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ALSDE: Accreditation issues with virtual school provider won’t affect Alabama delivery

SchoolsPLP’s claims of accreditation on their website — by Cognia, AdvancED, California A-G and the NCAA — all appear to be bogus.

Josh Moon

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The Alabama State Department of Education is defending its selection of an Arizona company to supply the state with a “digital curriculum” for remote learning in Alabama’s public schools after several parents and schools’ officials raised questions about the company’s apparent false claims of accreditation and its limited history. 

The company, SchoolsPLP, formed two years ago and with an address that appears to be a rented mailbox at a UPS store in Phoenix, was awarded a $12.458 million contract by the state earlier this month to fulfill the task of providing a “digital curriculum” option for schools. 

Following the announcement of that contract, several parents began digging into SchoolsPLP’s background and operating system in their process of determining whether to send their children to physical schools or accept the safer online learning options. What they found was troubling. 

SchoolsPLP’s claims of accreditation on their website — by Cognia, AdvancED, California A-G and the NCAA — all appear to be bogus. Additionally, there was little company history, only one online review, and on online forums, many parents and teachers were raising questions about whether courses through SchoolsPLP would satisfy NCAA requirements for athletes hoping to gain future college scholarships.

SchoolsPLP removed two accreditation agency logos after questions.

“It was very concerning,” said Eileen Zeanah, whose son is entering the 10th grade in Vestavia Hills. “The more I dug into this company, the less information I was able to find. And what I was able to find turned out to be wrong.”

Zeanah and several other parents and school officials contacted Cognia to inquire about SchoolsPLP’s accreditation. They were told in writing by Cognia representatives that the company did not have accreditation. Shortly thereafter, the Cognia and AdvancEd logos disappeared from the SchoolsPLP website. 

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Additionally, a check of approved providers on the California A-G website shows that SchoolsPLP is not listed. And the NCAA has suggested in the past that courses through SchoolsPLP might not meet certification standards. 

In response, ALSDE said the issues with accreditation are mostly irrelevant, because SchoolsPLP was not hired to provide the state with a virtual school platform. Instead, it filled the request to provide a “digital curriculum.” 

Essentially, SchoolsPLP is providing Alabama with a set of digital textbooks that can be used by teachers to facilitate their course lessons. 

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“ALSDE did not contract with SchoolsPLP for a true ‘virtual school’ which typically includes the vendor providing teachers, special education services, etc.,” a response from the state department said. “Since ALSDE contracted for digital curriculum resources only, accreditation is not relevant.  For example, textbook companies do not seek accreditation, which is reserved for institutions that provide full delivery of education. 

“The ALSDE/SchoolsPLP contract is more akin to what ALSDE has purchased in the past for students in grades 9-12 as part of the ACCESS program. ACCESS offers a full program model with ACCESS teachers and a separate ‘franchise model’ where schools utilize the curriculum only for delivery by its own teachers.”

Still, the issues with accreditation for SchoolsPLP were troubling for some, because they seem to indicate an attempt at deception. The response from ALSDE said it believed SchoolsPLP included the accreditation claims because it worked with school systems that were accredited by Cognia and others. 

However, that is not a normal practice and is generally frowned upon. 

“Everyone involved in education and the purchase of accredited materials and programs understands that the use of accreditation agency logos is done only when those agencies expressly provide accreditation,” said a source with several decades in public education administration. “Those accreditations are important, and they are sought after, because they indicate to parents and others that the services and materials being provided have been deemed by an impartial entity to meet accepted educational standards.” 

Regardless, though, the issues with accreditation should not affect Alabama students who participate in online classes through SchoolsPLP, since the accreditation for those courses would be through school districts. 

Similarly, ALSDE said concerns about NCAA eligibility issues are not valid, because the approved core courses taught by Alabama schools would still be approved if taught through the SchoolsPLP platform. ALSDE provided APR a link to an NCAA webpage addressing that specific concern. 

