Four school stories to follow: What were they thinking?

A no-bid contract for $375,000 between Minneapolis Public Schools and an organization that barely exists. Programs that actually work to close the achievement gap. A change in St. Paul school start times. A strategic plan that is neither strategic nor a plan. These stories-in-progress involve our kids and our money, which is reason enough to start following them.

Politics and (lack of) principles

Start with a politically-tied, no-bid $375,000 contract — awarded in May by Minneapolis Public Schools to Community Standards Initiative, an organization that barely exists. Minneapolis Public Schools made a first payment to CSI of $46,875 in May. According to MPS and the Star Tribune, the group’s August 29 report shows barely anything accomplished. The organization, led by Clarence Hightower and Al Flowers, is due for a second payment of $46,000 in September.

The Star Tribune’s Alejandra Matos reported in detail on the decision by MPS to try to stop paying out more money to CSI. The story is a fascinating tale of political pressure from legislators and the MPS top administrators giving every possible break to an organization that consistently fails to produce. When CSI couldn’t put together a plausible proposal, MPS even gave a $30,000 special grant in February to help them come up with a plan.

The organization’s short history shows nothing to justify the MPS contract. After it was “founded” in 2011, but before it was actually incorporated), CSI got $15,000 from Minneapolis Public Schools and another $15,000 from the park board for its proposed “positive behavior incentive” program. CSI, led by Clarence Hightower and Al Flowers, actually incorporated with the State of Minnesota as a nonprofit. It’s still not listed as a charity or non-profit in the IRS index.

Surprise — there’s no evidence of any results from the $30,000 in public money that CSI got in 2011. Similarly, with the present $375,000 MPS contract, Matos reports:

The group was supposed to turn in monthly reports detailing its work. So far, only one report has been submitted as of Aug. 29, which it labeled a quarterly summary. … The group currently claims to have 63 students enrolled in its program, but the contract required 450 students by the end of August.

According to a undated pdf by Al Flowers posted on MinnPost, CSI advocates “clear and present behavioral norms and boundaries.” Maybe one of those norms should be providing timely filing reports to show what they have produced for the taxpayer money they have received.

Rare good news

Tutoring is a way to target the opportunity/achievement gap. The New York Times sums it up:

“[All] participants in the reading wars agree on some other things: Early reading is crucial — a child who does not read proficiently by third grade will probably fall further and further behind each year. American schools are failing: two out of three fourth graders don’t read at grade level.

“And they agree on something else: any reading curriculum works better if children who are struggling get the chance to work, one on one, with a tutor.”

The NYT article featured Minnesota’s Reading Corps as an example of tutoring programs that can close the achievement gap:

“Minnesota Reading Corps, which started in 2003, uses AmeriCorps volunteers (they receive a stipend from the federal government) as full-time or half-time tutors. Full-time tutors who work with children in kindergarten through third grade have a caseload of 15 to 20 students at a time. … Tutors work with each child for 20 minutes per day, five days a week. They learn 10 different lessons, such as associating sounds with letters, breaking words into phonemes or recognizing punctuation.”

Not surprisingly, the Americorps program nationwide is struggling for funding, and the Minnesota Reading Corps was still trying to find tutors for North Minneapolis schools in August.

Little kids vs. big kids?

St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) are considering a change in start times that would let high schools students start their school day later (8:30 a.m.), which every bit of research says is a good idea. Unfortunately, SPPS is proposing a win/lose solution that would switch most elementary schools over to a 7:30 a.m. start time, which means the little kids would have to get up earlier and catch the bus in the dark during much of the school year.

Other solutions exist. One possibility: work with MTC to arrange bus passes for high school students. Why isn’t this option under active consideration?

The non-strategic non-plan

The Minneapolis Board of Education voted to approve the district’s latest strategic plan on September 9, without a strategic evaluation of why the last plan(s) haven’t succeeded. The new “plan” calls for “greater expectations” and, in particular, a 5-8-10 scorecard:

5-8-10 scorecard: A rigorous scorecard will monitor more than 40 metrics and adjust in near-real time for success, with three important leading indicators:

• 5 percent annual increase in students overall meeting or exceeding state standards in reading and math

• 8 percent annual increase in students meeting or exceeding standards in reading and math for MPS’ lowest-performing students

• 10 percent annual increase in the four-year graduation rate

Sorry – in my book, expectations are not strategies and a plan to monitor metrics is about evaluation, not about performance.

The “plan” also calls for recommitting to a vision of “every child college and career ready.” A vision is not a plan.

The plan will “Set big, bold new targets for accelerating student achievement over the next 6 years.” Targets are not a plan.

The “strategies” section is a complex matrix of strategies and initiatives, none of which is very specific.

From MPS Powerpoint presentation of plan <>

From MPS Powerpoint presentation of plan –

In the end, the plan seems to pass the buck to schools, saying that schools will be held accountable for coming up with ways to meet the 5/8/10 goals. Of course, there’s no guarantee that schools will be given the resources that they might need — such as funding for co-teaching at Lucy Laney, for example.

There’s more. I encourage you to read the entire plan. Maybe I’m just discourage by reading too many plans over too many years and watching them produce far too little progress.

So — four stories to follow in the months ahead. Send me your comments and suggestions for other important school stories.


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2 responses to “Four school stories to follow: What were they thinking?

  1. Great roundup, Mary. I would add that this business of stating percentage gains as goals confuses real goals with mere rates of improvement and dodges the need for valid, reliable measurements. No Child Left Behind seems to have left us all behind in thinking clearly about statistics.


  2. Pingback: Non-profit boards and rotting fish | News Day

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