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In face of cuts, Boston Public Schools details supports for district’s low-performing schools

Jule Pattison-Gordon
In face of cuts, Boston Public Schools details supports for district’s low-performing schools
School officials and city councilors discussed what efforts are taken to support struggling schools, a number of which face budget reductions, and how far targeted extra funding goes.

During recent budget hearings, city councilors fired off questions on how the city is supporting schools deemed underperforming. The question appears especially pressing as Boston Public School parents and education bloggers Kristin Johnson and Bob Damon write that several of the schools receiving cuts are those with low and lowest level rankings from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and with high populations of students considered particularly vulnerable. Fifteen schools ranked by the state as among the bottom 20 percent statewide (Level 3, 4 or 5) will see a budget cut by more than 1 percent, according to a March 2017 BPS presentation.

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City council underperforming school hearing:

Boston Public Schools officials took time during the hearings to outline their efforts to support low-performing schools, through measures such as visiting assistant teams, continued funding support for schools exiting turnaround and a fund for extra supports. Not all councilors seemed to agree that the measures go far enough.

Who feels the cut?

While some services and supports such as facility repair, psychologists, athletic coaches and transportation are budgeted centrally, schools receive funding based on their pupil counts. Declining enrollment has resulted in 49 schools receiving smaller budgets this year. The logic behind per-pupil funding holds that should schools lose students, they also lose expenses and can absorb cuts by making a reduction in classes or teachers. But critics are concerned that there are cases in which departing students are spread among various programs and classrooms, making significant spending reductions a challenge.

The students who are left behind in schools with similar levels of expenses and fewer resources are disproportionally more likely to be black, Latino, English language learners, low-income, special education or with high needs, according to Johnson and Damon.

“Every indicator of students within the achievement gap was overall higher within the group of schools facing budget reductions,” Johnson writes. This year’s cuts also come after a fiscal year 2017 budget that reduced the funding allotments for children with autism and socioemotional needs.

According to Johnson, among the 49 schools facing reductions, 42 percent have a higher-than-district-average number of English language learners and 46 percent have a higher-than-average number of students whose first language is not English. Sixty percent have higher numbers of students with disabilities; 66 percent have more economically disadvantaged students and 72 percent have more students regarded as “high needs.” In regards to race, 26 percent of these schools have a higher-than-average number of Latino students and 54 percent have a higher-than-average number of black students.

According to a BPS equity analysis of the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, 75 percent of the funding cuts to low-level schools with declining enrollments are absorbed through reductions related to lessened need for classroom capacity, such as changes to teacher and aide budgeting. Another 25 percent of cuts affect student support, administration and instructional support funding.

Support teams

The district’s strategy for providing aid to underperforming schools includes targeted support teams such as technical assistance teams that visit certain schools on a quarterly basis to examine operations and help school leaders problem-solve on challenges, according to Liza Veto, the director of the office of turnaround and transformation at BPS. Thus far, tech teams have been sent to all Level 4 schools and are being piloted at two Level 3 schools.

Another effort is three- to four-person academic response teams comprised of licensed members with subject matter expertise, said Dan Anderson, director of academic response teams at BPS. The teams are sent to six Level 3 and six Level 4 schools. Each of the three Academic Response Teams supports two schools simultaneously for a two-month period. The teams provide teacher coaching, team support, professional development and similar aid, Anderson said. Interested principals apply for this program.

Extra dollars?

According to a May 2 BPS presentation, in FY18 the district seeks to mitigate budget strain on low-performing schools by providing them with approximately $3.18 million in extra support, slightly up from $3.14 million in the prior year’s budget. City Councilor Tito Jackson, chair of the committee on education, however, says the new funding does not make up for the cuts.

The approximately $3 million of support funding includes $325,000 in support to Level 4 schools (down from $358,000 in FY17); $125,000 in academic support and student learning opportunities during school vacations for Level 3 and 4 schools (down from $246,800 in FY17) and $139,600 in professional development and similar support for Levels 3 and 4 (up from $59,000 in FY17). This latter item is used flexibly based on the individual school’s need. For instance, at the Mattahunt it had supported provision of a dedicated family engagement staff member, Veto said.

