Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Concerns About the Alternative School Audit

Here is a letter from members of the TOPS community to the Superintendent and the Board expressing their concerns about the upcoming Alternative Schools Audit. Portions of this letter were presented as testimony to the Board at their meeting on August 19.

I would be very interested in learning what response the group has received, if any.

I believe that their concerns have merit and should be addressed. What do you think?


August 17, 2009

Dear Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson and President DeBell, Vice President Sundquist, and Directors Bass, Carr, Chow, Maier, Martin-Morris:

We are parents of students who attend TOPS @ Seward K-8 School. After months of having our questions about the Alternative Schools Audit go unanswered, we recently sent the District two different Public Records Act requests and received documents from Joy Stevens on July 15th in response to our second, more detailed request. It is deeply disturbing that it requires legally-binding public disclosure requests in order to obtain legitimate information directly affecting TOPS @ Seward and other alternative elementary and middle school programs in the Seattle School District.

In our review of those documents, we were alarmed to read that the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), scheduled to conduct the audit, was planning its work based on a complete misunderstanding of alternative education in Seattle. Based on the information the CGCS requested from the District for its briefing books, it is clear that the CGCS believed that alternative schools were “safety net” schools for troubled or difficult high school students (see Dr. Goodloe-Johnson’s June 12, 2009 email). As just one example, a June 1st information request asked for the “process for returning students to their home schools.” This email was sent to Dr. Goodloe-Johnson just days before the original audit date. Our own research on the Council of Great City Schools has only increased our concern about the appropriateness of CGCS to conduct this audit. For example, in appendices from their audits of Seattle’s English Language Learners Program in 2008 and of Boston’s Special Education Program in 2009, there is only one “Alternative Education” audit conducted out of the 175 or so listed. This audit examined the Milwaukee (WI) Public Schools’ Alternative Schools. These include a range of programs for at-risk students, primarily of high school age, who are pregnant, returning to school after dropping out, or participating in special programs for disruptive youth who have received disciplinary actions for their behavior. There is no evidence that this alternative schools program in Milwaukee in any way resembles Seattle’s programs such as TOPS, Salmon Bay, Pathfinder, Orca, AS #1, or Thornton Creek @ Decatur. In these programs high levels of parent involvement, innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and a focus on the whole child are characteristics of these highly-sought after Seattle alternative schools. At best, the Milwaukee programs probably have some elements that are consistent with Seattle’s Interagency and South Lake High School programs, but they have nothing in common with our alternative elementary and middle school programs.

While we recognize that the Superintendent has now sent the CGCS a copy of the District’s Alternative Education Policy (C54.00; passed June 21, 2006) and suggested that our definition of “alternative” may be different, the CGCS’s lack of understanding of Seattle alternative education programs raises many questions:

* How was CGCS selected to conduct the audit?
* What other organizations were considered and what criteria were used in the process of selecting CGCS?
* What expertise and experience does CGCS have in auditing alternative schools? What information do you have that perhaps we have not had access to regarding CGCS’s experience and track record in evaluating alternative elementary and middle school programs, similar to ones in Seattle?

We understand that the District has not entered into a contract with the CGCS regarding the alternative schools audit. Indeed, in an email dated June 12, 2009, the Superintendent asked the CGCS for “a ball park figure on cost….” It is disturbing to us that the District would retain an outside consultant to conduct an audit of some of its most successful schools without a contract and without knowing how much the audit would cost. One of the Superintendent’s well-recognized responsibilities is to select highly-qualified organizations to conduct audits of key programs in the district. As the Seattle Times noted in its recent editorial (June 26, 2009), an important responsibility of the School Board is to provide oversight with respect to the Superintendent’s recommendations for significant financial expenditures. At this point it appears that the Superintendent has done a poor job of selecting an appropriate auditing organization for reviewing the alternative elementary and middle school programs, that there is no specified budget for this audit, and that the School Board has failed to hold her to appropriate expectations for timely and open communication about the selection process and costs that will be involved.

We also learned from the documents produced in response to our request that the District was planning to conduct the audit during the last week of school until several School Board Directors intervened and suggested that was a poor idea and would erode any confidence in this being a fair, valid evaluation of these long-standing, successful programs. Thank you for recognizing that it would make little sense to audit alternative schools at the very end of the school year and for postponing the audit until the fall. The fact that alternative school principals were not even going to be notified of the audit team’s impending arrival on Monday, 15 June, until a few days beforehand represents a failure of honest and trust-building communication with these school communities. This stands in sharp contrast with the Superintendent’s and the District’s stated goal of fostering communication and trust between the District and parents and school staffs (see Alliance for Education speech by Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, May 14, 2009). This approach suggests that the district is more interested in rhetoric than in honestly engaging in meaningful, direct communication with Seattle Public School parents and teachers, many of whom have worked actively in these alternative school communities for decades.

