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Fed Ed grant reforms: Safe and Supportive Schools

MDS3 survey
MDS3 survey

Maryland middle and high schoolers are taking online surveys in April and May. The MSDE has adopted a policy of “passive parental consent” in order to administer this survey to students, which parents have no access to view.

Race To The Top (RTTT), the federal education grant program that has been made famous by Common Core (CCSS), is a $4.35 billion fund out of a $93.6 billion education fund earmarked through the 2009 Stimulus bill (ARRA). The RTTT fund is the mother of numerous recent federal education reforms of which Common Core was just the first that caught parents’ attention.

But RTTT is only a small fed ed fund, representing less than 5% of the total education funding allotted in the Stimulus package. And the ARRA education fund is but one of many that have been legislatively authorized by Congress through acts such as NCLB. To see the havoc created by CCSS and realize that is just the tip of the fed ed iceberg is a bit terrifying.

Another lesser known reform is known as S3, or MDS3 in Maryland, which stands for Safe and Supportive Schools. The MSDE description of the program is here. The USDE website states, “The grant program is managed by the Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which supports efforts to create safe schools, ensure the health and well being of students, teach students good citizenship and character, respond to crisis, and prevent drug and alcohol abuse. “ Wow - the USDE plans to be an agency of law enforcement, health and mental care services, civic and moral development, 911, and rehab all rolled into one over-reaching conglomerate. And of course, teach kids how to read and do math too, right?

The parent initiative of the S3 is the Center on PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports). PBIS, in turn, was born of the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

When Maryland applied for the grant in 2010, the MSDE was awarded over $3 million. The first year of implementation in Maryland was 2011.

A web-based survey system was created by Johns Hopkins University for administering the program’s surveys in Maryland. When needs are identified, interventions are employed and aided by specialists from Sheppard Pratt Health System at the school.

The MDS3 survey is comprised of questions in the areas of Safety (physical safety, bullying, substance use, social-emotional wellbeing); Engagement (connectedness, academic emphasis, parent involvement, culture of inclusion); and Environment (order & discipline, physical environment, support services). Each stakeholder group participating in the survey (students, parents, and teachers) takes a different version of the survey.

Parents can take the survey online from any computer by logging in to the website using a school level passcode. Participating Maryland middle and high schools typically have a link to the survey from the school’s Edline site or other similar school site. Students can only take the survey in the school computer lab during school hours, typically through their English class, so parents have no access to the student version. The program administrator at my school, who is a vice principal, told me the kids sign in using a school level passcode, so it is not personally identifiable.

As I asked questions of various school system officials, it was stressed that the survey was “voluntary and has no relationship to grading”. This is an important distinction, the “voluntary” aspect, because a federal law called PPRA (Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment) sets protections on student data and parental rights for any USDE-funded surveys in which students are “required to participate”. Because the survey is voluntary, the PPRA offers no protections over the S3.

The MSDE is able to make the survey voluntary because only 40% student participation is required in order to renew the grant annually.

A copy of the student survey can be viewed here. As students take the survey, when certain questions are answered a certain way, the survey adapts and adds additional questions related to the trigger question.

Baltimore County is one of 12 participating counties in the state. BCPS has 22 high schools participating, of which 13 are part of the intervention group and 9 are in the comparison group. A detailed description of the BCPS program can be read here on pages 297-307. A list of currently participating Maryland public and non-public schools can be found here. When I called the Baltimore County Board of Education to find out if my school was participating, I was told I would have to submit a PIA (Public Information Act) request and was directed to the county General Counsel. Actions such as this by our school officials raise serious red flags for me and only serve to motivate my intensity of investigation.

The MSDE has approved and adopted a policy of “passive parental consent” in order to administer the survey. According to my school vice principal, this means that if a parent takes no action (or a student fails to bring the letter home), consent is assumed. When a classroom is selected by a participating school to take the survey, a notification letter is sent home with the students. See letter here. At the bottom is an opt out form. If the school receives the opt out form or if the student states they do not wish to take the survey, the student is excused.

To get involved in education oversight in Baltimore County, go to the BCCEO website here.

The BCCEO is holding presentation events on Common Core and education reform in MD around the county. For a schedule and information, see the website.

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