The was, however, one prominent concern remaining: The inability to integrate SchoolsPLP’s platform into Alabama’s management system, Schoology. Under the RFP sent out to companies vying for the project, integration into Schoology was a requirement. But the ALSDE statement acknowledged that is impossible, and that they have instead instructed systems that wish to use SchoolsPLP to download a new management system. 

“Instructions for this were sent out Friday morning,” the statement said. 

With several school systems set to start classes — both in-person and online — in just a couple of weeks, the late implementation of a new management system and ongoing problems with integration and training would seem to put an already troubled restart into further disarray. But ALSDE said in its statement that it is confident that the problems are being addressed, and that the remaining issues can be ironed out. 

“There are a series for trainings that SchoolsPLP have offered and will continue to offer,” the statement said. “All of the trainings are recorded and also sent out to all of the LEAs. We are also developing a landing page on our ALSDE website that will contain all of the information. As with any new resource, there will be glitches as we begin initial implementation.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

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The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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Selma residents will discuss renaming Edmund Pettus Bridge at Aug. 7 virtual event

Micah Danney

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The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

A group of Selma residents, in response to the latest push to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, has organized and will host a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the proposal.

The forum can be viewed live on the Facebook page of the Selma Matters Campaign on Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. The group encouraged members of the public to attend.

The event will include “leaders from across the country who bring a wealth of knowledge to the various aspects of considering the name change” and will feature Selma locals, including “foot soldiers” of the Civil Rights movement. It will be moderated by LaTosha Brown, a Selma native and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Bernard LaFayette, Civil Rights activist and co-founder of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation.

There have been several initiatives launched over the years to rename the bridge, which bears the name of a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The current push is by The John Lewis Bridge Project, a nonprofit formed to rename the bridge in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis, who led the historic march for voting rights across the bridge and into the batons and fists of white State Troopers and deputized citizens in 1965.

The nonprofit was formed in June, when Lewis was ailing with cancer. Lewis had responded to a previous attempt to rename the bridge in his honor by politely declining it in an editorial. His office did not comment when the current initiative was announced.

Residents of Selma, some of whom were on the bridge in 1965, or had relatives who were, have resisted efforts to rename it. Some argue that its name has become synonymous with the struggle for political and human rights that made it famous. It’s a landmark in the global landscape of freedom struggle sites, and is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The latest petition had a goal of 500,000 signatures. It has surpassed that since Lewis died, and the goal was increased to 1 million signatures.

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“In recognizing this rising effort, the Selma Matters Campaign has dedicated its focus on ensuring the citizens of Selma are given the opportunity to voice their opinions and not be left out of the decision-making process that directly impacts Selma,” the group said in a statement.

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Exposure notification app for college students launches pilot phase

Micah Danney

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Screen captures of the GuideSafe application. (UAB)

College students across Alabama and anyone with a .edu email address are being invited to participate in an anonymous Exposure Notification System app for iPhone and Android users. The app launched in a closed pilot phase on Monday that will allow up to 10,000 downloads for each phone type.

The app is part of the GuideSafe platform, a suite of tools designed to help people reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It features a tool called HealthCheck, which allows users to report COVID-19 symptoms, and another called Event Passport, which uses an algorithm to assess whether a person is safe to attend a gathering of 10 or more people or not based on the responses they log in HealthCheck. 

The GuideSafe platform encompasses the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives. Participation is voluntary and designed to protect users’ privacy while anonymously alerting each user to potential exposure to someone who has tested positive in the last 14 days. The exposure notification system assigns random numbers to each user to keep them anonymous to each other and to the system.

The app will be made available for mass public download later this month after the pilot phase ends and the app’s performance is assessed.

GuideSafe is the largest-scale testing initiative for higher education in the nation. It uses exposure notification technology developed jointly by Google and Apple.

Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, which is part of the state’s program for safe entry to campuses of higher education. Gov. Kay Ivey allocated more than $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the plan.

The pilot app was built by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-based MotionMobs, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”

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Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students

The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches. 

The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31. 

Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office. 

“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.

“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”  

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The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project. 

“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”

According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds. 

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“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus. 

Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama. 

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