We welcome the opportunity to have the programs at TOPS @ Seward audited. We believe our school community will benefit from the dialogue we expect during and after the audit. However, it is critical that the audit be conducted by qualified individuals with an accurate understanding of alternative education in Seattle and be transparent to the alternative school community. Based on the documents recently produced to us and the prior lack of transparency about the audit, we currently have no confidence that the CGCS is the right organization to conduct the audit. We believe you need to explain how the CGCS was selected, how it is qualified to audit alternative elementary and middle schools, and how the District can propose to conduct an audit without knowing how much it will cost. These important questions need to be answered prior to any high-stakes audit occurring in October.

Sincerely,

(Many names)

25 comments:

wseadawg said...

That letter contains what many of us in the district feel: suspicion, lack of trust, lack of confidence, and a little outrage thrown in. MGJ and co. are all about bringing in their cronies to do canned, pre-disposed audits. See APP audit. But even when the biased auditors recommend AGAINST things like merging APP with TM and TTM, SPS goes ahead and does it anyways. Again, See APP Audit recommendations.

Two things are certain and can be expected if and when the audit takes place. First, it will say what the district already wants it to say. Second, the district will do whatever the hell it wants anyways, regardless of the audit, but will try to rely on the audit whenever convenient, despite the relative worthlessness of the audit itself.

wseadawg said...

And KUDOS to the Alt & TOPS parents for anticipating and trying to head off the dog and pony show they know is coming.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I have consistently been worried about Dr. G-J's understanding of alternative schools. Her previous district had mostly re-entry schools and I was told by a director here that she initially was surprised by the number of alternative (her read; re-entry) schools we have here. It seems she may still be confused at some level.

The irony is that the existence of our alternative schools may help this state get some of the Federal Race to the Top money in proving that we have innovation in our schools.

Maureen said...

In her Seattle Times column today, Lynne Varner encourages WA state to go after the Race to the Top grant money aggressively, despite our lack of charter schools: "But we do not have to do it totally the president's way. Washington is one of 11 states forbidding charters. Voters have rejected these quasi-public schools three times. That's fine, we have other models of creativity, including alternative schools in Seattle, Aviation High School in Des Moines and the Tacoma School of the Arts."

Are there organizations that have experience in auditing charters? Maybe SPS should chose one of them to perform the Alternative Schools Audit in place of CGCS? Seattle Alternative Schools offer the choices that charter supporters say they are looking for. I wish I could believe that MG-J understood this. (Melissa posted while I was typing this. Needless to say, I agree with her!)

Robert said...

Did MGJ think that Summit was a re-entry school when she recommended its closure? If so what a debacle!

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

Oh and on the audits in general I found the APP/advanced learning audit was not worth whatever was spent to conduct it. Looks like we are headed down that same path.

Janis said...

The TOPS parents who wrote the letter have received a response from Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. We have also been in touch with Holly Ferguson and Jane Dudley and are setting up a meeting with them. Here is the response:

Dear Dr. Duncan, Ms. White and parents of TOPS@ Seward K-8:

Thank you for your letter of August 17 regarding the planned audit of alternative education programs in Seattle Public Schools. I appreciate your taking the time to share your concerns directly with me.

Ensuring excellence in every school and for every student is our goal at Seattle Public Schools. Our alternative education programs provide important options for our families.

Over the past two and a half years, we have conducted external reviews of many academic and operational areas. The goal of each review is to assess what we are doing well and what can be improved when compared with national best practices. We receive the findings of each review and then collaborate with our stakeholders as we decide which recommendations we will implement and in what timeframe. The Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) has conducted several of Seattle Public Schools' external reviews.

CGCS is a collective of the largest urban school districts in the nation, including Seattle. For each review, the Council brings together a team of leaders from urban systems around the country who have content-specific expertise. The team members volunteer their time to the review team as a way of contributing to excellence for all urban school districts. Fees paid for reviews conducted by CGCS are minimal and include travel expenses as well as a modest administrative fee to support the time of CGCS staff who coordinate the review.

