Friday, October 06, 2006

The Operations Tail Wagging the Academic Dog

Today, we learn that Raj has said "the new Pathfinder/Cooper would be a K-8, but the two schools would work together to form the details of the program. He said it "wouldn't necessarily keep two hallmarks of the Pathfinder program: a Native American focus and expeditionary learning."

Why does Raj recommend destroying a wonderful and successful alternative program at Pathfinder to create a new one? This is a blatant example of the operations tail wagging the academic dog (to borrow one of Charlie's fabulous phrases).

The Phase II recommendation for Cooper and Pathfinder, as it stands with Raj's most recent "clarifications" would solve a facilities problem at the expense of academic achievement and educational clarity.

The district must get priorities straight and measure every recommendation first in terms of the impact on academics and children's learning.

See today's Seattle Times article, Parents worry West Seattle's Pathfinder program may not survive and yesterday's post, Raj's Latest Attempt at "Clarifying" the Pathfinder/Cooper Recommendation for the full scoop on Raj's latest words.


Anonymous said...

I was just taking a look at Cooper's website. They have a lot of focus on clearly transmitting to parents their academic goals, how they fit with the District's goals, where they are now and how they will get to where they want to be. They also have various resources for parents and students. They even have an outline (presumably for teachers) about rules in the classroom and how to clearly explain them.

I put this all down as evidence that Cooper is clearly putting a lot of their effort and focus on straight academics without a particular vision to their school. Meaning, I don't see a big identity to clash with Pathfinder's. So perhaps their strict alignment with academic goals could meet with Pathfinder's overall school vision. This may be what Raj and the staff saw when they decided to co-join them.

However, what if Pathfinder has a different way to get there than Cooper? What if Cooper parents chose a traditional school model and don't want the education to go beyond that? That last question is key; is the district forcing both to water down what the parents chose for their students?

Speaking on Raj saying that the two hallmarks of Pathfinder - Native American focus and expeditionary learning - might not be kept. Is that because they are too alternative to merge with a traditional program? Is he trying to say that Pathfinder had its chance as a purely alternative school and that their alternative method doesn't work? Because if he is saying that, then they should look at every alternative school through the same lens and ask if they are working for the district.

I say this because it was difficult, as a member of the CAC, to gauge many alternative schools. AS#1, for example, has poor WASL scores and that is probably because so many of their students opt-out. Yet when we asked the principal what measures we could look at, he mostly shrugged. No matter how alternative a school is, they have to be able to demontrate how they are doing. There are a few alternatives that I have doubts about but I have no idea how long the district will let a school go with a program it does not believe is working. Summit has been around 20+ years in a less than great location (in order to attract the maximum numbers of students)and yet the staff recommended in Spring of 2005 that it be summarily closed. I would assume they felt Summit had run its course and they were stepping in.

But how would we know if nothing is explained.

There is an Alternative Schools report which I have read but should re-read because I don't know the answer to the question. Just saying, these two great programs should merge doesn't answer anything.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about AS#1 if there were a review of the academic effectiveness of alternative programs. Their WASL pass rate won't be held against them because it is easy to get the pass rate of students who DID take the test.

There are some other alternative schools, however, that are consistent poor performers by almost every measure. I'm thinking of the AAA, for example. The school is one-third empty with persistent low performance and contentious leadership.

No alternative school is going to get closed, however, because every alternative school has political clout - that's how they got formed and how they continue.

Operations may drive some academic decisions, but politics drives ALL decisions at SPS.

But let's suppose that a review was made and the District determined that a school - or any program - was not academically effective. What would they do? Would they terminate the program or would they invest in it to make it effective? Would they draft an improvement plan and terminate the program if it failed to meet the milestones in the plan? What is the time limit on experiments?

What if they were to make a review and determine that a school was not academically effective? What would they do?

Why isn't the District reviewing programs and schools to determine whether they are academically effective or not? They're supposed to - it's in the District Policies.

Yet another failure of duty by the Superintendent.

Roy Smith said...

Another factor to look at with some of the alternative schools, and particularly with AS#1, is the fact that many of the families involved simply will not enroll their children in a traditional program. Many of the families have tried other schools and found them lacking (for a variety of reasons) prior to enrolling at AS#1, and regard it as the last best hope for them to be served by the public school system. Another significant portion of the families have at some point homeschooled their children, and would go back to homeschooling if AS#1 was closed or altered in ways they find unacceptable. If AS#1 were closed, a significant portion of the families would choose to no longer participate in the Seattle school district, which would result in not insignificant financial impacts, among other things. I suspect this is true for a number of the other alternative schools as well.

I believe the school district still thinks they are operating in an environment where they have an effective monopoly on education. For a large portion of families on the lower rungs of the socio-economic who have no real alternatives to the public school system, this may be true (which may also explain why that population gets abused by the school district). However, for those with the means, whether financial, a stay-at-home parent, ability to move out of the district, or sheer tenacity, there are a number of other options. I do not advocate, in most aspects, operating the school district like it is a business. It is an educational establishment, and has far different needs, resources, and criteria for success than a business. However, like a business, the Seattle school district operates in a competitive environment, like it or not, and in this environment, good customer service is one of the key determinants between success and failure. For a school district, good customer service means giving families schools that they want to send their children to. For some of those families, this means alternative schools (and in many cases, not just an alternative school, but a particular idea of an alternative school, since the term "alternative school" covers educational approaches that are all over the map).

Since school district policy prohibits (with good reason) involuntary assignment to alternative schools, I would submit that only one criteria is particularly useful or should really matter in assessing whether an alternative school remains open: does it continue to attract enrollment? Reference area schools can (and I believe should) use a broader range of criteria, but part of the reason that more criteria are useful is that it is possible (although still not particularly easy) to avoid trying to compare apples and oranges when assessing reference area schools. Even comparing alternative schools to each other is in many cases trying to compare grapes and bananas. A multi-year downward trend in enrollment at an alternative school would be a good reason to consider closing it. If it is growing, get out of the way and give it room to grow! If it maintains stable enrollment, but is in a site that is either too big for the school or otherwise doesn't make sense to keep open (as may possibly be the case with Pinehurst), then the district should make a concerted effort to work with the school to find a solution that is acceptable to the school and doesn't destroy the reasons that it attracts families in the first place. I actually expect this sort of process to take place in the next few years with AS#1 (assuming that the Phase 2 recommendation is beaten down). The district actually does has some valid reasons for not wanting to maintain the Pinehurst site, and AS#1 is not averse to moving, if it is done in a way that the school is comfortable will preserve the uniqueness and security of the school community.

Above all, this points at a process that is much slower than Phase II (and probably slower than Phase I) and which is undertaken in a manner that builds trust and seeks proactive solutions, rather than a process in which the district dictates the solutions to its perceived problems and expects families to buy into those solutions without having any significant input. However, this proactive, engaged, long-term approach is very difficult to do when the district staff approaches its problems with a crisis mentality.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely said, Roy!

Beth Bakeman said...

Roy, I noticed there was no coverage of last night's AS#1 hearing in the paper today.

Can you tell us how it went? What were the general themes? Did both schools use their entire testimony time? Were all Board members there, or only some? And any district staff?

Anonymous said...

Sorry - this isn't on point to the post, but I want to add some information to Charlie's post re African American Academy:

"There are some other alternative schools, however, that are consistent poor performers by almost every measure. I'm thinking of the AAA, for example. The school is one-third empty with persistent low performance and contentious leadership."

1/3 empty: at 437 enrollment vs 639 capacity in 2005 - true.

contentious leadership: don't know about that.

persistent low performance: there is a case to be made for that hypothesis in the middle school, but the 4th grade 2005 disaggregated WASL and value-added metrics put AAA at or near the head of the pack in the south end in reading and in solid position in math, as I've said before.

Looking at metrics that get more at the program than the student (The district's "value-added achievement index" and WASL scores disaggregated for those in the program 2 years or more), AAA's 4th grade writing is the only area that looks dodgy - the rest are solid.

Add in AAA's free-and-reduced lunch % of 88.5% (the highest in the south end) and the high inverse correlation between academic achievement and poverty, and their 4th grade results are even more notable.

If the conventional wisdom says comparing to the rest of the south end is damning by faint praise, there is data to refute that, too.

I put a link to the "instructional effectiveness" graphs we did for CAC here before and don't want to beat a dead horse so won't repeat, but see also the trend charts at OSPI with spring 2006 results – though 3rd grade results are curious…

Roy Smith said...

No newspaper reporters showed up at the AS#1 site hearing, in spite of lobbying on our part to get them to be there. KOMO 4 was there and did present a short piece on the 11 o'clock news Thursday.

The hearing itself went extremely well. We made a conscious effort to model the values that we as a school teach to our children, and to not let the hearing be a mindless display of anger and frustration. In kidmail that was sent out to all families prior to the meeting, the following was written: "THE SPIRIT OF THE MEETING, THE SPIRIT OF AS#1: AS#1 teaches by modeling, and in the meeting we will model respectful interaction. The intention of this meeting is to humanize AS#1 for the Board Members (we are not just square footage and dollars), and to humanize the Board Members to us (they are not unfeeling rubber stampers).

We will show the Board Members what our NORMS are for our students and our parents:
1) Stay Engaged
2) Speak Your Truth
3) Experience Discomfort
4) Expect and Accept Non-Closure
5) Listen for Understanding"

The superintendent and all seven board members were present (although one had to leave early for another commitment). Also present were the Chief Academic Officer, Associate Academic Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and the district’s Communications Director.

Prior to the hearing, we put a large amount of effort into developing about a 40-45 minute coordinated presentation. We still had to follow the three minute testimony rule, so we broke our presentation down into 3 or 6 minute pieces, and for the 6 minute pieces, signed up two speakers, one of which yielded their time to the other.

AS#1's principal spoke first. He welcomed everybody to the school, and reiterated the idea of maintaining a respectful dialogue that nonetheless spoke our truth. Some of the speakers did speak directly to our frustration with the process that has gotten us to this point. One speaker specifically pointed out that there were aspects of the process that seemed to be legally questionable. Collectively we put a good deal of effort into presenting a coherent, reasoned case that this specific co-location proposal was an idea that would ultimately either have to be undone or would lead to the closure or failure of one or both of the schools involved. Throughout, we maintained a cordial atmosphere. Several speakers did in fact run over their alloted time, but because we had established a non-hostile environment, they were allowed to finich their testimony gracefully (one actually ran significantly over time), rather than being shouted down as has been known to happen at the school board meetings.

Summit speakers only used about half an hour, so a number of additional individuals had the opportunity to speak on behalf of AS#1.

Afterwards, members of our community heard from at least 5 (Sally, Mary, Cheryl, Michael, and Brita) of the 7 board members, and the general things they shared were that: 1) they truly appreciated receiving a kind welcome; 2) they were impressed by the commitment we have to our school; 3) our presentation definitely had an impact. The important thing about this (from my point of view) is that I am not sure our articulate and well-reasoned presentation would have had as much (if any) of an impact if it had been presented in a tone of anger, frustration, and blame.

After the bulk of the AS#1 presentation, an individual (Eric - don't recall last name) who has spoken at a number of school board meetings, including one I attended, spoke. He spoke to how impressed he was by the manner in which the AS#1 community conducted itself, and he talked about how this was the calmest testimony that he has given for quite some time. He acknowledged that he has spoken from a place of frustration and anger on a number of occasions and seemed genuinely impressed that perhaps the way we had chosen to get our point across could possibly be at least as effective.

Did it work? Well, we will know for sure about that point in the course of the next 3 1/2 weeks. But the initial response seems very positive, and I believe that the board, and perhaps even the district staff, are willing to work constructively with us.

Beth Bakeman said...

Thanks, Roy, for that wonderful report on your site hearing. I liked it so much I made it a post of its own so that everyone is sure to read it.