Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: February 24, 2021

Stories You May Have Missed
February 24, 2021 8 min read

Unprecedented Drop In Student Enrollment Hits Catholic Schools

Students are disappearing from Roman Catholic schools, as they are public ones, amid the pandemic.

Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools between this school year and last showed the largest single-year decline in at least five decades.

Among the factors for the 6.4 percent drop were the closure or consolidation of more than 200 schools and the difficulty for many parents to pay tuition that averages more than $5,000 for grades K-8 and more than $10,000 for secondary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

John Reyes, its executive director for operational vitality, said COVID-19 has been an “accelerant” for long-standing challenges facing Catholic education.

In the past year, nationwide enrollment dropped by 110,000 to about 1.6 million students. Back in the 1960s, enrollment stood at more than 5 million.

Reyes said the closures disproportionately affected urban communities where significant numbers of Black children, many non-Catholic, attended parochial schools. Indeed, some of the largest enrollment losses were in big-city dioceses: 12.3 percent in Los Angeles, 11.1 percent in New York, and 8.2 percent in Chicago.

The only big-city dioceses that saw significant increases were in Western cities with large Hispanic populations: up 5.5 percent in Las Vegas, 4.6 percent in Denver, and 2.4 percent in Phoenix.

Elementary and middle schools were harder hit than secondary schools. Prekindergarten programs saw the steepest drop, 26.6 percent.

Reductions in professional staff—teachers and administrators—were smaller, with a 2.3 percent decline from the previous year.

Reyes said one reason for the relatively modest reduction was the use of funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Without additional outside support going forward, he added, the potential for staffing reductions and enrollment decline is severe.

“I can’t say that a bounce-back is guaranteed” when the pandemic ends, Reyes said.

In recent years, other significant annual enrollment losses were 2.7 percent in 2003 at the peak of the clergy sex-abuse crisis and 3.5 percent in 2008 amid the Great Recession.

Although Chicago Teachers Return to Schools, Their Phila., L.A. Brethren Await Safety Accords

Across three districts, the reasons are varied for keeping more than 1 million children out of the classroom. But as teachers see it, they all boil down to one word: safety. Ignoring disciplinary threats and declarations that schools are safe, they aren’t returning to schools until they see proof.

Now, at least some teachers in one of those districts are trickling back into buildings. On Feb. 11, prekindergarten and special education students returned to class in Chicago.

To get that far, the district promised cleaned buildings, daily health screenings, new air filters, and the vaccination of 1,500 more teachers weekly.

Even after agreeing to the plan, however, the Chicago Teachers Union argued that the district hasn’t done enough to protect teachers and that too few students want to return.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the district last week pushed back its reopening date for a third time.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said 9,000 P-2 students won’t return until March 1, says The Philadelphia Inquirer.

District officials say schools are safe, but the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers isn’t buying it. In fact, PFT President Jerry Jordan urged teachers not to report back Feb. 8.

Hite had threatened discipline for any of the P-2 teachers who did not report to buildings, but the city stepped in, saying teachers did not have to do so until mediator Peter Orris, a Chicago doctor and public-health expert, had ruled.

The district has a history of papering over environmental problems— including lead paint, asbestos, vermin, nonfunctioning ventilation systems, and leaky roofs.

Educators did cheer the news that the city, school system, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia planned to set up vaccination sites for teachers and other school workers inside district buildings by the end of the month.

Then there’s Los Angeles. Last week, 100 school district employees received a coronavirus vaccine. And the shots were available only to employees 65 and older and those working at a vaccine or coronavirus testing site.

The school system remains in negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles over what a reopening would look like. For now, union leaders say, county infection rates make it unsafe to return.

Broward County District Had No Responsibility to Predict Student Was a Danger, Court Rules

Victims of the vicious attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have struck out again.

Broward Circuit Judge Patti Englander Henning ruled this month that the Broward County school district had no responsibility to warn students and faculty of the danger posed by a former student who would later be accused of the mass shooting that killed 17 people.

The district cannot be held liable for failing to predict actions that were beyond its control, the judge said.

Nikolas Cruz awaits trial on multiple murder charges and faces the death penalty if convicted. He’s also accused of wounding 17 people with an AR-15 assault-style rifle in the attack at the Parkland school on Feb. 14, 2018.

