Guest Column: Many oppose outsourcing at Roosevelt, Page Park schools

March 7, 2012

Editor’s note: The Rock River Times (TRRT) has received a number of e-mails opposing Rockford Public School District 205’s proposed changes to the alternative education programs at Roosevelt Alternative High School and Page Park School.

The district is considering outsourcing teaching staff at both schools and hiring the for-profit corporation Educational Services of America, based in Nashville, Tenn., for its Ombudsman Educational Services program. The Ombudsman program would be a partially computer-based online teaching platform.

The following e-mails were also sent to Rockford Board of Education members, District 205 administrators, other media outlets and elected officials. They are included here in the order in which they were received by TRRT.

Roberta Edwards, executive coordinator to the superintendent and the board of education, said March 6 that a vote on the Ombudsman program was not likely until either the April 10 or April 24 Rockford Board of Education meeting.

The program will also be discussed at the Education Committee meeting at 5 p.m., Monday, April 2.

Following is a form letter TRRT received in separate e-mails — each with slight variations that may not be reflected below — from Donovan Bray, Cathy Noga, Kevin Nachtmurney, Andrea Holm and Emma Veitch.

Dear Board members, committee members, and any other interested, involved, and concerned parties,

I am sending you this e-mail in order to show my support for Rockford Public Schools’ current alternative education models, especially Roosevelt and Page Park. Some of you are charged with making final decisions regarding these programs and their potential replacement by a company called Ombudsman. This company’s primary goal and responsibility is making money for its owners, not the education of Rockford’s youth. I implore you to hear and read the concerns of the students, their parents, their teachers, and others in the community who have firsthand experience with at-risk students and the process of their education. These people — not computers — are the greatest resource you have available to you. Please, consider their input with the weight and gravity they deserve; please consider the points below and read the links included. Please do not sell the education of Rockford’s youth short in order to save money, as at-risk students deserve an education equal to that of traditional students, even if it takes a bit longer or requires a more flexible and fluid approach.

Roosevelt recently won their third consecutive Truth Talk debate, and two current Roosevelt students won Regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and honorable mentions at the Rock Valley High School Art Show. Roosevelt art students have placed regionally or nationally in Scholastic for the past three years. A Roosevelt student won the Poetry Out Loud competition last year — she went on to study at NIU. Roosevelt has graduated future Marines, college students, Army officers, and countless productive citizens for our community.

Ombudsman’s reputation is for serving students with behavior concerns. Not all at-risk students fit this category, and treating them as such would be a disservice to those who do not fit the description. No two students are alike — and if you’ve ever spent any time in a classroom as an adult, you would understand that.

Does outsourcing to another state make sense for Rockford? Our community will be investing in a private corporation in another state — thusly taking money away from our region. Let’s reinvest in our students and in Rockford. Roosevelt serves teen parents by offering a DCFS-licensed daycare; will Ombudsman provide these students the same opportunity for the same amount of time?

Placing students in front of computers for three or more hours at a stretch, with a computer proscribing assignments and a teacher only, in the words of Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Willis, “supporting, but not teaching,” sends them the message that all they have to rely on in their education is an inanimate object and a cheerleader.

The ISBE’s Interactive Report Card indicates that RPS spent $6,586 per student on instruction in 2011. It has also been indicated that in order for Roosevelt to compete with the Ombudsman proposal, instructing students would have to total less than $3,050 per seat. This is less than half given to all other students who do not attend an alternative school. Would the parents or board consider inflicting this level of inequity on programs serving gifted students? Why is it that the students in need of the most support are being given less?

Illinois districts that Ombudsman serves do not have demographics similar to Rockford, despite what Mr. [Matthew] Vosberg [assistant superintendent for schools] claims; this becomes obvious if one checks the state’s interactive school report cards: see www.iirce.niu.edu to compare RPS205 to Naperville, Lyons, Waukegan, etc.

