Columbia School board reviews student achievement, special education

Columbia Public Schools
Columbia Public Schools

Reports on student achievement and special education on Monday to the Columbia Board of Education highlighted challenges in both areas.

The meeting began with board member Katherine Sasser excusing herself.

"I have been unable to meaningfully prepare," Sasser said.

She has been occupied by the attempts by some to erase queer, Black and trans people, including the 28 bills filed by Republicans in the Legislature.

LGBTQ youth are enduring an "onslaught of attacks" and she also has been the target of attacks, she said.

Consultant New Solutions K12 provided a report to CPS over the summer on the district's special services program and director Nate Levenson delivered the report to the school board by video. The services cost $195,000.

"If all we end up doing at the end of tonight is a report, we've wasted our time, you've wasted your money and a lot of people are going to be disappointed. Our goal from the beginning is to make meaningful change."

A plan is needed and when it's implemented, the board needs to support it when the complaints start, he said.

Implementation needs to be thoughtful and the district shouldn't try to take on everything at once, he said. The district has been good at developing plans but not always good at implementing them.

The staff cares deeply about students, he said.

"It came through in conversation after conversation," he said, noting his team conducted 150 interviews.

The staff also feels well-supported by leadership, he said.

"I hardly ever hear special education staff say they feel supported," Levenson said.

The report notes the CPS faculty and staff need to create high expectations for all students, but they're not doing that now.

"During many of our interviews, staff shared that many of their colleagues didn't believe that students living in poverty or those who fell behind during the pandemic could reasonably be expected to catch up," the report reads. "A number of teachers also stated they felt state and district expectation were unreasonably high for some students."

The practice isn't helpful to students, the report reads.

"In all cases, these teachers deeply cared about their students and wanted the best for them, which included setting 'realistic expectations' to avoid a sense of failure by the students," the report continued. "Many shared that out of kindness, teachers lowered their expectations of students of color, living in poverty or having a disability in order the let kids feel successful. This is a form of unconscious bias, well-intentioned but harmful."

Levenson reinforced the message in the meeting.

"I'm telling you, that is not kindness," Levenson said. "That is hurting your students."

The district needs to implement the best practice in place in some schools and replicate them in all schools, he said. Douglass High School is one he singled out for replication.

The district first needs to focus on core instruction, he said.

Additional support for classroom teachers to address student behavioral challenges is needed, he said.

"Your teachers are stretched thin and are sometimes as stressed and traumatized as students" as both emerge from the pandemic, he said

Instructional coaching also needs to be expanded, he said.

Roles need to be clarified to improve teamwork, he said.

"There is just too much that is vague and too much that is overlapping," he said.

Some of the public comment addressed the report, including that of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of Race Matters, Friends. The district should use the report as an opportunity to work collaboratively with the community, she said.

"At the end of the day, we need to embrace all of our students as if they're our own children," Wilson-Kleekamp said.

The report is no surprise, said Robyn Schelp, with Missouri Disability Empowerment.

"This report is full of issues parents have been telling you are problematic for years," Schelp said.

Student achievement

Among achievement measures, John Warner Middle School showed high performance and growth in a reading assessment.

"John Warner did this last year, too," said Dave Wilson, the district's data specialist.

Oakland Middle School started out low-performing but had high growth, Wilson said.

Blue Ridge, Benton and Paxton-Keeley elementary schools all had ha

In math, Gentry Middle School joined Warner in high performance and growth.

"Really they had phenomenal growth and phenomenal achievement," Wilson said.

West Middle School had high growth, he aid.

Among elementary schools in the high achievement, high growth category in math were Mill Creek, Russell Boulevard and Two Mile Prairie.

Blue Ridge and Parkade elementary students showed growth in English on the Missouri Assessment Program. Parkade, Benton and New Haven showed growth in Math.

Attendance is averaging 73% this school year, down from 89% in 2020-21.

Black students this year so far continue to receive the highest number of out-of-school suspensions, 990 incidents out of a total of 1,905.

The district is increasing its efforts to use restorative practices in discipline and it has developed a behavior education plan, so that the same behavior results in the same consequences regardless of the classroom, said Carla London, chief equity officer.

"We know that you can't discipline trauma out of a scholar," London said, also referring to trauma caused by the pandemic.

The schools can't ever be satisfied, said Superintendent Brian Yearwood.

"We're moving to action," he said. "We must have a realistic view of where we are to move the data forward."

Student presentation.

In a first and possibly ongoing feature of board meetings, there was a student presentation.

Ojima Adejo, a freshman at Hickman High School, and Joseph Oyewusi, a senior at Rock Bridge High School presented information about career awareness beginning in middle school.

The students received applause and praise for their presentations.

"I just want to say this is refreshing to have our scholars to come and tell us what they want," Yearwood said.. "This is what it's about.

Roger McKinney is the Tribune's education reporter. You can reach him at or 573-815-1719. He's on Twitter @rmckinney9.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Special education report: CPS is shortchanging some students