Monday, June 27, 2011

The School Board Must Oversee Richmond Public School Operations

Each student will graduate ready for college and career as a thoughtful reader, an effective writer, a critical thinker, and a creative problem solver.
Richmond Public Schools Strategic Plan, Objective 1

In recent weeks there has been a lot of attention focused on the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, Richmond’s first and only public charter school. There was an allegation of criminal wrong doing, followed by an audit saying there was no criminal problem but that the school was mismanaging some of its funds. Then there was this flap over between-semester enrichment sessions (Patrick Henry operates on a modified year-round schedule) and who is required to hold them.

With regard to all of these issues, our school board in Richmond has been out there holding Patrick Henry’s foot to the fire. Members of the board called hearings, wrote letters, and requested more audits. In calling Patrick Henry leaders to a closed door session, school board chair Kim Bridges indicated that the board was engaged in an evaluation of whether Patrick Henry was in compliance with its charter agreement. As quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bridges said “the recent disclosure of a state police investigation at the charter school and ensuing charges through the end of the year have brought issues forward that require our immediate attention.” Richmond board wants fast action on Patrick Henry. In an earlier TD article about the Patrick Henry audit, board Vice Chair Dawn Page indicated that the board was reviewing the audit report with a “sense of urgency.” She added that the board was “deeply concerned.” No evidence of fraud at charter school, but problems cited.

Supporters of Patrick Henry have been accusing the School Board of over-reacting, of picking on the school, of looking for excuses not to renew the schools charter and of micro-managing the school’s operations. This maven must disagree. Although I know that some members of the School Board were and are opposed to charter schools and would like to see Patrick Henry disappear, it is clear that the board is just doing its job. Since Patrick Henry is Richmond’s first public charter school (and one of the first in the Commonwealth) it is not surprising that the School Board is paying it special attention. It is also not surprising that Patrick Henry is suffering from growing pains. Anybody who really expected that the development of our first public charter school would go flawlessly is a dreamer.

What some people may find puzzling about the board’s actions with respect to Patrick Henry is how inconsistent it is with the board’s attitude toward the Richmond Public School’s administration. For the nearly three years that the incumbent board has been in office the emphasis has been on avoiding oversight of RPS operations. In fact, on those occasions when one or two board members insist on asserting their right to ask the Superintendent of Schools or her subordinates difficult questions, that member or members is accused of trying to micromanage the school system. And yet, oversight is one of the key functions of any legislative body, including the Richmond School Board. Oversight is the only way that the School Board can assure itself that RPS is operating properly. As far as this maven is concerned, when something “scandalous” about RPS is reported in the media the board is as culpable as the administration for not uncovering it sooner.

Which brings me, finally, to what I really want to talk about. Recently there has been a lot of noise about the fact that RPS included scores of students attending Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Relations in reporting the attainments of Richmond highschoolers on Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT). Maggie Walker is an honors high school that, although physically located within the City of Richmond, is a multi-jurisdictional school that is not operated by Richmond Public Schools. The inclusion of the SAT scores of Maggie Walker students greatly inflated the overall scores of Richmond students. Both former and present politicians attacked RPS for including the Maggie Walker scores, accusing it of racism and depriving Richmond highschoolers of their constitutional and statutory right to a quality education. In response to all this criticism, RPS put a bunch of asterisks on the statistics on its website and excluded the Maggie Walker scores from the “District Mean Score” chart.

And how did our school board react to this? As reported in the Times-Dispatch, school board chair Bridges said, “The board’s issue has been, with or without the Maggie Walker scores, the RPS scores are too low . . . Nobody was trying to hide anything; either way, it wasn’t where we want to be.” After criticism, city schools revise district SAT scores. Bridges indicated that the board would be monitoring SAT improvement efforts with the district that are aimed at boosting achievement on the college-admission test. Bridges went on, “We will continue to look for and connect with those who reach out the hand of partnership to give RPS children these additional opportunities.”

Based on these newspaper accounts, the attitude of the School Board seems to be: 1- The situation at Patrick Henry is a crisis that the board must deal with immediately; 2- The SAT scores of our high school students are too low and the board hopes that somebody will step forward to fix them.

So, let’s talk about Richmond Public School’s high schools. Richmond has five neighborhood high schools: Armstrong, Huguenot, John Marshall, George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson. It also has three magnet schools: Richmond Community, Open High School and Franklin Military. RPS also runs an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program at Thomas Jefferson High School. When RPS wants to brag about the accomplishments of its high school students it always refers to these magnet schools or programs. Richmond Community and Open High School are limited-enrollment schools serving college-bound students and are often cited as being two of the best high schools in the country. Both schools educate only a small number of students. Franklin Military is also a limited enrollment school serving students who are interested in military, police or firefighting careers. The IB program is an honors program which allows a limited number of students to do college level work in the 11th and 12th grades. I acknowledge the greatness of these magnet schools and programs. However, they do not serve the average students at our five neighborhood high schools. So, I want to take a look at the five neighborhood schools.

We might as well start with SAT scores, which led to the whole brouhaha. The SAT Reasoning Test (formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a three part test administered by the College Board that presumably measures a student’s readiness for attending college. The three tests are Critical Reading, Mathematics and Writing. The tests are graded on a scale of 200 to 800. According to the College Board, the median score for the students taking the SAT tests is about 500. This means that about half the students score above 500 and the other half below.

