Back to school highlights: more excitement than usual this year

Back to school highlights: more excitement than usual this year

As nearly half a million Kansas public school students return to class for 2019-20, here are some highlights of a new school year.

Higher goals for students. Nearly 90 percent of students now graduate from high school “on time” in four years. That is the highest rate ever, and graduation requirements are higher than ever before. However, over 70 percent of future jobs are expected to require more than a high school diploma alone. Kansas employers already report shortages of qualified workers in many areas.

To increase the number of students going on to successful complete postsecondary training, schools are working with students and families to develop individual plans of study based on career interests so their high school choices better match what they want to do. Schools are expanding real world work-based learning, from guest speakers and field trips to full internships and student-run businesses. Over 13,600 high school students received college credit last year, compared to just 4,125 in 1996. For the first time last year, the state paid for all students to take the ACT test and Workkeys career skills test at no charge.

The State Board of Education is also rolling out a new school recognition system this year, which will give awards to schools based on high results in student testing, graduation, postsecondary participation and civic engagement, with more categories added in the future.

Kindergarten readiness. The experiences of young children impact not only their success in school but the rest of their lives. There are vast differences among kindergarteners in language, ability to interact with other children and basic personal skills. Those differences can last throughout the child’s school years.

As the state looks for ways to improve services to preschool children and their families, schools are both expanding their preschool programs and trying to partner with and support other childcare providers and families.

Health and safety. School leaders are increasingly worried that the biggest challenges facing many students are not academic but mental and physical health and safety. Youth suicide rates have been climbing, more students are using electronic cigarettes or vaping, concerns about harassment and bullying, especially on-line, are growing, and educators report increasingly serious emotional and behavioral problems affecting not only a particular child but the entire classroom. All this is against the backdrop of mass shootings in schools and other public places.

In response, schools across the state have been adding counselors, mental health staff and school resource officers; and partnering with local health providers and law enforcement. Many districts have also added security features to school buildings. These programs have been supported by increased state funding and grants for mental health programs and safety improvements. In addition, state committees and agencies have been developing recommendations and resources to combat bullying, violence and vaping in schools.

School redesign. Although most students do well in the current system, too many children still struggle, and many more students will need to reach higher levels to be successful after high school. As a result, schools across the state are working on ways to redesign how they operate. These changes focus on both higher academic expectations and more support for social and emotional needs; stronger partnerships with families, business and communities; more personalized learning for students and more real-world experiences.

Some schools are doing this as part of the State Board of Education’s “Moonshot” redesign program, with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo groups; others are working on their own.

Educator pay. From 2009 to 2017, as state funding was cut or lagged behind inflation, teacher salaries fell behind inflation, teacher salaries in other states and pay for other professions. One result is a serious shortage of quality educators in many areas.

Now, after three straight years of increased state funding, most school districts have been able to raise salaries to more competitive levels. Some, however, continue to struggle with declining enrollment that results in reduced funding. Districts are also balancing pay for current employees with adding staff for new programs, as well as salaries for other school jobs that are also in competition with other employers.

Court approved funding. For the first time in five years, the school year opens without a court order for the Legislature to address aspects of school funding. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in June the Legislature had resolved constitutional concerns by adopting a series of funding increases beginning in 2017-18 and continuing through 2022-23. This plan is designed to restore school operating funding to inflation-adjusted 2009 levels. The Court, however, has retained jurisdiction as the phase-in continues over the next four years.

Every school year begins with excitement. This year, there really are exciting new things happening in Kansas public schools.