Sunday, October 25, 2015
How the Bright Futures myth has damaged the Joplin R-8 School District
What began as a desperate attempt by former Superintendent C. J. Huff to tackle low graduation rates ended up swallowing the entire Joplin R-8 School District and morphing into a cult of personality centered around Huff's mantra "for the kids."
The basic concept of Bright Futures, though hardly original, as I will spell out in later posts based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U. S. Department of Education, is a laudable one.
Who could argue with the idea of meeting student basic needs in a 24 to 36-hour time period and bringing the whole community together in the process?
It is not that these needs were not being met. Often, these things were being done privately through teachers and other personnel in the Joplin school system. Certainly, some of those who had slipped through the cracks were helped by Bright Futures.
But at the same time that all of the school district seemed to become subservient to the Bright Futures initiative. the Huff Administration almost totally abandoned the things that would have made certain that his administration was truly for the kids. Consider the following:
-During Huff's last three years, more than half of the teaching staff left the system, some on their own, others with a helping hand from Huff and his former assistant superintendent Angie Besendorfer. More than half of the current faculty is in its first three years in the business. The best model is to have a mixture of veteran and younger teachers, with talented new teachers moving in as veterans retire.
-Compounding the problem is a group of district officials, hand-picked by Huff and Besendorder, who are not qualified for the positions they hold, as the Turner Report has shown in the past, and who latch on to whatever educational fad is making the rounds.
-Under the Huff Administration, everything became about shiny new baubles and the wonderful things that were being done for the children through Bright Futures. Give them laptops, give them iPads, put them in buildings that were designed to win awards rather than educate children.
It was a paradigm shift in the educational process and it has damaged the school district. The most important thing C. J. Huff and the Joplin R-8 Board of Education could have done "for the kids" was to make sure that they had the best teachers possible. Instead Huff allowed the district to drop from being one of the better paying districts in southwest Missouri to being one of the lowest. Year after year, Huff and CFO Paul Barr presented budgets that miraculously had room for all kinds of new, unproven technology and whatever the latest initiative was, but provided little, if any, pay increases for teachers.
At the same time that the teachers were being shortchanged, an entire group of people, allegedly skilled in public relations, marketing, event coordination, and other "essentials" was hired by the Huff Administration.
In an administration that was "for the kids," more money was spent on an events coordinator than some teachers with more than 10 years of experience were making. As the new layers were added in the administration building, clerical help had to be hired to help these people.
And through it all, the essential message was pushed by the Huff Administration that the crown jewel was Bright Futures.
Though not one shred of evidence has been produced to support the idea that Bright Futures improved graduation rates, the publicity machine has cranked out that fiction. Other, more credible, reasons have been provided for the improvement but the spin continues.
As the other school districts that adopted Bright Futures have shown, the concept can work and work extremely well, but in Joplin, fueled by the chaos that followed the May 22, 2011, tornado, Bright Futures began expanding to the point where it became the school system.
It wasn't just finding shoes, coats, or school supplies for children in need, it became Operation College Bound to plant the idea of going to college firmly in the minds of young people and expose them to area colleges and universities.
It became Link Crew and later Fusion, providing guidance to those moving from the middle school to the high school experience.
It became layers of social workers infused throughout the school system and teachers being ordered to find more children for these people to work with so the expense could be justified.
While all of these programs were put in place and moved to the front of the line, simple ideas that could have offered more of value to children in the Joplin R-8 School District were ignored:
Despite considerable research that shows students fare much better when their teachers are in the classroom and that little learning is done with substitute teachers, the Huff Administration continued a culture of pulling teachers out of the classroom, sending them to seminars, meetings, or giving them time to compile the latest nonsensical data, data that never improved the education received by the children one iota.
-Instead of hiring social workers, who were often paid more than the teachers, the district could have saved money and helped the children more by giving them more time with the teachers and counselors. Instead, that concept was sacrificed so district officials could boast how much "professional training" the teachers receive and could dazzle the previous board of education with power point presentations including data that at the same time was unintelligible and unconvincing.
One of the most illogical steps the Huff Administration ever took was creating Operation College Bound at the same time as it was diluting a strong teaching staff that would have done far more to prepare students for the challenges of higher education.
As each new program, nearly all placed under the Bright Futures umbrella, was added to the district, a cult of personality and superiority became firmly entrenched.
Not only were people who dared question any of these programs attacked, but they were "against the children." Critics were called "negative" and anyone who talked about fiscal responsibility or who had problems with Bright Futures footing the bill for rent or utilities found themselves under attack by the most rabid of those following the C. J. Huff cult of personality.
Not only were critics wrong, but they hated children, and lately, they have become tools of the devil. That is not an exaggeration. I have seen that type of comment made about those who are skeptical about the actions being taken by Bright Futures.
On Tuesday night, the Board of Education will hear a proposal to "transition" Bright Futures from the R-8 School District to a not-for-profit foundation. This idea should be firmly rejected if it is as Coordinator Melissa Winston described in the Saturday Joplin Globe.
Bright Futures needs to be scaled back to its original scope, but the last thing we need is a continuation of business as usual for the people who have been running the local organization. The idea that putting it under a not-for-profit would increase its transparency is laughable. In order to save what was good about Bright Futures, the Board of Education needs to cut its ties with Bright Futures USA and drop the name Bright Futures, which despite the protestations of its supporters, has developed a negative connotation in Joplin.
In the five years since Bright Futures was formed, test scores have fallen annually in Joplin. Bright Futures cannot be blamed for that fall, but the excessive amount of attention provided to that organization and its various offspring, as well as to other non-educational priorities, and the neglect of those who are the key to providing the children with a solid education, the teachers, provide ample evidence that while the slogan has been "for the kids," the one thing that the schools have been entrusted to do "for the kids," provide them with an education, has been buried in all of the glitz and glamour.
Bright Futures is in need of an overhaul and that process should begin Tuesday inght.