CGCS is very clear about the scope and intent of the review of alternative programs in Seattle and will assemble a well-qualified team. Holly Ferguson, a member of our Executive Management Team, is taking the lead to coordinate e with CGCS on this audit . Holly is also working with the principals of TOPS K-8, Salmon Bay, Thornton Creek, NOVA, Pathfinder, ORCA and AS#1 to develop the final audit plan and schedule. Please feel free to contact Holly directly at haferguson@seattleschools.org or 252-0124 if you have additional questions.

owlhouse said...

To my understanding, the information below was shared with school principals last week. It's interesting to note that the core of the audit depends on information shared by school principals, and parents/staff identified by principals. TOPS and AS1 both have new principals, who may or may not be able to fully represent their new communities.
--------------------

"To gain a deeper understanding of the alternative schools within SPS by gathering information about our alternative schools and create a broad, shared vision of alternative education in SPS. Identify the strengths of our alternative schools and identify steps for further development.

Who:

The Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) will complete the audit. CGCS (www.cgcs.org) is an organization dedicated to furthering urban public education and is made up of 66 of the largest districts throughout the country. SPS is the only Washington district that is a member of CGCS.

TOPS, Nova, AS #1, Thornton Creek, Salmon Bay, Pathfinder and Orca will all be evaluated.

Timeline:

The audit is tentative scheduled for early October; however, we have indicated to CGCS that any time in October would be acceptable. An October timeline allows sufficient time for school to get underway, but is early enough to not get into the November holiday season.

Audit Specifics:

CGCS will send 2-4 auditors to SPS. These auditors are employees of other CGCS member districts who have some level of expertise with alternative schools. One or more auditors will visit each school being evaluated, interview each principal, and interview 2 parents from each school. Each school may identify their own parents for interview.

The auditors will also evaluate data from each school, including historical WASL scores, enrollment, disciplinary statistics, school alignment with the alternative schools policy, school practice versus best practice, climate surveys and other relevant data.

CGCS attempts to have audits complete within 2-3 months, but some audits have taken longer. We have an established audit protocol (attached) that we will use when the audit is complete.

Audit Needs:

+ Principals will need to identify 1-2 parents from your school whom the auditors can interview
+ Principals will need to identify 2-3 staff members from your school whom the auditors can interview
+ Principals will need to make time during the few days the auditors are here to be interviewed and to show the auditors around your school
+ Jane will handle all the logistics, including gathering and distributing any centralized data

Specific Questions:

We have asked the auditors to look at a number of areas, including:

· A review of the alternative schools policy and how it relates to what is happening in the schools

1 The rigor and effectiveness of our alternative schools

· This would include an evaluation of how our students do after they leave alternative schools
· What population is the school serving

1 What is the overriding philosophy of our alternative schools
2 Are students in alternative schools meeting the standards we expect from all schools
3 What is the relationship between our alternative schools and the central office

(continued)

owlhouse said...

(continued)


Follow-Up Process:

Once the audit is complete we will follow the district’s established audit communication protocol. This will include an internal notification of the audit to principals and school board directors, followed by a public release of information to families and the media, and a presentation of the audit results at a school board meeting. The specific dates will be determined once we know the expected completion date of the audit.

Contact Information:

Jane Dudley (Instructional Services) is the project manager. She can be reached at 252-0067 or via email at jedudley@seattleschools.org. Jane is the primary contact for this audit.

Holly Ferguson (Policy & Government Relations) is the executive sponsor working with Jane through the process and ensuring that the Superintendent and CAO are kept informed about this work. Holly can be reached at 252-0124 or haferguson@seattleschools.org."

Melissa Westbrook said...

FYI, the Advanced Learning audit was just APP. They did not examine Spectrum (with a huge number of students) or ALOs. It was not in any way a complete audit.

wseadawg said...

My burning question: "Best Practices," according to whom?

Reform oriented, BRT agenda-driven crowd led by Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Paul Vallas, etc?

What is the criteria for calling something a "best practice?" Because a bunch of "reformers" say so?

Where is the support for calling anything they want to do a "best practice?"

How much like "it's not torture, because we say it's not torture" is this inappropriate use of labels and code words by the reform crowd?

owlhouse said...

I have that same question, wesadawg.
Does Seattle have a definition of "best practices"? I think board policy c54 does speak to some "best practices" as they relate to alternative schools, but the policy has has gone ignored, if not repeatedly broken by Dr. GJ and staff.

