By Jennifer Wohlleb
That is the message from the Kentucky Department of Education to any school leaders seeking District of Innovation status for their schools during the next round of applications this fall.
Only four districts out of 16 that applied earlier this year were granted the status – and not because the other 12 proposals did not put forth good ideas.
“Their applications simply didn’t ask for very much that required a waiver. So the review team’s basic response as to why those districts didn’t get chosen is, ‘Well, they didn’t really ask for anything they couldn’t already do so why don’t they go ahead and do it,’” said David Cook, director of KDE’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement. “Either they didn’t know they could already do those things or they wanted the state to label them as a District of Innovation so they could sell it to their local boards and constituents.”
Even the four school districts selected – Danville and Eminence independents and Jefferson and Taylor counties –requested relatively few waivers of administrative regulations and statutory provisions, the main thrust of House Bill 37, which was enacted in 2012. The law allows approved districts to waive some regulations they contend are barriers to learning.
Cook said Education Commissioner Terry Holliday even encouraged superintendents during a recent webinar to request waivers of regulations that HB 37 specifically says can’t be waived.
“He told districts, ‘Some of what you ask for we can’t waive, but ask for it anyway because we need to know what you believe the barriers to be because we’re never going to be able to tell the legislature, ‘This is a problem, you need to fix this,’ if no one ever says it’s a problem,’” Cook said.
Some of the waivers involved in the first four Districts of Innovation will permit:
• Creation of a new classified position called “teaching assistant”
• Addition of a student representative to the school council
• Creation of alternate school calendars
• An option to create a school of innovation in addition to other priority school options
• Removal of class-size restrictions for multi-age, self-paced classrooms with individualized learning stations
• A change in subject-matter graduation requirements so subjects can be tailored to students’ interests and learning plans
Several of these waivers were granted on the condition that the districts continue to meet state requirements, such as the equivalent of a 175-day, six-hour school year.
KDE also denied some waivers – most dealt with teacher certification issues, SEEK funding/attendance and accountability regulations – over which it has no jurisdiction or that the law specifically forbids waiving. However, that doesn’t necessarily tie district hands.
“What we did and what (the Educational Professional Standards Board) did almost instantaneously from the point the districts were named is, they have had individual meetings with each of the four districts and even though they can’t waive statute because the law wouldn’t allow it, they have been very open to figuring out solutions to individual situations,” Cook said.
EPSB Executive Director Robert Brown said his organization ran into the same situation as KDE – waivers that weren’t needed.
“Nothing was waived, because it didn’t have to be,” he said. “What each of the districts wanted to do, they already could under our current regs and statutes. There were issues with trying to find specialists in certain areas – for example, one district wanted a veterinarian to work with kids on a part-time basis. They can already do that…”
Brown said districts have some flexibility but they may not know what their options are.
“We needed to know what they needed before we could help them,” he said. “In a couple of cases we were able to give them some ideas on a couple of things they didn’t think about.”
Attendance was another area that required communication more than waivers, as in the case of high school students taking community college classes.
“The law … already has in place the ability for the district to do performance-based credits,” Cook said. “If the student is taking a college English class or college algebra class, it doesn’t matter if the number of minutes and hours the student is in class matches up to the school schedule; the school says it’s a class. If the credit is granted and the student gets the credit, then the district should get the full attendance allotment funding-wise. That’s mainly a situation of making the attendance folks (at KDE) aware of what the district is trying to do.”
Several districts did request permission to use alternate methods of accountability, but that is one area the law clearly forbids. However, Cook said while districts still must use the Unbridled Learning accountability system, that does not mean they also can’t measure results in other ways.
Tweaking the process
Cook said the first year of this program has been a learning process – for the department and the districts. He wants districts to understand that this is not a situation where districts were competing for a limited number of slots. “If we had had 16 applications that were strong we would have had 16 Districts of Innovation,” he said.
“Some people said that they felt if we didn’t approve them they would somehow get left out of the conversation about innovation. Like with that designation somehow we were only going to deal with these districts.”
Cook said his department has met with any of the 12 applicants that weren’t selected who were open to follow-up.
“We’ve reached out to them … about what parts of their plan that we did feel were good that they should try to go ahead and implement that wouldn’t require them to do any kind of waiver, that they could do anyway,” Cook said.
Cook said site visits are being added to the application process so the review team gets a more complete picture of what districts are proposing. This might compensate for districts with less experience writing these types of proposals.
He said KDE also hopes to work with the 2014 General Assembly to strengthen the law.
“We’re talking about basic things, where there’s a contradiction in the law, or could we not have incorporated EPSB into the language of the statute, those kinds of things,” Cook said.
And he wants districts to push the envelope.
“What they have to do is tell us what they want to do and understand that by virtue of the way that the process works, they’re going to get some of that stuff denied,” Cook said. “But if they don’t ask for it, then it’s something that we don’t know they think is important and we don’t then have the opportunity to go after it and ask legislators, policymakers, ‘Can you look at this and see how this is problematic for school districts?’”
— The deadline for applying for the next round of Districts of Innovation is Oct. 31. For more information about Districts of Innovation, including viewing all 16 applications, click here.