Public Schools Navigate Changes in Texas and Around the Country

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From less student testing in Texas to speed traps outside New York City public schools, this school year will mean reading, writing and doing the arithmetic to decipher new rules and initiatives for public school systems across the country. In Texas, the math involves subtracting required tests for some students and multiplying the state’s number of charter schools in coming years.
Texas public high school students will have to pass only five state tests instead of 15 before graduation, thanks to a new state law that becomes effective next year.  And more schools are using technology to help kids, teachers and students. But kids in lower grades still face 17 state tests required to enter high school.

“We went to orientation and it was, ‘We’ve got to do this assessment and that assessment.’ That’s pretty much what it’s all about, studying for the tests,” says Tamilyn Dupaquier of San Antonio, whose son is a third-grader at Locke Hill Elementary School. In this year’s revamp of state education rules, the Texas Legislature approved a measure to exempt high-scoring elementary school students from some tests, but the U.S. Department of Education in September said no to the proposed change. Federal laws mandate annual public elementary school reading and math tests, and federal law supersedes state laws.

Leslie Cox of Three Rivers, a former middle and high school teacher at George West and Pettus independent school districts, says she’s pleased new state legislation is whittling away at many of the state’s mandatory tests, which at 15 for high school students was the highest required by any state.

“Instead of an educational culture, we’re a testing culture,” Cox says. “If we were turning out better students, that would be OK, but we’re not.”

Cox cites her husband’s experience as a production foreman in South Texas. He regularly interviews high school graduates from throughout the state who “can’t communicate and can’t write reports,” she says. The Texas Education Agency’s report in June on high school testing results lends some credence to her husband’s dilemma. Nearly half of the state’s ninth- and 10th-graders failed a required English I writing exam. The state agency reports that 46 percent of ninth graders and 47 percent of 10th-graders failed the test.

Parents of public high school students must wait for the State Board of Education’s decisions on how to implement the state Legislature’s change this year in course requirements for graduation. The new measure adds a 22-credit Foundation High School Program as an option to the three existing Recommended High School, Minimum High School and Distinguished Achievement programs for traditional classroom courses.

Students entering high school this year will still choose from among the existing three programs, but next year’s incoming freshmen can choose the alternative Foundation program, the education agency reported in August. Hearings are planned this year on what new courses can become substitutes for traditional course requirements.

Schools are making more use of technology for students, teachers and parents. Tom Johnson, senior director of technology services at San Antonio’s North East Independent School District, says his district is installing voice amplification systems for teachers. “It makes it so there’s no bad seat in the classroom,” Johnson says.

The district is making more use of computer smart pads in classrooms to teach not just communications, but group collaboration, he says. Through a free Parent Portal website, parents can use their laptops or smart phones to track grades and assignments or e-mail teachers.
Terri Chidgey, the district’s executive director for school improvement, says elementary school children will face more in-depth tests this year. “The stakes are so high for these kids, and it starts so young,” Chidgey says.

Parents of young students should read to them and also encourage them to craft letters or start journals and engage in other writing exercises at home, she says.
On the pre-kindergarten front, Aug. 26 was the first day of classes for San Antonio’s new Pre-K 4 SA program, funded by local sales taxes, which will give a head start on schooling to as many as 700 4-year-olds at the first two centers to open this year. The program is expected to eventually serve more than 22,000 kids at four centers.

In the San Antonio School District, Lamar Elementary School this year is offering its first tuition-supported pre-K program. The pilot program gives first priority to students qualifying for state funding, but six of the 46 kids accepted this fall are paying $500 a month in tuition. “It’s a small start, but it’s a good addition,” says district spokeswoman Leslie Price. “It’s a lovely school.”
San Antonio’s Alamo Heights Independent School District is promoting new websites designed to encourage more participation in Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings. Parents can register online for “paperless” membership services, news about upcoming events and volunteer opportunities.

Outside Texas
In California, a new state law this year bans public schools from requiring students to buy school supplies and also prohibits them from charging fees for uniforms, school trips and other activities. The law stems from a successful lawsuit claiming free public schools should be just that: free. Texas parent Donna Kollar of Houston, whose daughter is a senior at John H. Reagan High School, says buying school supplies year after year adds up.

“Certain teachers are very specific about what you need. It gets really pricey,” she says.  “I ended up spending $200 for school supplies one year. It’s ridiculous.”

Texas is one of only four states not signed up to implement national Common Core State Standards, a curriculum and high-stakes testing program established in 2010 to standardize course content across all states, starting with math and English language arts. It’s so new that Indiana this year stalled implementation to give state agencies more time to study the program. Maria Ferguson, executive director of the national nonprofit Center on Education Policy, says she does not think Texas students will be hurt by the state’s nonparticipation. “Common Core hasn’t been fully implemented yet,” she says.

Mississippi lawmakers this year joined Texas legislators in voting to allow more publicly funded but privately operated charter schools to open their doors. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that 18 states have lifted caps on the number of charter schools since just 2010. The Texas Legislature said yes to eventually increasing the number of charter schools from 215 existing campuses to 305 by 2019.

Here’s a look at what’s happening at other public school systems around the country:
The Chicago Public Schools system is attracting national headlines as the site of the largest school closure in recent U.S. history. Earlier this year, the city closed 50 schools in the wake of a $1 billion budget deficit. Hundreds of other city schools this fall are absorbing thousands of students displaced by the closings.

In New York City, speed cameras are being installed outside 20 schools at locations prone to traffic accidents as part of a new five-year pilot program.
A group of rural Alabama parents is suing the state this year over a new law giving tax breaks to families who transfer their kids from failing schools to private or other public schools. The lawsuit claims parents in rural communities can’t afford to take their kids to faraway public schools or pay private school tuition.

In Louisiana, it’s the U.S. Justice Department that is suing the state this year to block the use of school vouchers to allow some students in public schools to attend private schools. The federal government is concerned the initiative will disrupt the racial balance at schools operating under federal desegregation orders.

Renee Haines is a San Antonio freelance writer.

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