As skeptical as I am, I think it would be fantastic to answer some of the questions posed- what are the philosophies of our alt schools, how does "achievement" compare to traditional schools, what is the relation between school/central admin...

We're told that the auditors will be employees of other CGCS districts. My hope is that they will be employees with substantial teaching/classroom experience, not merely admin/management experience. We're told that auditors will have "some level of expertise with alternative schools". I'd like to clarify that this experience is with alternative ed as relevant to SPS, not safety-net specific.

dan dempsey said...

This must be an excerpt from a comedy hour roast: Superintendent’s and the District’s stated goal of fostering communication and trust between the District and parents and school staffs (see Alliance for Education speech by Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, May 14, 2009).

Who could possibly take the above seriously?

PSAT results et al.

dan dempsey said...

Melissa said:
It seems she may still be confused at some level.


The level of deception regularly practiced by the Central Administration hardly indicates confusion.

Wseadawg has it correct:
MGJ and co. are all about bringing in their cronies to do canned, pre-disposed audits. See APP audit. But even when the biased auditors recommend AGAINST things like merging APP with TM and TTM, SPS goes ahead and does it anyways.


This hardly indicates confusion.

dan dempsey said...

How about an audit of elementary math "Best Practices".
Do not Coaching, Professional Development and 75 minute math classes, which produced even larger deficits for Black and Hispanic students need an audit?

A program produced marked increases in percentages of students ranked at the lowest performance level, but apparently no one monitors progress.

Ms. de la Fuente says "We should be held accountable." ...How???

Here is a Best Practice continually ignored by the SPS and of great relevance to the rising number of struggling students:

27) Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation. Results are consistent for students with learning disabilities, as well as other students who perform in the lowest third of a typical class. By the term explicit instruction, the Panel means that teachers provide clear models for solving a problem type using an array of examples, that students receive extensive practice in use of newly learned strategies and skills, that students are provided with opportunities to think aloud (i.e., talk through the decisions they make and the steps they take), and that students are provided with extensive feedback.

The above is from the National Math Advisory Panel final report listed under instructional practices.

Pardon me I forgot the SPS does not use the NMAP..... that is another reason that "Discovering Algebra" was fraudulently adopted.

Would not use of the most relevant document released since the NCTM Focal Points be a "Best Practice"?

Apparently not in Seattle, because as Wseadawg says:
the district will do whatever the hell it wants anyways, regardless, which has been well communicated to the public.

dan dempsey said...

Best Practice:

Here is my definition......
A practice that has an effect size greater than 0.45 as reported in John Hattie's "Visible Learning"

p.297-298 Appendix B.

Owlhouse said:
My hope is that they will be employees with substantial teaching/classroom experience, not merely admin/management experience.


I would add that they actually significantly improved results at least once in their teaching career.

Educational administrative leadership is a club sport. It requires "Club Ed" membership but results and empirical data are not required. A long resume of where ya' been is far more important than what ya' done.

seattle citizen said...

So here's what they are looking for:

"We have asked the auditors to look at a number of areas, including [note that it says "including" these, but not limited to]:

"· A review of the alternative schools policy and how it relates to what is happening in the schools"
I hope they understand the TWO documents - C54.00 AND teh checklist developed by the SPS Alt Committee. C54.00 is directed more at what THE DISTRICT values: So the question should include, "How does the district support C54.00? Part of the answer is the Alt Checklist, developed by the SPS Alt Committee. The purpose of the Checklist was to serve as a guide to how far along schools wer in each of the areas. It was NOT to serve as a document that worked from the top down as an "evaluation" ("If a school is low on a certain checklist item, it must not be very alternative.")

"1 The rigor and effectiveness of our alternative schools"
Define "rigor." Define "effectiveness." THEN set out to see. Also compare to the same things, using the same definitions, to all other schools.

"· This would include an evaluation of how our students do after they leave alternative schools"
Meaning after they return to their supposed sending schools" (the re-entry perspective) or later in life? Hmmm....

"· What population is the school serving"
Children! Lol. Seriously, tho', I hope they expand the tradtional categories to reflect a wide range of "sorts" of children. This is, after all, one of the defining aspects (in my opinion) of alts: Each student is unique, and contains multitudes.

"1 What is the overriding philosophy of our alternative schools"
See C54.00, the Checklist....and the "overriding" philosophy of all schools: teach children well, meeting their academic needs.

