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Special Committee on Education discusses education climate and its impact on student achievement

The Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are adjourned until Jan. 8, 2024. However, interim committees are already preparing for the upcoming session. 

A 2023 Special Committee on Education, chaired by Rep. Kristey Williams, met Oct. 2-3 centered around two major themes: The education climate in Kansas and its impact on student achievement; and understanding at-risk student outcomes in the public education system.  

Throughout the two days, student achievement, school choice and the need for increased transparency in schools dominated the conversations.   

Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson along with Deputy Commissioners Dr. Craig Neuenswander and Dr. Ben Proctor represented the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) throughout the two-day proceedings, answering questions about assessment data, school finance calculations and describing efforts undertaken to improve student achievement. 

School choice was a topic of discussion during the first day of proceedings. The context of the discussion was geared toward understanding the current challenges facing rural and urban schools. 

Wichita USD 259 Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld provided testimony on the current challenges of her district, the largest in Kansas with 47,517 students. 

Some challenges Bielefeld said the district is experiencing include:  

  • Declining population and enrollment. 
  • Increasing special education numbers. 
  • Increasing at-risk factors, such as immigrants, poverty, language barriers and homelessness. 
  • Staff shortages. 
  • Aging buildings and infrastructure. 
  • Dysregulated students due to pandemic lockdowns. 
  • Polarizing politics have a bigger impact on urban districts – poor performance coming out of the pandemic can be framed as a “systems failure.” 

Bielefeld said some ways the district is responding to these challenges include: 

  • Utilizing Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) resources to mitigate learning loss. 
  • Leveraging Title and At-Risk funds as they transition from ESSER budgets. 
  • Equity and access equals the removal of barriers for students. 
  • Defining “future ready” as a community; partnering with Wichita State University Tech to provide students with hands-on training and learning opportunities. 
  • Setting high expectations for students. 
  • Recruitment and retention of staff. 

Williams pointed out that the Wichita district has reported a 20-30% jump in chronic absenteeism. She asked Bielefeld if there is a districtwide policy about what it means to be absent, and what they’re doing to address the concerning trend. 

Bielefeld said anecdotally for a good year and half, when schools in the district sent home healthy kids for two days when they were deemed “close contact” to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, that created some bad habits in families and kids that they’re working to correct. 

“Our needs assessment showed 82 of 88 buildings wanted support with this, so we’re doing things at the building level all across the district,” he said. “But we’re also doing things at the district level.” 

He said USD 259 has partnered with a company to send automated messages that “nudge” people if their student has missed multiple days in a row and to get in touch with families to support them, including removing whatever barriers are preventing students from attending school. 

Bielefeld noted that the district is achieving success in graduation rates. 

“Over the past six years, we have seen an increase in our graduation rate from 74% to over 80%,” he said. “But we know there is more work to do.” 

Michael Austin, legislative and coalitions director at Americans for Prosperity, was invited to speak on the challenges facing rural schools. 

“Education unfortunately is a decision of options,” Austin said. “And if you don’t have those options, it doesn’t matter what type of equality we have in life or what we are able to do if we work hard, you’re never going to able to reach those opportunities or reach the American dream.” 

He referenced the Central Plains Unified School District 112 Board of Education voting to shut down Wilson High School, the only high school in the small town. Austin said he received a call from a retired teacher in the area who asked if Americans for Prosperity could come and talk about “education freedom options.”  

“What I didn’t realize until I got there was that the local Catholic parish was willing and able to start up a school in that area so that the kids wouldn’t feel abandoned or isolated,” he said. 

Austin mentioned how Wilson is a rural community and some families don’t have the income to afford a private school. One reason Austin went to the community was to talk about education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. He said he believes if that was in place, more families in Wilson would have stayed together and fewer families would have to deal with the stress of having their high school shut down.  

Austin also said education savings accounts and school choice options could be tools the Kansas Legislature could implement to help rural areas. 

Dr. Troy Pitsch, superintendent of Wabaunsee USD 329, gave a presentation on how the district is focused on improving student achievement. With him, were Annie Frank, social worker; Jordan Dunn, elementary counselor; and Callie Meinhardt, high school counselor. 

The four discussed the district’s 2018 implementation of The Leader in Me, a social emotional curriculum taught in grades K-12, and its impact on student outcomes.  

Pitsch said the district has seen continuous improvement in student outcomes in the past five years. He said test scores in USD 329 are going up and that he thinks The Leader in Me directly correlates with this increase but is not the sole reason. 

He said the district emphasizes leadership development, empowering students to lead class community meetings, engaging in community service initiatives and crafting personalized plans of study. 

Pitsch also brought four students with him to introduce themselves. One student, Ava Meinhardt, a senior, plans to major in elementary education.

Dr. David Hurford, director of Center for Research, Evaluation and Awareness of Dyslexia (READing), Pittsburg State University, spoke about reading literacy and the English writing system. This is the second year the Kansas Legislature has funded the center.

Dr. Hurford emphasized that in order to teach reading, curriculum must be researched-based. He referenced Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS®), a professional learning program that builds knowledge and skills so that teachers can be more successful with any curriculum and intervention materials and make informed decisions when choosing what materials to use to provide effective instruction.

KSDE invested $15 million of ESSER funding into the early literacy initiative, which includes offering free LETRS® training to Kansas educators. For more information and to register, click here. 

Hurford said dyslexia is a social problem and that screening does not mean diagnosis. After hearing recommendations from the Kansas Legislative Task Force, KSDE developed a Dyslexia Handbook to provide guidance and information for school districts, administrators, specialists, teachers, higher education faculty, students and parents/guardians in the early identification of, instruction for, and accommodations for students who struggle to read. 

The second day of the Special Committee on Education meeting focused on understanding at-risk student outcomes in the public education system. 

Chuck Knapp, chief executive officer at Jobs for America’s Graduates–Kansas (JAG-K), talked about JAG-K’s success with at-risk learners. He said they have a 95% graduation rate and 85% of their students are in postsecondary education, military or the workforce 12 months after their senior year. 

JAG-K is an in-school elective class in which students are taught leadership and career development skills by their JAG-K career specialist.  

To participate, students must have a minimum of six barriers identified from a list of more than 30 barriers defined by the JAG national organization. Barrier examples include low academic performance, homelessness, chronic absenteeism, economically disadvantaged, lack of maturity to pursue education or career goals, or if the student is a parent. 

“Prevention is a much better return on investment,” Knapp said. “We can prevent, we believe, a lot of students from entering the juvenile correction facility if they have access to more JAG-K programs.” 

He said they address risk factors, such as chronic absenteeism. Since 2018, they have had an average reduction of 32% in chronic absenteeism. 

There are 113 programs in Kansas, with 19 in Kansas City, Kansas. He said funding is preventing them from expanding into other districts. 

Committee members reviewed the results of the Kansas Teacher Retention Survey, which was launched by Emporia State University in 2021 to investigate the factors affecting teacher retention across Kansas school districts. 

Dr. Bret Church, an associate professor at Emporia State University, said the response rate was “excellent,” with 50% of Kansas teachers participating in the 2021 survey, roughly 18,500 educator perspectives.  

  • Participating educators listed “Society’s view of the teaching profession” as the leading factor creating dissatisfaction within the teaching profession.  

Salina USD 305 Superintendent Linn Exline spoke on the recruitment and retention of teachers. She said the district, along with others across Kansas, are experiencing an educator shortage. 

“For the first time ever, a majority of parents are discouraging their children from becoming educators,” Exline said. “Forty four percent of those who follow the traditional path into our classrooms exit within the first five years.” 

Exline said USD 305 has seen a growing number of certified staff retirements and resignations over the past four years, with 87 certified staff members leaving in 2023. 

To combat this, Exline said the district has implemented several initiatives to retain teachers and encourage others to join the profession, including joining the Kansas Registered Teacher Apprenticeship pilot program. The program combines the rigor and training of a registered apprenticeship with specialized education for individuals who want to become teachers. 

During the four-year program, the aspiring teacher works alongside an experienced educator, serving as a paid apprentice in a real classroom setting while earning a bachelor’s degree in a teacher training program at a university or college accredited by KSDE. 

Dr. Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, talked about the academic and civic effects of private school choice and how he believes it will improve student achievement. 

Wolf defined school choice as any government program that provides resources to parents to assist them in enrolling their child in a private school of their choosing with vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts. 

In the beginning of his presentation, Wolf referenced 18 “gold-standard” studies on how school choice positively affects student achievement overall.  

Of those 18 studies, Wolf reported that eight showed overall positive choice findings, four showed positive findings for subgroups, four showed no effects and two found negative effects. He said private school choice tends to increase or have no effect on participant scores, consistently drives participants to higher levels of educatoinal attainment and helps the students left behind in public schools. 

Wolf also clarified that his research was centered on accredited private schools. 

David Smith, chief communications officer for Shawnee Mission USD 512, filled in for Superintendent Dr. Michelle Hubbard to talk about proposed solutions that will positively impact academic achievement.  

USD 512 currently has more than 200 staff vacancies, including 79 paraprofessional positions and 21 skilled/professional positions. Smith shared that the district can’t make the improvements in education it needs if it can’t fill these positions, citing such things as the lack of childcare and affordability of childcare as keeping valuable stakeholders out of the workforce. 

Smith pointed to the need for workforce development, affordable childcare, investment in early childhood education, teacher professional development, parental involvement programs, after-school programs, assessment reform, community partnerships, inclusive education, data analysis, early intervention programs, equitable funding, and teacher recruitment and retention in order to improve student achievement. 

The Special Committee on Education will resume its meetings next week on Monday, Oct. 9, and Tuesday, Oct. 10. 

Posted: Oct 5, 2023,
Comments: 0,
Author: Ann Bush

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