November 2008 Up Front

News Analysis
Changes to disabilities law could have major effect on schools

The week of Sept. 15 was not a good one for school officials in Suffield, Conn. As Congress debated and passed major changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the district announced that an inspection of its six-year-old high school had found more than 40 violations of the law.

An inspector for the Connecticut Department of Education found multiple problems with the school’s fire alarms, handrails, sink clearance, and doors, among other things. Jack Reynolds, the district’s superintendent, said he was “shocked and infuriated.”

“It’s a brand-new school. There shouldn’t be any civil rights violations,” Reynolds told the Hartford Courant. “Nobody knows at this point where the fault lies.”

As the district looks to fix its problems with the school, Suffield and others across the nation now are bracing for changes to the federal law that seem minor on the surface, but could have major “unintended consequences” for K-12 education.

The revised law, which expands protections for people with disabilities under the ADA, also would result in changes to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act, which predates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by two years, prohibits discrimination by federally funded organizations, including schools.

IDEA, which says all children have the right to a free and appropriate public education, requires schools to set up individualized education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. Some students who need accommodations to be successful in school, such as children with ADHD who need more time to complete tests, receive protection under Section 504 but not IDEA.

Under the current law, students are not eligible for Section 504 services or an IEP if “mitigating measures” such as medication can be used to bring them up to the standards of their average peer group. But in expanding the ADA, Congress is doing away with mitigating measures, which could lead to more students being eligible for services.

“This bill better defines who Congress intends to meet the definition of ‘disabled,’” Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said at a press conference. “It clarifies that mitigating measures, such as medication, may not be taken into account. It provides guidance as to what is a ‘major life activity.’ And, most critically, it lowers the threshold for how limiting a condition must be, and insists that courts interpret the ADA broadly.”

Confused? According to Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, here is what the changes could mean for schools:

• Added costs: The new definition of disability would lead to an increase in the number of students “who have minor or corrected conditions” becoming eligible for Section 504 services. This would cost districts more money to implement, a problem given that IDEA has never been fully funded, Resnick said.

• Operational problems: The law will likely increase the number of workers who receive disability protection, but it does not consider how significantly a particular disability affects an employee. This could lead to situations, Resnick said, where a child’s safety or education could be compromised.

• Midcourse correction: The law is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2009, which would mean schools would have to make changes during the school year. Education groups, including NSBA, are urging Congress to delay the effective date for schools until the start of the 2009-10 school year.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief



Restructuring schools not producing results

Almost 3,600 chronically low-performing Title I schools are being restructured to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, but a new study of efforts in five states questions whether the efforts are helping students make academic progress.

The report, A Call to Restructure Restructuring: Lessons from the No Child Left Behind Act in Five States, was released in late September by the Center on Education Policy. The Washington, D.C.-based research organization looked at efforts in California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio.

Jack Jennings, the center’s president and chief executive officer, said the report found that many schools have remained in restructuring for multiple years, with little guidance from the federal government on how to improve schools that persistently struggle. According to the report, only 19 percent of the schools that were reviewed made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2006-07 after implementing restructuring.

“Current restructuring policies and practices are flawed,” Jennings said. “Many restructuring schools have done everything the law requires, but they still haven’t raised achievement enough to exit restructuring. It’s time to revamp the sanctions and supports for these struggling schools.”

The report, available online at www. cep-dc.org, makes several recommendations to improve the current restructuring process. Among them:

• Expand and define the federal options for restructuring based on strategies that have been cited as effective in school improvement research. This would allow states to create specific options for restructuring.

• Do a better job at the state level of monitoring schools to ensure adequate implementation and to determine which strategies work.

• Consider policies at the state and federal level to address schools that remain in restructuring. The policies should require monitoring implementation of school plans, giving promising strategies time to work, and changing course when strategies are clearly ineffective.

• Replace staff only if districts have the capacity to help schools advertise and interview for open positions, the region around the schools has enough qualified candidates who may apply, and the district can negotiate with the teachers’ union to remove potential obstacles.