"2 Are students in alternative schools meeting the standards we expect from all schools"
Which standards? Furthermore, this varies in regular schools, it varies in alts...what is the outcome of such a question? What is the purpose? Hmmm...Will they factor in the multitude of factors, or external aspects beyond the school's control? If not, then what good is the data? Will there be a simultaneous review of traditional schools to procide a measure based on the same set of "standards."
Is this good? Should all schools be the same? Discuss.

"3 What is the relationship between our alternative schools and the central office"
Define relationship. I suppose that most other factors being similar among all schools(Central interacts with all schools in a supposedly similar manner regarding staffing, curriculum, buildings etc) they must mean in ways regarding that alternative philosophy, perhaps that expressed in C54.00

Charlie Mas said...

The APP audit was done over two years ago. The District has made no response and taken no action to follow the recommendations of that audit. On the contrary, the District's actions since the audit was to do the very things that the reviewers told them NOT to do. They split the program before they had an aligned, written, taught and tested curriculum, and they placed the elementary program in a building with students with a demographic and academic profile very different from the program's demographic and academic profile.

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson writes that the District will "receive the findings of each review and then collaborate with our stakeholders as we decide which recommendations we will implement and in what timeframe." But that's not what they have done at all. There has been no collaboration with stakeholders.

Megan Mc said...

Last April I sent the following email to the district and NEVER received a response:

"Dear Dr. Goodloe-Johnson and Ms. Santorno,

I am writing to inquire about the status of the Alternative Schools audit to be conducted this Spring. Specifically, I would like to know what to expect in terms of community engagement - especially for students, staff, and parents.

I would also like to express concern about ignorance on the part of the Council of the Great City Schools when it comes to Seattle's unique alternative school community. Previous audits they have done have focused on Alternative programs that function as Safety Net programs and were specific to high schools only.

Other questions:
What exactly is being audited? Seattle Public Schools "alternative school" program (which doesn't exist) or individual alternative schools (which include K-5, K-8, and high school systems with independent goals, objectives, and philosophies).

What will be the guiding principal of the audit? Will the auditors be using the Alternative Education Committee Report released by the advisory committee in 2005 or something else brought in from outside?

Will the stakeholders (parent, teachers, students) be able to suggest experts in the field of alternative education to be a part of the audit team?

What programs are considered Alternative for the purpose of the audit. Will safety net programs be audited separately? Will the Language Immersion and Montessori programs be in the audit?

Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my questions."

When they ignore our questions how can they expect us (stakeholders) to trust that they will engage with us in the future? They've already proven they don't give a __ about what we think or what we can provide in terms of knowledge or support.

dan dempsey said...

Megan Mc,

Your questions in regard to the alternative schools audit were too specific for the usual blow off letter of:
"We are really concerned about and are working hard to address your concerns and we truly appreciate your input."


If you wish to receive a response, you need to make your concerns more general in nature. Then you can receive the blow off letter.

Specifically inquiring about status... Wow where do you get off with that kind of audacity? :-)

Sahila said...

I agree with Dan.... You didnt get a reply, Megan, because you were too specific...

If one can't answer the question, or if the answer doesn't make one look good/competent, then one might choose to ignore and hope that the questioner will just quietly slide off into the deep, dark abyss....

Chris said...

On the other hand, the information given to principals recently (owlhouse post) does sort of jive with Megan's questions. I'm wondering how different it might have been without Megan's inquiries...

Michael said...

The last review done by the CGCS was full of inaccurate claptrap because the CGCS is from out-of-state, and the people they send to do these reviews ("audits") don't bother checking local laws or regulations before they make stupid - yes, stupid - recommendations. I heard one person at the district tell me that the whole purpose of having the CGCS do reviews was to justify creating more jobs. Thus, armed with a "study", the District can say that they are in need of additional levy money, etc.

They claim that the CGCS team is composed of content-specific expertise. That is a joke.

Michael said...

Are the requests for information you guys submitting being submitted as public records requests? If not, you should try that since they are legally required to provide a response to your specific question. Now, you may laugh at that last part about legally required, but if you just write a letter addressed to the Superintendent, she can say thanks for your input, but no thanks. Sending a public records request through their legal department (specifically, their public records officer) is different.

Be sure that your request for information includes a request for any email related to your topic of interest. If they fail to provide the records you can take action against them (unless the records fall under one of the public record exclusions in the law (not District policy)). If you win the action it can cost them in terms of a monetary penalty (google "Armen Yousoufian").

Yes this is a bit cumbersome, but it shows you mean business. If they don't respond to a public records request you can also let the state auditor know and they will investigate the lack of providing a response and report back to you.