Succeed? Yes We Can!

As I look over and over again at the data produced by Seguin ISD, it’s hard not to feel like the work before us is endless.  As one community member said at a meeting last year, “it seems like every year there is a new plan to fix our schools.  And every year the plan doesn’t work and then we get a new plan.”  Truthfully, she was right.  There is a trail of Campus Improvement Plans and District Improvement Plans that were ineffective in solving the very real, very difficult challenges of educating our young people.  Observing the lack of progress can be demoralizing.

But then there is this:

Meet Weinert Elementary School.  Weinert looks pretty much like every other elementary school in our district.  Just bigger.  It is the largest campus, with nearly 600 students.  But it is about 66% Hispanic, 28% white, and about 63% of its students are of low socioeconomic status.  This tracks fairly closely with the composition of the other elementaries in Seguin. (1)  Its student performance tracks pretty closely with the rest of the district as well.  Until this year.  This year, something happened.

In 2014, for the first administration of the STAAR Reading Test to 5th grade students, just 67% achieved a passing score.  What’s more, the “achievement gap” between white and Hispanic students stood at 22%. (1)  This year, on the same test, the 5th graders passed at a rate of 88%, a 31% improvement.  The white/Hispanic gap shrank to 17%.  But it gets better!  It wasn’t just the 5th graders.  The 3rd graders and 4th graders saw similar improvements.  In fact, the 4th graders saw their achievement gap shrink from 24 to 7 points! (2) It is true that scores can fluctuate from year-to-year, but this kind of consistent improvement in performance across grade levels suggests that something very real and very important happened this year at Weinert.

What happened? I have spoken with several people, both parents and administrators. The were several changes made but the overall emphasis was on quality instruction. Parents report that their children learned all day-from bell to bell.  There was no homework aside from 20 minutes of reading. The behavior management also changed-there was more of an emphasis on short-term rewards with frequent positive reinforcement. Where did all these ideas come from? That’s next week’s column. I had an opportunity to sit down with Brandi Bell Wiatrek, Weinert’s principal. Next time I’ll share what she taught me about her successful approach.

Together we can do better.

Bob Stephens

What Moves Us? The Sequel

Of the posts I have written so far concerning education in our community, the most recent, from 8/11, certainly garnered the most attention. There have been many comments on the post, both favorable and unfavorable. That’s good. In fact, it’s the whole point. Today, I want to share my thoughts on some of the criticisms.

First, some have expressed concern that I didn’t identify myself in the post. That was an oversight. I am Bob Stephens. I am a pediatrician here in Seguin. I live in Seguin and have two children, both of whom either attend or recently graduated from Seguin ISD. I am also Co-President of Educate Seguin, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of our public education system. Actually, I wrote this beautiful bio when I first set up the blog and then yesterday realized that it only shows up on mobile devices.  Clearly my daughter is right-Tumblr is a platform for the young. In any case, in future I will sign my posts so there is no question. I believe if someone is going to place a challenge before our community, it needs to be done openly.

That is really the goal-to challenge us. Educate Seguin is dedicated to one simple goal:  we want every child in this district to receive a quality education. Every single one. Regardless of skin color or family situation.  That’s not happening right now. That’s a hard thing to say and to accept because, as a small community, we know each other-we know the teachers, the principals, and the administrators. We know they are hard-working, dedicated people who care about children. That makes saying that what we are doing isn’t working difficult. It also causes disagreement.  Not everyone agrees with my assessment of Seguin ISD.  That is why I spend a lot of time in my posts focusing on data.  When we actually look at the data, it’s hard to conclude that we are successfully teaching every child.

It’s time for us to have a serious conversation in this community about how we are educating our young people.  Serious conversations are difficult.  We aren’t always going to agree-either on the problems or on the solutions.  But by engaging with each other and getting involved we are going to see improvement.  That’s what I want and that’s why I “stir the pot”.

I want every child in this community to get an education that gives them a shot-a shot at a better life. Every child.  That’s all.  It’s a simple goal but a huge job.

So read my blogs. Agree. Disagree. Comment.  Feel sad. Feel angry. Feel something. And then do something. Because I believe that together, we really can do better.

Bob Stephens

What Moves Us?

I am troubled today.  I am troubled because I feel like our priorities are out of whack.  What do we value?  What gets us engaged?  What motivates us to stand up and get involved?

Today, the Seguin Gazette ran both an article and an editorial about the decision to replace the Seguin ISD Director of Athletics.  These are in follow-up to the article it ran in Sunday’s paper on the same topic.  I found the editorial particularly troubling.  It discusses the content of a meeting between Superintendent Stetson Roane and the Gazette’s editorial staff.  It goes on to raise some concerns about the decision to replace the Athletic Director and promises further coverage of the story.  You can find the editorialhere (subscription required).

What I find both troubling and incomprehensible is the Gazette’s complete failure to question Mr. Roane concerning the academic performance of the district.  On the same day as the decision to reassign the AD was announced, the Texas Education Agency released the accountability ratings for our schools (1).  Two schools failed to meet the state standard (which is incredibly low to begin with) and two more barely achieved a passing score.  At four of our elementary campuses, only 40% of 5th graders passed the reading proficiency test indicating they are ready to move on to 6th grade.  Only HALF of black 5th graders can read at a proficient level.  Fewer than 3 in 4 Hispanic student can (2).  Fewer than half of black high school students passed the Algebra I test.  Fewer than 2 of 3 Hispanic students passed (3).  Despite changes heralded by the district one year ago to improve instructional quality (4), our students saw no gains.  Yet somehow the Gazette’s editorial staff didn’t find these statistics sufficiently alarming to ask even one question of Mr. Roane as to how he is going to deal with this longstanding problem.  Not one.

Perhaps that is because, as their editorial on the subject from Sunday’s paper (5) states, they feel we “shouldn’t be too distressed” by the fact that our students are failing.  After all, they quickly shift responsibility to the families of the students who  “need to take it upon themselves to ensure their children are getting adequate schooling”.

Evidently the district can be held accountable for producing winning sports teams but need not be questioned when hundreds of our students are not learning basic skills.

I ask again:  What are our priorities?  Does the Gazette’s coverage of our schools reflect those priorities?  I am not saying Mr. Roane’s decision regarding the AD was the correct one.  In fact, after hearing his passionate supporters defend him at tonight’s board meeting, I am convinced it was a mistake.  Nor am I saying it should not have been covered by local media; it is of intense local interest.  I am saying that the Gazette’s editorial decision to pursue this story in depth yet avoid asking difficult questions about the quality of the education our young people receive is deeply troubling to me.

To be fair, the Gazette’s coverage reflects the interests of its readers.  There has been far more interest in the AD decision than in the quality of our schools.  In my opinion, that’s a situation we must remedy.  And that, more than anything, is the purpose of this post.

Together, we CAN do better.  The question is:  do we have the will?

Bob Stephens

How Are The Kids Doing?

Last time, I briefly mentioned the ratings of Seguin ISD that can be found online. There are lots of sites that rank schools (check here) but the methods they use are not always clear. What can we say about the quality of the education we are delivering here in Seguin? Is there data that can help us?

There is.

I understand there is a lot of confusion and hostility around the STAAR tests. For those who may not know, STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) are standardized tests given, usually in the spring, to each student enrolled in a Texas public school beginning in the 3rd grade. The
5th and 8th grade STAAR are critical, because passing those is required for promotion to the next grade. In addition, there are STAAR End-of-Course Exams for high school students, passage of 5 of which are required for graduation. Standardized tests are controversial. They are not the end-all, be-all in measuring how well a student is learning. They are, however, a way to compare student progress against other students and district performance against other districts.

