Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thinking Creatively

Charlie Mas, in a comment on a recent post, made the following suggestions. I appreciate Charlie's in-depth knowledge of the district and his willingness to think creatively, proposing alternative solutions.

Here's what I can think of: For AS#1 - campaign to move to a larger bulding in better condition; McDonald comes to mind. Remind the District that you have a successful program with no excess capacity that should be left alone. If the intention is to have your program "co-house" but not consolidate with Summit, then why not have John Rogers do it? (or whatever elementary school has that reference area).

If the District doesn't want to fill the empty space at Jane Addams with Rogers, they have all of the programs at Wilson-Pacific, all of the programs at John Marshall, and the Secondary B.O.C. all looking for new homes. Let them take the space.

Cooper: I believe that the District assignment policy precludes a mandatory assignment out of a school. In other words, if all of the Cooper students refuse to leave, then the District can't move Pathfinder into the building intact. 185 kids won't fit. A well-organized and cohesive "Hell No We Won't Go" campaign may provide you with a bargaining chip. But what do you want? I know, you want your building and a reference area big enough to fill it.

Pathfinder: You can't be happy about this. Can't the District find some other building for Pathfinder? How about E.C. Hughes? How about Fairmont Park? How about something on the Denny site after Denny moves across the street? Can the Genesee Hill space be totally renovated and made to work? Instead of spending $68 million to build a brand new elementary school in the Southeast (where they are closing buildings) for The New School, why don't they spend that money to build something for Pathfinder? Why will they do it for the New School but not for Pathfinder?


Roy Smith said...

AS#1 doesn't need a larger building, and moving to a larger building would just invite the excess capacity argument to be used against it in the future. In terms of size, Pinehurst is a good fit, particularly as the AS#1 school community is not seeking to grow - just to remain stable as a fairly small school. Furthermore, the school district's facilities surveys give the McDonald and Pinehurst buildings the exact same (and very poor) scores for both Educational Adequacy and Building Condition.

In spite of the building condition, AS#1 will do just fine if it is just left alone (a new building would be nice, but it hardly qualifies as a crisis). According to the district's own report (the Superintendent's Preliminary Recommendation Report for Phase 2 closures), the goal in the north end is to utilize excess capacity at Jane Addams. Closing the Pinehurst building seems very much to be an afterthought, and in my view, closing the Wilson-Pacific building is a lot higher priority than closing Pinehurst, and would probably be less disruptive, too.

Moving John Rogers into Jane Addams doesn't work any better than AS#1 moving there, from the viewpoint of space considerations - John Rogers is actually slightly larger enrollment than AS#1.

Anonymous said...

AS#1 may be a successful program (I have no idea), but for how many? Is it correct that enrollment went from 273 in Oct 2005 to ~210 today? If so, a) unfortunately, that's too small a population to be financially sustainable in the public sector, even if the district weren't strapped for funds, and b) that doesn't seem like the trend of a successful program.

Re McDonald, not sure how opening a surplus facility (it's not even considered interim, is it?) provides savings - no admin savings (which there wouldn't be with a move to Summit anyway) or facilities savings.

Re New School - I agree this is inexplicable. How does SPS justify a new K-8 a) in the backyard of a virtually new and solid K-5 (Dunlap) and 1 mile away from another virtually new K-5 (Emerson), and b) after they've spent the last 6 months helping people understand the capacity surplus in the South End that makes school closures necessary.

My understanding is the board is in favor of this, so if you're asking questions of them, that's one that should be at the top of the list.

I try to pull from the same end of the rope as the district AND the board (most of them, anyway), not because I agree with everything they do but because it's imperative for all of us that they be successful - but that one is beyond me.

But even if they were to not build the New School, with all due respect to Charlie and roy smith, spending the money to rebuild Pinehurst for AS#1 in its current state doesn't seem to make sense either...

Anonymous said...

Apologies - Charlie suggested rebuiling Genesee Hill for Pathfinder, not Pinehurst for AS#1. My mistake -

Roy Smith said...

Regarding AS#1:

1) The conventional wisdom among the AS#1 community seems to be that the upcoming Phase 1 closures, which were widely publicized to be focused on elementary and alternative programs scared a lot of people off from considering AS#1 (it being both alternative and elementary and widely perceived as vulnerable). I don't know if there is any way to quantify that effect or not, but the same argument has been made to explain enrollment declines at several other schools.

2) Lots of people like to make the statement that bigger schools are more cost effective, but nobody ever actually bothers to bring data to back up that statement. Before discounting AS#1 as being too small to be financially sustainable, show us some data. Somehow, AS#1 has survived on the same funding formula the rest of the district uses, so my guess is that it is in fact financially viable (aside from its old building, which is pricy to maintain).

3) Selling AS#1 as a successful program is generally difficult, because the first thing district administrators want to look at is WASL scores. AS#1's WASL scores are awful, but for a very good reason: the school actually tells parents that they have the legal right to opt out of WASL testing. Most schools are very, very quiet about that fact, because when a student opts out, they are recorded as failing in all areas. Somewhere around half of the students at AS#1 opt out each year, making the resulting aggregate scores very low and generally meaningless.

So, when AS#1 is described as successful, the only data that can be really presented is fuzzy data that reflects things like very high levels of parental involvement, parent-teacher communication, and satisfaction of parents and students. Unfortunately, this stuff is difficult to quantify and therefore gets ignored.

As an aside, the particular problems of quantifying the "success" of the AS#1 program represent in microcosm the difficulties of trying to reduce the performance of any educational institution down to discrete quantities. It either can't be done, or if it is somehow done, decisions based on the quantitative analysis are very likely to result in perverse outcomes.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, roy smith, I wasn't very clear on the financial sustainability point - what I meant is that it is not sustainable for the 46,000 student-system as a whole.

AS#1 may have been financially sustainable under the current subsidized system that is "weighted student formula", but (and this will sound clinical and harsh - sorry) it wouldn't be under the original definition of that formula, and because of that, it reduces the already scarce funding dollars available to all schools (and note: it's not the only one - any school under 250 pretty much does the same thing.)

Not sure how much you know about weighted student formula and I apologize if you do - it was intended to allocate budget $ to schools for each principal to spend as s/he saw fit. Every school gets a flat rate of $/student, but some students count as more than "1" so that more money is sent to schools with higher poverty, more bilingual students, and more special needs students.

That was the original idea; the current formula has that, but gives $250,000 over and above that to each elementary school as "foundation" - money to pay for a principal, 1/2 a librarian, an admin and a couple of other things.

The district added "foundation" because any school under ~250 would have gone under immediately (the ruthless free market approach doesn't go over very well in the public sector).

The board asked the same question you did - more data - in particular, for an analysis of school size and financial viability - see https://www.seattleschools.org/area/cac/schoolsizemodel.pdf.

The model assumes no foundation - it adds that money back to the flat rate, and then shows what positions you can pay for and not pay for at each level of schools size (250, 350, 400 and 450).

At 250, there is no ARt teacher, no music teacher, no PE, no counselor - not much of anything.

At 200, at $4199/student, that's even $210K less, so there go your admins, your librarian, and maybe 1/2 a principal.

Note: this model doesn't include the dollars allocated to schools for "characteristics" (i.e., poverty, bilingualism, special needs), because it's assumed those dollars must be spent on those needs, and not for basic classroom teachers and admin costs.

Beth Bakeman said...

The Board is planning on changing the weighted student formula this fall as well.

For me, it's another example of how addressing issues (excess capacity, restricting choice, restricting transportation, changing the funding formula)individually is going to lead to bad decisions. We need to think more holistically about how these decisions are going to interact, and the impact this with have on the students.

Anonymous said...

beth bakeman, we don't know that they aren't looking at these issues more holistically - just because we each don't get to participate in every decision and be privy to every discussion doesn't mean it isn't happening.

that said, SPS is unfortunately pretty awful at messaging and at communicating what is going on.

I sympathize with them though - it seems as if people feel that because these are public schools, and their children are involved, they get to direct things and have their demands met. Pretty hard to meet the demands of 40-some thousand families - should we really all get to have our emails personally answered?

also, many of these are massively complex issues that most people don't have the time or desire or bandwidth to understand, therefore they tend not to be very useful partners in problem-solving.

"Let's have the Garfield jazz band perform at Hamilton so we can raise money and not have to close schools" is the tone of much of the "help" and it's earnest and heartfelt but uh not really that helpful.

Roy Smith said...

I wasn't aware of the foundation. That being said, I looked at the school size model, and here are my observations and questions:

1) If this analysis is at all reflective of reality, then the state's failure to fund basic education is even worse than I though. But that probably isn't news to anybody.

2) The average class size in elementary schools is supposed to be well below 26/1 (which is what the model seems to be based on). Where is this funding coming from?

3) I hate to offend the prevailing mindset about what elementary schools "have" to have, but art teachers, music teachers, PE teachers, and counselors are all extras in an elementary school setting. My own elementary school experience (yes, 25 years ago in a much smaller place than Seattle) featured none of the above except on a one-day/week basis for music teachers, and we shared our principal with another elementary, but the fact that I and my family knew nearly everybody in the school more than compensated for this lack of extras. In the case of the school funding model, if you raise the fixed costs/overhead high enough (i.e., say that every school needs 10 staff beyond the core teaching staff), then you can always prove that small schools are not financially viable.

If given the choice, I would generally pick the smaller school over the school with all the neat extras, and I would be surprised if I am the only elementary school parent that feels this way. Smaller schools have a reputation for (and I believe there is research data to back this up, but I don't have time to find it) higher levels of parental involvement, better parent-teacher communication, and lower levels of disciplinary problems. Problem is, none of those items can be readily assigned dollar values, so they get ignored in favor of the industrial model of education mindset that "bigger schools are more cost-effective". Mindlessly pursuing efficiencies of scale in education may save money, but it won't improve education.

Beth Bakeman said...

Anonymous, I think it is a pretty safe statement that they aren't looking at these issues holistically when the response to questions about changes in choice, transportation, etc. is that we have to "finish" the closure discussions before they can turn their attention to those issues.

And yes, we (the citizens, whether we are parents or not), deserve to get our e-mail answered. It's called customer service and responsiveness to constitutents. Public officials all over the country are expected to do this. Seattle Public Schools can figure out a way to do it, too.

Finally, if the district could ever build up a certain amount of goodwill and trust from a combination of open, frequent communication and a track record of accomplishments, then "we" might cut them some more slack. Clear leadership and a vision presented by a dynamic superintendent wouldn't hurt either.

But, until then, if I don't know what's going on, can't find out answers to questions when I try, and am appalled by most of the decision-making processes and results, then I am going to continue to question and probe and demand answers.

Anonymous said...

And for the record, staff and parents from Pathfinder, along with district facilities staff, toured Fairmount Park and EC Hughes to see if either might be a good option. Floor plans and architectural designs were consulted. Both were either too small and/or would require too many structural & other building improvements (meaning no money to do any of that) to make them viable options. The problem is that the "only" options we have been presented with are the schools that are currently in West Seattle and no budget to work with. No chance for creative thinking, no re-looking at previous financial commitments (BEX levy dockets) to see if they still make sense, no looking to the future to see what's the best course of action. Is it too late for that??

Anonymous said...

NO, it absolutely not too late to campaign for what should be on the levy and that will be the bulk of my remarks tonight.

A new school for the New School should not be built; not when they have another almost brand-new K-8 building with a program that is undercapacity and doing poorly academically. That money should go to Pathfinder and build them a new school, not take over Cooper.

If the levy list does not reflect the realities of what is happening during school closures, then I won't vote for it and I will lobby against it. In this case, it is not a vote against any school gettting remodelled but a vote against the district not keeping faith with the parents and the taxpayers.

Tell the Board NOW how you feel about the levy.

Anonymous said...

Re: levy - we have read in the West Seattle paper about a $125 million revamp for Denny and Sealth. Is that so urgent - could some of the $ be spent on the projects you all suggest, instead? Seems like an awfully high price tag.

Anonymous said...

Roy - the $125M for Denny and Sealth is actually cheap, thanks to the use of shared areas. The district believes it will cost roughly $75M to construct a new K-8 such as Pathfinder. These numbers do seem outrageous, but they are due to the fact that construction costs are going up 10+ percent a year. This is exactly what has pushed the costs up on the big transportation projects around Seattle. Because the district collects the levy money over time, they have to space the projects out over time. Thus the projects often run 50-70% more costly than they would be if we did them today. (Figure 10% for 5 years, and don't forget to compound interest!)
Of course none of this says that Melissa's idea wont work, and I personally think it is the first real, thought out, creative idea I have heard recently on solving this problem. I don't know if it will work - I don’t know the intricacies of how things get on the BEX levy. I do know that the operations subcommittee of the board in their last meeting looked at only 2 options (mostly identical projects with one or two exceptions) as if the decisions on BEX III were already made. One concern I do have with Melissa’s proposal is that even if Pathfinder K-8 were on the BEX III levy AND it passes, these solutions are 7 or so years down the line … but the problem with the Genesee Hill building is NOW. I personally don’t think that the 6th, 7th and 8th grades will survive that long abandoned out in decrepit trailers.

Beth Bakeman said...

I asked Mark Green tonight, "What is the chance of getting a rebuild of the Genesee Hill building for Pathfinder on the BEX III Levy?" And he said "Zero." When I asked why, he said it was because the decisions for what was going on BEX III had already been made, there was no "will" to change them, and no time to change them.

I told him that we can influence the "will" and that if the final decision has not been made, it is not too late.

Anonymous said...


Heard figures of $63-70 million for New School and Stuart Sloan's name bandied about and admit I do not understand nor know he history of this project.

What IS the history of this project and who is/are driving force(s)?

New School certainly seems to be a hot button for many.

Beth what do you think about starting a BEX III/New School Heading? (Don't know how you keep up at all)

Anonymous said...

So many different topics in this thread.

1) The data on the OSPI web site will allow you to see disaggregated AS#1 WASL scores so you can calculate the pass rate for students who actually took the test. AS#1 is notorious for the number of students who opt out, so anyone in a decision-making role is aware of it and would regard the WASL score data with that adjustment in mind.

2) AS#1 does not have to grow. But if the school is getting a new building (or getting its current building renovated) a 300 student capacity space would not be a bad thing. The District could upgrade McDonald and then move AS#1 into it or they could use McDonald as an interim site while renovating Pinehurst for AS#1. Moving the school to McDonald just takes one less move, allows a more flexible construction schedule, and moves the school a bit to the south. The goal is not to realize savings but to properly house AS#1 - an aim at least as honorable.

3) I can't say whether AS#1 is financially viable with their current enrollment, but I haven't heard them complain about a lack of resources.

4) I believe that it is not unreasonable for the School District to meet fairly ordinary standards of customer service. It's not as if all 35,000 families are all demanding service at the same time from the same person. If someone can take time out of their life to contact the Board or the Superintendent, then they do deserve some sort of response. It doesn't have to be a terribly long or personal one.

5) It is true that there is a lot of input from uninformed members of the public. That doesn't justify ignoring all public input, it justifies educating the public.

6) I know a lot about the history of The New School. If you like conspiracy theories you'll love this story. It's a little hard for me, personally, to get worked up about it. I find it difficult, for example, to view the Alliance for Education as an evil cabal. How can I question the motives of people who are giving money to public schools?

Anonymous said...

Charlie and beth bakeman re responsiveness from district - 35,000 families (if that is what is) may not all be sending emails to Raj, Mark Green, Carla et al, but the ones who do are no doubt asking substantive questions and will not take "thank you for your interest in Seattle Public schools" responses for an answer.

And I'm willing to bet that many of the senders need the education on issues that Charlie mentions in order to have a meaningful conversation with, which takes time (as you know from writing these posts). (And I'll sound like the Republican I'm not, but doesn't the public bear some of the responsibility for educating themselves?)

Brita is responsive beyond any public official I've ever seen - answers every email, posts her home phone number, has regular posted office hours, she does it all and it's amazing - but the school board is her only job and she doesn't have the operational responsibilities (performance reviews, management reporting, meetings, etc) that the district people do.

Yup, sending emails to any district person can be like putting a note in a bottle, and I've done it and been beyond frustrated. I think it's part culture, but part bandwidth - cut their budgets and staff year after year and have them working in a siege mentality, and they probably won't have too much time for discourses.

When it comes down to it, I'd rather have them spending their time doing holisitic thinking and strategic planning than answering my emails, so I try to cultivate channels more selectively. And those don't necesssarily work all the time either - but that feels like the most constructive approach to me.

Anonymous said...

beth bakeman said:

"Anonymous, I think it is a pretty safe statement that they aren't looking at these issues holistically when the response to questions about changes in choice, transportation, etc. is that we have to "finish" the closure discussions before they can turn their attention to those issues."

My understanding is that until they close schools, they can't redraw reference area boundaries, and until they redraw reference area boundaries, they can't modify choice and the assignment plan, and until they do any of the above, they can't adjust the transportation policy.

At least, they can't publish something to the public or have public meetings on the topics.

Anything they change has to be in time to publish the enrollment guides in time for Feb open enrollment for the following year - I don't know whether the board's Nov 1 vote will enable that for 2007-8, but there is a board work session on 9/27 5-7 pm titled "2 year look at Student Assignment and Transportation changes"


Hard to make their meetings when you have a job of your own, but that's one I'm going to try to make.

BTW, all of the above is another reason you don't want to postpone Phase II closures until next year - modify all of that twice in two successive years?

Roy Smith said...

Eric -
I wasn't the one raising questions about the construction levy costs. I actually work in the construction industry, so the costs don't seem at all out of line to me.

Charlie -
1) No one at the district (that I know of) has criticized AS#1 on the basis of WASL scores, so I don't think it is that much of an issue. My reason for bringing that up was to make a point about how difficult it can be to make the case about whether any school is "a successful program" or not. It is difficult to measure even in the best of cases.

2) A new home for AS#1 would be wonderful. On the other hand, that issue is nowhere near the crisis point, and I think it is safe to say that there are more critical issues that need to be addressed now.

3) As a parent at AS#1, I haven't heard any complaints about resources at AS#1 either. Since the community seems to talk (usually at length) about every issue, important, trivial or otherwise, my conclusion has to be that funding hasn't been a problem.

Re: Customer service
I agree with the points about minimal customer service. When calling, writing, or emailing most elected officials, the constituent will usually get a response. Sometimes it is personal; more often it is a form letter that discusses the officials position on the subject of the constituent's communication. The school board should be able to accomplish at least that much.

Beth Bakeman said...

I should clarify my point --- I said elected official, but I meant public government employee. In my opinion, many (though not all) of the School Board members have been quite responsive to e-mails and other inquiries. It is the school district that is not.

And I don't necessarily require personalized e-mail responses. Good, up-to-date form e-mail responses are appropriate. An auto-response to an August e-mail with a list of hearing dates to attend in May is not.

We need a new superintendent, and it needs to be someone who can change the culture of the Seattle School District. The culture needs to be one that is not just responsive to community members' input, but actually inviting and open to input, ideally before decisions are made.

Anonymous said...

Beth, Mark Green may be saying there's no will or time but that's because no one has the will or will make the time. Facilities loves to push, push, push and then say, "no more time, make a decision" and for some reason, the Board falls for it. They have to make the decision about what is on BEX III by mid-October.

What is the history of the New School? Tortured and secretive. In short, I'm not sure who knows for sure. If I am pushing for them not to build for New School, then I'd better understand it so maybe that's on my list (after finishing a paper on middle schools for Sally Soriano). Part of the problem is a litany from yet another school group who was "promised" something in a vaccum and now we are in a time and place where we need to look at the district broadly.

AS#1 was a bit of a problem for the CAC. We knew that many of their students didn't take the WASL (good for them) but the principal was very unhelpful in showing us how to measure their students progress. I think that is one of the main problems for the district. There was a dispute between Olchefske and AS1 over their report cards. I have no problem with individual progress reports but any school needs to show, in some clear manner, how each student is doing.

Anonymous said...

I think that we fall into a trap if we even discuss AS#1. The problem that the District is trying to solve (excess capacity) is not an AS#1 problem. AS#1 should never have become involved in the solution. It would be best to remove them from this issue and keep them out of it.

The excess capacity problem is at Jane Addams. The District needs a solution that does not disrupt learning communities that don't have these sorts of problems.

I think it a bit strange that the District cannot connect their two questions in the north end: A) What will we plug into the empty space at Jane Addams? and B) Where can we put the programs now at Wilson-Pacific and John Marshall and where can we put the secondary B.O.C.? I would be pleased and relieved to learn that they have considered Jane Addams as possible locations for these programs.

In a similar way, Cooper should not be a topic of discussion. As with AS#1 there is nothing going wrong at Cooper. Cooper should be left the hell alone.

The problem there is finding a suitable building for Pathfinder. The answer, of course, would be for District to expend a little capital - okay, a lot of capital - to create a suitable building for Pathfinder at one of the available sites in West Seattle: E C Hughes, Fairmont Park, or Genesee Hill.

The Pathfinder problem has nothting to do with Cooper and Cooper should be left out of it.

The District could find the necessary capital for the Pathfinder project in BEX III if they would either drop the ridiculous spending on The New School or do just the necessary spending at Nathan Hale as described in Option 2. (Why doesn't Nathan Hale take some of that unused space at Jane Addams?)