The district’s support funding for low-performing schools also includes $1.28 million in staffing for academic response teams and central offices related to turnaround (compared to $1.33 million in FY17); and $1.30 million in turnaround transition funds (compared to $1.13 million in FY17), newly instituted this year to pick up where some grants have run out. Other state grants this year support Level 4 and 3 schools, with the full level of these grants not yet known for this year.

However, Jackson stated during the council meeting that the extra funding does not replenish the funding cut due to declining enrollments.

“The money you’re giving is exponentially less than the money being cut on school-site level,” Jackson said. “We’re going to cut Level 3, 4, 5 budgets by about $11 million and replace that $11 million by $3 million. How do we make progress there?… If you’re not paying for what was the baseline before, how does the new stuff make any progress?”

David Bloom, BPS’s budget director, said during a hearing that in addition to the $3 million fund, $1.25 million will be divided among the individual schools that are losing money due to declining enrollment.

A March BPS presentation shows a different picture, stating that the budget includes $15 million in supports for Level 3, 4 and 5 schools, although this calculation includes state and federal dollars as well.

Turnaround funding

BPS officials and city councilors agreed that heightened funding is among the factors critical to achieving school performance improvements. Many of them cited all-too-frequent problem of struggling schools coming out of turnaround status only to decline again once the infusion of extra funding is cut.

“We tend to allocate resources reactively — we get [schools] to a certain point then back off,” Councilor Mark Ciommo said.

According to Donna Muncey, BPS deputy superintendent of strategy, while turnaround processes are given a three-year timeline, it actually takes a school about five years to solidify the improvements, and the higher level of funding ought to persist for two additional years.

“Most of the national research on turnaround [says] that it really takes about five years for turnaround to consolidate and become the way of the school,” Muncey said. “Even if a school turns around in three years, it still needs to consolidate its practices.”

Currently BPS is working on a step-down plan to allow provision of heightened funding to schools exiting turnaround, with that supplement gradually stepped down over three to four years. For as long the school remains at Level 4, the district will maintain the level of funding the school had been receiving under the federal-funded School Redesign Grant. Once the school exits Level 4, the district will continue to foot the bill to maintain extended learning time, and will decrease remaining extra support funding in steps over four years, according to BPS spokesperson Dan O’Brien.

During FY18, transitional funding supports the Burke High, English High, Channing Elementary, and Winthrop Elementary, O’Brien said.

Tiers and rankings

BPS’s ranking system and the state’s ranking system are not the same, creating some confusion, noted City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. While a family is guaranteed to have a number of BPS Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools on their school choice lists, it is the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education level rankings that determine if a school is at risk of state takeover or is required to develop a turnaround plan. The disparity may make it difficult for families to assess the quality of their schools.

The two systems’ ratings do not always align: Essaibi-George noted that the Russell School is a Level 1, according to the state, but Tier 3 according to BPS.

DESE levels compare schools to others across the state of the same type (for example, elementary schools) and reflect factors such as student growth, high school graduation and drop-out rates, attendance and success at narrowing proficiency gaps. Schools with too low DESE levels are required to develop turnaround plans and, if the plans fail to raise their levels, could be taken over by the state. Level 3-5 schools are performing among the bottom 20 percent of like-type schools statewide, and Level 1 schools are closing achievement gaps and have higher growth in certain subject matters than Level 2 schools, Veto said.

Meanwhile, BPS tiers compare schools within BPS and currently are based on 2013-2014 MCAS testing data. Tier 1 schools have MCAS scores in the top 25 percent and Tier 4 schools in the bottom 25 percent.

Essaibi-George also noted that school’s abilities to have full enrollments are impacted by the assignment system and ranking system. She said that if a family lives near many BPS Tier 3 schools, they may only see a select few of those schools appear on their list, limiting their options and restricting that school’s chance at filling its classrooms.

“We’re finding in a lot of our assignment process that if a neighborhood or area has too many [BPS Tier] level 3’s, only a certain number will show up, and it affects family’s ability to choose the school they want to choose and in turn, affects enrollment at that school,” Essaibi-George said. “You can’t make a choice on something you can’t see or have as an option.”

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