Pflugerville ISD joins ranks of districts of innovation

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Pflugerville ISD on March 1 voted to adopt a district of innovation, or DOI, plan for the district, drawing a 12-month planning and public hearing process to an end. The school district now joins the majority of school districts across the state that have elected to implement educational and logistical exemptions allowed by DOI language.

As of March 14, 702 districts had notified the Texas Education Agency of their intent to adopt DOI exemptions. That figure represents more than half of the 1, 023 public school districts in the state and includes a wide diversity of districts.

For instance, Austin ISD, with its 81,391 students in the 2017-18 school year, employs DOI exemptions, as does Woodson ISD, which has an enrollment of fewer than 200 total students.

Even as DOI exemptions continue to expand in utilization, though, critics of the DOI law state that some of the exemptions are already covered by state waiver laws and do not actually go far enough to ensure educational innovation. Furthermore, some critics express concerns that DOIs may encroach on the rights of students, teachers and parents.

Districts that adopt DOI plans maintain the exemptions give them, their students and parents flexibility for academic calendar planning. Other districts are proponents of one exemption that allows districts to recruit from a deeper pool of unorthodox educator candidates.

PFISD’S DOI PROCESS

The process of confirming DOI status for PfISD came to an end March 2, more than one year after the conversation of implementing innovation changes began.

On Feb. 16, 2017, the PfISD board of trustees voted to begin exploring the process and benefits of becoming a DOI. One month later, on March 23, 2017, the board voted to establish an exploratory committee for DOI exemption options.

Brandy Baker, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for PfISD, oversaw the DOI exploratory committee beginning in August 2017.

“I was really pleased with the thoughtfulness of the committee memberships,” Baker said. “I think it was thoughtful and diligent to do what that committee did.”

Throughout the PfISD DOI process, the exploratory committee aimed to be overtly transparent with its delegations. The committee held seven meetings from May 2017 to January 2018 and made its committee membership, attendance figures, agendas and minutes available online. All committee meetings were open to the public and provided time for public comment.

Of the 84 total members on the DOI exploratory committee, only 13 were directly appointed by the board of trustees. The rest consisted of campus representatives, community representatives, business representatives, parent representatives and volunteers.

In January the exploratory committee sent a draft of its final DOI plan and recommendations to the PfISD District Academic Advisory Council. Any DOI plan is required to pass through the DAAC with a two-thirds majority vote. On Feb. 13 the DAAC approved the DOI committee’s draft plan and sent it to the board of trustees to finally approve, which occurred March 2.

At the end of the process, PfISD opted only to utilize two exemptions allowed by DOI guidelines.

PFISD Using POPULAR EXEMPTIONS

PfISD is one of 700 school districts across the state of Texas to use the first date of school exemption allowed by TEA guidelines. This exemption lifts the mandate that schools must start their academic calendars on the fourth Monday of August and allows DOIs to begin earlier in the month.

According to PfISD’s DOI plan, adjusting the start date to earlier in August will create more balance between the fall and spring semesters and make winter break a midpoint in the year.

Under the old calendar, students had 15 additional days to prepare for standardized tests in the fall semester than they did in the spring semester.

PfISD additionally adopted an exemption to a mandate that contracted teachers must work a minimum of 187 days during the school year. Baker said the exemption helps as a retention and recruitment tool, as teachers may not have to work a full 187 days, and the schedule now allows for more professional development hours.

“[ISD teachers] wanted some flexibility to move that constraint to allow professional development during the summer. They wanted to get rid of it to create a teacher contract that provides for that,” Baker said.

In 2015 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2610, which changed the language requiring mandatory minimum amount of instruction for students in school districts from 180 days of instruction to 75,600 minutes of instruction. However, the bill failed to amend the language of Section 21.401 of Texas Education Agency code requiring 187 service days from educators.

Theoretically, a school district could enact longer school days and hit the mandatory minimum minutes of instruction benchmark for students while simultaneously shortening the academic calendar. That gap could leave educators unable to fill the service day minimum required by the TEA. PfISD’s DOI exemption negates that potential concern.

