Gates money

$89M Microsoft settlement funds tech for schools as needs loom

With a transition to computer-based testing on the horizon, the state is preparing to hand out millions of dollars so schools with low-income students can buy the technology they’ll need to make the switch.

State Education Commissioner John King announced today that $87 million in unclaimed vouchers from a 2006 class-action settlement with Microsoft Corporation would fund technology spending for 1,878 low-income schools, including more than 1,000 in New York City. The funding will give the schools $67 per student to spend as they wish on approved kinds of technology.

The windfall comes as state education officials are coming to terms with the fact that districts are not prepared to make the change from paper-based tests to online tests. New York is part of a consortium of states that are planning to adopt tests aligned to the new Common Core learning standards that would be administered entirely online by 2015. But many schools in the state do not currently have enough computers, or bandwidth, to be able to administer computer-based tests to all of their students.

“What I hear is alarm over the prospect of having to make that shift,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Many superintendents are already grappling with growing pension payments and new costs associated with implementing teacher evaluation plans, he said. Districts would have foot most of the bill associated with technology upgrades, too.

“In a perfect world this is absolutely the direction we should be moving,” Lowry added, speaking to computer-based testing. “Getting from here to there, giving the current financial prospects, is intimidating.”

As a first step, the State Education Department has asked districts to do an inventory of their computer equipment and network infrastructure — how many servers and wireless access points keep their schools connected. While officials have not disclosed any results, State Sen. John Flanagan said last month at a legislative hearing that many district officials told him they weren’t even able to keep pace with their current technology needs.

“This is an area where SED isn’t listening as well as it should,” said Flanagan, who said King should be asking the legislature for more money to fund technology.

For a second straight year, King is asking for $500,000 to fund a computer-based testing pilot in a small number of schools. The legislature denied last year’s request.

King said he hoped that one solution to the fiscal crunch would be money from the Microsoft settlement, also called the Cy Pres Fund. In addition to supporting the shift to computer-based testing, King said the funding would help narrow a growing technology gap between rich and poor students at a time when more careers rely on advanced computer skills.

“Far too often, students in low-income school districts miss out on the use of the latest technology in the classroom,” King said in a statement. “Our goal is to graduate every student with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college and careers. Technology is an important tool to help students reach that goal.”

“These funds will help level the playing field for thousands of students,” he added.

The voucher program allows schools to spend its money in two ways. Half can be spent on hardware, such as on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, scanners, and fax machines. Hardware can also include routers and servers to boost school bandwidth. The other half can be spent on software for the computers.

The money must be spent by Nov. 1, 2014. Eligible schools can begin applying for the vouchers on Monday.

The funding is money that’s left over from a class action lawsuit with Microsoft brought by consumers from several states that claimed the corporation broke antitrust laws and overcharged for its products. In New York, much of the $225 million settlement  went unclaimed by New Yorkers and, as part of the agreement, half of the unclaimed funds went back to Microsoft. The other half will be spent on school technology.

New York is one of the last states to receive its Microsoft payout for schools. Wisconsin, for instance, received about $75 million for education funding back in 2009.


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.