Wednesday, September 27, 2006

First Discussion on School Choice & Transporatation

Interesting discussion today at Board Work Session on changing the school assignment and transportation plan. Here's what I took away from this meeting:

The School Board members seem to have reached some level of consensus that the systems need to be overhauled and that, probably, will include limiting choice and transportation.

This was an opening conversation, and not a presentation of concrete options or suggestions. Changes to the systems for 2007/08 will be small -- only what is necessary to support closures and consolidations. Major systemic changes will be implemented for 2008/09.

Spent a fair amount of time talking about the purpose of each plan, who is currently being well-served, who isn't, and what some of the issues are for both the transportation and assignment systems.

Surprisingly, when discussion got very focused on dollars and cents, many Board members returned the focus to academics, and what is best for children and families. I was encouraged by comments from Darlene Flynn about needing to take into account the "soft costs" of not serving children and families well. Several people talked about long-term plans, and putting all options on the table to make comprehensive changes to the systems rather than the patchwork system of changes and fixes that have been made over recent years.

Only one reference to the CACIEE plan and only one reference to school closures and consolidation during the meeting makes me feel like each effort is happening in a vacuum.

A lot of talk about program placement, the desire to have a K-8 in every section of town (that might, or might not be an alternative school), to have quality schools and good choices equitably distributed around the city; all-city draws should be located centrally.

Considering redrawing 1-mile walk boundary, maybe making it smaller. Said that many families choose a school farther than 1 mile away so they can get bus transportation. Board wants to explore issues behind this and look for solutions for supervised pre-/post-school care that doesn't involve riding around on a bus. "Walking school bus" system was piloted at Bailey -Gatzert this year where adults were paid to walk groups of children to school following a route like a school bus would in the neighborhood.

Darelene Flynn spoke several times about high concentrations of children living in poverty in a school and the negative effects it has on academic achievement. Made it clear that this wasn't because poor children can't learn, but instead because these schools don't have additional resources (dollars or time) that other schools do. (These remarks lead me to believe Darlene would be supportive of income-based tiebreaker in the assignment process, and exploring pooled PTA fundraising, which are two of my favorite ideas for system change at the moment.)

Brita Butler-Wall brought up the idea of feeder patterns, where a child enrolled in a certain elementary school would be guaranteed a spot in a certain middle school and a certain high school, with the choice to "opt out" of this default assignment and choose something else.

Michael DeBell followed up on this idea with the suggestion of getting rid of Enrollment Centers and having enrollment handled at neighborhood schools, which he thinks would be possible if assignment plan was simplified.

Some interesting random quotes:

Michael DeBell said whatever plans were created would need to "maintain or attract as many families as possible to Seattle Public Schools ...to increase market share."

Irene Stewart said "reference areas are totally artificial...don't make any sense...not necessary for the 'right' assignment system."

Michael DeBell said, "What would it look like to have regional K-8s with assignment preference for the local neighborhood?"

Brita Butler-Wall said "...need to revisit the concept of tiebreakers."

Irene Steward said "Everyone should re-read the Alternative Education Policy," passed by the district in June of this year.

Brita Butler-Wall said the district needs to do "more than just a legally mandated hearing" to get community input on the revisions to assignment and transportation.


Anonymous said...

Read in the PI article that Brita said something about having spent 40 hours choosing a middle school for her child(ren). Well, duh. If the schools were in better shape, wouldn't take so long. We have to choose a middle school for our son, for whom we managed to find the rare excellent SPS elementary experience, and it's going to take a lot longer than 40 hrs ... for example, we were thinking a lot about Pathfinder, but with the whole "PF and Cooper will co-house and figure out how to create a new program" uh, no thanks. The Washington Virtual Academy is starting to look pretty darn good.

Anonymous said...

I was struck at the level of actual discourse and discussion. It is rare to see actual progress at these things and it was great to be there and hear real issues being considered.

From my notes:

Mary Bass seems to thing that program placement drives where people sent their child. I think it's a lot more complicated depending on who you are. As was discussed, many immigrant parents have no idea about the SPS system of enrollment. It's complicated even if you live here. For other parents, it's having their child close to home. I know for other parents they DON'T want certain programs (like Spectrum) and deliberately choose other schools. And, all parents want a good school that they can feel a buy-in for.

Sally brought up (as did Irene) how old and antiquated the computer system is for enrollment. This is frustrating because I thought most of the major tech systems for the district were up-to-date.

Brita brought up a dilemma which is providing bilingual services to students while trying to cut costs. Right now, students need to be served, no matter how few students in that school speak the language. I remember bringing this up during the CAC work and having the head of Bilingual Services saying that these kids deserved the right to be close to home. But wouldn't it make for a better bilingual program for more kids to be grouped together (not one school per language in the city but one school in each region) and enjoy the friendship of being able to talk to each other?

The Board was playing a little catch-up on the K-8 front. The CAC heard over and over that parents want K-8s. We do have some K-8s but most are alternative and many parents either don't buy into alternative or don't understand it. So the district either opens more traditional K-8s (unlikely) or needs to educate parents on alternative schools.

Michael DeBell mentioned how the pilot program with Ballard and Franklin on Metro had the kids able to access the library before and after school. He also threw in Hale (which has had late start for several years). Unfortunately, Hale, like Roosevelt, West Seattle and several other high schools, also has several late arrival dates per month (for teacher planning) and, at least at Hale, kids are discouraged from coming early to access the library.

There was mention of the assignment plan used in Boston and how well it works. I'll have to research that.

Darlene mentioned that she wanted to see stats on how concentration of poverty (with large groups of free/reduced lunch students at one school) affects academic outcomes. I was puzzled at this because I thought it was clear (and it is from the closure list) that concentrated poverty provides a very high level of challenge. It isn't insurmountable (see Van Asselt) but teasing out how to address it best at each school is.

Darlene also throw out this tantilizing remark, something like "I already know the answer to this puzzle...as we all do." And, then, she just stopped and no one asked her what she meant! Either they know what she's saying and are ignoring her or thought she was blowing smoke.

Michael also talked about a default plan (basically a feeder pattern) so there would predictability for parents who didn't care to worry about what school their child would be in. So, depending on reference area, you would know elementary to middle to high just by looking at a map. Brita said it could work as an opt-out program, meaning, you had to opt-out of the feeder program (and would be able to do so freely if with somewhat restricted choices).

What seems apparent is that perhaps bus drivers and transportation folks in the district have not been accessed as valuable resources. Brita mentioned having middle school kids take yellow buses in the morning and Metro in the afternoon. I'm wondering what the yellow bus drivers would think of that (no less parents).

It was a good discussion but with many details to iron out. Interestingly, they mentioned but did not discuss tie-breakers. (Brita alluded to the fact that they can't discuss the racial tie-breaker because of the pending Supreme Court case.) They also briefly mentioned the problem of having no seats left at many schools for late-comers (this one identified by New School as something they want for their school).

Beth Bakeman said...

CC, Pathfinder is a great middle school option, with amazing, dedicated teachers. My prediction is that the recommendation to co-locate (or merge) Pathfinder and Cooper will be changed, so don't give up on Pathfinder as a wonderful middle school choice for your son.

Roy Smith said...

CC's comment about Pathfinder illustrates a problem that every school which is faced with major transition has to deal with. Uncertainty about the future direction of a program I think is one of the biggest disincentives to enrolling a child in that program. I expect that AS#1, Summit, and Pathfinder will all have lower enrollment for the next couple of years while the transition process happens and the schools stabilize in their new forms. The cynical side of me is predicting that the school district administration will point to this decrease in enrollment as evidence that "there isn't demand for alternative programs, so they should be cut." I hope I am wrong on both counts, but I'm not expecting it.