DeKalb Schools' District Charter Petition

eboard link icon 10/08/2014 Board Meeting
eboard link icon.pdf link icon Charter Application on eBoards
eboard link icon.pdf link icon Charter App on DeKalb Schools website
DekalbSchoolWatch.pdf link icon Comparison – IE2, CHARTER, AND STATUS QUO SCHOOL SYSTEMS
At the DeKalb Schools Board meeting On Wednesday, October 8, the board will vote on a resolution approving the District’s charter system petition allowing the DeKalb County School District to submit a completed charter application to the Georgia Department of Education for State Board of Education approval.
The following “lucid, intelligent, and well thought-out” assessment and notes were sent to me by a concerned parent and published with their permission:
By: DunwoodyOwl
So the DCSD’s application for a charter system has been posted.
Before we dive into it and make notes, let’s review what the State BOE is expecting.
Basically, this is all due to a Georgia law, OCGA 20-2-84, that mandates increased flexibility for local school systems. In a nutshell, in exchange for freedom from state controls, waivers from state laws, rules, and guidelines, and the ability to innovate, school systems must provide a higher level of accountability in terms of higher academic expectations and performance.
School systems in Georgia have to let the state BOE know by June 30, 2015 which option it plans to pursue:

  1. Investing in Education Excellence (IE2)
  2. Charter System
  3. Status Quo

DeKalb has chosen to pursue the Charter System approach, which provides broad flexibility in exchange for school level governance and decision making authority.
Now let’s take a look at the application.
The first section talks about the challenges the school district faces. DCSD lists 7 areas:

  1. Need for improvement among low-income students
  2. Need for improvement among limited English proficiency (LEP) students
  3. Need to increase graduation rate
  4. Need to better prepare graduates for college and career success
  5. Need to better serve academically advanced and gifted students
  6. Need to attract, motivate, and retain high quality teachers
  7. Need to attract, motivate, and retain high quality principals

DCSD believes that it can address all of these challenges by becoming a charter system which will allow local schools to use innovative practices that are targeted at their specific student populations. In addition, innovations around hiring and compensation will allow them to address the challenges around hiring and retaining good teachers and principals.
Here’s how they plan to do it:
 1)  Addressing gap in low-income achievement 
The basic approach here seems to revolve around “more instructional time”  –  instead of pulling kids out of class during regular hours for intervention and remediation, they want the ability to add instructional time for intervention. This may take the form of after school hours, instruction during breaks or summer vacation, etc.
In addition, they want the ability to use teachers outside of their primary certifications in order to create small instructional groups for reading and math.
They would also like the ability to modify the mandated amount of instructional time per subject to be aligned with needs of the student – for example, science and math may get more time than English and some courses may be combined (such as social studies and English) to open up additional time for other subjects.
Note: There are some very good ideas here. Adapting the amount of instructional time per subject to meet student needs makes sense. Adding instructional time moves us away from the “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” approach of pullouts. However, there are some disturbing snippets in this section as well, such as “Creative means of meeting requirements such as health and physical education may be utilized to free up time during the school day for supplemental instruction based upon student needs.”  
We need to keep in mind that children, especially in the lower grades, need physical activity just as much as mental activity in order to remain healthy.
 2)  Addressing achievement gap for Limited English Proficiency students
This section is very similar to the first section, just focusing on more instructional time for ESOL,
 3) Increasing High School graduation rates
This section seems to focus on grade retention (being held back) as a cause of students dropping out.
DCSD approach to fix this is a “bridge” mechanism where the students are promoted to the next grade level for reporting purposes, but take remedial courses while trying to move to on-level content. They may be moved into on-level classrooms based upon readiness.
DCSD is also looking at using “content mastery” as opposed to seat time, and “blended learning” (a mix of online and off-hours classroom instruction) for those students unable or unwilling to be physically present in the schoolhouse.  This is targeted at those kids who may otherwise drop out for work or family obligations.
 Note:  I’m not sure that focusing on grade retention as a cause of students dropping out doesn’t confuse correlation with causation. It could also be that the students at risk of dropping out are more likely to be held back in the first place. It feels like they are trying to create a hybrid of social promotion with remediation, but they’re not talking about what happens if a student doesn’t advance to on-level classes.
4)  Better preparing graduates for college and career success
DCSD is focusing primarily on career pathways as the means of preparing students for life after graduation. They want to have more students participate in them and have more work-study programs, internships, apprenticeships, etc.
They would like to have more dual enrollment and more “Career Academies” (I can only assume they’ll be based on the proposed Charter Career Academy at McNair).
And again, they are looking for seat time waivers so that internships or apprenticeships count for credit in high-school.
 Note: These are good ideas, but as always the challenge will be in implementation.   What are the qualifications for an internship or apprentice position? What kind of credit do the students get? Who decides that? How do we make sure that a company is not getting unpaid labor to haul boxes in a warehouse and claiming that the child is learning Algebra? None of that is documented here.
 5) Better serving academically advanced and gifted students
This section looks at two different issues.
The first is a belief that the current method of identifying gifted students under represents low income and LEP students who may benefit from gifted level instruction. DCSD proposes to use new methods for identifying gifted students, including more emphasis on “creative thought processes” as opposed to “prior knowledge and/or English proficiency”.
The second is a “perception of exclusion” that they feel is caused by the current pull-out instructional model.   Instead, they are proposing the ability to have flexible models of delivery, including accelerated instruction for all students at a school with differentiated lessons / materials for gifted students that parallel lessons and materials for other students.
They also would like to use gifted certified teachers to support all students in the school during instructional time through teaching small groups who can handle accelerated curriculum.
Finally, they plan to Increase opportunity for students to take AP classes through reducing other class requirements through waivers, content mastery or scheduling.
Note:  This is an interesting section. First off, identification based off of ‘creative though processes’ becomes highly subjective. The application makes no reference to the details of the proposed identification process. The current GADOE model looks at four categories – Mental Ability, Achievement, Creativity, and Motivation. In those categories that require evaluation, the criteria specify a panel of three or more qualified evaluators. One would hope that a similar level of rigor would be applied.
Second, it’s unclear how teachers (including those without gifted training) will be able to provide parallel, differentiated instruction to all students especially in light of the current class sizes.
By increasing the number of students identified as gifted and by having both non gifted certified and gifted certified teachers teaching all students regardless of gifted status, the District maximizes the dollars received from the state for gifted instruction while not necessarily providing focused delivery.
6) Attracting, motivating, and retaining high quality teachers
DCSD wants to modify the salary structure to attract high quality teachers in hard to staff subjects. They propose to hire more international teachers that can reflect student population and for those teachers to be hired based on their instructional experience and methods as opposed to certification.
They would like to provide retention Incentives for highly effective teachers
For certain subjects, they would like the ability to hire part time community instructors with subject area expertise and non-education backgrounds.   They would like the option to share Staff positions.
For schools with acute needs, certain certifications, such as ESOL or Gifted, may be required as a condition of employment.
Again, the challenge is in the details. Who gets to decide?
7)  Attracting, motivating, and retaining high quality principals
This section notes the need for high quality principals, It specifically references the Wallace foundation grant.  The school system would like the ability to hire principals with non-traditional backgrounds to manage non-traditional schools, particularly at high school level.
Note:  As above.
So, what does the District promise in exchange for all this?
By the end of the 5 year term of the charter, DCSD expects these three things:

  1. Increase graduation rate to 80%
  2. Beat the odds*
  3. CCRPI scores higher than the State average.

Graduation rate and CCRPI scores are self-explanatory. “Beating the Odds” comes from the state BOE, and is a model that measures a school’s CCRPI scores against expected performance by comparing it with the CCRPI scores of similar schools statewide. DCSD expects every school to “Beat the Odds” by year 4 of the term.
Note:  These are incredibly ambitious goals. An 80% graduation rate would put us in the top third of districts in the state, especially when you consider that we are in the bottom 7% as of 2013 and that no system with more than 37,000 students has a rate of 80% or higher. Having every school “Beat the Odds” would be like living in Lake Woebegon where all of the children are above average. If the District can do this, it will be an incredible achievement.
Implementation Timelines
DCSD plans to transition to the charter system in a phased approach.
DCSD wants to stagger the rollout, introducing the changes to 6 out of the 18 clusters over each of the first three years. The selection for the initial cluster will use the following criteria:

  • Active School Advisory Councils
  • Preponderance of proficient or exemplary principals
  • Mix of student demographics and achievement levels
  • At least one school from each of the five regions

As it is rolled out to a cluster, the following timelines come into effect. At the school level, the first year will be spent having the Local School Governance Team (LSGT) determine which innovations to implement to best meet the needs of the students at that particular school. Actual implementation would start in the second year.
At the district level, in the first year, DCSD plans to increase access to internships and apprenticeship and start utilizing content mastery instead of seat time for remedial courses. In the second year, DCSD would address salary adjustments, and in the third year would start establishing non traditional schools with blended learning or non-traditional hours.
Local School Governance.
As mentioned above, LSGTs are introduced as the governance mechanism for a school. In addition to the LSGTs, there are also “Cluster Advisory Councils” (CAC) for each high school cluster, supported by the Regional Superintendant’s office.  CACs will not have governance over individual schools, however they do have the ability to review and provide recommendations proposals that impact the cluster. Any innovation that impacts the cluster must also get the full approval of each LSGT within that cluster.  CACs consist of the principal of each school in the cluster plus one additional member from each LSGT
The LSGT will be composed of 9 members at the elementary and middle school level, and 10 members at the high schools level. The members are broken out as follows:

  • 1 Principal
  • 2 Parents / Guardians elected by parents
  • 1 Parent / Guardian appointed by principal to “balance diversity of representation”
  • 2 Teachers elected by staff
  • 1 Staff or Faculty recommended by principal for appointment by LSGT
  • 1 Business rep (non-parent) nominated by principal for appointment by LSGT
  • 1 Community member (non-parent) nominated by principal for appointment by LSGT
  • 1 Student (High School only) non-voting, nominated by principal for appointment by LSGT

Note:  Take a close look here. The current school council model provides for 4 elected parents out of a total of 7 council members, giving the parents a majority. The LSGT model provides for 2 elected parents out of 9 members, with a majority of the LSGT being either the principal or an appointee/nominee of the principal. This is a significant shift in authority and places the principal firmly in charge of the LSGT.
LSGT Authority
There is concern that decisions made by individual schools may have unintended consequences, so LSGT actions need to be constrained by Risk Criteria.   All LSGT decisions must meet the following criteria to be considered for approval.
Risk Criteria

  1. Maintains or increases results in CCRPI tested areas.
  2. Does not exclude or give preference to student or community groups.
  3. Ensures student safety.
  4. Does not impact surrounding schools (unless endorsed by Cluster Advisory Council). [side note – CAC endorsement requires approval by all LGSTs in the cluster as referenced above ]
  5. Does not increase district budget (except for innovations approved for use of charter system funds).
  6. Does not affect federal funding.
  7. Does not affect capital funding.
  8. Maintains economies of scale in district operations in such areas as nutrition, transportation and contracting.
  9. Does not conflict with standard operating procedures in contracting, employment processing, and compliance with federal regulations.
  10. Does not involve legal action.
  11. Does not interfere with maintenance and upkeep of physical facilities.
  12. Complies with Georgia High School Association rules.

In the following sections, the minimum authority specified for an LSGT is mandated by the state BOE.
Personnel Decisions — At minimum, LSGTs have the authority to recommend principals for selection by Superintendent and BOE.   Additional authority:  Ability to provide input to the principal on other personnel decisions; all decisions reviewed by Superintendent’s designee to ensure alignment with Risk Criteria above.
Financial Decisions – At minimum, LGSTs have input into final recommendations for the school budget, including number and type of personnel, supply costs, etc.   Additional authority:  Approval and use of unrestricted, undesignated funds within the school’s budget, use of donated funds, selection and approval of district approved vendors receive information about budget expenditures against allocations at least once during the school year,   All decisions reviewed by Superintendent’s designee to ensure alignment with Risk Criteria above
Curriculum and Instruction – At minimum, LGSTs have input into selection of curriculum and materials consistent with district goals.  Additional authority:  Approval of new courses and subjects, approval of instructional innovations requiring waivers of state law, receive information on student achievement results and implementation of innovations, all of course subject to the Superintendent’s designee to ensure alignment with Risk Criteria above.
School Improvement Goals – At minimum, LGSTs shall approve the school improvement plan and provide oversight of its implementation. Additional authority: Approval of innovative practices resulting in change in class size, seat time, teacher certification, delivery of programs through ESOL, Remedial, or Gifted services or additions to the school curriculum, subject to the Superintendent’s designee’s review.
School Operations – At minimum, the LGSTs shall have input into school operations that are consistent with school improvement and charter goals. Additional authority: Approval of plans for parent engagement and involvement (subject to district policy on volunteers in schools), approval of school dress codes, student handbooks, school wide discipline plans, approval of events held at the school, and provide input to the principal on co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, subject to the review of the Superintendent’s designee.
Note:  The need for some level of oversight to ensure that decisions made by the LSGTs do not violate state or federal law, nor impact funding, nor endanger students, etc. is clear. What is of concern here is that there is no reference as to how this oversight works?   Who will the Superintendent’s designee be? What’s the appeals process if the LSGT disagrees with the decision? How can this truly be “autonomy” if every decision needs to be approved by the Superintendent’s office? It reminds me of the scene from “My Cousin Vinny”:
Judge Chamberlain Haller: Mr. Gambini?
Vinny Gambini
: Yes, sir?
Judge Chamberlain Haller
: That is a lucid, intelligent, well thought-out objection.
Vinny Gambini
: Thank you, Your Honor.
Judge Chamberlain Haller
: Overruled.

One response to “DeKalb Schools' District Charter Petition

  1. Search the petition for the term “special education.” It isn’t found.
    Search the petition for the term “students with disabilities.” It is found once as a subgroup of students used to determine if student growth “beat the odds.”
    Students with disabilities currently have a graduation rate of 25%.
    (Officially it is 22.5%, but I exclude the DeKalb Alternative School and Elizabeth Andrews High School to raise the average.)
    The petition shows how much the administration cares about students with disabilities.