With that background, how do we measure up? In a word: poorly. Our overall passing rate for the 2015 5th grade reading STAAR was 74%. Our economically disadvantaged students (those receiving free lunch) achieved just a 70% passing rate. Seguin ISD’s 8th grade students fared even worse, with a 66% overall passing rate and a 57% rate for economically disadvantaged students (1).

It’s important to keep in mind what this test measures. It is a test of reading comprehension and it measures “readiness”. In other words, is a student showing basic proficiency that allows promotion to the next grade? ALL students should be passing this test if they have been taught effectively.
When talking with people in the community about this, a question I am often asked is “Isn’t this because we have a lot of disadvantaged kids?” It is true that a district with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students faces challenges not faced by districts in more affluent areas. However, it is also true that many districts are highly successful in overcoming these challenges.
In that context, let’s take a look at Sharyland ISD. Sharyland ISD is a district with an enrollment of about 10,000 down along the border with Mexico, near McAllen. It’s students are 92% Hispanic and 59% economically disadvantaged (2).  That compares with about 7,400 students in Seguin, of which 68% are Hispanic and 69% economically disadvantaged (3). Looking at Sharyland’s STAAR test results is revealing. Overall, 87% of their 5th graders and 87% of their 8th graders passed the test. If we look at the pass rates for economically disadvantaged students in Sharyland, we see that 82% of 5th graders and 83% of 8th graders passed (4). The results are well above what Seguin ISD achieves and well above what we see statewide. Indeed, Sharyland achieves very close to what is expected for a proficiency test: pass rates approaching 100% even among its most at-risk students.

Seguin ISD is struggling to educate its students. It is a pattern that is evident from the earliest grades and persists through all grade levels. These struggles are reflected in our school ratings. The ratings reflect perception, that is true. But they also reflect reality. Parents wanting a quality education for their
children are facing that reality and some are going elsewhere if they can. Those who cannot move stay, and their children are failing in alarming numbers.

We owe it to our young people and to our community to give the next generation an opportunity to improve their lives. A quality education is the foundation of that opportunity.

I have heard it said that it is difficult to educate “those children”.  “Those children” are our children.  As a community, have a responsibility to them.  Their future is our future.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Demographics Are Reality

As Seguin ISD begins construction of its desperately-needed new high school, it also closes the doors of a former high school.  Joe F. Saegert Sixth Grade Center saw its last day of instruction in June of this year.  The former high school for Seguin ISD will not reopen this fall and its students will instead be incorporated into our two middle schools.  Capacity will not be a problem, as there is plenty of room for them at the middle schools.  The district currently operates 7 elementary schools, Enrollment there has been slowly declining after peaking in 2008 and there is currently excess elementary school capacity as well.  In fact, the students could be accommodated in 6 elementary schools, per information shared with the 2013 Bond Advisory Committee.  The enrollment numbers come from a demographic study commissioned by the district late last year, as it considered the fate of Saegert (1).  The study showed that total district enrollment has been slowly declining for the last 7 years and this will continue for at least the next two years.

Surrounding districts, on the other hand, are seeing enrollment rising rapidly.  Navarro ISD, Comal ISD, and New Braunfels ISD are all growing rapidly, putting a strain on their facilities and necessitating the construction of new facilities.  Navarro recently halted the acceptance of out-of-district students in an attempt to manage its growth (2).  We also read constantly of the explosive economic growth in our region.  Unemployment is below 3%.  Job creation is high.  New industries are expanding into our area, fueling a construction boom.

How can we reconcile all this growth with Seguin ISD’s declining enrollment?  The district’s demographic study provides some insight.  From 2000 and 2010, the total population residing within SISD increased 8.2%.  From 2010-2014, it increased another 10.3%.  However, at the same time, its population of school-age children declined.  There was a 7.1% drop from 2000-2010 and another 3.2% drop from 2010-2014.

