Ann Arbor Public Schools Committee of the Whole meeting (December 7, 2011): At Wednesday’s board committee meeting, AAPS superintendent Patricia Green outlined her vision for addressing what she called the “discipline gap.” The board met as a committee of the whole (COTW).
Green sees closing the discipline gap as a gateway to eliminating the district’s achievement gap. Green’s presentation included a detailed breakdown of suspension data from the past eight years – a data set that shows a disproportionately high number of African-American students, special needs students, and economically disadvantaged students being suspended or otherwise removed from instructional time.
Trustees expressed optimism that Green’s comprehensive and integrated approach could ultimately be effective in addressing the achievement gap. Saying that while the board has had binders, spreadsheets, and plans before, board president Deb Mexicotte said she believes in Green’s leadership. “A lot of times in the past, the piecemeal bits have not been clear how they would work together … I now believe we can do this.”
Recalling a question Green asked the board during her interview process last spring, Mexicotte told Green, “You asked us what we would like to see in five years, and we said: Close the achievement gap. We are absolutely unified on this.”
Also discussed at the Dec. 7 COTW meeting were the new “cut scores” being used to determine student proficiency on the annual state Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test and Michigan Merit Exam (MME). Under the new system, students will need to get approximately 65% of the answers correct to be labeled proficient or above; the previous proficiency level was set at 39%. The district is working to mitigate parents’ surprise and concern. This year’s student scores will in most cases likely register a significant drop.
Trustees also gave their assent to a proposal by top administrators to widen the range of students who are able to address the board at their regular meetings, heard a brief budget update, and reviewed their upcoming agenda.
AAPS Discipline Data
Green opened her presentation with a review of her experience in reversing trends for suspensions and expulsions in other settings. She noted that a review of the national literature suggests there is no single factor that can account for the disproportionality that’s seen in suspensions. She said schools need to create multifaceted approaches that focus on: school connectedness, caring relationships, alternative disciplinary practices, and explicit attention to race and culture.
Green’s vision centers on the social and emotional learning components of education, which includes teaching both students and staff the skills to develop social and emotional competence. Calling suspension a “bandaid,” Green said that it has never been proven to be an effective technique to change behavior, and argued that any exclusion from instructional time should be a last resort in response to behavioral problems.
Jane Landefeld, AAPS director of student accounting, then led the board through a series of slides on suspension data. In 2010-11, the district logged 116 elementary suspensions, 251 middle school suspensions, and 337 high school suspensions. In all cases, compared to other students, a significantly higher number of African-American students, students who are economically disadvantaged [Figure 1], and students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) [Figure 2] received suspensions.
Landefeld presented data from the past eight years, which showed overall that the disproportionality seen in 2010-11 is part of an continuing trend and not an aberration. Figure 3 shows the percentage of high school students by ethnicity with at least one suspension during the school year. Figure 4 shows the same data for middle schoolers.
Green’s Vision for Addressing “Discipline Gap”
Green laid out a 23-point “concept paper” in which she illustrated her vision for how the district can foster the social and emotional learning necessary to overcome the discipline gap. Linking her ideas directly to the district’s strategic plan, Green emphasized that her approach will be balanced, and will focus on more than just controlling student behavior.
Suggested elements of her plan include: establishing a superintendent advisory team made up of community leaders; insisting on consistent enforcement of policies and procedures on student discipline; refining the implementation of positive behavioral support programs; institutionalizing comprehensive and regular data collection and review; creating a seamless mesh of student support services; establishing a student leadership program; and teaching empathy, impulse control, and anger management at all levels of the district.
Ultimately, Green said, these social and emotional goals will be unified with the district’s academic goals in a common framework, which is being developed this year. Green allowed that this process will take time, noting that reducing suspension rates by 48% in one of her former districts took about two years. “We need to have to courage to look at the data and say… we will change the odds, change the image, and change the results … It’s going to take time, … [but] we can do this as an incredible team. We can to do what few districts in America have been able to do.”
Green’s Vision: Board Response
Following Green’s presentation, trustees expressed a mix of positive emotions – from excitement and admiration to gratitude and relief.
