area is that teachers don’t feel real comfortable and confident themselves in teaching the material. You have to feel comfortable.”

Each working group held a brainstorming session, asking people what they envisioned for the children in Fayette County. Each group defined its goals for the next six months and then defined goals for the class of 2020–those students who will be entering kindergarten this fall.

“The folks involved are extremely passionate about their work group areas, and it’s pretty exciting to see their enthusiasm,” said Silberman. “Our board has set some pretty hefty goals in terms of moving our student achievement forward, and I believe that & for us to make big gains, it takes a full effort between schools and community–that’s why we called for the summit.”

Each working group held a required monthly meeting, and the district set up an interactive web site so that community members could register to participate, get eMail updates notifying them of upcoming meetings, communicate with project group leaders and guests, post ideas, and read previous meeting minutes, as well as final reports. Each working group has its own extensive page on the project’s web site.

On Oct. 31, the groups submitted their recommendations to the school board. Every recommendation from every group was compiled into a single document that was posted on the 2020 Vision web site.

“We’re certainly not going to be able to roll out every suggestion, because the recommendations are more than 650 pages long,” said Deffendall.

“People took this task to heart,” she added. School staff and community members assembled to read through the recommendations from each group and analyze how much each idea would cost, whether additional staff or professional development would be needed, and if a new curriculum would be necessary.

The technology group’s site includes a document recommending 10 areas of focus, from choosing new software to making access to computers ubiquitous for all students. The site also includes recommendations from community summit participants.

“A set of technology standards will not be enough,” recommended one attendee. “Without detailed and reachable examples, teachers are afraid to integrate the skills necessary into their lessons.” Other suggestions echoed this sentiment, with one summit participant writing that teachers must learn how to use and integrate technology into their curriculum effectively “so they are comfortable with it.”

Participants also suggested including elementary schools in the technology planning process and ensuring that inner-city schools have the same access to technology as schools in the suburbs. One comment read: “See and understand the necessity of all students being given the opportunity to have all technologies available in the school systems to benefit students regardless of socioeconomic divides.”

After the initial October presentation, each group took its ideas and publicly presented them to the school board over two days in mid-December.

About 900 people have participated in the project in some way, and 400 to 500 actively contributed in working groups, Silberman said.

“To get those kinds of numbers in a community gives us a tremendous amount of momentum,” he said. “If you can imagine each of the 21 workgroups presenting to our local board over a two-night period, and that resulting in a 600-page report, that’s pretty overwhelming.”

Some recommendations cost nothing and will be easy to implement, and others will take more time. “The music work group suggested that we start every board meeting with some type of student performance, so we did that at the very next meeting,” Silberman said.

Meetings resumed again on Jan. 10, where staff and community leaders began discussing what a 2020 Vision elementary, middle, and high school will look like in terms of professional development, staffing, facilities, curriculum, and community collaboration.

After volunteers make their recommendations for what a 2020 Vision school should look like, the district will create a model.

“We’re going to take a room in our district office and turn it into an interactive visual, pictorial, video, and computer center, and somehow link it all,” Deffendall said. “Once we establish this room, we’ll have input sessions where we invite targeted audiences, along with the public, to come in, spend time, ask questions, and get information.”

After identifying stumbling blocks, the project team plans to assemble a task force of staff, teachers, principals, community members, and parents to come up with an action plan to present to the school board for the fall of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 school years.

The 2020 Vision program’s budget is being zero-based, Deffendall said, which means that a separate finance committee has taken control of the budget and is determining what certain program aspects will cost. It’s similar to building the budget from the bottom up, she said. The community summit was financed entirely through community donations.

“We are building this plane as we’re flying it,” Deffendall said. “We know this is going to be a multi-year, multi-step process. This kind of community input, dreaming, and monitoring current trends shouldn’t be something you do every few years, it has to be an ongoing process.”

FCPS schools are not required to implement every recommendation that comes out of the 2020 Vision program, because the district’s council law leaves schools free to decide if they’d like to participate, Deffendall said. “We have to package this so that people will want to do it,” she said.

