Saturday, May 14, 2011

April 12th Joint Meeting - Response Letter

Following the meeting of Tuesday, April 12, 2011, Dan Whitlow, Director of Schools for Robertson County Schools submitted this response letter to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. It was copied to all County Commissioners. (I appreciate Mr. Whitlow providing me an electronic copy for posting).

Mayor and Board of Alderpersons:
This letter is in response to the joint meeting of the office of Mayor and Aldermen and the Robertson County Board of Education April 12, 2011. It is important to the Board of Education and to me and my staff that you know we are grateful for the opportunity to discuss openly issues that are of vital interest to our students and to our community. We appreciate the occasion to make this group aware of immediate and long-term measures we currently have in place to address these concerns.
Acknowledging the need for continuous and on-going improvement, the Board and staff have aggressive measures in place in Springfield schools. These modifications have included increased instructional personnel, with the addition of reading coaches, interventionists, teaching assistants, special education instructors, teacher training, and strong administrative staff, all representing our desire to provide the maximum educational opportunities for students. Over three-hundred thousand dollars have been invested in enhancing technology at Springfield Middle School, alone. Approximately one million dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars were allocated to Springfield Middle School to increase programs, personnel, and technology.
Our projects span academic disciplines and address all aspects of school management—including projects focused on professional development for administrators and teachers, curriculum development and implementation, student health and safety, technology integration, school/community/university partnerships, educational policy, and research and evaluation.
Significant facility improvements in Springfield schools have been made to revitalize cafeterias, libraries, H/VAC, additions, and renovations, along with the 20 million dollar investment in Springfield High School (Five-year Facility Plan available).
It should be noted that Robertson County ranks 22nd of 95 counties in ability to pay for educating its children, placing it in the top one-third of all districts; yet, actual expenditures for education place Robertson County in the bottom one-third in actual payments. There is no doubt that improvement is needed and growth is essential; however, we remain comparable to the state in achievement scores and exceed many districts in ACT scores and numbers of students who matriculate into college. Scores that rarely make the headlines are the consistently high indicators of success of students in Career and Technical classes and the numerous awards and scholarships given to students in extra-curricular areas.
We feel that Mayor Carneal is absolutely correct when he calls for the need for a new   elementary school within the city area, which would result in necessary redistricting. The Board and staff have supported that concept since the 90s; yet, extraordinary population growth in communities outside of Springfield, coupled with the dissolution of the educational affiliation that Robertson and Sumner Counties shared, necessitated the use of available building funds for other areas of the county. We continue to press this need in our current Facility Plan.
We sincerely believe that your board and the public at-large are interested in making decisions based on factual information and, first, would like to address some statements that concern public perception of the operation of schools in Springfield. Public perceptions of the school district’s performance will also influence a community’s ability to progress. If the school or school district is perceived to be failing or dysfunctional, a self-fulfilling prophecy is likely to occur. If the public perceives Robertson County Schools to be strong, yet, improving and responding to need, then positive growth can take place.
Springfield Middle School was characterized as a failing school, yet, when TCAP scores are evaluated by grade level and by subgroups, SMS equaled or exceeded other schools in the district in many areas. For example, 6th grade math scores among economically disadvantaged students equaled those of
the state and exceeded all schools in the district except those of White House 6th grade. Additionally, all Springfield elementary schools are in “good standing” as defined by the state report card. A comparison of Robertson County scores with those of surrounding counties shows that all districts in the state are being subjected to increased negative publicity as they struggle to meet the demands of new state guidelines and tests and increased rigor of school curriculum requirements and assessment standards. Scores across the state experienced significant decline with the implementation of new tests in 2010.
It was noted that Springfield teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time on discipline. A review of the district discipline report indicates that office referrals of students at Springfield Middle School, for example, as compared to office referrals of other county middle schools are very similar. Additionally, office referrals of 6th grade students at SMS were reduced by 50% over last year, which the administration feels is a direct result of the implementation of gender-only classes in the 6th grade. We feel that Springfield Middle School, under the leadership of Dr. Mike Morris, protects instruction as well as, if not better than, any middle school in the district.
Springfield Middle School is the only school in the district having achieved the National Point of Light Award, having completed eight of the nine criteria toward becoming a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School.
It was reported that 24 students availed themselves of the option to change schools. Of the 24 who expressed interest in the school choice option, only 15 chose to transfer and only 10 students are being transported. This number represents only .06% of the total school population and supports the research that families prefer a neighborhood school concept.
In considering transporting large numbers of students, educational research concludes that (1) in the first 6-8 months of any facility move student scores drop significantly, (2) there is a significant drop in parent involvement, (3) there is a significant decrease in student involvement in extra-curricular activities, and (4) students tend to cling to the familiar peer group, creating a “school culture within a school culture” mentality. Busing students to achieve proportionate economic ratios is not an educationally sound solution to improving achievement scores.
It is important for me to articulate the values that my office holds toward the education of children in its care. There is economic diversity among students and families in our various communities and neighborhoods. District Free and Reduced Lunch numbers range from 21.36% to 90.91%. No school is exempt from having students in need of special services. As educators, we do not believe that economic indicators are equated with ability to achieve, and income will never be a final measure of success or excuse for poor performance. Explicit in our approach is the obligation to improve academic outcomes for all children in the district.
We ask your aid in creating the perception of Robertson County Schools as “strong, responding to need, and improving.” Certainly, school improvement cannot be accomplished in isolation.
Again, we welcome the oppurtunity to join forces with all community agencies to a create a partnership that will result in solutions for the county as a whole. We are one school district, equally concerned about all students.

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