Is Octorara Falling Further Behind in Education Achievement and Growth?


Is Octorara Falling Further Behind in Education Achievement and Growth?

We have been waiting for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to release their School Performance Profile Scores. At the end of September, PDE did release PSSA and Keystone scores. However, they were still working on the SPP scores which take into account more data points, including academic growth, graduation rates, SAT/ACT college readiness, and more. Those of us who are concerned about Octorara;s academic achievement and growth, and follow these numbers, are going to be disappointed but not surprised.

Today’s post shows the building level scores, makes some comparisons with other districts, and gives those data points that I feel are the most disturbing. However, I encourage every parent and taxpayer to review each report on the state website. This article only touches on a few of Octotara’s shortcomings and it is not a complete picture. It is best that you personally evaluate these reports unfiltered, without the political spin and Clintonesque language used by some Administrators and some other members of the Octorara Area School Board.

Octorara’s Building Level Academic Scores

Key takeaways from the Octorara’s Academic Performance reports:

  • Each school FAILED to meet the state minimum score of 70 – Currently, the PLC’s number is not being reported.
  • District-wide, Octorara is FAILING at Math and Reading – The average combined building score for both PSSA and Keystone tests is 45.68 for Math/Algebra and 59.78 for ELA/Literature. Regardless, none of the buildings reached the minimum standard of 70.
  • Octorara starts out well with Science but quickly drops like a rock. – The Elementary School (3rd and 4th Grades) received a score of 80 for Science, but the score drops to 51.16 for Science/Biology at the JSHS.
  • Octorara 3rd Grade Reading is not improving – The 3rd Grade Reading Benchmark is critical for student success, and the District falls short of minimum standards.

Continue reading


Octorara continues trend of high average teacher salaries

Octorara teacher salariesPlease Note: While reading this blog, keep in mind that CNN reported last August that American median incomes are 4.8% lower than they were at the start of the Great Recession in December 2007 and 5.9% below January 2000. (link)

Regular readers know, I have been tracking Octorara’s high labor cost for a good number of years. As a line-item, tracked as an Actual Cost, the “total salaries” (which includes everything from administration to janitorial) have been fairly well controlled in recent years.

Unfortunately, this has been accomplished with a combination of eliminating positions, outsourcing, and replacing retirees with less experienced teachers, rather than actually controlling the wages of professional employees.

According to a report published by the National Education Association, the U.S. average Classroom Teacher salary in 2014-15 is estimated to be $57,379 (p. 76).

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 2014-15 Professional Staff Summary Report indicates the average salary in 2014-15 of a Classroom Teacher in Pennsylvania was $64,542.

This same report shows the average Classroom Teacher in Chester County was $64,544, and in Lancaster County was $63,160.

Octorara’s average Classroom Teacher salary is $67,409.

  • $10,030 higher than the national average.
  • $2,876 higher than the Pennsylvania average.
  • $4,249 higher than the Lancaster County average, and
  • $2,865 higher than the Chester County average.

This year, I am comparing school districts in Chester County, plus the two adjacent Lancaster County school districts. Continue reading

High School Academic Score Comparisons

paschoolperformanceAs promised in October, now with the update of the School Performance Profile website, I will begin making additional comparisons from SPP information, starting with High Schools. I included in this list neighboring Pequea Valley and Solanco High Schools, from Lancaster County.

The first look is a full break down, sorted by highest to lowest scoring. This is then followed by smaller lists that compare High Schools with the highest numbers of Economically Disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and Special Education students.

High School			   Academic Score
Downingtown STEM Academy		101.4
Unionville HS (Unionville-Chadds Ford)	97.9
Great Valley HS				97.6
West Chester Henderson HS		95.7
Downingtown Area HS East		95.5
Conestoga SHS (Tredyffrin/Easttown)	95.5
West Chester Bayard Rustin HS		94.3
Downingtown Area HS West		93.0
West Chester East HS			91.1
Kennett HS				88.9
Owen J. Roberts HS			87.9
Avon Grove HS				83.5
Pequea Valley HS (Lancaster County)	82.7
Phoenixville Area HS			74.4
Oxford Area HS				72.9
Octorara Area JSHS			72.2
Solanco HS (Lancaster County)		71.6
Coatesville Area SHS			65.0

Highest Economically Disadvantaged
This list includes all High Schools with a percentage of Economically Disadvantaged Students greater than 25%.

High School			   Academic Score      Econ Dis
Kennett HS				88.9		29.82%
Pequea Valley HS (Lancaster County)	82.7		30.26%
Oxford Area HS				72.9		36.09%
Octorara Area JSHS			72.2		33.39%
Solanco HS (Lancaster County)		71.6		32.58%
Coatesville Area SHS			65.0		48.98%

Highest English Language Learners
Included here are High Schools that have a percentage of English Language Learners greater than 1%.

High School			   Academic Score    Eng Lrners
West Chester Henderson HS		95.7		1.53%
West Chester East HS			91.1		1.81%
Kennett HS				88.9		9.03%
Avon Grove HS				83.5		2.35%
Phoenixville Area HS			74.4		1.07%
Oxford Area HS				72.9		3.22%
Coatesville Area SHS			65.0		1.78%

Highest Special Education
Below are the High Schools with a percentage of Special Education Students greater than 15%.

High School			   Academic Score      Spec Ed
Conestoga SHS (Tredyffrin/Easttown)	95.5		15.02%
Kennett HS				88.9		15.42%
Coatesville Area SHS			65.0		16.32%
Owen J. Roberts HS			87.9		16.78%
Octorara Area JSHS			72.2		16.97%
Downingtown Area HS East		95.5		18.29%
Downingtown Area HS West		93.0		20.26%
Oxford Area HS				72.9		33.55%

The argument against comparing Octorara to all other Chester County schools is always that it is not comparing apples to apples. Octorara has obvious challenges that the Unionville-Chadds Ford Area School District just does not have.

From the Pennsylvania School Performance data, the High Schools that look the most like Octorara are Oxford Area High School and Solanco High School (Lancaster County), with Kennett High School and Pequea Valley High School (Lancaster County) coming real close. Kennett has their own unique challenges with, by far, the largest number of English Language Learners in Chester County.

Where Oxford Area High School stands out is that their percentage of Special Education Students is roughly twice that of Octorara, and their number of English Language Learners is more than 3 times that of Octorara. Yet, the Oxford Area High School is achieving a similar SPP Score.

Chester County Averages (for High Schools)*

  • SPP Score – 86.7
  • Economically Disadvantaged – 18.14%
  • English Language Learners – 1.53%
  • Special Education – 14.58%

In the discussion of return on investment, we talk about the cost per-student vs performance scores. I believe somewhere in the discussion should be the cost per-student for each performance point. Does that make sense?

* Special Note: This was mistakenly labeled. The averages contain each of the High Schools within the CCIU, plus the two Lancaster County Districts noted.

Octorara’s 2014-15 Budget: The Initial Good, Bad, and Ugly

goodbaduglyThe main event, of the December 9, 2013 Octorara Regular Meeting Agenda, was Dan Carley’s 2014-2015 Budget Presentation. As we have previously discussed, the District will be opting out of exemptions, and will be limited by Act 1. As a result, the Board will not have to vote on the initial Preliminary Budget.

The Good

The 2012-2013 Budget was $46.6 Million. Actual costs were around $44.2 Million. The difference is roughly $2.3 Million.

The original 2013-2014 initial budget included a year-over-year increase of $1.2 Million. The final increase was a difference in 2013-14 and 2012-13 budgets of just over $882,000.

The initial 2014-2015 Preliminary Budget is $48.2 Million. The 2013-2014 Final Budget was $47.5. The difference is an increase of just a little more than $700,000.

The Bad

Tax Rates!! The starting 2013-14 millage, caused by the State mandated and controlled re-balancing, is 36.98 mills (not the actual 36.66) for Chester County and 27.71 for Lancaster County. Because of the re-balancing, Chester County millage starts higher than the present year… even if the District budget remains flat.

The Act 1 Index limit, of 2.6% for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, means a maximum tax increase for Chester County property owners from 36.66 mills to 37.94 (more like a 3.4% increase), and Lancaster County from 27.71 to 28.43. Re-balancing effectively raises the Index limit for Chester County.

The Ugly

Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) and Obamacare!! The cost increase to the Retirement System, and the new costs associated with Obamacare, exceed the total increase to the initial Proposed Budget for 2014-15. The increase to benefit alone is $750,000.