She concluded: “The best minds came together for this, and I can’t help but believe that we’re going to get the best result. One thing we recognize and really expect is that change happens best when people take ownership, and we’re trying to find ways to implement these new ideas but still be respectful of everyone involved.”

Links:

2020 Vision Program
http://www.2020vision.fcps.net/default.asp

Fayette County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.net

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More students transferring from 4-year to 2-year programs

The New York Times reports that partly in response to rising college costs, more students are transferring from programs at 4-year colleges in favor of community colleges. “Reverse transfers,” as they are known, are interested in practical expertise that can translate into secure jobs; meanwhile, others are foundering academically or socially at a traditional university. Many do expect to eventually return to a four-year institution… (Note: This site requires free registration)

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Video games motivate pupils

The BBC reports that a study of 1,000 teachers in Britain and Wales shows that a third of those questioned use computer games in the classroom and believe that they improve pupils’ skills and knowledge. The survey also suggests that those teachers use video games in their personal time, and that over half would use them in the future. Meanwhile two-thirds felt they could lead to anti-social behavior…

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New technology boosts hard drive capacity

The Associated Press reports that Seagate Technology LLC has started shipping a notebook PC hard drive that overcomes an obstacle many feared would be a major roadblock to the further expansion of disk capacity. Seagate’s approach aligns data vertically, rather than horizontally, which allows the density of the disk to be increased while decreasing the likelihood of scrambling data…

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Wireless technology about to get a boost

This year promises to be big for wireless technology. Already present throughout many college and K-12 campuses nationwide, wireless computing is poised to make even greater breakthroughs in 2006.

At the forefront of these developments is the news that a proposed new standard, 802.11n–which is expected to nearly triple the fastest speeds currently available through Wi-Fi–might actually be approved at the next meeting of the standard-setting body, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In addition, developers are working on new technologies that will allow for the convergence and interoperability of various wireless devices that run on different platforms, such as cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and laptops.

Add up these developments and you get the potential for extended coverage and increased opportunities for learning to take place wherever students are, using devices they might already own.

Schools and universities are working to expand their wireless coverage campus-wide. Duke University Senior IT Analyst Kevin Miller noted that wireless technology on Duke’s campus nearly doubled last year. What’s more, student expectations for wireless coverage are high.

“We ran a survey in December after doing a pilot deployment in one residence hall,” Miller said. “We found that 100 percent of respondents wanted complete wireless coverage in residence halls and libraries. About 90 percent wanted campus-wide coverage to include academic buildings.”

Miller said Duke officials have discussed the topic of wireless deployment with a number of other universities, all of which are planning similar ubiquitous or near-ubiquitous wireless coverage.

“Given everything we’re seeing, it’s time to move forward,” said Miller.

‘n’ development

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing for Gartner Consulting, said a wide variety of approaches and technologies will be deployed in schools this year, with an ultimate goal of total wireless coverage and near-total convergence of use for wireless-enabled devices. Though that goal is not expected to be attainable for a few years, steps are being taken along the way to ensure interoperability.

The most widely recognized set of wireless standards is the 802.11 series, the latest of which, 802.11n, reportedly could be made final by the end of the first quarter of 2006.

The term “802.11” refers to a family of specifications developed for wireless local-area network (LAN) technology by the IEEE. It specifies an over-the-air interface between a wireless client and a base station or between two wireless clients. The 802.11 specifications have made three evolutionary leaps since the original 802.11 standard was established in 1997–b, a, and g. Each revised standard has increased broadcasting capabilities.

The new 802.11n standard will see the broadband capacity of wireless meet or exceed speeds comparable to a wired network, with an estimated top transmission rate of 100 megabits of data per second (Mbps). Though the “a” and “g” standards have a theoretical top speed of 54 Mbps, engineers report that transmission rates around 30 to 35 Mbps are more likely to be seen in the field.

