Saturday, May 27, 2006

I Supported Closing Schools

When the CACIEE was taking community input, I supported the idea of closing some school buildings. Based on the data, it made sense to me to close a few buildings in poor condition, combining school programs where possible.

The final CACIEE report did recommend closing "a number" of active schools. That recommendation, however, was in the context of a comprehensive plan of other cost-cutting measures, along with recommended investments in Seattle Public Schools.

The CAC school closure plan, by contrast, is being pursued in isolation; a single awkwardly implemented initiative, not a sensible step as part of an overall, thoughtful plan. It has an overly ambitious goal of closing 12 buildings, and it focuses on closing schools in poor shape, as measured by test scores, instead of buildings in poor shape. This disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods.

The CACIEE report mentioned that "Breakthrough thinking will be required, such as creating an incentive system to grow community support for building closures." The district has clearly failed in this area.

Like virtually everyone I talk with, I am completely opposed to the CAC school closure plan. Seattle children deserve better than this.


Anonymous said...

This perspective was echoed in a guest editorial to The Seattle Times by Trish Millines Dziko ("Seattle Schools in Crisis" 5/31/2006), that the closures should have been done within the context of a comprehensive and strategic academic plan. While Ms. Dziko's editorial was unfair, ill-informed, and misguided, the fact remains that the assignment to the CAC was too limited in scope and too limited in time.

Imagine if the Board had directed the CAC to make a comprehensive assessment of the demand for public school services and to re-allocate the district's building capacity to meet that demand. That would have been a smart job. Instead, the Board gave the CAC a dumb job to do: "Find the 11 or 12 elementary school buildings we can close with the least fuss."

The Board was under a lot of pressure to close buildings right away. The key to the district's financial sustainability is more money from Olympia and legislators told them that there would be no more money until SPS closed some schools. They have to do it by June to get it done before the legislature meets next. That's what drove the short deadline.

But even if the CAC had to do the dumb job and do it fast, they didn't have to position it as a negative. They should have always worked from the perspective of improving academic opportunities for students. They should never have mentioned facilities at all. So, for example, when consolidating Fairmont Park and High Point, they should have focused exclusively on how this change would provide improved opportunities and amenities for the students.

If approached their job from that perspective - and stayed locked in that perspective - never talking about facilities, never using the words "close building", I think they would not have made some of their preliminary proposals and I think that they would have found their proposals meeting with more public support.

As for the development of a strategic, comprehensive academic plan, that would be nice but the district lacks the infrastructure, the personnel, and the culture to implement any plan, so there's no point in drafting one.

Anonymous said...

"it focuses on closing schools in poor shape, as measured by test scores, instead of buildings in poor shape. This disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods."

There are two factors that led to the closures falling most heavily on poor (and minority) neighborhoods.

1. The high correlation between standardized test scores and affluence. If you're going to use any measure of academic achievement, it is going to work against schools with a high concentration of students from low-income households. Studies have directly attributed no less than 30% of the academic achievement gap to economic factors.

2. The evacuation of schools in low-income neighborhoods. In the Choice Assignment system in Seattle families can choose any school for their children. There are tie-breakers for over-subscribed schools and there are limitations to the district-provided transportation, but there are some schools that are rarely named as a first choice by families. A quick review of the choice pattern shows that the higher the concentration of poverty in the school, the fewer families name it as their first choice. There is a sort of downward spiral at work:

The school has a high concentration of FRE students.

So the test scores are low and discipline rates are high.

So the school gets a bad reputation.

So fewer families, particularly those families that are most involved in their children's education, choose to enroll their children at the school. This hurts test scores because the families that leave tend to have the higher achieving children.

So the school shrinks. The CAC focused on eliminating excess capacity - close the schools that had empty seats. A smaller enrollment also reduces the quality and variety of programs the school can offer and increases the concentration of low-income families, low-involvement families, and low-scoring students.

So even fewer families choose to enroll their children at the school the next year.

Eventually you get to the point where M L King Elementary was. One recent year not a single family named the school as their first choice. With an enrollment of 109 they barely had the budget to keep the school going.

The way the choice system was supposed to work, the district should have stepped in, closed the school, re-invented it, and re-opened it. They didn't. Instead they allowed it to languish and flounder.

People ask: how can the district be closing schools in the neighborhoods where the greatest number of public school students live? The answer is because a significant number of those students don't go to school in their neighborhood. They go north for better schools with better programs.

The District lacks the political will to force those poor and minority students out of those better schools and back to their neighborhood schools. In addition, the District knows that it would not be in the students' best interest because the District knows that the quality programs aren't in those schools.

The District now has a chicken and egg problem: they can't put the students in their neighborhood schools without the quality programs in place BUT they can't put the quality programs in place without students to justify them.

This is why Cleveland High School did not offer any AP classes this year and may not offer any next year. They can't justify putting on the class without students who want to take it, but they can't attract the students who want to take it if they don't offer the class.

It's a tricky problem. We want every school to be a quality school, but a big part of what makes a quality school is an involved community that actively supports their children's education. For a variety of economic, cultural and historical reasons, this involvement and support is generally lower in low-income and minority communities.

How can Seattle Public Schools foster this sort of support and involvement where they need it? Do they even know that's what they should be doing to improve school quality? Are they really committed to doing it?

Our choice assignment system has allowed families to abandon some schools. The District leadership abandoned these schools as well. The district's culture is to bully people into doing what they want instead of coaxing them into it. While the district has been flirting with the idea of forcing people back into their neighborhood schools, they haven't tried improving the schools so that people will choose them. They haven't even taken the first step by asking people WHY they chose one school over all the others.

Nor has the distict duplicated or expanded popular programs. TOPS has been oversubscribed for years and years, but where is TOPS II? The Spectrum programs in the north half of the city are full, but the district won't expand them.

This is the primary dysfunction at the heart of all of the district's problems: Seattle Public Schools is structurally and culturally incapable of responding to the needs of the community it pruportedly serves.

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