“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
By Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Seattle Public Schools establishes guidelines every five years for the overall mission and structure of public education and its administration in our city. Superintendent Jose Banda, the SPS Board and various other stakeholders spent the first several months of 2013 devising the next 5-Year Strategic Plan, to be implemented starting in the 2013-2014 school year.
Like many of Seattle’s modern government proposals, this most recent 5-Year Plan leans on funding sources beyond city or even state government. It keeps all essential services within the official education budget, and then discusses possible sources of additional funding from federal grants and even private philanthropists. These new, potential funding streams are supposed to build upon savings projected in the previous 5-Year Plan, which focused on increasing efficiency in the SPS administration.
Numbers produced in the 2008-2013 plan suggest that its strategies had a positive effect. In Seattle, graduation rates and performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics all saw marked increases in those years, though reading changed little in either direction. These are Seattle’s numbers taken as a whole, though. As the figures and the 2013-2018 plan both describe, there is a significant gap in achievement along racial lines. White students in Seattle are performing at a level far beyond the state average, but non-white students aren’t getting the same results.
The 5-Year Plan suggests that this imbalance traces back to disproportionate access to programs and resources, especially among the city’s youngest students. For instance, the plan document states that as many as 40 percent of K-3 kids in Seattle receive little to no arts education and have almost no access to state-mandated programs for special education and advanced placement.
In response to unequal access issues like these, the new plan calls for the implementation of the new Multi-Tiered System of Supports, first discussed and developed in 2012. The MTSS uses standardized evaluations and practices to identify the highest-need students and put them on an alternative plan with specific benchmarks and additional teaching time. The MTSS is itself a function of the Common Core State Standards of education SPS has adopted.
One of the more immediate, concrete elements of the new strategic plan is the creation of a teacher residency program that pairs new teachers-in-residence with mentors already working within the school system. The first cohort will come into Seattle schools this coming year, totaling 25 educators-in-training placed in Seattle’s highest-need schools. The residents will receive a stipend of $16,500, health insurance and a Washington State teaching certificate, with the intent of bringing them into full-time teaching positions after their 14-month residency. In addition to their general teacher training, residents will be expected to pursue credentials in special education or English Language Learning.
Early learning, a major topic in the discussion of public education today, is also in the new strategic plan, though the plan does not offer any specifics. Many of Seattle’s elected officials and aspiring leaders, including most candidates for mayor, have voiced a need for more pre-K programs in the city. The 5-Year Plan doesn’t call for the creation of specific programs at this stage, but it does call for the creation of common standards for math and reading at these youngest levels. This element of the plan focuses on structuring early learning according the CCSS and creating intervention methods for kids struggling with language, literacy or learning disabilities prior to starting school.
One aspect of the new 5-Year Plan that may seem small but is actually vital to modern education is increasing the number of eligible families that opt-in to the free or reduced lunch program. This is a federally funded program that ensures meals for kids who come from financially strained households. Free or reduced lunch is about much more than meals, though. Because families must show proof of limited income to qualify for the program, the data they provide is a preferred metric for establishing trends of poverty in a school district overall.
The practice of using federal lunch assistance as a measure of a school’s general financial need has been standard since the No Child Left Behind program began in the middle of the last decade. Schools with the highest number of kids on lunch assistance receive greater overall federal aid and tend to be subject to more or different standardized tests designed to measure the effectiveness of federal assistance. Since the 2013-2018 strategic plan depends on federal aid, increasing the number of participating families in lunch assistance may increase funding for schools in need over and above meals.
The SPS Board unanimously approved the new 5-Year Strategic Plan. The first concrete action of the plan is to develop a new district scorecard based on academic and administrative milestones. The first day of school for the 2013-2014 year is currently scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 4.