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It is no secret that districts are struggling in the current economic climate. They are looking to cut costs every way they can.

One area worth exploring in cost-cutting debates is energy. With energy costs rising—to say nothing of the environmental impact it is becoming more and more clear that our current sources of energy can have—districts need to take a closer look at how they are using energy.

Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish Public Schools did. And as a result, this growing district, which currently has 72 facilities and serves about 36,000 students, has saved about six million dollars in utility costs over the past four and a half years. They’ve put that money back into schools, providing resources to help the district maintain its reputation as one of the best in the state. And they’ve received national and state recognition for their work.

How did they do it? A comprehensive energy management program. And when we say comprehensive, we mean COMPREHENSIVE. The program includes everything from customized reports for principals on their school’s energy performance (generated by the district’s two energy management tracking systems) to an energy awareness curriculum correlated to the state’s grade-level expectations. Automated lighting and temperature controls to daily reminders of energy saving behaviors in the form of posters, stickers and morning announcements. And much, much more.

Of course, in a time of fiscal crisis, districts may not be able to afford the upfront costs of some of the software and automation that St. Tammany now has. But it is important to note that St. Tammany started this program right after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when they were unable to do more than tell principals to turn off the lights and set thermostats to the lowest possible setting in the winter and the highest in the summer. But those behaviors alone saved the district 7% in energy costs.

We recently spoke to the district’s supervisor of administration, John Swang. He told us more about the program and its results. Below are some highlights of our conversation. Or read the full edited transcript.

At the Beginning: Runaway Energy Costs

Public School Insights: Why did St. Tammany Parish decide to start a comprehensive energy management program?

Swang: About four and a half years ago, our energy bills were skyrocketing. At one point, the cost of energy doubled in three years. We were sending a lot of our resources to the utility companies. It was no different than what the rest of the country was experiencing—it was a kind of runaway situation. And still, to a large extent, the cost of energy is increasing and probably will continue to do so.

But at that point the St. Tammany Parish School Board began talking about getting control of ...

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the promise of school-based health centers (SBHCs). We also heard from Linda Gann, an official in Colorado’s Montrose County School District RE-1J who helped spearhead efforts to open two of these centers in her district. She told us about how her district came to embrace SBHCs as part of a broad strategy to address the needs of its growing Hispanic community and her experience planning and implementing these centers. Today Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson tells us more, giving us a look at the day to day work that happens at her clinic.

Public School Insights: Tell me about school-based health clinics.

Danielson: One of the biggest keys to understanding school-based health clinics is that they are all different. There are some similarities, but a district or a school can tailor a clinic to meet its needs.

For example, our clinic works differently from others in that a lot of clinics have an enrollment form that parents sign at the beginning of the year. If their children go to the school nurse at any point, they get funneled back to a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant. Sometimes the clinic calls the parents and sometimes it does not. Kids are essentially pre-consented to get care throughout the school year.

At our clinic, we talk to the parent for every visit. So while we are physically on a school campus, we function in a lot of ways like any small medical clinic or doctor's office. Everything is by appointment, though we do accept some walk-ins if we are available. And a parent is either present or part of the visit over the phone every time we see the kids. Kids never come see me without their parents wanting them to be seen and ...

Lieutenant General Benjamin C. Freakley is the commanding general of the United States Army Accessions Command (USAAC) and oversees recruiting for the U.S. Army's officer, warrant officer and enlisted forces. USAAC has joined forces with the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to support young people and boost graduation rates. (We wrote about this partnership in a blog posting several months ago. NASBE is a member of LFA.)

LTG Freakley recently spoke with us about the promise of greater collaboration between the military and schools.

Education: A National Security Issue

Public School Insights: Why do you think the military is getting involved in K-12 education?

LTG Freakley: I believe that the preparedness of our youth through education, health and conduct is a national security issue. Right now our young people, regardless of the tact they take for postsecondary, are limiting themselves. They are limiting themselves because they are not getting a good foundational education in K-12. They are not as healthy as they should be, with childhood obesity becoming an epidemic. And they get off track in their conduct, limiting what might be brilliant careers because they chose to get involved with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, etc.

It is disheartening to see all of this potential being limited. We believe that we have got to help our youth to achieve success through supporting our educators who, I believe, are undervalued in America—not recognized like they should be or supported like they should be. We ought to be as close to education as we can so we can sustain our all volunteer force and also so we can have an economically ...

Should we turn a blind eye to the excesses of PR campaigns that advance a cause we support? Should we tolerate overstatements and hype, as long as they are in the service of something we believe in? Not if the dubious means undermine the noble ends. I worry that some recent PR campaigns launched by combatants in today's school reform wars may allow the means to swamp the ends.

A recent commentator on school reform took a different view. He praised aggressive campaigns and likened the school reform movements they support to past movements for civil rights.

Movements, whether Martin Luther King's exposure of segregation as morally illegitimate, or Gandhi's exposure of the immorality of 'British Rule," are actually the proper political culmination of good ideas, brought about by the impatience with the slow movement of the chattering class.

I'm not sure the analogy really works. Laws enforcing segregation were wrong, full stop. The moral thing to do was clear: Strike them down. School reform, by contrast, doesn't often present such clear choices. So we should be careful not to draw parallels that lump critics of one school reform or another together with those who opposed the movement to end segregation.

History also reminds us that not all movements are created equal. Some movements that are fueled by true outrage and conviction can run off the rails and pervert their original aims when the need to advance The Cause overpowers all tolerance for nuance or doubt. Such movements can begin with a noble vision, but they often end by merely replacing one ...

I’ve been loosely following the hype over the recent Brookings’ report on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which calls into question the wisdom of taking a neighborhood approach to education reform. I have read the report, what some have said about it, and HCZ President and CEO Geoffrey Canada’s response to it.

Having drunk the Kool-Aid on the importance wraparound services for students, I must say I sympathize with Canada’s position on a number of counts. Why didn’t the Brookings’ investigators consider growth over time in their analysis? And really, calling into question the whole neighborhood approach to education reform based on the performance of one aspect of the HCZ—one charter school—that 1) does not serve the majority of individuals receiving the Zone’s services and 2) was evaluated in a somewhat suspect way (again, what about growth over time?) seems a bit hasty.

But the main concern I have with this report is its call for a schools-only approach to education reform. That approach is so REACTIVE for a vision of reform. It seems to say that kids come to school “broken” so ...

Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of ...

About two weeks ago, we posted a conversation with two leaders from Boston's City Connects (CCNX) program, which is working with 11 schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services in the community." The approach has helped raise grades and test scores for the mostly low income children in these schools.

We recently spoke with people in two CCNX schools. Traci Walker Griffith is principal at the Eliot K-8 School, and Kathleen Carlisle is the CCNX site coordinator at the Mission Hill School. Each has an insider's view of this remarkable program at work.

Public School Insights: How has City Connects worked in your school? What changes have been made since it began?

Traci Walker Griffith: A number of changes have occurred at the Eliot School. I came in as principal in March of 2007. In May of 2007 the school was identified as one that would take on City Connects.

We were fortunate because the mission and vision of the Eliot School aligned with City Connects in that we are serving the whole child--academically, socially, emotionally. So we have worked amazingly well together in identifying students’ academic and social/emotional needs. And as we began the program I found that the structures and systems that it offers—whole class review, individual student review, and providing a school site coordinator to maintain and sustain partnerships—really aligned with what we wanted to start at the Eliot School at the time.

Kathleen Carlisle: I would echo many of the things that Traci just said. The whole child philosophy especially stands out in my mind—that is a City Connects and also a Mission Hill philosophy. And I think that the presence of City Connects in Mission Hill has especially impacted the identification of student needs and ways to meet those needs, be they social/emotional, academic, health or family. I think there has been greater connection between supports and needs, and also consistent follow-up.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense of the results of the City Connects work in your respective schools?

Traci Walker Griffith: When I came on at the Eliot, a school identified as underperforming and in correction, all of the pieces we needed to put in place to increase student achievement were aligned with what City Connects was working on: identifying services and enrichment opportunities for students both inside and outside the school; working with community agencies that in the past had difficulty working ...

Another study of charter schools has dealt a big blow to the most die-hard supporters of the free market in schooling. It seems a charter school's popularity is no guarantee of its success. The invisible hand will not deliver better results.

The Department of Education just released the new study (PDF), which focuses on charters at the middle school level. The study examines schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compares students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. It concludes that, on average, the schools "are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress."

Charters, it seems, helped some students but hurt others. Like other studies before it, this report supports a far more cautious charter strategy than we're hearing from politicians and pundits these days. Here are some of the big lessons I drew from the study:

Even the Most Popular Charters Did Not Outshine Traditional Public Schools
First, let's not forget that this study did not review a representative sample of charter schools. It examined the small share of charters that had many more applicants than they could take. These are the charter schools parents are most likely to choose, so we would expect them to be the high fliers.

And that's a pretty select group. Of the almost 500 charters that had been been around long enough to meet the study's criteria, only 36 made the final cut. Some declined to participate, but the vast majority were not sufficiently oversubscribed to take part in the study. Would the less popular charter schools--or those that ...

An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

A private school in New Jersey is running ads that subtly point to the effects of budget cuts on public schools. People in the public school system are, of course, getting a bit hot under the collar.

I can understand why. Recent budget cuts and ten years of school reform rhetoric have made it all the easier for private schools to portray themselves as the anti-public schools. "Public" is hardly a selling point for many wealthy parents.

The story from New Jersey describes only one school, but it gives us a whiff of something larger. If we're not careful, we'll portray public schools as the schools of desperate measures. I've seen it happen in the communities where I've lived.

Even before the budget cuts, public schools suffered from the perception that they were test prep factories. All the talk of shrinking curricula, endangered recess and constant tests of basic skills has hardly drawn in more wealthy parents.

NCLB boosters and detractors may have been complicit in harming the public school brand. The more alarm bells you sound about schools--or what's being done to them--the less appealing they can become. It can seem like a Catch 22.

The budget cuts may also drag down the brand. News of growing class sizes ...

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