New Report Highlights 21st Century School Facility Needs

5481051885_877b676b7a_bWhen thinking about what makes a quality school, most people cite quality teachers, good curriculum, and perhaps modern technology. Very few think about the school building itself; after all, in many cases the building has been there largely unchanged for decades.

In 1995, a U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools, found that half of all schools had problems with indoor air quality and 15,000 schools had air considered unfit to breathe. In the 20 years since that report, the United States has invested $2 trillion in improving school infrastructure, including removing asbestos, lead pipes, and lead paint; however, there has not been a comprehensive look at where our school facilities are today since then.

A new report by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools highlights the current state of our school buildings and provides recommendations for improving them. The report set out to understand three critical points:

  1. The scale of elementary and secondary public school infrastructure
  2. The significant effort that communities are making to provide safe, healthy, and adequate public school facilities
  3. The future investment needed to ensure adequate public school facilities for all students, including those in low-wealth communities

School buildings represent the second largest public infrastructure investment in the United States, behind only transportation, but as the report notes, the federal government provides almost no capital construction funds for schools and state support varies widely. Local school districts bear the greatest burden for investing in school infrastructure, but for low-wealth districts that cannot afford to make significant capital investments, more frequent maintenance is often required using money from their operating funds—the same budget that pays for teacher salaries, instructional materials, and general programming.

School infrastructure is significant because one in six Americans—nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults—are in nearly 100,000 school buildings every school day. Research shows that high-quality school facilities help to improve student achievement, reduce truancy and suspensions, improve staff satisfaction and retention, and raise property values. High-quality schools are also critical to providing equitable education opportunities for all students.

As part of the report, the Center for Green Schools has created an interactive website that lets you view a state profile of school infrastructure and the ability to drill down through an interactive map to view a specific school district’s data. An infographic summarizing the report’s findings is also available for sharing on social media.

The report concludes with four ideas to prompt constructive discussions in communities about school facilities, since it is at the community level that these changes must occur. Those four ideas are:

  1. Understand your community’s public school facilities
  2. Engage in education facilities planning
  3. Support new public funding
  4. Leverage public and private resources

Photo © 2011 by David Woo under Creative Commons license.

Do’s and Don’ts of PTAs and Elections

4446461866_2a2822cd2d_bIllinois’s primary election is coming up on March 15th and the presidential election is November 8th. While most local elections in Illinois are in odd years, your school district may have a bond referendum on the ballot. With elections dominating the news, it’s a good time to review what PTAs can and can’t do as 501(c)3 organizations.

DO NOT

  • Endorse individual candidates. The IRS prohibits 501(c)3 organizations from endorsing individual candidates.
  • Solicit or accept donations or sponsorships from a political campaign fund. Such donations give the appearance of support for the candidate by the PTA. Candidates can donate personal funds to support PTA activities (e.g., paying a membership fee from their own pocket to join your PTA).
  • Link the PTA name or logo with a political candidate or party. PTA members running for office may cite their PTA leadership experience as one of their qualifications for office, but cannot have the PTA appear to endorse them. Likewise, if a PTA leader is asked to speak at a candidate’s campaign event, they should be introduced without citing their PTA position (e.g., “Our next speaker is local PTA president Jane Smith.” Is not allowed).
  • Send ballot issue or election literature of any kind home with students. The backpack express may be a convenient way of sharing PTA information, but for election issues, the PTA must use its own resources to share that information.

DO

  • Sponsor voter registration efforts. PTAs must register everyone qualified to vote that asks to do so and can’t screen registrations (e.g., only registering Democrats or Republicans).
  • Encourage citizens to vote. PTAs can publicize election dates and polling places as well as a list of all candidates running for office.
  • Produce voter education materials. Voter guides or voting records must include information for all candidates (or note that the candidate was contacted and did not respond).
  • Host candidate forums. All candidates must be invited to participate in the forum, though some may choose not to do so. Each candidate should be given equal time to speak.
  • Support or oppose ballot issues. PTAs can endorse issues such as bond referendums if their membership votes to do so. Likewise, PTA Councils can endorse issues if a majority of PTAs in the council are directed by their membership to do so. In addition, while candidates may have a position for a ballot issue as part of their platform, that does not mean that the PTA supports that candidate, and the PTA cannot
  • Produce literature on your PTA’s position on an issue. PTAs may produce literature on their position on an issue that their membership has voted to support or oppose. The IRS limits the money spent for such activities to “an insubstantial amount” of the PTA’s gross revenue (i.e., all the money the PTA takes in during its fiscal year). This amount is generally viewed as being less than 5% of gross revenue. Note that this limit applies to all of the PTA’s lobbying throughout the year. If your PTA votes to spend PTA funds to develop advocacy materials, it must be approved at a general membership meeting and recorded in the minutes.

Photo © 2010 by Alan Cleaver under Creative Commons license.

10 Questions Your PTA and School Should Ask Before Buying Technology

7691519996_162e98b0ec_bFirst, it was computers in the classroom; next, it was Smartboards; and now it is iPads and Chromebooks. Schools often turn to their PTA to help bring technology into the classroom, and families wanting the best for their children often step up to help do so. But a Smartboard used only as a digital chalkboard or an iPad only used as a digital textbook will not improve student achievement or prepare students for college and careers.

With many schools now pushing to have 1:1 technology in the classroom (i.e., one device per student), PTAs may be asked to help out. Illinois PTA has already written about the US Department of Education’s Future Ready Schools initiative, which encourages school districts to plan out their use of technology to provide students with a 21st Century education. Education blogger Scott Newcomb has created a list of ten questions that must be answered when going 1:1. These questions can help schools and PTAs ensure that money spent on technology is contributing to student achievement. Those questions are:

  1. What types of mobile learning initiatives have other school districts started?
  2. Where is the funding coming from?
  3. Is the initiative sustainable?
  4. How does the district plan on using the devices?
  5. What device is right for your student population?
  6. Is an Acceptable Use Policy set in place?
  7. Have the teachers bought into the idea of the initiative?
  8. Where is the professional development going to come from?
  9. Are there technology leaders in each building that will keep the initiative going in a positive direction?
  10. What apps will the students benefit from using?

Be sure to read the full article for additional information on each of these key questions before your PTA joins an effort to put more technology in the classroom.

Photo ©2012 by Michael Coghlan under Creative Commons license.

Navigating the Illinois School Report Card

Last week, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released the 2014-2015 version of the Illinois Report Card. This online, interactive version of the report card was launched last year and provides significantly more information for parents about their child’s school than the old paper report card you might have seen a few years ago. Here’s how to navigate the report card and use the information about your child’s school.

Getting Started

When you go to IllinoisReportCard.com, there’s an easy to use way to locate your child’s school or district. You can either start by typing the school or district name into the top search box, or you can type in your home address in the lower search box and get a map and list of all the schools within a radius of one to 20 miles. If your child’s school has a common name (e.g., Edison, Lincoln, Washington, etc.), you may find it easier to use the address search rather than the name search.

You can also navigate the Illinois Report Card in Spanish by clicking on the Español button on the top menu bar. You’ll also find a short video on the new report card on the start page, as well as overview information on the state as a whole (e.g., over 2,000,000 students, 54% low-income students, etc.).

Your Child’s School Report Card

When you go to the report card for your child’s school, you land on an overview page that includes the school address, the names of the school principal and district superintendent, a map showing the school’s and the district’s location, and some fast facts about the school. These facts will vary depending on the school, with high schools including information on graduation rate and college readiness (based on the ACT) that don’t apply to elementary and middle schools. Each of the boxes in the fast facts section can be clicked on to drill down into the data behind the summary.

Across the top of the screen is a menu bar that lets you explore the information on your child’s school in depth. The options are Snapshot, Academic Progress, School Environment, Students, Educators, and Highlights. Like the fast facts boxes, what’s listed under each of these menu choices will vary depending on the type of school your child attends.

Academic Progress

Under academic progress, you’ll find information on how your child’s school did regarding the state assessments (PARCC this past year, ISAT/PSAE in previous years). The PARCC data for districts, schools, and students has not been released yet, as the first year using the PARCC assessment required setting threshold levels for how raw scores translate into meeting the New Illinois Learning Standards. These results should be released in either late November or sometime in December.

Depending on the grade levels in the school, you can find information about academic growth, the achievement gap (under subgroup comparisons), the percent of freshmen on track to graduate, the graduation rate, college and career readiness, and post-secondary enrollment. If you aren’t sure what a specific measure means or what a graph is reporting, you can hover your mouse pointer over the question mark in the yellow circle above the graph and have a definition pop up. At the bottom of the page is a box with three tabs providing an explanation of the information being displayed, its context, and resource links to additional information on the topic.

You can drill down further into some of the data. For example, if you want to look at the achievement gap in more detail, you can choose the Advanced Comparisons option under Subgroup Comparisons. You can then use the buttons and checkboxes on the right side of the screen to see how students in a specific grade did overall or in specific subjects. You can also compare not just how black students performed relative to white students (the common achievement gap measure), but also see how Hispanic or Asian students did, or compare low-income students with non-low-income students, or male students to female students.

School Environment

The school environment page covers information from the 5Essentials Survey, financial information, class size, school days, attendance, chronically truant students, dropout rate (high schools), and student mobility. Health and wellness information will be available in the future once sufficient data has been collected to report.

The 5Essentials survey information summarizes the results from students, teachers, and parents provided at least 50 percent of a category participated in the survey. The survey measures schools on five categories:

  • Effective Leaders
  • Collaborative Teachers
  • Supportive Environment
  • Involved Families
  • Ambitious Instruction

The 5Essentials survey is based on the results of research showing that schools that are strong in these five categories are ten times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in the five essentials. You can click on the link below the graphic summary to dig into the report categories and individual questions and responses. Clicking on the Resources tab in the box at the bottom of the page provides links to additional information on the 5Essentials survey.

Students

The students section provides information on the school’s demographics, including enrollment, racial/ethnic diversity, and the percentage of students who are low-income, have disabilities, are homeless, or are English Language Learners. You can use the checkbox on the right side of the screen to show the 5-year trend for all of this information.

Educators

In the educators section, you’ll find information on the teachers and administrators in your district. The majority of the information is at the school district level, including teacher demographics, education level, and salary. Teacher retention and principal turnover are reported on an individual school basis.

Highlights

The highlights section provides additional information on what is available at your child’s school. These include things such as:

  • Academic Courses (Advance Placement and Dual Credit courses (high schools), Fine and Applied Arts courses, and Foreign Language courses)
  • PE and Health courses, programs and facilities
  • Career Development courses and programs (high schools)
  • Athletics
  • Other Programs and Activities (PTA, before and after school care, clubs and programs)
  • Awards the school has won (by faculty and staff, scholastic awards, athletic awards, and community awards)
  • School Personnel Resources (school social worker, special education teachers, librarians, etc.)
  • School Facilities (specialty rooms or spaces)

This information is all self-reported by your school’s principal.

Comparing Schools

At the top right side of the school page is a blue button that allows you to compare your child’s school to up to three other schools anywhere in the state. You can use the “Search By” button on the comparison page to narrow the list of schools you’re looking through for comparisons to a grade, a specific school district, or within a certain distance from an address. This information can be especially helpful for parents needing to choose a school or who are moving to an area and want to compare the schools there. The comparison includes the fast facts and highlights for the chosen schools, academic progress (once the PARCC scores are released), and the school demographics.

Looking at Your School District

Next to the name of your child’s school is a link to the report card for your school district. Much of the data reported for your child’s school is collected here for your school district as a whole. Instead of a highlights page, there is a page listing all the schools in the district and linking to their individual report cards.

The district finances page can be enlightening, as it breaks down your school district’s funding from local, state, and federal sources and compares them to the state averages. You can also see where the money is spent under Expenditure Percentages and Expenditure Amounts. Clicking the View Details checkbox on the right side of the page provides a more detailed breakdown of revenue and expenses. You can also see the five-year and ten-year trends for all of this information as well. As the state legislature continues to discuss budget items, property tax freezes, and changing the school funding formula, be sure to keep this information in mind when considering what those changes may mean for your child’s school.