by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
If you ask them, the answer will be money. I’m sure they’d dress it up, throw in some “communication” and “collaboration” and, as they’ve done for at least a dozen years, they’d tell us change doesn’t happen overnight and they’d throw in a dose of patience on our part. Well, we’ve given them patience. And we’ve given them money. And yet year after year, in just about every measure, WAPS fails to make the grade. We can’t seem to compete academically. We can’t reverse a trend that has kids move from grade to grade and fail to meet basic academic achievement goals. We can’t seem to educate our African-American students, and even the most affluent don’t measure up when compared to their peers across Minnesota.
If you sat down for a beer with an administrator or some members of our School Board, you’d receive a narrative about our struggles that WAPS has attempted to use as an excuse for our failures: There’s something different in the Winona area that holds us back. We spend too much money on our old buildings, and those dollars would otherwise be used for all those student support services we just can’t afford. (If they could blame WAPS’ racial achievement gap, our disciplinary problems, administrative flubs and the weather on our historic buildings, you better bet they would.)
But after more than a dozen years following all the dusty, convoluted reports, analyzing test score and graduation data, and poring over all the things Winona Area Public Schools is required to admit to the public, I’ll tell you the truth. WAPS is not only bad at spending money it doesn’t have, but it spends more than everyone else in nearly every category. It has for years. According to its most recent audit report, it spends more in nearly every area measured. It spends way more on administration and support services. It spends over one-third more on special education than the state and similarly sized peers. (We do have more special ed students because our competitors don’t all offer those services, so we have a higher percentage of students who need them.) WAPS spends more on transportation (of course), food services, community services, and in the areas that count — in teachers and instructional support services, the audit bar graphs show WAPS as a mountain of spending by comparison. For “regular instruction,” we spend $5,528 per student compared to $4,743 among similar sized districts and the state average of $5,187. And for “pupil support services” we spend $782 per child compared to our peers at $322 and the state at $363.
Yes, we spend a lot more on our buildings than they do, but when you look at the numbers, we’re already dumping money on areas that should result in academic success. The only areas in which we spend less than other districts are debit service (that will change next year after our referendum), building construction (same), capital expenditures, and by a hair, vocational instruction. (Thanks to the Chamber’s REACH program, someone is ensuring our kids are able to survive after they are handed a diploma.)
Yet, somehow, our outcomes are always dismal.
When our test scores and “accountability” measures roll in from the state every year, I tell my education reporters about our history of academic anemia. Yes, we have a few things to celebrate from time to time, a science score in a particular grade worth lauding. But mostly, we come up in the hole when it comes to academic success, and I often tell my writers that maybe this year it will be better. Maybe our patience has paid off. After all, you can’t fall off the floor. But apparently WAPS has moved into the basement, because any measure of school success seems to always find a way to get worse.
Remember years ago, when Jefferson was a “reward” school and the then newest iteration of Minnesota’s accountability program had some of our elementary schools high up on their marks? The first year that we got to celebrate that was in 2011. It was the first year after Minnesota got its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Everyone in the education world, who had to live with actual consequences under it, hated President Bush’s federal mandate. Basically, NCLB required states to analyze academic achievement and break down test scores among subgroups, like poor kids and minorities. And if schools were doing just fine overall (or just kind of bad, like us), but the disadvantaged kids were falling through the cracks, there were consequences. There were deadlines, and if schools didn’t make improvements, the state was required to step in and do something. For instance, failing districts would be required to spend their teacher training money on targeted educator training (no more expensive trips to San Diego that only benefit a handful of favored teachers). Federal funds would be in jeopardy for certain things. And, if they failed year after year to make improvements, the state was required to step in and be the bad-guy boss, replacing ineffective administrators and staff and dissecting what the heck was going wrong with the school.
Some of our schools were on the cusp of those interventions, and they were running scared. Minnesota then implemented our first NCLB waiver program, minus the teeth, and that year, Jefferson’s scores went through the roof. It was a big party, and I went to it. Then principal Matt Nelson was asked by outgoing School Board member Jay Kohner how the school managed to rise to the top in the state. He said the scores were from the last year NCLB was in effect, and that some of those consequences played a role in academic achievement. Because the school was on watch under NCLB, it had to have teacher groups that met to work on analyzing data and figuring out how to intervene with struggling kids. (These groups still meet, but our waiver does not make them worry about consequences.) Nelson told the board that the success was a result of many working hard. Some in the district, he said, “complained and complained” about the “harsh” accountability standards ingrained in NCLB that the school faced, but the legislation did push Jefferson to make real changes. “One good thing it did was encourage schools to look at the data and look at ways to improve, so I think this is a reflection of that, too,” he told the board.
Since states were given that chance to create a state-made waiver for NCLB, given the chance to create an “accountability” standard each year that just gives a pass to schools that fail to meet the most basic goals, WAPS has not even managed to tread water. Following those first few years of success on the tail of NCLB, academic achievement plummetted. Last year, the district failed to meet its academic goals under the program in every category by double digits in the area of reducing the achievement gap, and when looking back to 2011 when the waiver was put in place? Not only did we fail to meet our in-the-cloud incremental goals for closing the achievement gap between African-American kids and their peers, it actually got worse over that time. You only need to read our front page to know how we did this time — not one academic goal was met. Again.
This year, we aren’t quite sure about how we did on our test scores when it comes to breaking out those important subgroups, in making sure that poor kids and minority students aren’t segregated to the back of the academic bus. That’s because the Minnesota Department of Education decided to not report those broken down scores, perhaps not wanting the few real journalists left in the state to highlight what areas need our attention. But we’ve got patience, so we’re waiting on some data requests to bring you that news. The general, combined scores, and those reported on our front page today, suggest we’ve permanently moved into the dingy basement that houses districts, schools, and kids who have managed to fall off the academic floor.
What does Winona Area Public Schools actually need to transform itself? It needs real accountability. For that it needs real leadership.