Assistant Superintendent Matt Vosberg has been touting his experiences in South Beloit as a reason to outsource Rockford’s alternative education to Ombudsman. He boasts an 80 percent graduation rate; he doesn’t advertise that he only purchased five seats. Roosevelt alone currently serves 100 times that many students, and it must be asked if Vosberg’s sample size is representative, or is he simply extrapolating data in a convenient, even if misleading, manner?

Rockford is considering offering the Ombudsman program at ALL of its four traditional high schools and Lincoln and West middle schools; this is not just about Roosevelt and Page Park

If the district and Board of Education were to choose Ombudsman as a viable learning path, this means that they’ve chosen an inferior education for students in alternative learning environments across the district. Is that equitable? Would you put your child in this program?

According to the National Educational Policy Center, “Over just the past decade, online learning at the K-12 level has grown from a novelty to a movement. Yet, little or no research is available on the outcomes of such full-time virtual schooling.”

Numbers to Know: or How Rockford is Unique

8 percent of Ombudsman-served districts have free or reduced lunch (FRL) rates greater than 75 percent; Rockford has a FRL in the upper 70s

70 percent of Ombudsman-served districts have FRL rates less than 50 percent

75 percent of the Illinois districts have FRL less than 20 percent

4 percent of Ombudsman-served districts have 28,000 students or more; Rockford is around 28,500

80 percent of Ombudsman-served districts are 10,000 students or fewer

62 percent of Ombudsman-served districts have 5,000 or fewer students

Links for further reading:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/online-k-12-schooling

http://prospect.org/article/f-fizzle-faltering-school-privatization-movement

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-06-17/health/ct-met-ombudsman-0616-20100617_1_ombudsman-educational-services-school-districts-state-board-spokeswoman

http://onlineathens.com/stories/021110/new_561335318.shtml

http://www.iirce.niu.edu/

www.iirce.niu.edu

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Leslie Arbetman.

Hello,

I live in Rockford. I work in Rockford. What the district is trying to do with alternative programming at Roosevelt and Page Park (and other schools who would have an Ombudsman component part of the program) is educationally inferior to what students in a traditional program would receive. Is this equitable for ALL students? Choosing this program is a gross misuse of funds; it is NOT the direction our community needs to go in, and goes against what best practices in alternative education truly are.

If you need any further information about what Ombudsman is (or isn’t), please feel free to contact me.

Thank you for your time.

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Leslie Hazelbauer-Wetter.

Good evening! My name is Leslie Hazelbauer-Wetter and I am a parent at Roosevelt High School. I would like to start by saying I was very upset when I first heard about the changes the Rockford School District was planning on implementing at Roosevelt. I thought there is no way the school board would think this was a good idea, but the more I heard, the more I realized it was true.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and my children. Two of my three have attended Roosevelt. My daughter is a 2009 graduate, and my youngest son is on target to graduate on time this May. Both would not have graduated without Roosevelt.

My daughter gradated in the top 12 of her class with a 3.98 GPA. At Auburn, she was a girl with problems and invisible to everyone. I was lied to and given the runaround by the entire staff there. Roosevelt was the best thing for her. The teachers made her feel worthy and gave her the support to be successful. She wanted to do her best because she knew people cared about her and what she accomplished.

My youngest son, Shawn Crabtree, is a senior at Roosevelt. Last year, he would change the subject about college and if he would attend one after high school. He is currently in the running for a full scholarship to college and talks about going. He is also a National Scholastic Art winner and a Rock Valley Juried Art winner for his graphic art pieces.

I am so grateful for the teachers and staff at Roosevelt for all they have done for him. I hear nothing but how good he is doing and how far he has come since he started there. They also push him to do better because they know he can do it. They are also there for him and the other students.

I do not believe my children would be as successful as they are if it was not for the staff. As a parent, I do not see anything postive about sitting my children in front of a computer and thinking they are going to learning. Also, how is this preparing them for their future? Children need to interact with teachers who are not only able to teach them, but support and mold them to become productive adults. A computer can not do that. Roosevelt is a positive and supportive environment. PLEASE keep it that way!!!!!

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please keep Roosevelt the way it is.

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Anita Ellis.

I am writing to you because I am worried about special education students and the direction the district is considering with Ombudsman. I absolutely agree that we should consider this for the 500 students who are slipping through the cracks and not graduating, but not at the expense of the students currently enrolled in Page Park and Roosevelt. Students with learning disabilities cannot just be propped in front of a computer. Also, students with behavioral needs will not be addressed with just using a computer.

In my teaching this year, two students with learning disabilities transferred from my classes to Roosevelt. I think Roosevelt will be perfect for them. Is there any way you would consider trying a computer for core classes pilot program for next year without dropping Roosevelt and Page Park? We need a full continuum of programs and services for our students. Thank you for reading this and for your consideration.

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Alyxandria Libert.

Dear members of the Rockford School District No. 205,

My name is Alyxandria Libert, and I have been going to Rockford public schools since I started second grade. It was different coming from Arizona, where they taught grades K-12.

My struggle with school started in sixth grade. I just didn’t seem to care about my education. It seemed that no one else cared about it, either. So why should I?

When I started my freshman year at Guilford, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and when my mom enrolled me in Auburn, I fell into the same patterns. I dropped out of high school my junior year. By that time, a lot of my friends had enrolled at Roosevelt and kept telling me about how they treated you like an adult and with respect, and how the teachers actually knew what they were talking about, not to mention the many programs they had for students who didn’t have a babysitter, or no income, or support.

I was scared to go back to school, I can’t lie. But I knew if I wanted to make anything good of myself that I had to suck it up and go back to school. So, I decided to check out one of the orientations, and I liked how it sounded — the open campus, nice teachers and a genuine education beyond what is required by the school board. But it wasn’t until I actually began attending that I got to see firsthand what everyone was talking about, and I automatically knew that Roosevelt was the place for me. They let me work at my own pace and even gave me a flexible schedule. I found out that the staff-student relationships at Roosevelt were more like a family, the way they worked with each other, and opened up to one another.

I can’t imagine a better place to have learned the things I have learned at Roosevelt. I know that if I needed support or advice or just a great friend that I could rely on the Roosevelt teachers and staff.

Think about what’s better for the students that need to be at places like Roosevelt, the ones who might be dropouts. I hope you will let them have the chance to experience what I’ve experienced at Roosevelt. Thank you for your time.

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Steve Schultz.

Dear Friends:

I have been afforded the honor of serving students with special education needs in the Rockford district for 10 years. Four of those years have been at Roosevelt Alternative High School, and I am writing to support and defend the good works done there.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, 23 students with IEPs graduated from Roosevelt. Considering there are only two special education teachers, this is quite a feat. I believe that you would be hard pressed to find any area school that can say that a special education case manager graduate 10 or more students. The year I worked at Auburn, I had no more than two students graduate from my caseload. From my recollection, my colleagues had similar results.

I ask that you defend Roosevelt to stay open, without using a computer-based program from a private company from Tennessee. Please read the Rockford Register Star March 4, 2012, guest column by Cathy Noga and Kyle Wolfe linked below my signature. I am very confident that the data provided is accurate. If things need to be changed, the highly skilled faculty at Roosevelt should be given the opportunity to turn things around.

I was reassured by Mr. Vosberg that I will have a job in the district, and I am not concerned about teaching elsewhere. My concern is about the future of our students. Thank you in advance for your support and cooperation.

Sincerely,

Steve Schutz

Roosevelt Alternative High School

Special Education Teacher

http://www.rrstar.com/opinions/whatyouresaying/x1644229815/Guest-Column-Tennessee-is-not-the-answer-for-revamping-schools-alternative-education

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Jane Hayes.

Dear Citizens of Rockford,

American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?” — Diane Ravitch

We will stand for that which we know best as educators when we reject the absurdity of outsourcing Roosevelt and Page Park.

Jane Hayes, WEE, Watchdogs for Ethics in Education and Roosevelt staff member

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Sabrina Crook.

Dear Board members, Committee Members, and any other interested, involved, and concerned parties,

My name is Sabrina Crook and I am a proud Page Park staff member. We are an incredible staff at Page Park who love our students. I just heard this week from a couple of administrators that downtown administration is planning on splitting up our classrooms back into the regular education buildings. This is not a good choice for our students, as their needs are great and they need the resources that the Page Park building offers. Please defend Page Park and Roosevelt alternative education programs.

Some of you are charged with making final decisions regarding these programs, and their potential replacement by a company called Ombudsman. Their primary goal is to make money to their private owners, not the education of Rockford’s youth. Please consider our community’s input in this final decision. I believe that Page Park and Roosevelt are innovative programs that students are striving in. Although Page Park has had some adjustments this year, we have had many successful students come out of our program. I believe under the care of Scott Ramsby that Page Park will continue to be a successful program.

Thank you.

Editor’s note: The following e-mail is from Matt Green.

Members of the Board of Education, Education Committee, and other Invested Parties,

Father of transcendentalism, lecturer, author and Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The secret in education lies in respecting the student.” I am writing to you to express deep concern over the proposed adoption of the Ombudsman program at Roosevelt. It does not offer the same educational quality afforded to other students in the district.

The most problematic elements of the program, from my perspective, are that A.) instruction is delivered by computer, B.) the instructor in the classroom is not certified in all subjects taught, and C.) the quality of instructor will be inferior to what currently exists.

For example, I am certified and highly-qualified to teach English and hold a master’s degree in secondary English education (University of Minnesota), but I’d be supporting the instruction of math, science and social studies as well, even though I’m not qualified to do so. I would feel uncomfortable teaching math, as I am sure a math teacher would be evaluating complex essays.

I have eight years of experience evaluating and teaching student writing at the secondary level. It is what I am trained for and NCLB requires me to be highly-qualified to teach English in order to provide effective instruction to my students.

In Mr. Vosberg’s editorial, he points out: “Teachers in alternative education have the toughest of tough jobs. They work hard. They want the best for the kids — kids who turn up at their door because we failed to intervene earlier.” Our job is too important to be entrusted to underqualified educators.

To frame it in a different light, hiring Ombudsman would be like a hospital asking a doctor who just completed residency to perform the most complex operation. Or a law firm giving its most important case to someone who had just passed the BAR. Or a banker entrusting the most valuable account to the most junior teller. The idea is ludicrous and illogical in these contexts, as it is when it is proposed for our most challenging students. The education of these students is incredibly important and something we take incredibly seriously.

Like gifted and CAPA students, at-risk students are a special population. If Ombudsman is truly better than teacher-delivered instruction (we have been told that if the current program were equivalent in cost, that Ombudsman would still be recommended), it should be implemented district-wide to be equitable, including in the gifted and CAPA programs, which are in and of themselves, alternative education. My own wife was in CAPA.

I know that I would much rather have a licensed, highly-qualified instructor teaching my kids than a computer. Having previously taught AP Language and Composition and every level of high school English, I also know that you could not possibly teach that course or any other robust and engaging English course, for that matter, with a computer. I wonder how parents of gifted students would feel if AP English was taught by a computer with a math teacher in the room for support? I imagine they wouldn’t feel it was a world-class education. If you would not tolerate or accept such inferior instruction for your own children, I feel there is no way this program can be approved, implemented, or forcibly imposed on any other parent’s child with a clear conscience or any sense of equality.

I think the greatest insult felt by the staff at Roosevelt is that we were not consulted or allowed to formulate an alternative to Ombudsman. We found out about the proposal on Feb. 15, eight days before its presentation at Education Committee and less than two weeks before the next full board meeting. It goes against the transparency, trust, and student-focused collaboration that Alignment Rockford has outlined in its four key Leadership Values:

1. We work with a spirit of unity — We agree to offer one voice on topics related to the alignment effort and to resolve conflicting agendas in private.

2. Our relationships are based on trust — We understand that predictability, clear communication and mutual support precede success in every challenging community endeavor.

3. Our focus is on our children’s needs — We seek collaborative, student-focused solutions to barriers which impair academic achievement.

