Schools axe Ombudsman contract

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 1:06am

Nashville’s public school district has ended, after one year, a very large contract for a program that effectively outsources high-risk public school students to a private, for-profit local company.

The program, Ombudsman, is administered by Nashville-based Educational Services of America (ESA). The contract for the 2008-2009 school year, funded with federal dollars, cost $5,320 per student served for a total expense of about $2.55 million. The district’s contract with Ombudsman allowed the program to serve 480 students at any given time, with students rotated in and out as necessary.

Director of Schools Jesse Register has said publicly for months that he believes there are more efficient means of providing the same benefits as Ombudsman, and told Board of Education members Tuesday that he wants to explore other alternatives.

The district pays more per student for kids served by Ombudsman than average per-student expenditures, and Register said the program’s results are in many areas sub-par for district-wide performance. The Gateway pass rate for Ombudsman students in Algebra I was lower than the 2008 average district pass rate, at 20.3 percent instead of 72.3 percent. For Ombudsman students in seventh and eighth grades, Register said data indicates that the average student regressed academically in math.

Register said he believes both MNPS and Ombudsman are responsible for program failings. There was a “lack of collaboration” between the parties involved, he said.

Mark Claypool, Ombudsman’s founder and CEO, said after Register’s presentation that the move was a “surprise.” Up until the last few days, he said, the program hadn’t been aware of problems.

Some of the data cited by Register as sign of failure was taken “out of context,” Claypool said, considering the student population served. Many kids in Ombudsman came to the program at elementary school levels of math achievement, and gained several grade levels during their time there.

Ombudsman leaders call the program a success, Claypool said. The graduation rate for Ombudsman students eligible to finish was 90 percent, Claypool said in a statement, and kids represented by that group had “almost no chance” previously of graduating on time. Attendance improved for kids in the Ombudsman program, too.

“Our program cost about half of what the district historically spends on alternative placements, and we improved attendance, academic performance and graduation,” Claypool said. “We are very puzzled by this decision given the success of the program and the obvious need that the district has for these services.”

ESA operates more than 140 schools and programs nationwide, serving more than 240 school districts. Ombudsman also operates charter schools in Arizona, according to information from the company. Though Ombudsman’s contract with Nashville is one of the company’s largest contracts to date, Claypool said the change won’t set the company back. The contract’s end means that 32 Ombudsman schoolteachers no longer have jobs, however.

Some Board of Education members appeared to have mixed feelings about ending the contract. Board member Steve Glover said he is “bothered, to a degree” to see a program removed that principals have said improved the climate of schools. He said he doesn’t believe the program had the level of “buy-in” it should have had from the district.

Students in the Ombudsman program attend school for four hours each day — three hours for instruction and one for behavioral modification in the form of counseling, allowing them to work or fulfill other responsibilities while completing high school. Classes are held at non-traditional locations, typically storefronts leased by Ombudsman. Teachers in Ombudsman classrooms are hired and employed by the company, though MNPS supplies other staff at the sites.

There is no more than about 20 students in any learning center at a given time. Students’ statuses with Ombudsman are reevaluated every 45 days.