The St Helena RSD Saga begins. . .

In this age of tweets, instant messages, headline news and 60 second world news round-ups, it easy to overlook more of the subtle details that lie behind just about any story, for those willing to do a little digging. . . but who has the time? People seem to enjoy getting their little story snippets about the latest death tolls in the latest airline crash or tornado, updates on the whereabouts of Edward Snowden and who the latest country has offered or rejected him asylum, and dreary statistics of how many times Congress voted unsuccessfully to Repeal Obamacare. At least 38 times as of this article, in case you lost count and were worried about keeping track of such important things.

 

Obsession with macroscopic and attention grabbing statistical details is what passes for news these days to many of us (myself included). I read this article recently about St Helena battling RSD (the Recovery School District) and I realized I had some more questions. It was just a tantalizing little bit enough to whet my appetite for the backstory. I thought I’d do my part to change some of that myopic news reporting we all see so much of, and delve a little deeper. If all of us did a little more of this type of investigating, perhaps we could crowdsource some real news? Just a thought. . .

In case you don’t like to click on hyperlinks I will include the relevant text from The Advocate article here:

St. Helena battling state for control of middle school

By Heidi R. Kinchen

Florida Parishes bureau

June 12, 2013

The state Department of Education is urging a federal judge not to allow St. Helena Parish to reconfigure its schools.

The department asserts the Recovery School District’s presence is the only reason St. Helena’s schools have improved, and even that improvement reversed course in this year’s standardized test scores.

Superintendent Kelli Joseph described the department’s position as “arrogant and offensive” and said the RSD continues to stand in the district’s way.

On May 1, St. Helena school officials filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the district’s desegregation case, for approval to regain control of the parish’s only middle school or to reconfigure the elementary and high schools to add fifth- through eighth-grade classes.

Those grades are offered only at St. Helena Central Middle School, which was taken over by the RSD in May 2010.

St. Helena school officials supported their request with evidence of increased test scores in 2011-12 and a return of community confidence leading to the passage of a pair of property taxes supporting the school system in 2012.

A hearing on the district’s motion is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 13.

In a response filed late Thursday, the Education Department said the hiring of a new superintendent, passage of the taxes and increased community involvement occurred only after, and only because, the RSD took over the middle school.

And St. Helena’s increase in test scores in 2011-12, while laudable, reversed course this year with scores dropping in all grades and all subjects, the department said.

The district went from most-improved in the state in 2011-12 to tied with East Carroll Parish for biggest drop in 2012-13, according to Education Department data.

In contrast, RSD schools in New Orleans have shown increasing success year after year, the department said.

“To remove the RSD from St. Helena or to allow St. Helena to add grades 5-8 would remove the very force which caused them to improve in the first place,” the Education Department argued in its pleading.

“It’s amazing that the only defense the RSD can put forward — after three years, $7 million and poor performance — is that their simple presence is the reason we improved,” Joseph said Thursday.

The data included in the Education Department’s response shows test scores in New Orleans, not at St. Helena Central Middle School, Joseph said.

“They talk about parent choice,” Joseph said, “but they won’t give our parents a choice.”

So after reading this piece I realized I had more questions than answers. The State Department of Education has never answered any of my requests for data, explanations, FOIA requests, and almost never even acknowledges my phone calls, e-mails or tweets, (a true sign of someone with nothing to hide, right?) I’ve received some promises for information but have not actually received anything that satisfies my requests so amusingly enough, even when they do respond, they are lying. I figured this would be more of the same thing here so instead I contacted Dr. Kelli Joseph, Superintendent of the St Helena school system for her comments about the situation. I got a very interesting story backed up with legal briefings, test scores and sketchy RSD maneuverings. I actually got so much documentation it took me a while to go through it all.

If a spokesperson from RSD or LDOE would like to contact me with their side of the story and can answer my questions, as Dr. Joseph has, I would be happy to relay it, but I’m not holding my breath, (nor will I simply relay their story verbatim as I see happen far too often.)

First let me explain a little of what’s happening. About a dozen years ago Louisiana passed some laws that allows the state of Louisiana to take over “failing” schools as defined by School Performance Scores and some arbitrary benchmarks set for success or failure that change from year to year. Schools defined as “failing” 4 years in a row can be subject to state takeover unless they are closed, or dramatic plans are put in place such as firing most of the staff, turning the school(s) over to charter operators, etc. The plan has to be approved by DOE and BESE, but they don’t have to approve every plan. Some years ago, I believe as many as 4 or so St Helena was eligible for takeover, but DOE tried to work with districts outside of New Orleans while they tried to rebuild the schools in that city after Katrina, and build up their RSD brand image.

The RSD brand has been touted far and wide by education reform-minded folks in larger metropolitan areas, so it was very important that people believe in RSD. Many people’s future careers and long range privatizing plans and profits rely on the success of RSD. Since there were many schools outside of New Orleans that met the definition of “failing” by LDOE standards, the department had to start rolling out a plan to take over schools in districts outside of Orleans Parish. Some of the first schools they started looking at were in Caddo, Iberville, St Helena, Pointe Coupee, East Baton Rouge.

Iberville, seeing the writing on the wall, quickly passed a tax and created some Shadow School “Academies” in 2008. These Academies were started with the best kids in the parish, almost all of the kids tested at Basic or above according to Iberville’s internal reports and documentation. Because a number of schools across their parish were below the takeover range they started “routing” these students to these failing schools to avoid state sanctions and takeovers. The tax they passed allowed Iberville to build state-of-the-art facilities and attract many top students from private schools and surrounding parishes like West Baton Rouge and Ascension. These students helped keep Iberville’s safe from takeover, not because the original students improved, but because they got better students to average in with their poorer performing ones. All of these schools and “Academies” were defined as k-12 facilities, so any kid could route anywhere else as needed. So long as Iberville attracted better students they could preserve the status quo, and the State could claim Iberville was a turnaround success story. Win-win, right?

Caddo’s approach was a little different. They had lots of extra schools lying around, probably with declining student enrollments and some of them probably needed to be closed anyways. While I was searching for more shadow schools I noticed Caddo, and many other parishes simply closed their lowest performing schools and shipped those students elsewhere to higher performing schools. This is actually one of the desired remedies LDOE encourages. I have not seen any evidence or reports that indicates this is having a positive impact on kids and their education trajectories, nevertheless, this is a desired approach sought by LDOE and USED for some reason. (I think it’s because they like overcrowding and vacant buildings because it makes charters more attractive and feasible. If you make the remaining schools crappy enough parents and students will be forced to try other alternatives.) Another approach may be to simply “reconfigure” the schools, by bringing in new or different grade levels that were previously present or opening magnet programs that attract higher performing students and thus increase schools scores as a natural byproduct.

I believe the first schools taken over outside of Orleans were in Pointe Coupee and East Baton Rouge in 2008 if I recall correctly. These schools were handed over to charter operators, who by all accounts I’ve heard did such horrible jobs with handling their funding, maintaining their property, attracting students and quality educators, or integrating with their communities, that they were abysmal failures. This was before many people had gotten into the charter school game, so some local non-profits with zero school running experience were given these schools. I think they meant well, but they were woefully unprepared and underprepared for the task before them. This was decision based more on hubris and ignorance on the part of the State Department of Education, than for concern of what was best for students, school districts or taxpayer funds.

St Helena does not have the political connections Iberville, St James, Jefferson and Caddo have so they have fallen prey to the depredations of RSD. What has ensued (and continues to unfold as I type) is an almost unbelievable story of deception, greed, arrogance and utter disregard for what is best for the children and people of St Helena Parish. When I first started investigating I thought I would be able to summarize this situation in a few thousand words, but that will just scratch the surface and as I said, this story is still unfolding by the day and minute. I’ve received several legal pleadings just today, and their contents are really quite remarkable for their hypocrisy, deception and divorcement for reality.

For now let me summarize what has been going on and then I will provide the evidence and flesh out the details in subsequent posts.

In 2009, St Helena’s Board of Education signed onto an MOU (Memoranum of Understanding) with the state and RSD under the watchful gaze of the US district judge James Brady who is overseeing St Helena’s 50 year desegregation case. This MOU expired June 30th of 2012. Prior to the expiration and subsequent to it the Recovery School District and the Superintendent of RSD, Patrick Dobard tried, and continues to try to bully St Helena and Superintendent Kelli Joseph into signing onto another agreement with RSD. Some of the threats made were if St Helena didn’t sign on, the state would take over the rest of St Helena’s schools. When that bluff was called Dobard submitted a craftier worded agreement that would allowed RSD to convert all of St Helena’s schools into charter schools, and effectively dissolved the district in favor of private operators. At this point, or perhaps a little before Dr. Joseph went on the offensive. The RSD middle school in St Helena languished and dramatically declined under RSD control. This was a school that was already poorly performing, so the decline was sadly remarkable in that it left no students better off, and many worst off than the situation they came from. Dr. Joseph wanted to do something for these students so proposed expanding the elementary school to K-6 and expanding the High School to 7-12, thus providing parents with an additional option for student in grades 5-8 that RSD was running. This terrified the state and RSD, and for good reason. They knew, and still know, if this is allowed to happen, very few parents will choose to stay in a RSD school plagued with incompetence and as many as 5 different principals over the course of the first 2 years. Patrick Dobard of RSD and his lawyers knew (and still know) they could not compete with parents on equal footing with St Helena Parish, one of the state’s lowest performing districts but also one of the fastest improving, so what they did was redefine the law and provide bogus figures to Judge Brady to prevent St Helena from expanding its grade structure. Rather than provide statistics to Judge Brady about the performance of the Middle School under their control in St Helena, which was probably the worst in the state, they instead provided figures for RSD of New Orleans and explained that RSD in New Orleans and they continue to make this bizarre claim to support their intervention in St Helena.

