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Stimulus Package Virtual Roundtable

We asked administrators about the effects of the stimulus package on their districts.

DA recently conducted a “virtual roundtable” in which we asked a group of administrators about the effects of the stimulus package on their districts. Participants included Randall Collins, superintendent, Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools, and president, American Association of School Administrators; Bart Banfield, superintendent, Stidham (Okla.) Public Schools; James Jewell, business and finance director, Harford County (Md.) Public Schools; and Christopher Lyons, director, Office of Career and Technical Education, Office of the State (D.C.) Superintendent of Education. Here are excerpts of what they had to say.

1. What problems has your district encountered regarding the stimulus plan funds you have or will receive?

Randall Collins: The first problem is changing information and interpretation regarding the use of funds from the state department of education. They seemed to not have the current information, and many of us depended on AASA (American Association of School Administrators) for the most accurate information. The restrictions that have been put on the use of the funds and the uncertainty of funding beyond the two years limits the use of funds. For example, no one is going to employ staff that would need to be let go in two years or would be a burden on the operating budget.

Bart Banfield: The only issue we have had in Oklahoma is figuring out how to do a lot with a little! We are thankful for the additional funding, but prioritizing expenditures has been a challenge.

Christopher Lyons: Our overarching problem is that the scope and scale of the crises we face dwarf the stimulus package. We have very aggressive school reform efforts underway, including state-of-the-art standards and rigorous college-and-career-preparation graduation requirements. But our challenges are vast: A small minority of schools are making AYP; less than 50 percent of each student cohort graduate from high school; a tiny percentage complete postsecondary education. Even before the Great Recession, a majority of our young people faced a lifetime on the margins of the global economy.

2. Given the restrictions placed on stimulus funds, how is your district planning to spend its money in order to meet the DOE's priorities?

James Jewell: Harford County Public Schools will be using the Title 1 funds to improve low-performing students in already designated Title 1 schools. Sufficient funding does not exist to allow for an expansion of the number of Title 1 schools. For the IDEA funds we will be starting an in-county program of enhanced services with therapeutic services to bring back some of the nonpublic placement students. We will also be using some of the funds for early intervention services for low-performing schools and students.

Lyons: The five priorities promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education for use of stimulus funds are virtually coterminous with D.C.’s own priorities for school transformation, and specific efforts are already underway addressed to each priority. Most of the stimulus funds will be committed to advancing those existing efforts. A particular focus for innovation in D.C. involves the creation of a Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System (SLED), and it is hoped that stimulus funds will help spearhead the expansion of the SLED into the postsecondary arena.

Collins: We are still struggling with that question. Title 1 seems to have the most flexibility, and we are in the process of certifying the high school as Title 1. Most of the money will be spent there, as we have fewer options to address Response to Intervention. IDEA funds pose a more difficult situation, as we are limited with the “supplement” versus “supplant” language.

Banfield: Stidham Public Schools will be investing its ARRA funds on hardware and software. The hardware we are purchasing are HP laptops. The software we have chosen is an all-in-one solution by the name of Click & Learn. It has two components. The first component is drills to learn reading, math, science, geography, social studies, and spelling. The second component is an end-of-instruction test prep system with thousands of test questions. The tests are autograded, providing immediate feedback to both the teachers and administrators.

3. Does your state expect to apply for any of the Race to the Top funds? If so, what programs would you like these funds to support?

Lyons: For far too long, D.C. public schools overall have languished at or near the bottom, in terms of most measures of educational performance—with severely dilapidated schools, low rates of student achievement, low rates of high school completion, low rates of postsecondary entry, even lower rates of postsecondary success. Today, with an array of reform initiatives already underway—including a new governance structure under direct mayoral leadership and a massive school renovation and retrofitting campaign—the District is eager to join the Race to the Top. One focus of D.C.’s still evolving plans involves rapid implementation and expansion of the “SLED” data warehouse (Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System) that will for the first time allow comprehensive, real-time and longitudinal monitoring of student progress across all levels and sectors of the public education system.

Collins: Unfortunately, I think the governor is using the money to "backfill" state funding, which if I understand the guidelines, would take Connecticut out of the Race to the Top funds. I am very disturbed that the stimulus money is not going to reform but to keeping the funding from the state level. I understand the situation we are in, but I was hoping for some real improvement efforts.

Banfield: The state of Oklahoma will be applying for Race to the Top funds. I am encouraged by the administration’s commitment to reward school reform. By rewarding states that push for classroom innovation with federal stimulus dollars and denying extra aid to those that don't, the president is sending a clear signal that the status quo is not unacceptable.

4. Let’s look ahead to 2010 when all of the stimulus money will have been distributed. How will your district have changed?

Banfield: The key is sustainability. At Stidham Public Schools we are investing for at least the next five years in products and services that will enable our school district to sustain our quest for educational excellence. Our district will continue to push the envelope in Oklahoma by providing bold leadership and a continued commitment to technology integration. Our curriculum will continue to be student-centered, engaging, and a model of excellence for other districts to follow.

Collins: We are being very careful so that in two years we will not be in a situation of cutting positions. There is more leeway with Title 1 to do some creative things, and we are considering transition career coaches for special needs students who are leaving the high school. We are also using this opportunity to do curriculum work and benchmarking. Lastly, we are reviewing our teacher evaluation process. So in 2010 while we will not have added many positions as a result of the stimulus money, we will be in good shape in evaluations, curriculum, and career coaching.

Lyons: Our hope is at least to set the system firmly on a path to real progress by 2010—to reposition the public schools of D.C., pre-K to 16 and beyond, as a comprehensive college and career preparation system, including many refurbished and some totally transformed schools; world class learning standards, assessments, and graduation requirements; high quality AP, IB, and CTE (career-technical education) college-and-career pathways for all students; systemwide academic support and dropout prevention programs like Jobs for America’s Graduates; a rejuvenated teacher corps; and universal dual enrollment options and other accelerated transitions to postsecondary education.

Jewell: For Harford County Public Schools, the stimulus funding will allow for more intensive services to the Title 1 designated elementary schools. For the IDEA funding, we will establish an intensive therapeutic program at one of our schools to hopefully return some of the students from out-of-county nonpublic placements. We will also expand services for special education students and early intervention services to students needing additional educational supports. After-school and extended-day programs will be expanded. Employees hired on these funds will be very limited to prevent the funding cliff in two years.