Industry insiders have been skeptical that the 802.11n standard would be ready this year, but at press time, reports indicated that opposing groups in the IEEE standards-setting body might have reached an agreement for how the proposed standard should look. If the reports are true, products complying with the newly certified 802.11n standard should begin arriving by the end of this year and in early 2007.

“With the greater speeds that this new standard is going to enable, it becomes more appealing to different kinds of vendors,” said Amy Martin, a spokeswoman for Intel Corp. , an IEEE member and wireless solutions provider. “For instance, Motorola and different cellular vendors have put Wi-Fi into some of their phones, but [the practice] has not been widely adopted. But with greater speed, it will become more appealing to put Wi-Fi on phones–for example, to check eMail on your smart phone in a hotspot. School audiences will finally have the ability to really just pop open their laptops and quickly download multimedia materials.”

Martin said the throughput standard for 802.11n has basically been agreed upon, but the range of service that the standard will facilitate had yet to be determined.To increase throughput and range, .11n will standardize MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) technology. MIMO combines low-level analog and digital signals to aggregate power for high-speed transmission over a single medium.

Dave Morrison, director of product marketing for Airgo Networks, a semiconductor manufacturer that has pioneered the development of MIMO technology and currently manufactures the only MIMO-based chips available on the market, said the use of MIMO in wireless devices will greatly increase broadband capacities, range, and reliability.

“Most industry insiders expect that MIMO will become big in 2006, eclipsing legacy single-radio devices,” said Morrison. “Manufacturers are very interested in doing voice and video over Wi-Fi.”

Morrison explained the advancements made possible by MIMO’s use of multiple radio frequencies.

“While competitors have single [wireless] radio frequencies on a/b/g products, we have three,” he said. “The use of multiple radio signals gives us faster speed, longer range, and better reliability. [MIMO] is the next-generation radio standard … In terms of deployment today, basically it offers all the benefits of today’s interoperability [among existing a, b, and g standards] and hints of next-generation reliability.”

Airgo and Intel reportedly have led groups that were at odds over the use of MIMO in the 802.11n standard. Late last year, the IEEE forced these groups into a committee to hammer out an agreement. Intel’s Martin confirmed that the joint proposal team voted to bring the specifications for the standard to the IEEE for a vote in a meeting scheduled to take place during the week of January 16 in Hawaii.

Airgo’s Morrison said that, from a performance perspective, single-signal radio transmissions cannot handle as much information, and single-signal transmissions can become confused under some circumstances when interference becomes too great.

“MIMO leverages [transmission] echoes that can confuse the single-thread radio stream,” Morrison said. “MIMO radio architecture collects multiple radio signals, reprocesses the information, and rebuilds it to create a stronger single signal. Two transmitters can cut the amount of data in half, and transmit it on the same channel, at the same time. [The technology] increases the throughput per megahertz, per spectrum, cramming more data on the same wireless channel. It’s effective at larger distances, and [it] reduces dropped connections.”

Gartner’s Dulaney said the approved 802.11n standard would likely combine MIMO technology with other techniques to maximize the amount of available bandwidth.

“In 2006, we will also have the capability to double a channel’s bandwidth–so if you’re getting 20 gigahertz now, you’ll be able to use 40,” he said. “I could use MIMO alongside an increased channel width and get even better results.”

Wireless mesh networks and WiMAX

The 802.11n standard reportedly will demand complete compatibility with earlier 802.11 standards, enabling interoperability among different generations of devices, which will be very important for wireless implementations currently under way.

Duke’s Miller said that his university’s coverage will be campus-wide by the end of the year.

“Today, we have about 600 wireless access points that provide hotspot coverage across Duke’s 1,000-acre campus. We maintain wireless network connections in 100 or so buildings. We have hotspot coverage in common areas,” Miller said. “We’re trying to [assemble] the resources to really pull together full wireless coverage. We are looking to go toward an a/b/g environment. A full wireless environment would be a little over 2,000 access points.”

Miller said Duke also would be interested in working out a deal with the city of Durham, N.C., where the university is based, to blanket the whole city in wireless coverage, a trend that’s being played out in a number of different ways around the nation in cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Diego.

“We would be interested in exploring ways in which wireless could be deployed in the city of Durham in a way that will provide a fairly consistent user experience,” he said. “There is a lot of activity around the university hospital and the university. Lots of students living in the town do not have [consistent wireless coverage]. In the next step, it’s about meeting with local government and seeing about having what is at least a compatible wireless experience [on and off campus], if not a seamless one.”

To do so, Duke might utilize wireless mesh technologies that IT administrators currently are investigating for larger, outdoor areas on the campus.

A number of vendors are providing and developing mesh networking technologies, in which devices are connected with many redundant interconnections between wired network access points. In a complete wireless mesh network, every access point has a connection to every other access point in the network, ensuring that a network connection is made, even if the most direct connections are blocked.

“At some point, every wireless technology must make a connection to the network through a wire. You either connect to the wire via your access points, or you use wireless techniques to get back to your wire. Mesh does that in a fairly sophisticated way,” said Gartner’s Dulany. “If you were to draw the thousand access points on a piece of paper, and connect all the different access points between them, you would see that it would form a mesh.”

He continued, “If you go through Path A, and Path A is blocked, then [a wireless mesh] uses a different wire through a different access point. Any wire connects to an access point through any other one. You put up a [point of access] outside, and that hops back to another [access] box, which hops back to another one that has access to a wire.” Mesh networking thus provides an effective way to extend wireless coverage across a large area.

Companies offering these increasingly popular wireless mesh network solutions include Tropos Networks, BelAir Networks, Firetide Inc., and Cisco Systems Inc.

Another proposed technology for extending wireless coverage across long distances, the long-anticipated WiMAX technology from Intel, is expected to gain momentum in 2006, even if product offerings will be in short supply. “Progress is being made on WiMAX. Late last year, a standard was approved,” said Intel’s Martin. The WiMAX technology, based on the IEEE 802.16 Air Interface Standard for wide-area wireless deployments, involves a point-to-point broadband wireless signal that can be broadcast over several miles and offer coverage over large areas. Testing on WiMAX has produced mixed results (see http://eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5873). “The WiMAX Forum [a nonprofit organization formed to advance the technology], which will certify various vendors’ offerings for interoperability, counts 343 companies as members and has started testing products expected for release next year,” Martin said.

‘Converged’ wireless

While WiMAX offers wireless across long distances, a Wi-Media standard for personal-area network (PAN) wireless technology reportedly is nearing completion. The Wi-Media standard uses an ultra-wide band (UWB) radio signal at short distances to permit the high-speed transfer of bandwidth-intensive multimedia applications. Wi-Media is designed to facilitate the high-speed wireless exchange of data among computers, peripherals, PDAs, cell phones, and other personal devices, and to facilitate greater convergence of those devices and WiMAX, Wi-Fi, and other long-distance wireless network technologies.

Wi-Media might find competition with Bluetooth-enabled wireless devices, which provide a similar means of communication among other Bluetooth-enabled devices. Though Bluetooth does have the advantage of an already established market presence, it uses a different technology from Wi-Media, and Bluetooth-enabled devices are not interoperable via Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

Another company, CoCo Communications, reportedly has developed a software solution that increases interoperability between a wide range of communications devices that school systems already have–including cell phones, two-way radios, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and even video cameras. The CoCo protocol software has been designed to improve emergency preparedness by creating secure, multi-platform lines of communication between school campuses and first responders in emergency situations (see http://eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6004 ). The CoCo technology is being tested in schools in Seattle and northern Virginia for security purposes only.

Greater interoperability among disparate mobile devices might not come fast enough to suit some educators. With increased wireless access and better interoperability between legacy and leading-edge wireless devices, educators are beginning to see a world in which better convergence among disparate devices can facilitate huge advances in how educators can instruct students. Such convergence is coming to be seen as increasingly important in cash-strapped public school systems, where one-to-one student-to-computer ratios have still not been realized, and educators are searching for ways to better leverage the wireless devices their students and schools might already possess.

“In an ideal world, all education is individualized,” said Dan Gohl, principal for the McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C. “But you have to extend mobility beyond the traditional walls of the school. Can we scale the function to be the same on the iPod, the laptop, the cell phone, and the district’s network computer?”

Gohl described education as a “fiscally conservative enterprise” that generally does not tend toward investing in the latest technology. “The margin for error is too thin to risk real failure,” he said. “If you look at the operating procedures of schools, payroll systems, et cetera, they tend to be 10 years or more behind the business community.”

Greater interoperability among disparate wireless devices that students already possess, Gohl explained, would allow students to transform their own environment outside the classroom into the object of study, while allowing for the use of a wider array of existing devices.

“Once we [have true convergence], and we have the ability to do it wirelessly, we can better examine the way we analyze data and [reinterpret] homework as the gathering of data,” Gohl said. “Teachers still are not using their capability to text message, blog, and have kids document their lives outside of school as school-based activities–to direct, in a pedagogical fashion, how they use wireless and other technologies to further their education outside class.”

This glimpse of the future of wireless in today’s classrooms might not be entirely available yet in 2006–but the coming year likely will prove pivotal in bringing schools another step closer to these goals.

Links:

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
http://www.ieee.org

Gartner Consulting
http://www.gartner.com

Intel Corp.
http://www.intel.com

Duke University
http://www.duke.edu

Airgo Networks
http://www.airgonetworks.com

Tropos Networks
http://www.tropos.com

BelAir Networks
http://www.belair.com

Firetide Inc.
http://www.firetide.com

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

WiMAX Forum
http://www.wimaxforum.org

Bluetooth
http://www.bluetooth.com

CoCo Communications Corp.
http://www.cococorp.com

McKinley Technology High School
http://mths.k12.dc.us

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Search engines go beyond maps

The Associated Press reports that newly evolving local search and mapping services–from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, among others–that typically render photographic images as search results, make it easier than ever to scout out everything from vacation destinations to a new hairdresser. Never before have searchable databases of detailed pictures covering wide swaths of urban areas been readily available to the public…

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College admissions made easier

The New York Times reports that a four-year-old Web-based planning and advice system called Naviance has made navigating the maze of college admissions much easier for high-school students. The program tracks the application process, manages transcripts and recommendations, and stores scholarship information. The prized feature is a scatter graph that lets applicants judge their likelihood of admission by comparing themselves with an anonymous pool of graduates and classmates who have either already been accepter or rejected by specific colleges… (Note: Site requires free registration)

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Lagging freshmen reassigned prior to test

The Washington Post reports that officials from Prince George’s County, Maryland are taking an unusual step by reassigning approximately 2,500 students from a one-year algebra course to a two-year program. The move shields the struggling students from a mandatory state graduation test they were likely to fail… (Note: Site requires free registration)

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Jobs thinks Dell should eat his words

The New York Times reports that on Friday, January 13, 2006, Steve Jobs shared an e-mail chuckle with his employees at the expense of Michael Dell. The message was prompted by stock price surge that pushed Apple’s market capitalization past Dell’s. In 1997, Dell had suggested that Apple should shut down, and give the money to the shareholders… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Education rebuilding begins for Gulf Coast

“We have one huge fear,” said James Hoyle, superintendent of the devastated Plaquemines Parish School District, located some 10 miles down the Mississippi River from New Orleans. “We’re afraid the rest of the country will forget us.” Six of his nine schools were lost to Hurricane Katrina, which hammered the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

With earthquakes, mine disasters, and congressional scandals dominating the news of a young 2006, that fear, at press time, seemed completely well founded. Not until early January did funding at last start to trickle from the U.S. Department of Education. But even then, nothing emerged from the roundly maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)–nothing, that is, but bureaucratic bungling and infuriating delays, to hear Gulf Coast educators tell it.

As one frustrated school official put it in mid-December: “We haven’t seen one penny from FEMA. They’re the slowest people I’ve ever seen. Their paperwork has to be so thorough that it takes seven FEMA desks to decide whether to rebuild or to raze and start over.”

Not willing to depend solely on the glacial progress of FEMA and other government agencies, some 50 ed-tech corporate executives, state officials, and local educators came together on Dec. 13 for a strategy session organized by Intel Corporation. The high-level conclave focused on how to harness ed-tech know-how to help educators rebuild and restore the technology resources of hundreds of schools and colleges throughout the Gulf Coast.

Terry Smithson, Intel education strategist, hosted the meeting at the headquarters of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Supt. Hoyle spoke at the strategy session.

“We feel very honored to be here,” said Hoyle, who attended with key members of his team. “Of course … we feel very honored to be anywhere.”

Smithson guided the day-long strategy meeting. “This is not an effort to get donations,” he explained. “Everyone has already donated. This is an effort to form a team. When we all pull in the same direction, we can get more done.” Here is the hope of the Intel coalition–dubbed the Hurricane Education Recovery Operation (HERO) at the urging of a representative of the Georgia Department of Education: HERO will work with state education agencies and local educators to replace ruined schools with community learning centers outfitted not just with the latest technology but also according to state-of-the-art concepts about implementing technology in education.

Beginning just weeks after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the private sector has consistently outstripped government agencies in attempting to bring aid and comfort to Gulf Coast educators. On Dec. 21, Congress finally authorized $1.6 billion in federal education relief, but not before including a controversial provision critics quickly labeled a national “voucher scheme.” The federal funding authorization for education relief was included in a defense spending bill.

Approximately $750 million of the aid is intended to help Gulf Coast public and private schools reopen. Another $645 million will go to help public and private schools across the nation that have enrolled displaced Gulf Coast students. (U.S. education officials estimate there are some 372,000 such students.) And $5 million is intended to help educate children made homeless by the hurricanes.

Colleges are slated to receive $200 million, of which $190 million will be divided evenly between the higher education governing boards in Louisiana and Mississippi for distribution to individual campuses. The remaining $10 million will go to colleges elsewhere to support displaced students. Higher education advocates had originally requested $500 million.

In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings vowed to deliver the money rapidly wherever it is needed. She said she would work with chief state school officers in distributing the funding. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the money “will allow much needed relief to finally reach the students, families, and schools impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Under the one-year deal approved by Congress, schools that enroll displaced K-12 students can be reimbursed for up to $6,000 per student, or $7,500 for each student with a disability. The money will flow through public school districts, which will be responsible for passing it along to private schools, including religious schools, with eligible students.

Supporters say this plan is not a voucher program because public money will go to private schools as reimbursement for helping students, not to parents as private-school coupons. Critics call it a voucher program that will sap money from public schools and perhaps set a precedent for national expansion.

“Inserting a voucher scheme into the defense bill … represents an end-run around the legislative process,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association.

In what appeared to be the first actual disbursement of federal education relief funds, Spellings announced on Jan. 5 that $253.75 million was available to schools in four states: Louisiana ($100 million), Mississippi ($100 million), Texas ($50 million), and Alabama ($3.75 million).

In Louisiana, New Orleans was among the highest planning priorities. Multiple commissions and committees were struggling to decide what do about education and everything else in the flood-ruined city. On Jan. 11, the Bring Back New Orleans commission, headed by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, began to release tentative recovery plans. Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University, chairs the commission’s education committee.

To improve a school system long ranked among the worst in the nation, said Cowen, the commission has endorsed a plan that breaks the school district into clusters of from 8 to 14 schools. Whether the plan actually will be implemented is unclear, however, because local officials no longer control most of New Orleans’ schools. In November, the state assumed control of 102 of the Orleans Parish School Board’s 129 schools. State Assistant Superintendent Robin Jarvis is in charge of a so-called “recovery district,” which encompasses the 102 state-controlled campuses.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, state officials are in no hurry to open any of the public schools in the recovery district. At press time, the state had opened none of the schools under its control. The local school board had opened two–Ben Franklin Elementary and Eleanor McMain Secondary. On Jan. 8, the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously to open the McDonogh No. 35 High School on Jan. 17.

