Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Federal Nutrition Standards for Schools

Now that we are two weeks into the school year, you may have heard your kids discussing some of the changes that have taken place in our school lunch program.  Although some of those changes have been by design as a part of our school district's commitment to offering healthy lunch choices, other changes have been as a result of new Federal guidelines.

On June 28, 2013, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued an Interim Final Rule entitled "Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in School as Required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010." The competitive foods portion of the rule took effect on July 1, 2014, the start of school year 2014-2015, as required by Section 208 (Sec. 208) of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA).

In the past, the USDA regulations only affected the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.  However, now, the new rules apply to any food and beverage products sold during the school day.   This includes items sold on our ala-carte lines at the middle school and high school.  It also includes any items sold from vending machines during the school day and even fundraisers.

To be allowable under the new Federal guidelines, a food item must
  1. Be a whole grain rich product (50% or more whole grains); OR
  2. Have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food (meat, beans, poultry, etc.) OR
  3. Be a "combination food" with at least 1/4 cup fruit and/or vegetable (fruit and togurt, hummus and vegetables) OR
  4. Contain 10% of the Daily Value of one nutrient of public health concern (only through June 30, 2016) Calcium, potassium, vitamin D, dietary fiber
Meet all of the specific nutrient standards below:
  • Total Fat < or = 35% of total calories from fat per item
  • Saturated Fat < or =10% of total calories per item
  • Trans Fat < or = Zero grams of trans fat per portion
  • Sodium--Entree < or =480 mg per item
  • Sodium--Snack & Side items < or =230 mg per item
  • Calories--Entree < or =350 calories per item
  • Calories--Snack & Side items < or =200 calories per item
  • Total Sugar < or = 35% of weight from total sugars per item
As a result of these new Federal guidelines, your kids may have noticed that there are no longer cookies being served in the lunch line.  Also, regular chips have been replaced with baked chips.  They are also seeing more fruit and vegetable options on the lunch menus.  Throughout the year, they will see more changes as our cafeteria staff continues their commitment to both following the Federal guidelines, and offering healthy food choices for our students.  In the Board of Education's new Strategic Plan, they have identified "Healthier Food Choices" as one of their focuses for this school year.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Food Allergies and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The number of students with food allergies is increasing across the United States.  According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011.  As defined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, school districts have always had the responsibility of ensuring that students with a disability have the right to receive a "free and appropriate public education."  In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to state that a food allergy is considered a disability when it is substantially limiting without medication or other safety measures.  The U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that for many children with peanut allergies, the allergy is likely to substantially limit the major life activities of breathing and respiratory function.  Therefore, under federal law, such children would be considered to have a disability.

The extent of the required accommodations for students with food allergies is determined by the needs of the particular student.  Where one child with a mild allergy may only need to avoid ingesting a food item, another child may have a severe and life-threatening reaction to simply being exposed to the food residue second-hand.  Either way, the school district has a legal responsibility to make sure that every student, regardless of their disability, has a right to a free and appropriate public education without needlessly risking his/her health and safety to obtain it.  In cases of severe food allergies, this could mean prohibiting the allergic food from the entire school is the only safe option.

In the past, District #1 has experienced many students with food allergies, and our goal has always been to provide these students with their legal right to a free and appropriate public education.  As the frequency and severity of food allergies in children continues to grow, we will continue to abide by the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and work with the parents of impacted students to provide a free and appropriate public education.  In some cases, this could mean ensuring that an impacted student not ingest a certain food.  However, in more severe cases, this could mean that prohibiting a certain food from the entire school is the only option that meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The safety of all of our District #1 students is of utmost importance.  The school district appreciates your understanding and cooperation as we work to ensure that all of our students, regardless of their disability, receive their legal right to a free and appropriate public education.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What Is The County School Facility Tax?

Over the past few months, you may have read some area newspaper articles referencing the "County School Facility Tax" (CSFT).  School Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to fully investigate any potential school funding source to determine if it would be advantageous for the constituency they serve.  Currently, the District #1 Board of Education is going through that very process regarding the CSFT.  To date, the District #1 Board has taken no position on the viability of the CSFT as a funding source for Coal City Schools.  However, they are continuing to gather feedback on the idea.  Our local newspaper reporters have done an excellent job of summarizing the CSFT, but I wanted to provide a little more detail regarding how the CSFT works.

The Illinois Legislature passed a law in October, 2007 which allowed a county to approve a sales tax to fund school facility costs.  The law allowed for a maximum sales tax of 1% in 1/4% increments.  The law was based upon a similar law that is currently in place state-wide in Iowa.  As originally written, the County Board had to approve the question being placed on the ballot, but in August, 2011, the law was amended to exclude this requirement.

Currently in Illinois, there are 18 counties where the voters have approved the CSFT, and it has failed in a little over 20 counties.

The two most important things to understand about the CSFT are what items are taxed and how can the resulting revenues be used by the public schools in the county.  If the tax is approved by the voters, everything in the municipal and county sales tax base is included with the following exceptions:
  • Cars, Truck, ATVs
  • Boats & RVs
  • Mobile Homes
  • Unprepared Food
  • Drugs (including over-the-counter and vitamins)
  • Farm Equipment and Parts
  • Farm Inputs
School districts are limited by statute in how they can utilize the revenues collected via the CSFT.  They can use the funds for the following capital expenditures:
  • Construction of New Schools (only with voter approval)
  • Construction of Other School Facilities
  • Additions & Renovations
  • Ongoing Maintenance
  • Architectural Planning
  • Durable Equipment (non-moveable items)
  • Fire Prevention and Life Safety
  • Land Acquisition
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Parking Lots
  • Demolition
  • Roof Repairs
  • Abatement of Property Taxes Levied to Pay Bonds Issued for Capital Purposes
School Districts cannot use the funds for:
  • Salaries or Benefits
  • Any Direct Instructional Costs
  • Text Books
  • Buses
  • Detached Furniture & Fixtures
  • Computers
  • Moveable Equipment
  • Operating Costs
There are three ways school districts can use the revenues from the CSFT.
  1. Pay as you go capital projects. (new roof, windows, parking lots, etc.)
  2. Issue new bonds for current capital needs (support bonds with sales tax)
  3. Retire existing debt issues for capital purposes (abate taxes)
How is the CSFT revenue distributed?
  • All of the revenue from the CSFT throughout the county is pooled together and then distributed evenly on a per pupil basis throughout the County.  Therefore, a student in Coal City would receive the same amount of funds as a student in Minooka.
So what are the potential benefits to the taxpayer in District #1?
  • Based on the 2012 tax figures, District #1 would receive about $2.8 million per year from the CSFT fund.
  • Currently, District #1 makes about a $3 million bond payment per year to pay the bonds associated with the building referendum that was approved by our voters in 2006.  If the county had the CSFT, the District #1 Board could use those funds to pay the majority of their annual bond payment.  This would result in a property tax savings of about $220 on a $200,000 home.
  • About 40% of the sales tax received in Grundy County is generated from sales from people who do not live in Grundy County.  Therefore, people outside of our county would be helping to fund schools as opposed to the current funding method, which places the responsibility solely on property owners within the county.
What are the potential problems the CSFT could cause within District #1?
  • The current sales tax rate within Coal City is 6.25%.  By raising the tax rate to 7.25% there is a chance that some could look outside of Grundy County for certain purchases.  Some of the current sales tax rates of neighboring communities outside of Grundy County are listed below.
    • Braidwood                    7.00%
    • Joliet                             9.00%
    • Ottawa                          7.00%
    • Kankakee                      6.25%
    • Dwight                          6.25%
  • The Village of Channahon has various "Point of Sale" agreements with businesses located in Cook County.  These agreements allow Cook County businesses to avoid paying the higher sales tax rates in Cook County by completing their "point of sales" in Channahon.  About 47% of the sales tax generated in the county comes from these "Point of Sales" agreements.  If the CSFT passed and the sales tax rate for the County increased, these Cook County businesses could set up their "Point of Sales" agreements in another location.
The only way this question gets placed on the ballot is if school boards representing more than 50% of the resident student enrollment in the county adopt resolutions.  If that happens, the Regional Suiperintendent must certify the question to the County Clerk to be placed on the ballot for a county-wide vote.

As previously stated, the District #1 Board of Education is still thoroughly investigating the idea of the CSFT and has taken no formal position on the issue.  Should you have any further questions on the CSFT, please feel free to comment on this blog.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Future Really is Bright

How many times have you heard one of the following statements.
Kids these days don't have a work ethic.
These kids are lazy.  They will never make it in the real world.
These kids don't know what a hard days work is.
If these are the future leaders of our country, we're in trouble.
As an educator, I have heard each of these statements often in reference to our students.  However, I would like to assure everyone that the future is far from bleak.  In fact, when I look at what many of the young adults in our school system are accomplishing, I would argue that the future has never been more promising.

I would challenge anyone who believes our students are lazy to shadow some of them for just one week.  We currently have almost 300 students participating in various extra- and co-curricular activities at CCHS.   Many of these students are arriving at school at 5:45 a.m. for an athletic practice and not leaving school until 9:00 p.m. or later due their various other extra- and co-curricular commitments (i.e. band, chorus, madrigals, theater, etc.).  Then they are going home and completing at least an hour or more of homework.  These students are putting in 15 to 16 hour days five days per week, and then they usually have either an extra- or co-curricular practice over the weekend, as well as more homework to complete.  Many of them are routinely putting in 80 hour weeks between school and school-related activities.  If these students were working adults, they would be earning quite a hefty sum in overtime pay!  Instead, they are learning valuable lessons in time management, organization, dedication towards a cause, and a work ethic that will serve them well as future leaders. 

I also am amazed at what many of these students are accomplishing in the classroom.  Under the careful and caring guidance of their teachers, they are learning how to thrive in the global economy of the 21st Century.  They are learning to harness the power of technology to create, collaborate, communicate and critically think.  Instead of just being able to recall information, they are becoming problem solvers.  They are becoming adept at working with others to collaboratively solve real world problems.  These are the types of thinkers that will be necessary for our economy to thrive in this new paradigm of the 21st Century marketplace.

I can remember conversations I used to have with my father when I was younger.  He would tell me that when he was a teenager, his dad (my grandfather) used to tell him, "Kids nowadays are spoiled and they don't have any work ethic."  Well, here we are two generations later, and we adults are still saying the same thing about this generation of kids.  However, when I look at our young adults in District #1, I am not only proud, but excited about the future leaders we are getting ready to unleash upon our community.  I know these students will achieve some amazing things!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The New ISAT Performance Level Cut Scores

In my last post, I explained the new Common Core standards in Reading and Mathematics, which have taken the place of the traditional State Standards that Illinois public schools have worked under for many years.  These new Common Core Standards are a multi-state effort to better prepare our students for the challenges they will face as they enter either higher education or the work force.

District #1 has been working hard since the summer of 2011 to implement the new Common Core standards into our curricula, instructional approaches and assessments.  We have embraced this process because we believe these new rigorous standards promote learning at a higher and deeper level which will better prepare our students for success after high school.

As school districts across Illinois work to implement the Common Core standards, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has also been working to align the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) for math and English language arts to these new performance levels.  As a part of the state and federal accountability system, the ISAT test is given to students in grades three through eight in the spring each year.  In January, 2013, the ISBE raised the cut scores necessary for students to achieve a "Meets" or "Exceeds" score on the ISAT test.  These higher cut scores are meant to provide administrators, teachers and parents with a more thorough picture of student progress towards college and career readiness.  The ISBE accomplished this task by working with an expert advisory committee to determine the necessary college and career readiness scores of 11th-graders and then set scores for each elementary grade level accordingly.  In short, it worked back from the high school readiness scores and set grade-level appropriate scores to ensure that elementary students will be on track for college and career readiness.  This means that students will be measured against college and career readiness benchmarks earlier (3rd grade) rather than waiting for the 11th grade Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) to yield this information.

Historically, there has been a large achievement gap between student performance on the ISAT test in grades 3-8 and that same student performance on the PSAE exam during grade 11.  In  2012, 82% of students met or exceeded standards on the ISAT statewide, while only 51% met or exceeded standards on the PSAE.  As a result, high schools were being unfairly scrutinized for a perceived drop in achievement, when in reality, a faulty comparison was being used of two completely different tests and achievement expectations.  The higher ISAT cut scores now align with the student performance expectations of the PSAE and provide a more accurate indication of whether a student is on track for post-secondary success.

As expected, these new performance levels caused a sharp decline in the number of students who received the designation of "Meets" or "Exceeds" standards on the 2013 implementation of the ISAT test.  In 2012, the State saw 79% of 3-8 graders score proficient in reading and 86% of those same students reached the proficient level in mathematics.  When the new ISAT cut scores are applied, these scores dropped to 60% proficient for both reading and mathematics.

It is important to note that these changes in performance levels do not mean that our students know less or are less capable then they were in previous years.  It also is not a reflection on teacher performance.  Instead, the ISBE is raising the bar on what students must achieve in order to be ready for success in college and career.

This fall, you will receive your child's 2013 ISAT score results, and it is important that you take into account this "raising of the bar" in cut scores when analyzing the results.  As a school district, we are excited to receive results that provide us with a more accurate picture of the college and career readiness of our students.  We will now have State assessment results that provide usable information in our continuous improvement efforts.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is the Common Core?

One of the most discussed topics in public education right now is the implementation of the Common Core Standards.  I want to take some time to explain what is meant by the Common Core, and also how these new learning standards will impact our classrooms and students in District #1.

The Common Core State Standards establish clear expectations for what students should be learning in English language arts and mathematics at every grade level from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.  This initiative commenced from the work of 40 state governors and state education leaders from across the United States.  The resulting Common Core represents a collaborative effort to raise expectations and improve instruction for all public school students.  In short, the Common Core sets a uniform high and clear standard of performance with the purpose of preparing students for college and the workforce.

Illinois has had uniform state learning standards in place for many years.  The Common Core standards have taken the place of those state standards for English language arts and mathematics.  The major difference between the Common Core and the previous state standards is the emphasis on critical thinking and concept mastery.  In English, the Common Core focuses on the importance of reading nonfiction, using evidence to back claims and expanding academic vocabulary.  The English language arts (ELA) standards also have standards to encourage social studies, science and career and technical subjects to increase writing and the reading of informational text in their areas. This promotes a more well-rounded approach to preparing students as the focus isn’t entirely on the tested subjects of ELA and mathematics.  In math, the new standards call for a focus on fewer topics so students gain a more comprehensive understanding of those key topics.  They also emphasize the application of math towards solving real-world problems.  In both English and math, the goal of the Common Core is to give students the ability to apply their knowledge to succeed in college and/or the workforce.

With the former Illinois State Standards, school districts still maintained local control over the implementation of these standards.  This will still be the case with the state's adoption of the Common Core.  District #1 will continue to write local curricula, assessments and lesson plans for our classrooms.  The Common Core establishes the benchmarks for what our students need to know and be able to do, but District #1 will still determine the best strategies, resources, and methods for achieving those benchmarks.  District #1 teachers will continue to make their daily instructional decisions about how best to meet the individual needs of their students.

District #1 started preparations for the Common Core in the spring, 2011.  In the summer, 2011, our teachers in English and mathematics started to rewrite their curriculum and assessments to align with the new Common Core learning standards.  This process continued in the summer, 2013.  By embracing the Common Core early, our goal was to provide our students with the best possible chances for academic success as schools across Illinois are required to fully implement the curricula  during this school year.

Our hope is that our students will benefit from the higher expectations for critical thinking and concept mastery that the Common Core demands.  By encouraging our students to apply and demonstrate their knowledge in real-world settings, we hope that our students will be even better prepared for post-secondary and career success.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Welcome to the 2013-2014 School Year!

We are very excited about the start of the new school year in Coal City Community Unit School District #1.  Our school year started on August 14th and 15th with Teacher Institutes, and the first day for students was on August 16th.

At our opening day in-service, we talked about our District theme for 2013-2014, which is "Passion & Professionalism".  One of the highlights of the first day was a short video of Rita Pierson, which was shown to all faculty members.  Rita was a fierce defender of public education and the important role educators play in the lives of our students.  She believed that "Every child deserves a champion", which is a phrase we will be using often this year in District #1.  Unfortunately, Rita passed away only a month after giving this passionate speech.  I hope you get a chance to view the video as it is quite powerful.  Our faculty and staff looks forward to putting our "Passion & Professionalism" on display everyday as we proudly serve the students and wider communities of District #1.

As we start the new school year, there are a couple of items I wanted to share.

Some of you may be aware that the Early Childhood Center is now a "Peanut-Free School".  This procedure was instituted because we have a student in that building with a very severe allergic reaction to any peanut protein. The American's with Disabilities Act requires that we educate all students with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment."  Also, the school district is required to make any "reasonable accommodations" necessary to provide that "least restrictive environment".  The court system has consistently maintained that making a school "Peanut-Free" is a "reasonable accommodation" and one that must be made to provide students with an education in their "least restrictive environment".  A very recent appellate court case out of Michigan once again supported this position public schools must take.  As I expected, our parents and school community have been very supportive of this new procedure…especially once they understand the potentially dire consequences for this student.  However, anytime a new procedure is put in place, people want to know the rationale behind the change.  Hopefully, this provides that information.

During this summer's HVAC project at the Intermediate School, the contractor discovered some damage to a roof truss above the Library.  Therefore, we have closed the IS Library until we can get the issue fixed.  In the meantime, I would like to thank Tina Vignocchi and the Coal City Public Library for still providing library services to our IS students during this time.  The Public Library has even been opening early to accommodate our IS students, and Mrs. Vignocchi has gone above and beyond for our kids.  It is nice to see two public entities cooperating so well to provide a valuable service to our students.

All of us in District #1 are excited about the 2013-2014 school year.  We look forward to partnering with you to provide the best possible educational experience for our students.