• Help maintain student achievement in schools that exit restructuring and continue to funnel funds and services to these schools.



Soda deliveries take huge drop in schools: report

Students have less access to soft drinks at school as districts continue to make progress in the fight against childhood obesity, but researchers continue to say that a broader effort is needed.

According to the American Beverage Association’s School Beverage Guide­lines Progress Report 2007-08, the beverage industry has reduced the calories shipped to schools by 58 percent over the past two years. The report, released in mid-September and available at www.schoolbeverages.com, is part of an initiative sponsored by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, the beverage association, and major soda makers.

The alliance, which pairs the foundation run by former President Clinton and the American Heart Association, worked with the organization and the beverage makers to establish voluntary national guidelines in 2006. The report shows that 79 percent of the schools under contract with bottlers already are complying with the guidelines.

“We’re cutting calories in schools, plain and simple,” said Susan Neely, the beverage association’s president and CEO. “This industry made a bold commitment two years ago to change the beverage mix in schools, and we are delivering.”

But is the effort making a difference in the amount of soda that kids drink? A report published in the September Journal of the American Dietetic Assoc­iation, says the numbers are not as good as you might think.

According to the report, which compared children in schools that sell soda to those that do not offer soft drinks, only 4 percent fewer children said they do not consume the beverages.

“This is not really solving the problem,” Meenakshi M. Fernandes, the study’s author, told the New York Times.



Pennsylvania districts consolidate; move to be closely watched

Two tiny Western Pennsylvania school districts, faced with rapidly declining enrollment, have agreed to merge in a consolidation effort that will be closely watched and evaluated.

The Center Area and the Monaca School Districts, located northwest of Pittsburgh, agreed to dissolve boundary lines in the state’s first consolidation in more than 20 years. The move, which comes as a number of states look at mergers, is part of a growing trend toward fewer school districts in the U.S.

What makes the Pennsylvania consolidation noteworthy is that it is voluntary. Both districts, which have fewer than 1,000 students each, agreed to the consolidation without state intervention. Most consolidation efforts are pushed by state legislatures eager to save money on school spending.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of school districts nationwide declined by 10 percent over a 20-year period that ended in 2005-06. NCES now says there are 14,166 school districts in the U.S.

For more information on school consolidation, visit the home page of ASBJ.com and click on “The Long Road to Unity.”



Writing with a point: Are you communicating clearly?

Two months ago, after our “Immigration and Diversity” package was mailed to readers, I asked one of my harshest, yet most supportive, critics what she thought of the issue.

“It was good, but I didn’t know there were 160 states in the U.S.,” my mom said, pointing to the typo in the news analysis I wrote on “Soaring Costs, Cutting Budgets.”

I hoped she had misread it, but knew she hadn’t. A quick check proved that yes, we had 160 states with districts operating on four-day weeks in print. The number, obviously, was 16.

I point this out, not to justify the error -- since corrected online -- or make excuses. Typos and inadvertent mistakes are an unfortunate fact of life in magazines, daily newspapers, and the newsletters your schools send home. (I can’t believe “public” still appears in print without the “L,” but it continues to happen.)

You can, however, communicate what you are trying to say more clearly and succinctly. That’s the message found in Nora Carr’s Communications column, “The Write Stuff,” on Page 45.

I’ve known Nora for almost a decade, and we talked via e-mail about some of the most egregious examples we had seen. One involved an administrator who insisted on referring to an initiative as a “focused intervention summer program” even though board members had blank looks on their faces. Someone later explained that the administrator was referring to “summer school.”

Opting for simple and clear is common sense, but things like that happen every day, which is why ASBJ has an informal 4Ws test for developing and reporting stories. Who am I writing for? Why am I writing this? What am I trying to say? Will our audience say “so what?” and toss it aside?

Below is an informal list of tips that Nora compiled for her story. It’s a good list, and one we all should follow. I’m paying special attention to the last tip, and hoping I don’t get a call from mom --  at least on this topic --  anytime soon.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Tips: Communicating Clearly
• Match your writing style to your audience.

• Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.

• Ban jargon, catch phrases, and puffed-up words.

• Assume the audience knows less than you do.

• Simplify your vocabulary and sentence structure.

• Listen to parents and patrons talk. Answer their questions.

• Avoid redundancies (teachers teaching; developers developing).

• Read great literature. Focus on what good writers do well.

• Jot down ideas, interesting twists of phrase, bits of dialogue, fresh metaphors, and analogies. Keep writing notebooks handy when stalled for ideas.

• Test your writing on people who have never worked in education.

• Always have someone else proofread and edit your writing.



Talk About It

Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Bible instruction
Should instruction on religious literature be required? According to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the answer is yes. Abbott, in an opinion issued in late August, said the state’s schools do not have to offer a separate Bible elective as long as they do provide some instruction in the area. The state legislature had approved a course in 2007 that uses the Bible to help students understand literature, history, and policy, among other subjects. Legislators also added the subject to the state’s required enrichment curriculum.

Courts and ballots
Three controversial school-related amendments have been pulled from Florida’s election ballot after a ruling by the state Supreme Court. The amendments, which were removed by the court for being misleading to voters, would have eliminated the use of property tax revenue to pay for schools, repealed a 100-year-old ban on state funding for religious institutions, and reinstated state-paid vouchers for students in failing public schools to attend private and religious schools.

Fewer kindergarten options
In Michigan, a new state funding law could force districts to cut half-day kindergarten classes and only offer full-day courses as an option. The move, which will force districts to spend more money on teachers and instructional materials without additional state funding, has been criticized by schools and parents who are worried that full-day classes could be too much for 4- or 5-year-old children.

SAT scores
Reporters probably have asked you about your district’s SAT and ACT scores, which were released as the school year started. And, depending on how your district’s students performed, you probably were faced with a communications conundrum because scores remained stagnant at the national level. But have you explained participation rates and how they can affect scores? According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the 1.52 million students who took the test is a jump of nearly 30 percent over the past decade. Minority students accounted for 40 percent of test-takers, and 36 percent were the first in their families to attend college. Nearly one in seven had a low-enough family income to take the test for free.

Should Belmont have opened?
The nation’s most expensive -- $350 million -- high school opened in September in Los Angeles, finally putting to rest a decade-long debate and ending what District Attorney Steve Cooley once called a “public works disaster of biblical proportions.” Should the Belmont Learning Center, located on an earthquake fault and built on an old oil field, have been finished? Is the expense, which includes a toxic gas mitigation system that costs $250,000 a year to operate, worth the reduction in the notorious overcrowding in the Los Angeles school district?

Troubled districts
Urban districts are having a rough go of it these days. In the weeks after the Miami-Dade County board bought out Rudy Crew’s contract (see story, Page 18), the Dallas and Detroit school CEOs faced separate firestorms tied to financial woes. In Dallas, Superintendemt Michael Hinojosa is being criticized for a potential $84 million financial shortfall that likely will lead to pink slips for 750 employees. Hinojosa has received support from the board, and says he is not resigning, but some community members have called for him to step down. Meanwhile, the troubled Detroit district faces such budget woes that state Superintendent Mike Flanagan is taking steps that could lead to the appointment of a financial manager, something that has occurred only once before in Michigan.

Truant policies
Maryland’s Prince George’s County Schools, located just outside Washington, D.C., has taken a strong stance toward students who are chronically truant. The school board has launched a print, radio, and TV ad campaign that threatens the 6,000 truant students with jail time if they don’t go back to class. Adults are being asked to report truants to the police. “If we have to jail them,” board member Rosalind Johnson told the Washington Post, “I want them jailed.” Although most of the district’s truancy occurs at the high school level, 300 of the students are in elementary school. Johnson says an “out-of-control child … is not a legally accepted reason. You cannot turn your back on your parental responsibility.”