Jarvis said 17 public schools were scheduled to open late in January, with capacity for approximately 12,000 students. The assistant state superintendent told the Times-Picayune that at least three more schools are set to open as charter schools in the fall.

Opening schools in New Orleans will be determined by supply and demand, according to state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard. Projections reportedly indicate that New Orleans will have approximately 15,000 students by August. By local estimates, some 60,000 students were enrolled in New Orleans public schools before Katrina.

Finding qualified staff for New Orleans schools when they eventually do open will be challenging. According to the New York Times, the city was planning to terminate all but 61 of some 7,000 school employees who had been placed on disaster leave. Because local tax receipts were devastated in the wake of Katrina, the city now faces a storm-aggravated financial crisis along with everything else. The situation is dire, because New Orleans was near bankruptcy even before Katrina.

Financial chaos has made New Orleans an impromptu laboratory for “school choice,” the New York Times reported. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, has issued an executive order to make it easier to form charter schools. The federal government reportedly has allocated $20 million in aid to fund charter schools in Orleans Parish. At press time, 21 charter schools reportedly had been approved by state and local officials.

Not everyone welcomes charters, not even some educators involved with them. Resentment smolders that state and local officials haven’t done more and moved faster to restore public education in New Orleans.

“We never wanted to charter–that was never our intention in the past,” Carol Christen, principal of Franklin Charter High, told the New York Times. Before Katrina, she led the Benjamin Franklin High School, reportedly the highest ranked secondary school in the state. “This has been a long ordeal,” Christen is quoted as saying, “because no one wanted to help us open up the school. This has been a nightmare, a struggle beyond struggle.”

About 10 miles southeast of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish, the struggle is no less daunting, but the prospects for recovery are considerably brighter–thanks, it appeared, to sound parish leadership, a unified school board, and Supt. Hoyle.

Unlike the Orleans Parish schools, which were problem-plagued well before the wind and water of Katrina, the Plaquemines Parish schools have plenty of troubles but also reasons for optimism. With a high-percentage minority population and substantial numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an emphasis on student discipline, academic excellence, and state-of-the-art technology kept Plaquemines schools among the top performers in the state before Katrina, according to Hoyle. All that washed away in August.

“What you don’t realize,” he said, “is the life’s work of countless teachers has been wiped out. Two-thirds of all students lost all medical records and will need to be re-immunized.

“Today,” he said on Dec. 13, “Plaquemines still looks like Hiroshima [after the atomic bomb] – nothing but devastation and rubble for 60 miles. And the silence is devastating.” Electricity has been out for months. At night, he said, complete darkness joins the eerie silence to cloak the landscape.

Even so, leadership keeps hope alive. Right after the hurricane, the school district–at its own expense–brought in trailers and set up temporary housing for teachers and staff. “We guaranteed we wouldn’t lay anyone off,” said Hoyle. “That means we still have two teachers in many classrooms, but that’s all right.”

Unlike New Orleans, where the district is engaged in wholesale layoffs, Plaquemines still has 620 of its pre-hurricane staff of 850. “We went out and wrote grants,” Hoyle explained. Plaquemines’ team of dedicated educators, immersed in the life of the community, will enable the schools to rebuild, said Hoyle: “Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but we will be back, and we’ll be better and stronger than ever before.”

Links:

Plaquemines Parish Schools
http://www.ppsb.org/

ED’s Hurricane Help for Schools
http://hurricanehelpforschools.gov/index.html

Intel Education
http://www97.intel.com/education/

Louisiana Department of Education Recovery District Info
http://www.doe.state.la.us/lde/rsd/home.html

New Orleans Public Schools
http://www.nops.k12.la.us/

Federal Emergency Management Agency
http://www.fema.gov

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