Before fielding questions from the region's administrators, Nicastro focused on items of interest to educators that included results of a recent statewide technology survey, a pilot program in Missouri focusing on effective education, and data systems management.
Drawing the most interest, though, was Nicastro's focus on the Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP 5), the latest evaluation tool being introduced into public schools across the state.
Following two years in the making, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) presented its new scoring guide in June 2012, outlining its methods of creating each school district's Annual Performance Report (APR). That is the tool used by the state to determine a school district's accreditation. The latest version, MSIP5, is the fifth version of standards aimed to raise academic achievement for all Missouri students.
A public release for comment on MSIP5 last month revealed a need for clarification in several areas of the evaluation program. The public had an opportunity to comment on the evaluation program online through November. Based upon many of those comments and concerns, the program has been "fine tuned," and will be utilized beginning with the current school year as the tool of the educational trade in Missouri.
"School districts across the state will receive their first accreditation in August 2015 based on MSIP5," Nicastro explained. "This year marks the first year of data that will be included in MSIP5."
Nicastro covered several aspects of the new evaluation tool, including requests for more specific wording regarding secondary school courses and the need to lessen student/counselor ratio in Missouri's public schools.
"We're getting a lot of comments stating that all of those standards should be part of the classification system -- that we should use those to determine accreditation."
"If you, as superintendents," Nicastro told the audience, "want to have local control over those things, which is what we're suggesting, then you need to let us know that. And what is perhaps even more important, you probably need to let your elected officials know that."
"As a superintendent," she added, "I always wanted the maximum amount of flexibility I could get, and I think the differences in the needs of our students around the state is so diverse that, in my judgment, it's very difficult for us to set one set of mandatory guidelines that fits every single district."
In the legislature
The State Board of Education, Nicastro said, will have two legislative proposals that they will be advocating. One is a bill that would allow the State Board some flexibility on when to intervene with a school district. The bill nearly won approval last year. The commissioner cited the situation with Kansas City School District's accreditation loss in January 2012 as an example of why she hopes to see the bill pass in 2013. State law currently mandates that the State Board of Education wait two full years before intervening when a school loses accreditation. The bill would grant the board some flexibility with regard to that waiting period.
A second piece of legislation that has gained support with the State Board provides funding for Early Childhood Education for three and four-year-olds in district that choose to offer Early Childhood programs. Should this bill pass, she explained, districts would be able to receive funding based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA) submitted to DESE.
Federal Funding Woes
The federal funding woes continue to plague Missouri schools and schools across the country. Nicastro alarmed her Wednesday audience when she said that should sequestration occur at the federal level, as many as 30 positions within Missouri's Department of Education could face elimination.
"Most of our staff is paid with federal funds," she explained. "If they don't come to an agreement in Washington, the results could be devastating."