Per  Baker, the exploratory committee briefly discussed additional exemption possibilities and determined they did not fit into the district’s strategic plan. At points, the DOI committee discussed class size and class size notification exemptions, a teacher planning period exemption and several more.

“The one they were interested in exploring, but ultimately did not make it into the draft was about teacher certification,” Baker said.

The teacher certification exemption allows DOI districts to pursue educators who have not been certified with the state board. School districts commonly use this exemption to recruit career and technical education, or CTE, instructors and world language educators, among others.

According to Baker, the teacher certification exemption was discussed at length by the PfISD DOI committee, but the group ultimately rejected the proposition. The concern, per Baker, was that the district wanted to retain the highest-quality educators for its students.

“Once you exempt yourself from certifications, you exempt yourself from all certifications. You really have to exempt yourself from the entire Texas education code, and I don’t think that was appealing,” Baker said.

Hutto ISD adopted its DOI plan in January 2017, and it included the teacher certification exemption along with two other exemptions in its final plan.

“A lot of people who are formerly in the business world, they want to become teachers, but there are barriers in place,” said Robert Sormani, assistant superintendent for school support at HISD. “This allowed us to make a pathway for those persons.”

Sormani said the exemption has allowed HISD to hire at least one CTE instructor since 2016, and the school is currently in discussions to hire another CTE instructor.

Round Rock ISD adopted its DOI plan in 2016, but elected to include several more exemptions into its plans.

Ultimately, RRISD submitted a DOI plans with 10 exemptions, including the teacher  certification exemption, first and last day of instruction exemptions, a class size exempition and more.

The class size and class size waiver notification exemptions, which lift caps on class sizes and erases the mandate that districts notify parents of those decisions, are the fourth and fifth most popular exemptions, respectively, in DOI plans across the state, according to TEA data.

By the TEA’s count, the teacher certification exemption is the second most popular exemption in submitted DOI plans across the state, with 625 districts electing to shed the certification mandate.

Concerns with INNOVATION PLANS

Nearly every school district that has adopted a DOI plan included the school start date exemption. Of the 702 school districts with DOI plans as of March 14, 700 of them utilize that exemption, or 99.72 percent of all DOI plans.

Ann Fickel was a volunteer representative on the PfISD DOI committee and serves as associate executive director for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, a teacher advocacy group with more than 50,000 members statewide.

Both Baker and Fickel admitted that some committee members expressed dismay at the lack of innovative initiatives in PfISD’s DOI plan

“There were a few teachers who wanted to go further, who didn’t think we were being innovative enough,” Baker said. “Overall I don’t think we’re ready for that, but we’ve primed ourselves where we can take a few more risks.”

Sormani noted that ISDs across the state have much less wiggle room to experiment with innovative education practices than charter schools across Texas do, and he believes the DOI language does not go far enough to make up that gap. Where charter schools can simply write amended guidelines and allowances into their charters, public school districts have to work within the confines of DOI plans.

For example, the HISD assistant superintendent would like the option to explore online education alternatives, but those allowances are not written into the current DOI bill.

“The way the state has it, either you use their system, or the kid has to somehow have interaction with the teacher. There’s a limitation to what we can do,” Sormani said.

The TCTA believes the DOI exemptions go too far, however. Critics of DOI plans express concern that the teacher certification exemptions give districts the freedom to terminate an uncertified educator’s contract at will.

“The ability [to eliminate teachers’ rights]is there, and that’s still a concern for us,” Fickel said. “[The TCTA does] have big concerns about the certification issue, and I would call that a teacher issue.”

Fickel points out that some districts have utilized an exemption from current law regarding teacher planning and preparation periods.

“This law was put into place to ensure that teachers would have time during the school day for planning and collaboration with their colleagues,” Fickel said. “That is the kind of encroachment on teacher protections that concerns us.”

Additional reporting on this article done by Abby Bora and Emma Whalen.

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Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. He additionally worked with an investigative news organization where he reported on environmental topics and was a featured writer for Epicast Network, a Pittsburgh podcast company. Iain has now transitioned full-time into covering Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto.
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