In contrast, the Recovery School District has established a strong track record of ever-

increasing success in its New Orleans RSD direct-run and charter schools. The RSD will work

to replicate this success in St. Helena Middle School over the next few years. This year, the

RSD in New Orleans had 57% of its students scoring basic and above on the LEAP and iLEAP

tests. This is 19 percentage points higher than St. Helena’s 38 percent. In addition, the

Recovery School District in New Orleans increased the percentage of students scoring basic and

above six percentage points from last year. This is the largest gain in student performance

growth for any school district in the state. Further, since 2008, the percent of students

performing at basic or above on the iLEAP and LEAP tests in RSD New Orleans schools, both

charter and direct-run, has increased by 29 percentage points – the highest among Louisiana’s

school districts, as demonstrated below.

 

Incidentally, as has been documented by Research on Reforms and Dr. Barbara Ferguson the RSD scores exclude the lowest performing schools (as much as 20% of the schools), and many started with much higher scores to begin with, however what is most troubling about this approach is that they are using a logic fallacy called Ignoratio elenchi, also known as an “irrelevant conclusion”: the informal fallacy of presenting an argument that may or may not be logically valid, but fails nonetheless to address the issue in question. One of my favorite examples of this technique is the Chewbacca Defense, which makes fun of the Johnnie Cochran argument presented to the O.J, Simpson jury that “if the glove does not fit you must acquit.” The RSD’s lawyers are distracting you and Judge Brady from looking at the deplorable state of St Helena’s middle school (actually run by RSD) by showing information about completely different RSD schools, hoping no one realizes their argument is nonsensical and unrelated to addressing whether RSD is succeeding or failing in St Helena.

 

Notice the lack of mention of what RSD has done for (or should I say too) the middle school in the previous legal brief by RSD’s lawyers. This is why you won’t see anything about the RSD run St Helena Middle School in their arguments for maintaining control.

 

The Recovery School District Performance in St Helena

The 5th grade students who entered the RSD in 2012 showed a substantial decline in performance from the previous year. The chart below shows the academic progress of the students who entered fourth grade in 2012 who are currently 5th graders and students who entered 5th grade in 2012 who are currently 6th graders.

 

4th Grade to 5th Grade Achievement

Number of Students ELA

Number of Students Math

Students who demonstrated academic progress

1

0

Students who demonstrated no progress

17

17

Students who are in academic decline

45

46

 

 

5th Grade to 6th Grade Achievement

Number of Students

Students who demonstrated academic progress

6

Students who demonstrated no progress

23

Students who are in academic decline

19

 

 

8th Grade Academic Achievement

Number of Students ELA

Number of Students Math

Students who scored Unsatisfactory

38

11

Students who scored Approaching Basic

43

23

Students who scored Basic

8

55

Students who scored Mastery

0

0

Students who scored Advanced

0

0

 

But since RSD likes to compare their schools in other parishes to St Helena, because they labeled them all “RSD” let’s compare RSD to the rest of St Helena, shall we?

Obviously both sets of schools need some improvement, but I do see one set of scores that is noticeably better in all cases than the other. According to LDOE St Helena is the lowest performing district, but I think a very strong case can be made that RSD is actually the lowest performing district, and not by a small margin either. If you had a choice, which option would you choose?

As I will show in subsequent posts, Reformers and the RSD in particular fear the truth and embrace lies and subterfuge. They actually seem to hate children and the poor, and delight in stripping resources from the poorest of our citizens to line the private coffers of their donors. You really won’t believe some of the other argument’s RSD is making. . .

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8 thoughts on “The St Helena RSD Saga begins. . .

  1. A very interesting twist – Kelli Joseph (current St. Helena supe) was principal of the school in St. John Parish (Garyville/Mt Airy) where Jessica Baghian (J. Tucker back then) served her TFA years (8th grade teacher). Tucker discovered cheating on the LEAP tests among her fellow teachers and reported it to the principal, who did nothing. Jessica then reported it to the district supe, who did nothing. Don’t know if she notified us at the LDOE, actually THEM, since I wasn’t there yet, but if she did, she didn’t give her name. The policy still says cheating reported by someone who gives a name must be investigated (Bulletin 111 §4105. Reported Irregularities). They’ll be having us take it out, I’d bet, since we’d have to hire or reassign staff to investigate all the problems reported out of the RSD and the charters. So there may be some historical grounds for a conflict between the department and the St. Helena supe.

    A great indicator of cheating is a sudden and very substantial increase in test scores (or SPS). Another alarm is a sudden drop – meaning it stopped (or the culprit left and the new one doesn’t know the answers). Seems a large number of middle school tests were voided at St. Helena awhile back. And their scores seem to jump and drop almost randomly. There are a few other schools that fall into remarkable score patterns – in other districts.

    But Johnny and company don’t want us looking in on these things. We give them accolades now.

  2. Wow. The DOE will do any and everything to make success look bad…I guess it’s because they have none of their own. FIGHT HARD ST. HELENA!!!!

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