“Thank you for owning this issue … This is the first time I feel like we are embracing publicly that we are not consistent,” said trustee Simone Lightfoot. She continued: “These [suspension] numbers are egregious and embarrassing and distressful to me.” Saying she didn’t want to move forward without acknowledging the distress, Lightfoot said she was looking forward to the implementation of Green’s vision.
Green’s Vision: Board Response – History of Community Engagement
In May 2010, trustees Simone Lightfoot and Susan Baskett convened a meeting for community members entitled “Beyond the Talk,” which brought together key leaders in the community to brainstorm a list of ideas, resources, and programs which could be coordinated to create what Lightfoot began calling an “achievement gap plan.” Arguing that the districts efforts were not well-organized or well-defined, Lightfoot advocated for a separate plan to be created that tied together the district’s efforts in a way that would make them more accessible to parents and the wider community.
In November 2010, former AAPS interim deputy superintendent for instruction Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley unveiled an “achievement gap elimination plan” as part of the state-mandated school improvement plan. The district has also recently produced a brochure entitled “A Call to Action,” which presents a timeline of math and literacy initiatives aimed at addressing the achievement gap.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, Lightfoot questioned how Green would include in her plan the work that is already being done in the community around this issue, arguing that Green’s approach is very “study-oriented and academic.” Lightfoot added that “there are some things that are not necessarily researched but known to work well in our district.”
Green agreed that the best practices she is advocating are all research-based. The community efforts at closing the achievement gap to which Lightfoot referred are “action-research,” Green said, and she would be eager to review them for inclusion in the plan.
Community leaders who have accepted Green’s invitation to participate on her advisory team include: William Hampton, president of the local NAACP; Bryan Johnson, president of the Black Parents’ Student Support Group; Donna Lasinski from the Parent Teacher Organization Council; Joan Doughty, executive director of the Community Action Network; Amy Pachera, board president of the Peace Neighborhood Center; Bonnie Billups, executive director of the Peace Neighborhood Center; Yolanda Whiten, executive director of the Ann Arbor Community Center; and leadership from the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Council on Special Education. Green described the group as a “think tank” which would offer varied perspectives in an open, informal conversation.
Ruth Zweifler, founder and retired executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, attended the Dec. 7 COTW meeting and addressed the board during public commentary as well as later in the meeting. Zwiefler noted that whenever the spotlight is placed on the disproportionality in suspensions, the number goes down, but when the spotlight is removed the problem comes back. Saying Green’s vision was a wonderful intent, Zwiefler encouraged the board: “I hope we make it this time.”
Green’s Vision: Board Response – Data Management
Mexicotte and trustee Irene Patalan each noted how Green’s vision looks at the “whole student,” which is part of the intention behind the “personalized learning” emphasized in the AAPS Strategic Plan.
Two years ago, the district began using a new electronic data collection process, called the Achievement Team Process (ATP). As described in May 2010 by former interim deputy superintendent of instruction, Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, the ATP database can be accessed by all teachers at all schools to create personalized learning plans. It can also be used to track which interventions have been tried for each struggling student. The ATP can then be used as a gateway to refer students to any number of instructional support programs or special education services.
The district also uses PowerSchool, an online data management system primarily used to track student grades and attendance, and which can be accessed by parents.
At the Dec. 7 COTW meeting, AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye noted that she has asked four schools to pilot a newly-crafted behavior referral form. Flye explained that there are currently many different forms that are used across the district, and that in addition to collecting different data, each school is compiling data differently – some in Excel, some on GoogleDocs, etc.
Eventually, Flye said, the goal is for a single form to be used in all levels across the district to capture all data related to disciplinary action that reduces any instructional time in any way. All such data would be stored on PowerSchool, she said.
Trustee Christine Stead said she was very impressed and grateful to receive the binder Green had put together for each trustee, and noted that it’s clear Green’s vision is based on a wide body of academic work and solid data. She thanked Green for her efforts to standardize the discipline data collected and for laying the foundation for “data governance” that would allow even more sophisticated analysis in the future.