Families of the victims have sued Cruz, who was 19 at the time, as well as the district, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and on-duty deputies who failed to stop the massacre.

“The district had no control over Cruz,” the judge ruled. “They did not have custody over him. He was not a student in the system and had not been for over a year. In fact, he was refused access to the campus once he left school. Nor did the district have preknowledge of a definitive threat by Cruz.”

It’s another loss for the families trying to hold officials accountable for failing to prevent the mass shooting.

The Florida supreme court ruled in September that, for insurance purposes, the district can treat the shooting as a single incident, capping liability at a total of $300,000 to be split among all the victims who have filed suit.

Then in October, Englander Henning ruled that the victims and their families will have to turn over some records of their mental health treatment since the tragedy.

The judge also said the plaintiffs are relying on too many “what if” questions to build a solid legal claim for damages. “There is no foundation for the argument that if Cruz had been sent to a different program, and if he had been treated as a higher threat years before the incident, and if he had been criminally charged years earlier, ... and if he had never been permitted to attend [the school], then he would not have been on this campus and would never have committed the crime,” the ruling said.

L.A. Reduces Police Funds To Advance Black Students

Fewer cops. More support staff. That’s the upshot of a strategy the Los Angeles school board approved last week to finance an achievement plan for Black students.

Seventy sworn officers, 62 nonsworn officers, and one support-staff position will be eliminated, leaving the force with 211 officers.

The board’s decision came after a yearlong push by activist students and community members that was intensified by national protests over racial injustice and police brutality last summer following George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

“Investments and behaviors must be different if we want outcomes to be different,” board member Mónica García said. “Black students, parents, teachers, and allies have demanded that we interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The $25 million diverted from school police, along with money from next school year’s general- fund budget will create a $36.5 million fund for the new Black Student Achievement Plan, which is aimed at 53 schools that have high numbers of Black students and below-average proficiency in math and English, among other concerns.

Most of the money will be used to hire “climate coaches” at secondary schools and support staff, including school nurses and counselors.

A board report said the coaches “will provide students with an advocate on campus who is trained and focused on implementing positive school culture and climate, using socio-emotional learning strategies to strengthen student engagement, applying effective de-escalation strategies to support conflict resolution, building positive relationships and elevating student voice, eliminating racial disproportionality in school discipline practices, and understanding and addressing implicit bias.”

Ark. House Panel Rejects School Ban on ‘1619 Project’

In the state where a governor famously barred the entry of Black students to Little Rock Central High School in 1957, lawmakers are saying no to a ban on teaching a New York Times project on slavery’s legacy.

An Arkansas House panel this month rejected legislation that would have banned schools from using the “1619 Project.”

The proposal to do so had drawn opposition from teachers, civil rights leaders, and the state’s top education official. Similar bans have been proposed in Mississippi and Iowa, and critics have called it an effort to whitewash crucial parts of the nation’s history.

“What you’re doing is censoring and you’re taking away the ability of those who have been trained to stand before our students and teach and provide trained guidance in curriculum development,” Democratic Rep. Reginald Murdock said during a hearing on the proposal.

The project, which examines slavery and its consequences as the central thread of U.S. history, was published in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves. The project was also turned into a popular podcast, and materials were developed for schools to use.

Republican Rep. Mark Lowery, who proposed the ban, said the project portrays a misleading narrative of American history and cited some historians’ criticisms of parts of it.

“[Slavery] is an awful stain on our history, and it should be discussed in our classrooms, but the 1619 project should not be the vehicle for that,” Lowery told the panel.

The Pulitzer Center, which partnered with The Times to develop 1619 lesson plans, said it’s heard from more than 3,800 K-12 teachers and nearly 1,000 college educators who planned to use them.

The proposal drew objections from Democrats and Republicans alike on the majority-GOP panel who said concerns about materials should be addressed at the local level and not through a statewide mandate.

“This is something, as far as adoption of curriculum, that’s best left to the local elected boards and administrators and educators,” state schools chief Johnny Key told the panel.

The bill called for reducing funding for schools that violate the ban in an amount equal to the cost associated with teaching the project.

The Associated Press, Wire Service and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed