Columbia School District considers autonomous schools

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 | 7:01 p.m. CST; updated 10:40 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 14, 2010

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School District’s most recent plan to reduce the achievement gap in Columbia involves making three elementary schools autonomous.

The proposal made to the Board of Education on Monday would affect Benton, Lee and Ridgeway elementary schools. This would allow the schools to be fully in charge of staffing, budget, curriculum, governance and the school calendar.

By becoming autonomous, the schools, as opposed to the school district, would each be in charge of decisions such as curriculum and budget. The schools would still be part of Columbia Public Schools, however, and would be required to follow district and state testing and curriculum guidelines.

The school board is considering making these schools autonomous to provide families with public school alternatives within the Columbia Public School District.

“Families who are given ownership and choice are more likely to be involved in their child’s education,” Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said Monday.

The district hopes making these schools autonomous would help close the achievement gap in Columbia by providing consistency and keeping kids at a stable environment for the six years they are in elementary school.

Stiepleman said there is a mobility problem in Columbia, where the most at-risk students regularly change schools. Benton Elementary has a mobility rate of 34 percent, whereas Ridgeway Elementary has a mobility rate of 3 percent.

“Ridgeway has a model saying, ‘When you come here, you stay here; our kids perform at a higher rate,'” Stiepleman said. “If we can keep kids at the same school, we’ll be reducing the achievement gap.”

The three schools considered for the change are already run differently from other schools in the district.

According to the presentation to the school board Monday, Benton would become a S.T.E.M. school, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

Lee Elementary has been an “expressive arts school” since 1990. Students transfer to Lee to take advantage of the extended arts and music curriculum.

Ridgeway has had “individually guided education” since 1972. The school has open enrollment by lottery and uses multi-age classroom groups broken into “units” rather than grade levels.

If the plan to make the schools autonomous carries through, the schools will be able to make several changes. These schools:

  •  Would be able to recruit and train own staff.
  • Would receive a per-student budget; the school would be able to use the budget according to the programs and services that they offer.
  • May structure their own practices to meet students’ needs while still following state curriculum requirements.
  • Would be able to create their own governance structure.
  • Would be able to set student and faculty calendar.

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Mike Sykuta December 15, 2010 | 10:32 a.m.

So how, exactly, does autonomy in these three schools translate into more stable learning environments FOR THE CHILDREN WHO FALL IN THE GAP? Is there any evidence that the gap is narrower at Lee and Ridgeway? Even if so, would that mean anything given the selection bias in those student samples resulting from the nature of the enrollment process? What is the connection between autonomy in these three schools and the academic performance of students in the other 17 elementary schools?

Perhaps the school administration has answers to these questions. It would be nice if someone in the news corps bothered to ask them and report on it. But based on the information in this report, one could more easily infer that the gap will grow as a result of this decision.

At best it seems CPS's only plan is to improve Benton's performance on paper by making it specialized so that better students from other schools will select into the program, which will raise the school's average performance scores. That doesn't reduce the performance gap--it only masks CPS's failure to meaningfully address the gap itself.

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