4. We promote life-long learning — We know that raising educational aspirations and attainment will result in greater economic prosperity for all in our community.

(http://rockrivertimes.com/2010/03/24/public-private-organizations-gather-to-sign-alignment-rockford-memorandum-of-understanding/ )

Being told that we would be discarded without consultation and without opportunity to develop ways to increase the efficiency of the program seems contrary to common sense or the guidelines by which Alignment Rockford governs itself. If we had had since October to formulate our proposals or even suggest improvements to the alternative high school, we would have, and would have done so effectively. I have only seen two board members at Roosevelt this entire year, and the administration and Education Committee have been just as scarce. You are proposing a complete replacement of an entire program without seeing exactly what you are replacing. We want to work with administration to make our program better. It does not need replacing or outsourcing.

Furthermore, the Ombudsman program has not even been piloted in the Rockford Public Schools yet. Not enough evidence exists that it will effectively teach our diverse population. A drug must undergo many trials to be approved by the FDA, so why jump in with both feet if we don’t know if it will even work here, disassembling an already effective program that has been in place for 20 years?

We are experts at teaching and engaging the at-risk students in this community at Roosevelt. Engagement is a best-practice in English education and one that was a focus of my studies at the University of Minnesota. It basically means that people will become better readers and learners if they are interested in what they are reading. Common sense. We teach reluctant readers and learners at Roosevelt.

I had the privilege of serving on the district’s English textbook adoption committee this year. The committee unanimously selected a fantastic textbook for next year. I selected the textbook because of its literature, alignment to the standards, usability with technology, differentiation, and wider variety of texts to choose from. I was excited to share this with the rest of the Roosevelt faculty since we were also informed that it was the board’s policy that every student have a textbook. Very fair and very equal. As part of the proposal with the textbook manufacturer, we were also promised 1,000 new and replacement novels for the English Department at Roosevelt. One of the great assets to Roosevelt’s program is diversity, options and individual differentiation of instruction for each student. The English Department hand-picked a comprehensive, engaging, multiculturally-diverse collection of literature that would make our program even better next year and provide many options that engage even the most challenged reader. We were proud of the hundreds of titles and excited to be getting so many new novels. We even consulted some of our most voracious student readers to make sure we were picking relevant and engaging literature.

The day I submitted the list to administration, I was told that a stop had been ordered on all textbooks and novels for Roosevelt, meaning that they would not be submitted as part of the order, if approved. What I cannot understand is that even if Ombudsman is adopted, which it should not be, why are students being deprived of the textbooks that the board mandates they have, why are they being deprived of a greater variety of literature than they currently have, and why are they being deprived of 1,000 pieces of carefully selected literature? How does that foster learning? I just cannot understand the rationale or equity in that.

I was moved by Mr. Rollins’s words at the school board meeting. Nobody believes that the job of the school board is an easy one. I would not want your jobs, and I respect you all for caring about this community and taking on such a thankless task. I implore you, though, to remember that you are dealing with human lives here. Just because you have difficult decisions to make, doesn’t mean that you have to make hasty, regressive, reactive, or frankly, wrong ones.

I have confidence that the members of the board will ultimately come to the right decision. We feel passionately about our successes and the entire program at Roosevelt, which cannot be rebuilt if and when the Ombudsman program fails. We just ask for the opportunity to make an already great program a beacon and model for other school districts to emulate. Let’s have other districts want to model our alternative schools. We feel we can make that happen with the proper time and resources.

As one final thought (thank you for bearing with me), I implore you to read this article by world-renowned educational researcher, educational historian, and NYU professor Diane Ravitch: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-why-finlands-schools-are-great-by-doing-what-we-dont/2011/10/12/gIQAmTyLgL_blog.html). It is about Finland, whose schools are consistently top performers on the world stage. While current educational policies and trends may make this system seemingly impossible, it is always desired to strive to be the best and learn from the best. Roosevelt already uses some of these ideas in its current program.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Matt Green

Department of English

Roosevelt Alternative High School

From the March 7-13, 2012, issue

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