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School superintendents offer solution to student-transfer woes

Updated: 2013-11-05T01:54:21Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

A group of school superintendents who have been witnessing the damage of Missouri’s student-transfer law has come up with a proposal for failing schools that would keep students close to home.

Failing schools need early interventions and help from outside management, the superintendents said in a report provided Monday to The Star. If reform efforts fail, the schools should be given over to successful districts.

What should not happen, they said, is that buses carry students away from their home schools and communities.

The school leaders have been meeting, hoping to develop a school-improvement plan that would help motivate lawmakers to shelve a student-transfer law that they say threatens to devastate the school systems and the neighborhoods with failing schools.

Because Kansas City Public Schools is unaccredited, the district is in danger of losing students to neighboring districts next year and having to pay the cost of their tuition and transportation. Two unaccredited districts in St. Louis County saw some 20 percent of their students transfer this year and are headed toward bankruptcy without help from the state.

“The consensus among Missouri education leaders is that transferring students out of unaccredited school districts is not in the best interest of all students and will not lead to improvement of unaccredited districts,” their report said.

The superintendents propose a four-tiered accreditation system for Missouri schools.

• Districts that are fully accredited overall would carry on without interventions.

• Those that score at a provisional level on the state’s annual report card would come under a thorough state review to develop improvement strategies. Students at schools within the district that are failing would be able to transfer to better-performing schools within the district.

• Districts that perform below the provisional level would be labeled “academically stressed.” Schools within the district that scored below the provisional level would come under the control of an “achievement district,” which would be controlled by a state-appointed board. The state could leave the local board in control of higher-achieving schools. But it would have the authority to take over all the schools.

• If a district was still academically stressed after five years, the district would be dissolved and its schools distributed to accredited districts.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro had not yet had a chance to review the proposal Monday, spokeswoman Sarah Potter said.

Nicastro’s department has been trying to help the districts by setting voluntary guidelines for implementing a transfer law that most everyone agrees is flawed.

Her office is also proposing ways to adjust the law — such as setting lower tuition rates on the unaccredited districts and letting receiving districts establish class-size limits — to spare the failing districts from the crippling financial burden of the current law.

The commissioner also would support eliminating the law, if the Missouri General Assembly were to take that option, Potter said.

“The commissioner’s position is that all students deserve a quality education, and the best way is in their home district,” she said.

Under the state’s current accreditation system, districts that earn 70 percent or more of the possible points on their report cards are scoring at a fully accredited level. Districts that earn between 50 percent and 70 percent of the points score at the provisional level. Districts below 50 percent score at an unaccredited level.

The scores are just indicators of performance. The state school board, upon the commissioner’s recommendations, determines a district’s accreditation status.

Kansas City became unaccredited in January 2012. In August it earned enough points to score at a provisional level, but Nicastro recommended the district remain unaccredited while it worked to show that it could sustain its growth.

The transfer law is a problem, the commissioner said in her recommendation, but lawmakers or the courts need to address the law separately, so the state can maintain the integrity of its accreditation system and not give a district accreditation to get around the law.

Nicastro’s office has recommended that the legislature make a one-time appropriation of $6.8 million to the unaccredited Normandy School District in St. Louis County to help it survive the financial damage from this year’s transfers.

Superintendents are scrambling to ease the damage in St. Louis and prevent potential damage in Kansas City. A lawsuit involving Kansas City area districts is still pending before the state Supreme Court. The superintendents also are pressing lawmakers to address the law.

Kansas City area school administrators who helped create Monday’s proposal included superintendents from the Blue Springs, Center, Independence, Lee’s Summit, North Kansas City and Raytown school districts, said Roger Kurtz, director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. In all, 20 leaders from around the state created the document, he said.

Missouri’s accountability system is now providing detailed scoring not just at the district level but school by school. The superintendents want to use that information to focus interventions on buildings.

A district that is scored as academically stressed could be operating under two school boards — with the local board managing the accredited-level school buildings, and the achievement district board managing the low-performing schools.

But after five years, if all these attempts have failed to produce an accredited district, the district would lapse and the state would work with other districts to assume control of the buildings. The objective would always be to help children attend high-performing schools in their neighborhoods.

“The transfer law may be good for some students, but it would leave the majority of the students in a low-performing district,” Center Superintendent Bob Bartman said. “Our approach would be to do more interventions early on … and focus on schools that are not performing well.”

The superintendents are proposing that students that have already transferred under the law be allowed to continue in their new schools as transfer students, as long as they continue to reside in the unaccredited district. But the superintendents want to stop any new transfers under the law.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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