Obamacare creates a number of new costs for the District. The largest of the initial costs is the “Reinsurance Fee” to help pay for the exchanges. It squeezes the District for $45,880, but that is nothing compared to what is coming down the pike.

In the near future, the District could potentially be on the hook to pay Obamacare’s 40% Excise Tax (called the Cadillac Tax). This part of Obamacare is levied on the most generous health plans, and is designed (in theory) to bring down overall health costs by making companies and workers more cost-conscious. When it comes to public employees, this could potentially be little more than a massive Federal tax shift to regular citizens, hidden within higher State, County, Municipal, and School District taxes.

The Remainder of the Board Meeting

Elena Wilson did a brief overview of the Comprehensive Plan. However, it was such a brief overview that I can’t say the presentation did it justice. I encourage the public to review the plan, and attend the Education Committee Meetings with your comments, questions, and concerns.

The Board passed this month’s list of bills and Action Items, with mostly little comment. My one concern was with the late addition asking the Board to approve an extension of unpaid Family Medical Leave. I voted in favor of the Item based on Dr Newcome’s assurance the late submission had special circumstances, which were later explained in Executive Session.

The Policy Committee met yesterday evening, reviewing  “Policy 801: Public Records” (second reading) and “Policy 806: Child/Student Abuse” (first reading). Policy 806 had some additional questions, mostly revolving around consistent wording and school volunteers. The Policy Committee plans to review Policies 303, 404, and 504. They also plan to explore adding a Volunteer policy and an Extra Curricular Drug policy.

The evening’s Finance Committee Meeting was primarily a review of the 2014-2015 Budget Presentation provided during the Board Meeting. The I.U./C.A.T. Board did not meet this month, and therefore no report was given this evening.

In Visitors’ Comments…

David Jones (Parkesburg, PA) spoke at yesterday’s Board Meeting. He was concerned that $100,000 of new spending has been added to the 2014-2015 Preliminary Budget for an armed School Resource Officer, a possibility that has been discussed over the last several months. Jones asked the Board to use careful consideration, believing armed SROs provide only the sense of security. He stated security policies, such as background checks for volunteers, would be more qualitative, providing more measurable results, at significantly lower costs.

Octorara Area School District website receives D- on Sunshine Review

Ocotrara DIf you go to the Octorara Area School District website, you will notice it is going through a redesign. It looks like it will eventually be more user-friendly, filled with all the information parents and citizens need to stay informed. For now, let’s take a look at how the old site stood up to the Sunshine Review.

The Sunshine Review is about state and local government transparency, engaged citizens, and holding government officials accountable. Sunshine Review collects and shares information about state and local transparency using a 10-point Transparency Checklist to evaluate 6,000 state and local government websites, and is a non-profit that collaborates with individuals and organizations across America to promote state and local transparency.

The scores for transparency from school districts in Chester County run the spectrum. West Chester Area School District scores an ‘A-‘, while Tredyffrin-Easttown received a ‘D’ in the review. Most Chester County schools, however, received scores in the ‘B’ range. Octorara received the lowest score of all Chester County school districts. Of two Lancaster County neighbors, Solanaco SD also received a ‘D-‘, and Pequea Valley SD received an ‘F’. With the exception of Tredyffrin-Easttown’s score, the evaluations seem to show a trend that the more rural the district, the less transparency.

Octorara Shared Well

  • A current budget overview is published.
  • The names and contact information for all administrative officials are published.
  • The names and contact information of all school board members are published.
  • School board meeting minutes are published.
  • Information on public records is provided

Unshared or Not Enough Shared

  • The complete budget is not published.
  • School board meeting agendas and schedules are not published.
  • There is no information on
    • audits,
    • academic performance,
    • background checks,
    • taxes,
    • contracts, and
    • lobbying

We know school board agendas and schedules are published. However, the reason that they may have been missed in the review is because the district has a tendency to post such things with the least required notice. They could have also been missed because the old site was not at all user-friendly, nor was it easy to find information if you had not spent a lot of time on the site.

The first focus of Sunshine Review is an awareness-building effort to evaluate the transparency of local government entities, based on if the websites proactively disclose government data.

The current website upgrade will hopefully add more information for parents and citizens to stay connected and up-to-date.