For all Richmond students taking the SATs in the 2009-10 school year, including those attending the magnet schools and programs, the mean (average) scores were Critical Reading – 413, Mathematics – 407, and Writing-403. If we convert these to percentiles, using a chart published by the College Board, we find that Richmond students were in the 21st percentile for Reading, the 17th percentile for Math and the 19th percentile for Writing. This means that Richmond students performed as well, or better than, only 21% of the total number of students taking the Reading test, 17% of the students taking the Math test and 19% of the students taking the Writing test. (It is not surprising that our School Board chair found these scores to be “too low” and “not where we want to be.”)

Things are worse than the district mean scores if we look only at the five neighborhood high schools. For the 2009-2010 school years, these are the scores and the percentiles for the RPS high schools:

Armstrong: Reading 373/12; Math 377/10; Writing 362/11
Huguenot: Reading 415/21; Math 413/18; Writing 392/17
T.Jefferson: Reading 427/25; Math 413/18; Writing 420/25
J.Marshall: Reading 372/11; Math 371/9; Writing 366/11
G.Wythe: Reading 383/13; Math 383/11; Writing 386/16
On this chart, the scores for Jefferson are inflated because they include the scores of the students in the IB Diploma Program.

Let me make it clear what these scores and percentiles mean. Students at Armstrong scored as well or better than only 12% of the total number of students taking the Reading test. Students at Marshall scored as well or better than only 9% of the total number of students taking the Math test. Students at Wythe scored as well or better than only 16% of the total number of students taking the Writing test.

There is one more upsetting statistic. That is the number of students in each high school who even take the SATs. This statistic is reported in raw form by RPS on its website. Former school board member Carol Wolf reports it on her blog, Save Our Schools, as a percentage of the total enrollment in each high school. It makes more sense to me to report it as a percentage of the total number of students in the 12th grade (seniors). For the five neighborhood high schools the percentage of seniors taking the SATs was Armstrong – 27%; Huguenot – 38%; Jefferson – 53%; Marshall – 25% and Wythe – 25%. In considering the figure for Jefferson it is important to remember the significant number of students in the IB program, most of whom are expecting to attend college. To make sure you understand, I stress that in 3 of our 5 neighborhood high schools less than 70% of seniors take the SATs.

Reader, there are a few caveats. First, because of charges that the SATs are culturally biased, many colleges do not require them as a condition of admittance. Second, some students may take the ACTs, which is run by a rival testing service to the College Boards. The RPS website does not report ACT scores (or I haven’t been able to find them.) Third, the scores are mean or average scores meaning that some children at these schools may be doing considerably better on SATs. Fourth, preparing students to take the SATs is not part of the Virginia Standards of Learning and is therefore not something that high schools generally do. I remember that when I was a high school senior I did no preparation for the SATs. I was told that what I had learned generally in high school would be adequate preparation for the tests. When my kids were seniors and admission to college had become more competitive, most children would at least buy SAT preparation workbooks and some took SAT preparation courses or hired tutors to prepare them. Fifth, not every student in our high schools is planning to go to college. Many of them have their eyes on careers that do not require a college education.

Having said this, I still have serious concerns about whether RPS is adequately preparing its high school students for their futures. I think that the School Board should consider this issue to be as critical as the finances of Patrick Henry School. I would expect that at least one member of the School Board would schedule a meeting and invite the Superintendent of Schools and the principals of the five neighborhood schools to explain why so few students at these schools take SATs and why most of those who take them appear to do so poorly.

About four years ago, I likened RPS to a manufacturing industry. On one end we take in the raw products—those smiling and energetic kindergarteners, so eager to learn. At the other end we produce our end products—graduates who are prepared to pursue their goals and to serve as productive citizens of the world, the nation and the Commonwealth. Looked at this way, the real measure of the success of RPS is not SOL scores or the accreditation of our schools. Rather it is how well we have educated the students who have traveled through our system. That this is true is recognized in the first of the four objectives of the RPS Strategic Plan with which I started this piece. In adopting that Strategic Plan the School Board must have endorsed that objective. I assume that it also endorsed the first of the six parameters contained in the Strategic Plan, which says, “We will base decisions on what is best for students.”

The School Board must take immediate action to determine whether Richmond Public Schools is adequately preparing our high school students for successful futures. The citizens of Richmond will be watching to make sure it does.


Page H. said...

All good points. I can speak more readily about PHSSA having been in the thick of it this year.

What's maddening is that for most of the year, when PH needed an immediate response from RPS school board, they dawdled. Now, because it's an opportunity for them to try to shutter the school, they move quickly. How about when it was learned that Superintendent Brandon had been approving contracts for $10K or less without board approval? What about the open ended ADA contracts? Did they move quickly to fix those financial snafus? No. The school board's priorities are out of whack with reality.

Anonymous said...

JRM - if RPS was so "concerned", then they would have done the math to figure about an amount of missing money. They did not - not in the "interim review" in June and not in the "audit" published in October. PH urgently requested that RPS do an audit (of the RPS authorized, principal controlled student activity fund) in February 2011. RPS did NOTHING until the state investigation came to light. wake up...