Stead also noted that better tracking would help maintain the buy-in from the community that Green is working to build. “Any institution undergoing great change needs lots of information,” Stead said. “People get nervous and need reassurance. We also need a path to know when [our efforts] are going off-course, and we need to know as quickly as we can.” Finally, she noted that she was looking forward to working with the community leaders Green had invited to her advisory team.
Rod Flowers, from the local NAACP, and Martine Perreault, of the PTOC, were also present at the Dec. 7 COTW meeting, and added their suggestions to the board’s discussion of the data collection process.
Flowers suggested that there should be a quantitative way to measure how different discipline options impact achievement. He said he would like to see masked suspension data (data lacking student identification) linked to the academic achievement level of each student – to help track the effect of suspensions on student achievement from year to year. Zweifler added that the board could consider adding student GPA on the new referral form.
Perreault suggested that the district should also track how discipline data are affected when principals move from one school to another – because their leadership has a significant effect on discipline practices in each building. “What might be insubordination to one principal,” she pointed out, “would not be to another.”
Green’s Vision: Board Response – Next Steps
Baskett thanked Green for exceeding her expectations, and asked what the administration’s next steps will be to turn the vision into a reality.
Green responded to Baskett by saying she plans to tie the “social and emotional learning” pieces of this work with the achievement gap elimination plan and the equity plan into a comprehensive action plan to be presented to the board in March 2012.
Trustee Glenn Nelson expressed his appreciation for the quality of the work, echoing the sentiments of other trustees. Nelson added that student attendance should be included in the analysis.
Green agreed that academic, discipline, attendance issues need to be examined comprehensively. She pointed out that she has a vision and is supported by tremendous people who believe in her vision. Green singled out Amy Osinski, board secretary, for developing a graphic of puzzle pieces fitting together to represent the work.
Lightfoot suggested bringing in African-American and Latino alumni to work with students, and involving students in defining what supports would be needed for their behavior to improve. Baskett suggested putting the report Green gave at the meeting on the district’s website, and Green said she would do that.
Patalan and Lightfoot also noted the importance of having the board, as well as staff, receive professional development training. Green noted that she had determined that Title 2 funding can be used for such professional development.
State Standardized Test “Cut Scores”
Earlier this year, the state board of education adopted this more rigorous scoring method, which will better align the results of Michigan’s state standardized tests with national measures of achievement, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
AAPS is bracing for parents’ response to what will in many cases be significantly lower student scores on this year’s MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) and MME (Michigan Merit Exam). According to the district’s projections, Landefeld said that the new cut scores may reduce the percentage of 3rd-8th grade students who are proficient in reading by 10-18%. For math a reduction of 21-38% is possible. A summary slide created by Landefeld shows that AAPS is expecting decreases of 11-35% in student scores on the MME as well.
Lightfoot asked if there are sanctions for districts with low scores. Flye answered that yes, there are potential sanctions for districts that are seen as persistently low-achieving for many years. But she said that AAPS is “not anywhere near” the bottom of the state-created “top to bottom” list of schools that was released this past summer.
Landefeld noted that while AAPS would be affected by the new cut scores, the effects would be felt less than in other comparable districts.
Lightfoot asked what AAPS has in place to pick up kids who will fall through the cracks as higher cut scores are implemented.
Flye and assistant superintendent of secondary education Joyce Hunter outlined some of the academic supports in place, such as e2020 for credit recovery, support classes being added for middle school algebra, and summer school. Flye also noted that the Achievement Team Process (described above) should be used to evaluate all students – those at risk as well as those who are gifted.
Cut Scores: Board Response – Balanced Calendar
In response to the new cut scores, some trustees suggested dramatic changes to the district’s calendar. Lightfoot suggested extending the school day, and Stead argued that the district should seriously consider expanding the school year for all students.
Stead contended that for AAPS to be internationally competitive, “we need more time with our kids… We cannot get there from here.” She noted that Shanghai, which is listed at the top of the international achievement rankings, has 243 days of school per year, but that AAPS has only 180.
Mexicotte pointed out that adding 60 more days to the calendar might be cost-prohibitive, since on average each school day currently costs the district $1 million.
Stead responded that she does not see a way to close the achievement gap with 180 days per year, but that she would suggest adding roughly 20 more days, not 60.
Cut Scores: Board Response – Coordinating Across Schools
Patalan asked how the district was coordinating with individual schools to be sure that parents understand why the MEAP and MME scores will look so different this year compared to previous years. Flye explained that parts of the presentation she gave at the Dec. 7 COTW meeting had been shared already with principals, staff, and PTOs. Green noted that a “toolkit” with talking points was sent to principals instead of just the raw data projections.
Flye also noted that the district has communicated monthly to the community in different formats and will continue to do so. She noted that letters have already been sent to parents describing the scoring changes, and that Green will be creating a podcast on the issue.
Baskett added that AAPS should continue to reach out to the community to help with tutoring, etc. But she noted that community volunteers need to receive consistent training. Stead also suggested referring students and families to free online learning such as the Khan Academy.
Nelson encouraged the board not to get “caught up” in the Michigan Department of Education’s assessments, but to continue to measure what is important to the district. He noted that the new state cut scores are attempting to ascertain college-readiness, but argued that they do a poor job of doing so. “I will be deeply dismayed,” Nelson asserted, “if we are preaching to kids that they are not college-ready on the basis of a test score.” Finally, Nelson said he would hypothesize that the traits developed through the social and emotional learning being championed by Green would be more highly correlated to college success than scores on any standardized test.
Mexicotte agreed that the district needs to address the cut score changes, but should focus on what it’s good at – she argued that that state is forcing districts to beat themselves up about “things that are not relevant.”
The board heard a proposal from administrators to revamp the way student perspectives are invited into the board’s discussions. Hunter suggested that beginning in January, the district’s six high schools should rotate sending a representative to the first regular board meeting of each month. The new high school-specific reports could take the place of the Youth Senate association report at those meetings, she suggested.
Green noted that in the other districts where she has worked, students have had a seat on the school board – in one case, a voting seat.
Mexicotte expressed strong feelings about the dearth of leadership opportunities in the high schools, and said she would like to strengthen student efficacy. She noted it would be difficult to “unfriend” [an allusion to Facebook] the Youth Senate by dis-inviting them to be one of the regular associations that presents to the board. But she said the situation demands a “drastic rethink.” Saying that there are other structures for incorporating student input, Mexicotte asserted, “I don’t want to disparage the work of the Youth Senate, but I want this to be right.”
The board agreed to continue discussion of the inclusion of student input at its organizational meeting in January.
AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen and AAPS assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services Dave Comsa gave the board an update on possibilities being considered at the state level for reforming the Michigan Public Service Employees Retirement System (MPSERS). The rate that school districts are mandated to pay into MPSERS has been rising steadily, and currently stands at 27%.
Mexicotte asked if there was any reason to believe that the district would benefit from MPSERS reform, and Allen said he was hopeful. “They have been talking about this for years,” Allen said. “There is talk about having some sort of blended retirement – this cost is really rising out of control and is really sinking our ship.”
Allen said it’s also possible that the state will mandate greater MPSERS contributions from charter schools by changing the way the foundation allowance is paid to districts. In addition, he said, the state may offer more incentives funding for best practices.
Comsa added that there has also been some discussion about not going through with the proposed elimination of personal property taxes because it will be an election year, and no replacement funding has been identified.
Finally, Allen noted that the School Aid Fund looks better than it did at this time last year, which is hopeful.
Mexicotte noted that the following topics had been placed on the board agenda for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year: cabinet-level contracts, special donor recognitions, board terms, HVAC bid, balanced calendar, policy updates, change in high school start times, and board professional development.
Baskett requested a update on the Mitchell-Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaboration (TLC). Mexicotte said the TLC, including its proposed balanced calendar component, should be considered on a broader level, noting that she has been asked, “If it’s good enough for Scarlett, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of the district?”
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Susan Baskett, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Simone Lightfoot, Glenn Nelson and Christine Stead.
Absent: Secretary Andy Thomas [arrived for the last half hour]
Next regular meeting: Dec. 14, 2011, 7 p.m., at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
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