Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dissolving the Toledo Public School system?

Should the Toledo Public School System be dissolved?

That will be the topic of discussion when Darlene Chambers, executive director of the Ohio Council of Community Schools, and pollster Fritz Wenzel of Wenzel Strategies host a special Eye on Education on NewsTalk 1370 WSPD Thursday at 6 p.m.

Is this a radical idea? Definitely. But with TPS facing a $38 million deficit and knowing that 58% of voters said no to their last levy request, it's time to 'think outside the box.'

School Board President Bob Vasquez has called for "transformative change" and promptly set up a committee. That committee, comprised of business people, politicians, education professionals, non-profit and union representatives, has been meeting in private for several months.

Of course, one of the key recommendations to make the light of day was to hire a consultant to run a huge public forum in February so that people could 'feel' like they have a say in the process of changing TPS. The cost? $72,000. But that's a bargain because the original idea was to pay the consultant $240,000 for six months to guide the schools district through the public forums and then help implement the agreed-upon changes. So what will the $72,000 get us? Three months of service from the Cady Group to do the forum and then 'teach' groups how to work together.

Of course, with a $38 million budget deficit for the 2011-12 school year, where will TPS find the money to pay someone to host a forum? Perhaps they could actually heed the suggestions and comments they get at their monthly board meetings as an alternative.

But is dissolving the school system a good alternative? Well, New Orleans has seen success with a similar approach following Hurricane Katrina. From the Christian Science Monitor:

New Orleans has become a laboratory for education reform, largely by necessity. With virtually all its students and teachers evacuated for the better part of the 2005-06 school year, it had to dramatically downsize and regroup. In the wake of the storm, the state became the overseer of most schools through its Recovery School District (RSD), originally set up to take over academically failing schools.

That paved the way for New Orleans to be named the most “reform friendly” for education out of 30 cities analyzed recently by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This distinction is partly because of the dominance of charter schools, which are free to experiment and which the RSD has encouraged. Out of 88 public schools in New Orleans, 61 are charters run by a variety of state and local operators. That represents 70 percent of the city’s 40,000 students (there were 65,000 before Katrina). The percentage is much higher than in any other school system in the United States.

In addition to the charters, a small number of schools are run by the local school board, and the rest are run by the RSD.

Among the changes in New Orleans schools: One structure that gave way was the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, which reformers have praised for giving schools more flexibility on salaries and work hours. Many new teachers have flocked to the city through alternative training programs such as Teach for America.

Demographically, the student population hasn’t changed much. Ninety percent of public-school students are African-American, and 82 percent are low-income. Both figures are within five percentage points of pre-storm figures. But it’s not clear how many are returnees versus new to the city.

Before Katrina, 64 percent of New Orleans schools were deemed academically unacceptable by the state. By 2009, that was down to 42 percent.

Another good sign: In the RSD, the number of seniors who made it to graduation rose from 50 percent in 2007 to about 90 percent in 2010.

New Orleans students still test well below the state average in math and reading. They were improving before Katrina, but since schools have reopened, they’ve made gains at a much faster rate than the state.

On the 10th-grade Graduate Exit Exam, the portion of local students scoring at or above the basic level in English language arts rose from 37 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2010. Statewide, that number rose from 56 percent to 65 percent.

With so many changes, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of such gains, but several factors appear to be playing a role, says Shannon Jones, executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans, which published a recent report on the schools.

For one, “schools are being held accountable for results” in a new way, she says, because parents now can choose any school in the district.

Could TPS do something similar? Maybe - maybe not. But it's definitely worth discussion.

I hope you'll tune in to AM 1370 Thursday at 6 p.m. or you can listen online if you're not in the area.

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