by Melissa Brunner
I promised I'd keep you up to date on the activities of our Leadership Greater Topeka class, so I wanted to tell you about Friday's session. The focus was on education. We spent the morning at Washburn University, before enjoying a presentation and school lunch at Highland Park High School.
Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker was among our speakers. She referred to this as the "best of times and worst of times for Kansas schools. On the bright side, student achievement continues to increase, evidenced by ten years of making adequate yearly progress on assessment tests. On the down side is money. Base state aide per pupil is set to fall next year to the leve it was in 1992. That said, she said she also understand that, in tight budget times, it's not unexpected that state lawmakers would look to the area that takes up 52 percent of the state general fund.
Of particular concern to DeBacker is the level of poverty seen among school children. Kansas has approximately 475,000 K-12 students. 92,000 of them eat breakfast at school. In addition, she said there is a 20 percent learning gap betwen students eligible for free lunch and those not eligible. Food for thought.
Our visit to Highland Park High School also was enlightening. We heard how the school is implementing a three year, $6 million transformation grant. They are making an effort to use the money for the equipment-type expenditures that will get the programs off the ground. In that way, new programs and offerings will be able to continue after the grant period ends. They've started computer drafting classes and partnered for a CNA program. Truancy is way down. They also have more than 60 students taking Advanced Placement classes this year. Last year, they had zero - the school didn't offer any AP courses, so students wanting to take them had to attend school elsewhere.
We heard from three superintendents in all that day and all agreed there are no easy answers for the K-12 system. They agreed thinking outside the box will be what it takes to increase student achievement, reaching those who have fallen through the cracks in the past. But they also caution this - money does make a difference and even cost savings may take an initial investment to implement. It's a discussion I'm sure we'll hear a lot more about in the months and years ahead.