Editor’s Notebook: Smart Start, “Super” critiques, Jabar the bridge-builder, tutors and waivers

From an editor’s notebook, a cluster of education news items: a “Smart Start” grant program unveiled, Barresi and Garrett each get critiques, Shumate builds bridge to literacy, and a Tulsa tutor program falls victim to waiver
* * *  
A press release this morning from the Department of Human Services, pegged as “Pursuant to Oklahoma Executive Order 98-37,” has announced a grant process for “Smart Start” (early childhood education) local project funding.

According to the release, “the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness/Smart Start Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services” will make available “Local Project Funding Number 13-001.”

The state Department of Central Services will issue as much as $1.2 million to “no more than 18 communities.” Up to $125,000 per community is available, and “Contracts will be effective July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013 with an option to renew for two additional years.”

The grants are intended to support development of “community collaborations that engage parents, community leaders and other persons interested in early childhood to assure all children are safe, healthy and prepared for school.”

Strategies include in the implementation process include these:
1.  Early Care and Education Program Collaboration
2.  Family and Community Engagement
3.  Integration of Health and Mental Health  
4.  Early Literacy; additionally, the following optional strategy may be addressed:
5.  Coordinated Professional Development

Those eligible to apply include “any public or private entity, including an Indian tribe or tribal organizations (as defined at 25 U.S.C. 450b), and community-based organizations, including faith-based organizations,” so long as they meet these requirements:

1. Have at least two years of experience in providing community based planning or coordination of local community services.
2. An ability to financially support project-related activities for at least two months.
The DHS press release said, “Preference will be given to applicants who have a demonstrated history of supporting an early childhood coalition through their organization and/or have support from an established early childhood coalition in their community.”

Application materials will become available March 19, and are due by 5 p.m. on April 20. Contact for the process is: Stephanie Mendenhall, Fiscal Manager, Smart Start Oklahoma, 421 Northwest 13th Street, Suite 270 Oklahoma City, OK 73103, telephone 405-278-6978, email:  Stephanie.Mendenhall@smartstartok.org; website: www.smartstartok.org
* * * 
Megan Rolland of The Oklahoman today reported on a 2011 state Department of Education conference that paid for “using private donations and payments held in the bank account of a nonprofit foundation.” 

Early this month, use of funds in a nonprofit foundation to pay for state education department conferences before 2011 were the subject of a critical special report by the office of Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones. 

Damon Gardenhire, communications director for Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, says there are distinctions between what Jones found concerning the practices under former Superintendent Sandy Garrett and the more recent patterns.  He said the Barresi programs were accountable and properly structured. 

Rolland also reported that bank balances (totaling about $780) in conference accounts held by the Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission, the non-profit that financed conferences in the Garrett era, went into the Foundation for Innovation in Education, founded in May 2011. That group went out of operation after last year’s conference.

Early this month, Auditor Jones completed an audit of past practices which Barresi had requested. That investigation had originated in a review of travel claims by a former deputy superintendent. 

As Jones said then, “Information came to light during that investigation that suggested a much bigger problem had existed at the State Department of Education.
“We brought the information to the attention of Superintendent Barresi and requested permission to continue to investigate the existence of a previously unknown bank account.”

In his report, he pointed to expenditures of over $2.3 million in three accounts. 

Commenting at the time, Gardenhire said he was “troubled and concerned” about the past practices. On behalf of the agency leadership, he urged “the appropriate authorities to take action to address any possible wrongdoing from past years.”

In last week’s editions of Friday newspaper, an editorial chided critics of Garrett, objecting to “rough treatment” of the long-time superintendent in the auditor’s report.  
* * * 
In other education news, House Bill 2676 by Democratic state Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa headed to the state Senate after a 93-0 vote last week.

The legislation authorizes community assistance to a “Bridge to Literacy” program designed to ensure children in the state can read at grade-level upon completion of third grade work. In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Shumate said, “enthusiasm for this bill has been contagious, and I believe the support of so many private citizens has helped build legislative support for this measure.”

Dr. Major Lewis Jemison, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in east Oklahoma City, said he believed long term impact of the bill “will be tremendous. House Bill 2676 provides another important way for community citizens to do their part to aid schools and parents.”

The bill creates a grant program through which the state Department of Education could fund reading instruction training, resource materials on reading instruction, remediation and other help to nonprofits, community-based programs, centers, organizations or service programs, and churches or religious groups. 
* * * 
A federal program through which tutoring services were offered to children in low-performing schools, authorized in the No Child Left Behind Act, is likely to end in Tulsa as state and local officials implement waivers recently authorized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Private tutors have earned up to $1,360 per child for 2,008 participants now in the program. The program had gained popularity with students and parents, but was viewed critically by local school officials who contend the program did not have adequate oversight and was too expensive.

Advocates of tutoring services contend they are an example of choice-like mechanisms, paid for by taxpayers but provided at no cost to parents whose children are in failing schools.