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Feds deny testing waiver for Yellow Springs schools

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After months of delay, Ohio’s testing waiver application got turned down by the federal department of education recently, but the consortium of schools requesting the waiver — including Yellow Springs schools — is continuing the fight for fewer mandated state and federal tests and more forms of alternative assessment. That was the message that emerged from the school board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11, when Superintendent Mario Basora informed the board and community of the federal turndown.

The waiver effort was “dealt a major blow,” he acknowledged at the meeting. But he reaffirmed the district’s commitment to project-based learning — an approach to teaching and learning that proponents say is inadequately measured by standardized testing — and his resolve to continue pressing for change at the state level.

“We’re going to pivot to state laws in the meantime,” Basora told the board Thursday. In comments this week, he added, “Despite the federal response, we still have a lot of room to get relief from state assessment.”

Yellow Springs was one of about 15 districts statewide, including both public and STEM schools, that last March applied for and were granted a state waiver from some but not all mandated testing. Ohio’s department of education then applied on the schools’ behalf to the federal government for a federal waiver, which would have allowed schools to cut back on the number of state and federal tests they administered.

And there the matter stood until late last year. The federal government rejected Ohio’s waiver request weeks after passing new federal education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, last December, though Basora said on Tuesday that Ohio’s waiver districts only heard of the decision in mid-January. The stated reason for the turndown was the need for ESSA administrators to “recalibrate” and determine the new law’s application, according to Basora. There will be future opportunities to reapply, he told the board, but they may be a couple of years down the road.

“It’s disappointing, but now we have a unique opportunity to talk directly to the state,” he said.

Yellow Springs remains a state waiver district, which means that it can apply for testing waivers or waivers from related policies, such as the tying of teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. Basora told the board that the consortium was exploring hiring a policy expert to develop a “white paper,” or policy statement, to identify where waiver opportunities currently exist, both within state law and in the gap between federal and state requirements. The consortium would use that policy statement to guide advocacy for testing waivers at the state and local levels, he said.

A leader of the consortium’s efforts to-date, Basora said he anticipated needing to continue to push forward state-level advocacy. Board members lauded him for his leadership and expressed concern over the time drain.

“We have to look carefully at what [state advocacy] is going to subtract from the focus on this district,” said Board Member Steven Conn, a concern Basora said he shared.

But Evan Scott seemed to speak for the whole board when he said, “We’re not coming off our vision.” The district’s shift away from standardized testing is a “foundational piece of our long-term vision,” he added.

On Tuesday this week, Basora sounded upbeat. The federal turndown might threaten the waiver effort in some communities, but not in Yellow Springs, he said.

“We have a community that understands and believes in and supports the work we’re doing,” he said. “Test scores don’t yield to life success for students, and this community understands that.”

The district remains “fully committed” to PBL, he added. The district’s goal is to graduate “change leaders” — students prepared to make a difference in their fields and communities, he said. And district administrators and staff have determined that PBL and related “pedagogies of deeper learning” are the best way to do that. The “current testing regime” doesn’t jeopardize that commitment, he stated, though he believes it does “limit students” by detracting from their fullest possible engagement with PBL.

“Folks can make us take these tests, and we’ll comply with the law, but they can’t legislate how we teach content,” Basora said.

Board members said last Thursday that they will work with Basora to balance immediate district priorities with next steps in the waiver fight.

In other school board meeting news:

• The board approved the hiring of Dawn Boyer as director of advancement and community relations, a new fundraising position for the district. Boyer will be tasked with “raising significant dollars” through grant-writing and other means to support Yellow Springs schools, according to Basora. She is being given a one-year-and-two-month contract at a salary of $70,000 annually, and will begin June 6, 2016.

Boyer is an experienced grant-writer, currently living and working in Florida, and a 1996 Yellow Springs graduate. The hiring is the result of “a long process with a great committee,” Basora said, noting that a previous interviewing round did not result in a recommended hire. “The missing link was the alumni piece,” according to Board Member Evan Scott. “Yellow Springs graduates have a connection to the community that can bear a lot of fruit for us,” he added. According to Basora, the new position follows the district’s strategic plan, which highlights the need for new revenue sources. “Step by step we are executing every piece,” he said.

• The board accepted a letter from Beverly Logan resigning her position as co-assistant spring musical director, effective last month. The board also accepted a letter from music teacher Jo Frannye Reichert requesting a contract reduction from full-time employment across the district to a 0.6 position solely at MLS. The 0.4 balance of Reichert’s former position at the high school might require a new part-time hire, according to Basora.

• Basora presented the semi-annual “bullying report,” a tabulation of reported bullying incidents in the district. Only three incidents were reported during the first semester, two at MMS and one at MLS, in contrast to six to seven incidents in previous semesters. “This is the very best report I’ve ever given you,” Basora said. In response to board questions about the decrease, YSHS/MMS Principal Tim Krier declined to speculate, but MLS Principal Matt Housh said he hoped the positive report reflected the district’s efforts to build a culture “around social justice, mediation and problem-solving.”

• Krier reported that the school is exploring a switch from agriculture to engineering and design in its Greene County Career Center satellite program. That program, now in its third year, is a collaboration between the GCCC and YSHS/MMS designed to expose middle and high school students to career-focused courses in a particular area of study. The switch is being considered because engineering and design offers a “better fit” with the school’s culture and project-based learning curriculum, Krier told the board. The school would use the engineering and design program the GCCC already has in place, rather than seek out alternatives such as “Project Lead the Way,” a national engineering curriculum. That option is “too prescriptive,” Krier said.

The new program would focus specifically on “design thinking,” an approach to problem-solving that’s broadly applicable, and would integrate with the school’s “maker culture,” including its new Maker Space, said Krier. If the switch is made, engineering and design courses would be offered to middle and high school students beginning in the 2016–2017 school year. The satellite program is funded through the GCCC and would not entail additional cost to the district, he said.

• Basora announced that the YSS Maker Space will be opening within the next month. That space, in a converted bus barn, offers students opportunities for “head and hand work,” said Basora, including a wood workshop and a recording studio. The Maker Space is funded by the district and the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education through the Yellow Springs Community Foundation. Board Member Steven Conn proposed holding a ribbon-cutting event for the new space once it’s ready to open.

• Housh applauded the sixth graders and sixth-grade teacher Ms. Pettiford for their recent “Night in the Museum” display of project work on ancient Egypt. He also described how the school is fine-tuning its Exhibition Night format by building in time for “structured reflection” for staff and students following each event.

• In financial news, District Treasurer Dawn Bennett reported that the district received a real estate tax advance at the end of January. Bennett also stated that the January income tax distribution was $242,923, 1 percent lower than last January. However, 2015 collections were 8.69 percent higher than 2014, and Bennett expressed optimism that the district would finish the fiscal year higher than the forecasted 2 percent increase.

• March 4 is professional development day. Teachers and staff have already begun planning PBL projects for the next school year, using YSHS/MMS art teacher Elizabeth Simon’s “wagon wheel model” to tie content areas into each project.

• The board approved the district calendar for the 2016–2017 school year. The new calendar includes 12 late-start days.

• Vice President Sylvia Ellison closed the meeting by congratulating YSHS junior Elizabeth Smith, student liaison to the board, for breaking the “1,000 point boundary.” Basketball wizard Smith has scored 1,000 points in her hoop career to date.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, March 10, at the Graham Conference Room at Mills Lawn.



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