MPS responds to State BOE Bice's questions about grade changing

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - In a letter to Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama State Board of Education Superintendent, Montgomery Public Schools responded today to five specific questions Bice asked in a letter on August 16th... questions regarding allegations of improper grade changing.

Here is the statement from MPS concerning the responses:

Montgomery Public Schools has responded to State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice's letter dated August 16 requesting responses to questions as part of its ongoing probe into allegations of improper grade changing. We will await his response. Academic integrity is critical to the teaching and learning process and we take this matter very seriously.  We want to assure our parents and the community that we are doing everything possible to work with the State Department and look forward to meeting with Dr. Bice and his staff soon to discuss the steps going forward.

We acknowledge that improper grade changing is a serious issue and a problem within MPS that must be addressed and resolved. We will continue to aggressively pursue anyone who is found to be in violation of state and/or board policies governing grading procedures. We believe we have taken appropriate action and have made every effort to be transparent. We hope this adequately addresses the concerns.

Dr. Bice's response to the MPS letter was, "We have received their response and it iscurrently under review."

Below are the questions from Bice and the responses from MPS:

1.    What plans do you propose to create a culture of high and ethically implemented expectations for the non-magnet schools within the system?

The initial steps in creating a culture that supports high expectations for student achievement and professional and academic integrity include redefining our mission and vision, communicating our goals and expectations (internally and externally), and creating a plan with input from all stakeholders that serves as a guidance document for what we want to achieve going forward.

The district has partnered with Dr. Katherine Jackson and the Auburn University Montgomery Center for Outreach to help us create a comprehensive, five-year strategic plan that will outline a professional and  academic learning community that promotes student achievement, includes measurable goals for addressing achievement gaps, promotes academic integrity, puts protocols in place for consistent program monitoring and continuous improvement, communicates the system's mission and vision at all levels, and includes strategies for parent and community engagement.

Earlier this year, AdvancED, a well-respected, international accrediting body, evaluated MPS for district-wide accreditation. This is the first time MPS has ever pursued district-wide accreditation, and we were pleased to be recommended by AdvancED for accreditation.  The nearly two-year process that resulted in a comprehensive self-study, external review, feedback from stakeholder groups, ( which included students, parents, business, community and religious leaders and elected officials) and a site visit by a 10-member accreditation team, provided valuable information that will be used to create the strategic plan. In May 2013, AdvancEd presented its findings in a report to the school board and the community that revealed inconsistencies in the systematic implementation of current programs and policies, a need for formalized, monitored continuous processes and procedures to analyze and use student data to improve student learning, and identified the need for a long-range, prioritized marketing plan that addresses the needs of the district, distributes accurate information to the community and promotes the district's vision and mission. We plan to implement the suggested recommendations. (See Attachment).

We will also work to communicate a culture of shared vision and academic integrity by:

Creating informational pieces for parents and the community that explains our strategic plan and by making those pieces easily assessable via the Web
Creating posters or other signage on our campuses that are geared toward students and school visitors that includes the basic tenants of the plan
Communicating our progress on the plan to the community at regular intervals during the school year. The community can also track our progress on the plan online.

2.    How do you plan to monitor the grade-changing policies to ensure that they are being correctly implemented throughout the school system and by all employees?

We plan to ensure that our grading policies are correctly implemented by providing ongoing training and by designating the Zone Teams to serve as school-based monitors.

This year, all principals and district administrators were provided a copy of the updated Grade Recovery/Credit Recovery/New Credit Procedures Manual and received training on how to apply the policies and procedures during a leadership retreat on July 29, 2013.

Principals were instructed to train their faculty and staff on the grade recovery, credit recovery and new credit procedures. They received verification forms that required their signature, an agenda, and participant sign-in sheets verifying that school-level training on grade recovery, credit recovery and new credit procedures, and problem solving teams had occurred before August 19, 2013. The training comprised: 

The new Problem Solving Team manual – A Response to Instruction Framework – and all the new district forms that are to be used (See Attachment)
Grade Recovery/Credit Recovery/New Credit options, deadlines, and application procedures (secondary only)
Cover-to-cover training to stress all changes in the 2013-2014 Grading, Promotion, and Retention Procedures handbook – including the new grade change procedures

In addition, all MPS teachers and curriculum staff received a hard copy of the Grade Recovery/Credit Recovery/New Credit Procedures Manual (See Attachment). An electronic copy has also been placed on the MPS intranet and is available on the main website under the Curriculum and Instruction-Secondary Section for parents and the community to download at this LINK.

 We have also provided teacher-level training in the Compass Program, as is documented in STI-PD.

Zone Teams have been in place in our district for two years and serve to communicate the district's academic expectations and enhance academic monitoring in schools.  We partnered with Cathy Gassenheimer, with Alabama Best Practices, who has provided ongoing training for the Zone Team members in making instructional rounds. Agendas of those trainings are attached.

 Five Zone Teams, which are made up of 15-20 central office staff from all academic and support departments, are present in all schools. They provide technical support to principals and teachers through classroom observations, building walk-throughs (which are documented on the Classroom Snapshot Form), professional development, small group meetings, and continuous feedback.

3.    What procedures are in place or do you plan to put in place to allow MPS employees and others to report possible violations without fear of retaliation?

In a good faith effort to make employees feel comfortable about reporting violations, MPS implemented anonymous phone and web-based reporting systems in January 2013. As of the writing of your letter dated on August 16, 2013, no employee has made a complaint using these two systems.   

We will also go a step further by adding a third measure of accountability. We will designate an outside individual with no ties to MPS to serve as an ombudsman. This person would receive reports of infractions and would work to ensure that they are appropriately investigated. We are in discussions with a person of impeccable credentials and character who has expressed a willingness to serve in this capacity.

4.    What disciplinary measures is your board prepared to take against those individuals who fail to uphold state and local policies?

On July 29, 2013, Staff Attorney Vernetta Perkins presented the district's new progressive discipline and documentation process during a training workshop for all MPS leadership (including principals) and central office staff. The process mandates systematic, documented, comprehensive training for principals, teachers, district administrators and curriculum staff on state and local policies and district procedures for not only ensuring academic integrity, but for compliance with all board policies. It also assigns consequences for non-compliance with board policies at various levels. (See Attachment) 

The process gives employees feedback on their behavior, helps them discover and correct the underlying causes of non-compliance and poor performance, and outlines sanctions for violators. The goal is to correct employee problems at an early stage. This process includes but is not limited to the following actions:   

Letter of Counseling/Concern
Written Reprimand
Short Term Suspension
Long Term Suspension

As we move forward, we will aggressively pursue disciplinary action against any individual identified if the investigation proves that the individual is involved in improper grade-changing.   

5.    How do you plan to regularly train MPS employees on appropriate grading regulations and credit recovery and credit advancement options?

We have provided ongoing training regarding credit recovery and credit advancement and will continue to do so.

Ongoing, site-based training will be provided by the District Credit Recovery Coordinator Kristy Hatch  whose role is to oversee multiple credit recovery sites and ensure that core and credit recovery teachers, school counselors, principals, and the school-based program director implement credit recovery, grade recovery and new credit procedures to fidelity. The District Credit Recovery Coordinator will also visit every secondary school to provide training. Those meetings will be documented with sign-in sheets to verify the date the training was offered, what was covered, and the names of the employees who attended the training. Those who miss the training offered at the school will be required to make-up the training.

Principals, leadership and curriculum staff will receive monthly briefings by the board attorney at the Leadership Council meetings on matters pertaining to state and/or district policies on academic integrity.

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