Yes, people are moving into this area and yes, the region is growing.  But who, exactly is coming?  They are people without children-either young people just starting out, or older people whose children have left home.  Clearly young families are choosing to live elsewhere.  Some here will cite the lack of amenities as a cause-few parks and outdoor spaces, lack of dining and retail options.  But I believe those amenities tend to follow people, not anticipate them.

I suggest that it is the quality of our public school system that is at the root of these trends.  Any search of the many school rating sites on the internet will find Seguin ranked at or near the bottom.  While one may quibble with the methodology of these sites, the results are remarkably consistent and match well with the ratings published by the Texas Comptroller (3).  When a family with young children is choosing a place to live, school quality is going to be at or near the top of the list of considerations.  A community with poorly rated schools will simply not be considered.

The district’s demographic study indirectly supports this.  If our district’s flat enrollment is due to parental choice, then it stands to reason that those with more mobility will opt to go elsewhere, while those with fewer resources are left behind.  Over the last decade, the percentage of SISD students of low socioeconomic status has increased 17%, from 58% of students, to 69%.

A quality education for every child in Seguin ISD is a moral imperative.  It is also an economic imperative if our citizens and businesses are to share in the benefits of the economic growth being enjoyed by other communities.  Failing to improve our schools places us at risk of becoming a community where people live when they cannot afford to live anywhere else.

Community and political leaders from all parts of Seguin must come together and speak with one voice in support of our young people.  Only a commitment to improvement shared throughout our community can bring about the change we seek.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

94

Ninety-four.  94.  I have been thinking about that number a lot since the Seguin High School Class of 2015 celebrated its graduation on June 6th.  The SHS Class of 2015 graduated 445 students.  Based on the most recent numbers, about 36% of our graduates will enroll in a 4-year college or university in Texas.  For the Class of 2015, that is about 161 students.  The state rate of enrollment for graduates is 57%.  If Seguin enrolled its students in college at just the state rate, 255 of these young people would be on their way to college.  255 instead of 161.  That means 94 students from Seguin’s graduating class are not going to college because our enrollment numbers are below the state average (1).

Why is that a big deal?  Because in the 21st Century, education is everything.  Estimates are that 65% of the new jobs in our economy will require higher education or training.(2)  People without that education face a lifetime of economic insecurity.  They are more likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty.(3)   A college education, on the other hand, provides about $800,000 more in lifetime earnings and protection from unemployment. (4)

As I sat at graduation and looked out at the faces of the 445 new graduates, I wondered about those 94 people-the 94 who have the potential to earn a college degree but won’t.  Are they disappointed?  Do they even know what they are missing?

I also wondered how they slipped through the cracks.  Why did we not help them achieve their full potential?  Are they prepared for college but didn’t know what to do?  If their parents didn’t go to college, they may require extra help to understand the college application process and how to get needed help paying for college.

Or, are they unprepared?  Were they not encouraged to take college-preparatory classes?  Less than half of Seguin’s students graduate ready for college according to Texas Education Agency reports (1).  Certainly far more than half are able to do college-level work.  How does this happen?

The truth is that it’s probably both:  we aren’t preparing enough students to enter college and we also aren’t helping them make college happen.  That’s a shame.  It’s a shame for them because we have dramatically limited their futures.  It’s a shame for us because we have employers here who have difficulty finding skilled workers locally.

There is not an easy solution to this problem.  I would suggest that we need more counselors at the high school.  Currently, there is one counselor for about 450 students.  With that kind of workload, we can’t expect our counselors to provide the kind of support our students need for college entry.  College-bound students need to be identified early on and provided with the support throughout high school that they will need to make the transition to college.  We also need to raise the rigor of our instruction.  Our students’ performance on the SAT and ACT tests lags well behind state and national averages (1).  We have to expect more of and teach more to our students if they are to be ready for college and career.

94.  94 students this year.  94 students every year.  That’s a lot of dreams.  Educating our young people is our responsibility as a community.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens