Tuesday, March 27, 2007

APP split update

The Board and the District staff appear ready to abandon the Superintendent's decision to relieve the overcrowding at Washington Middle School by dividing the APP community into two unequal parts and attempting to create a new middle school APP at Hamilton without any of the necessary personnel in place or any personal responsibility to see it done.

The decision is likely to be rescinded primarily because the District staff have proven incapable of defending or explaining it. They have gone so long without being asked to explain or defend a decision or to show the data that supports it that they have simply lost the skill set (if they ever had it). The long period without challenge has also resulted in a number of decisions, such as this one, that cannot be explained or defended.

The District's actual goal, the primary motive, was to make sure that neighborhood students had access to the Washington general education program. It turns out that there are only 8 neighborhood students on the waitlist for that program. So all of this turmoil was to make room for 8 students. At the same time, it was revealed that the general education program at Washington includes 273 students from outside the region.

The Board members wondered why 8 of the 273 out of region students could not be displaced to make room for the 8 neighborhood students on the waitlist. They wondered why the school couldn't simply make room for the 8 students without displacing anyone.The Board members asked why the overcrowding couldn't be resolved through less disruptive means. The Board members asked the District staff to demonstrate that they had seriously considered any alternatives. Not only did the staff fail to do that, they couldn't demonstrate that they had seriously considered their preferred alternative. Even after all this time and after repeated Board requests, the staff were unable to provide a comprehensive list the pros and cons of the various options, including the preferred one.

The odd thing is that the staff somehow believes that they have provided that informtion and that the case is self-evident. They haven't made the case, and it is NOT self-evident. Right now all of them are exasperated with each other and this process. I don't think we're going to have another meeting. I would say, as of now, that the staff finds the prospect of another meeting so distasteful - particularly when the next meeting is likely to include a dialog with representatives of the community - that they will walk away from this proposal rather than take that meeting. I would also say that the Board members are exasperated with the poor quality of work they are seeing from the staff, and are anxious to move on to topics that they regard as higher priorities. Towards the end of the meeting Director Butler-Wall reminded Ms Santorno that if the staff chose another path, one that did not include an additional APP site, that the review would be over.

It was clear to me that all five of the people with decision-making authority here (the three Board members, Ms Santorno, and Michelle Corker-Curry) would like to come up behind this dog of an idea and put a bullet in its head. None of them wants to be the one to pull the trigger - at least not in public. They will probably come to an agreement in private to drop the whole thing before the next scheduled meeting. They will all blame each other for it and we will move on to higher priority matters. I am cautiously optimistic that this storm will pass within a few weeks.

I will say, however, that the Board is very likely to re-write Policy D12.00 so that the Board loses the authority to review program placement decisions about APP. After that, this idea may re-surface immediately and next time there won't be any discussion or examination of its merits.


Anonymous said...

It was nice to see something fresh here,even if it isn't an area that pertains to my family. Is this wonderful blogging fading away? I imagine it's a ton of work.

Beth Bakeman said...

Charlie, congratulations on successfully advocating for your position on the APP split.

I do hope the School Board and incoming superintendent hold the district staff to a consistently high standard in their data analysis and policy recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Are they still talking about moving the Spectrum program out of Washington? That was another option on the table from what I have heard. I don't think it makes a lot of sense, especially for Spectrum students who have siblings in APP or who are significantly accelerated in math. I'd like to hear Rainier Scholars folks weigh in on the issue, too.

I don't really understand how the school assignment plan works, if so many out-of-area students got in over the heads of neighborhood students. If they want the school to be smaller and more of a "neighborhood" school, what would be the effect of eliminating enrollment from outside the region, except for magnet programs? or do they not have that option given the current school choice system?

Also, how far outside the region are we talking about? I know I've talked to at least one person who had been assuming that they were in the region for Washington, only to find that they were actually across some boundary or other. Would WMS in fact look *less* like a neighborhood school if you took out all those regular program students who technically aren't in the neighborhood? or are we talking mostly about people who live miles and miles away?

How difficult is it to get into WMS as a general ed student from out of region? I would think that if it's a bit of a crapshoot to get in anyway, people might not be counting on it as much and therefore wouldn't be quite as disturbed about the option going away. Of course it depends what their other options are, which will depend on where they're from.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious - if Carla and Michelle were opposed to it (or are now), who of "staff" was promoting it? Note - naming them doesn't constitute libel or inappropriate disclosure - it's just factual information. It would help us further refine our understanding of the district and how things work.

Decisions and rationale are often attributed to "staff" - by the staff themselves - and it has the neat effect of deflecting accountability as well as any further discussion of an issue. If you can't find out who decided something, it's pretty difficult to contact him to ask about it or provide further information.

This sounds like an attack on SPS but is mostly a dispassionate observation of the unique (and impervious) culture there, from Raj on down.

Many of them mean well, I think (including Raj) but I also think they're helpless in the maw of the culture, which is a thing unto itself and won't change until a leader comes in who sees it, knows it must be reformed, and gets after it - beginning with (to a previous Charlie post) not ever disavowing responsibility for a letter you signed by saying "You know, I didn't write that letter." To which he might as well have added, "Staff did."

Did anyone ever watch "Star Trek - The Next Generation" in the 80's? And see the alien called "The Borg"? The writers must have had access to SPS or another large urban school district or bureaucracy. Here from wikipedia:

"The Borg function as automata; the minds of all Borg drones are connected via implants and networks to a hive mind...

The Borg claim to only seek to "improve the quality of life for all species" ...

They are characterized by relentless pursuit of targets for assimilation, rapid adaptability to almost any defense, and the ability to continue functioning ... despite seemingly devastating blows."

FYI - this show and character were the origin of the phrase "Resistance is futile."

A variant appropriate to SPS is "contact is futile". I wish SPS had the same approach as the city of Seattle, where you can find any employee, his name, phone number, email address and department on the city's website.


Beth Bakeman said...

Still Anonymous, I agree completely! The good news is, at the Community Conversation last week, a couple of us in our group mentioned that we want to be able to find any employee's phone number and e-mail on the website, and Bridgett Chandler, the Director of Public Affairs, said that made total sense and she would work to make it happen.

Now, of course, it will be interesting to see what happens when a relatively new staffer (Bridgett) encounters the existing district culture and whether or not the change will happen.

Charlie Mas said...

Ack! Mistake in the blog entry.

I wrote:
"At the same time, it was revealed that the general education program at Washington includes 273 students from outside the region.The Board members wondered why 8 of the 273 out of region students could not be displaced to make room for the 8 neighborhood students on the waitlist."

Ther are not 273 out-of-region students in the general education program at Washington, but 73 of them. Still a significant number, but only 23% of that population, not a majority of it.

Charlie Mas said...

I don't know if the District will decide to move the Spectrum program - probably to Meany (although they spoke about other schools). I certainly wouldn't advocate for that solution.

The speculation on the out-of-region students is that they are either siblings of students in Spectrum or APP or students who lived in the region when they enrolled in the sixth grade but have since moved out of the region but stayed at Washington. No detailed data is available.

It appeared to me that Ruth Medsker was the staff person who was promoting the split. She was backed up by Colleen Stump. I don't know to what extent other staff members, such as Tracy Libros, Kathy Johnson, and Holly Ferguson either actively supported the plan, passively supported it, or even possibly opposed it.

For all of the talk from Raj about making the District more open, honest, transparent, engaged and accoutable, the program placement process is the absolute antithesis of those values. It isn't open - the meetings are closed to the public and no minutes are available. It isn't honest - as this review has shown. It isn't transparent - there are no rules, no stated priorities; if one member of the committee advocates for a specific solution the committee is likely to accept it. It isn't engaged - they do not solicit input and they do not consider unsolicited input as a factor in their decision (as revealed by this review). It isn't accountable - the members of the committee are anonymous and they only make "recommendations"; the Superintendent makes the decision. Yeah, right. The Superintendent had no role in the decision at all.

They talk about changing the culture, but they haven't really taken any steps towards actually changing it.

I was at the community conversation and tried to talk about the utter lack of dialog and engagement. They would not talk about it or engage over it. They just said, "I'm sorry to hear that. Does anyone else have a similar experience or a different experience?" There was nothing about "Here are the steps you can take to make sure that people will engage you." or "Here are the steps we're taking to make sure that the staff are making true partnerships with the community."

Anonymous said...

I'll be interested to see if we do see a change in phone numbers on the district's website. I complained about this back in August when they changed the format. You don't even know who heads a department. Many times you can call and not get a human being to answer (punch zero all you want and you are likely to get a automated answer). Tip: when calling, don't try to get the operator but call the customer service number directly - 252-0010 - and you're more likely to get a person who can tell you the name of the person who heads a department.

Charlie Mas said...

Without a doubt, the most discouraging part of witnessing this review has been discovering the abysmal quality of the District staff's work.

Their decisions, I have concluded, are determined entirely by asking the principals what they want and then providing it. I suspect that Jon Halfaker told them that he needed to reduce his enrollment and told the Committee that he wanted it done by removing half of APP. They merely complied with his request. Of course, they checked with the principal at Hamilton first to make sure it was okay with him.

It has been my observation that the voice of a single principal carries more weight than the voice of 1,000 student families. That may be because the decision-makers, the education directors and district administrators, are mostly former principals.

Maybe that's not how they came to this decision, but it's clear that the staff didn't gather any data to use as the basis for their decision - at least nothing more than a count of butts and seats. They didn't know the number of the neighborhood students in the school, the number of neighborhood students in each program, or the number of neighborhood students on the waitlist.

It's clear that they didn't consider any of the public input as a factor in their decision. They said so any number of times.

It's clear that they didn't consider the impact this decision would have on Washington. Of the 434 students in the Washington music program - and that includes choir - 308 are APP students.

It's clear that they didn't consider the impact this decision would have on Hamilton. Hamilton will be overcrowded in Washington's place. The staff's projection of the enrollment at Hamilton didn't allow for any increase in Hamilton's enrollment following the school's renovation. The staff's projection of the enrollment at Hamilton didn't allow for any increase in Hamilton's Spectrum enrollment following the placement of APP there.

It's clear that they haven't considered how their decision would be implemented. They have no idea which students will go to which school. They have no idea who will teach the APP classes at Hamilton or how they will recruit or train the teachers for the job. The principal for Hamilton has not been named, so they have no way of confirming that person's support or ability to create the program. The manager of advanced learning for next year has not been named, so they have no way of confirming that person's support or ability to create the program. The Superintendent for next year has not been named, so they have no way of confirming that person's support or ability to create the program. None of the people who made this decision will have any responsibility to implement it.

The staff told the Board members a number of lies during the course of the review. They can get awy with this because the Board members do not have in depth knowledge of these programs. The staff only got caught at one of these lies. They said that the building design plans for the renovated Hamilton were changed to increase capacity from 900 to 1,000 to make room for APP. The Board members, who voted on the Hamilton design, reminded them that the same staff people told them at the time that the new Hamilton's capacity had to be increased to 1,000 to accomodate the increased demand for middle school seats in the Northeast Region. They didn't even blink at the lie, but they asked the staff why, if they soon expect a shortage of middle school seats in the Northeast Region, they propose taking up 180 of those precious seats with APP? There was no response.

The crazy thing, of course, is that the solution doesn't even solve the problem they are trying to solve. If APP is created at Hamilton it will take maybe 150 students directly out of Washington. That will reduce the Washington enrollment to 900, but since Washington will then hold their enrollment to 900 - not allow it to balloon back to 1,050 - this change won't create any more space at Washington for general education students. The "problem" won't be fixed. APP will continue to grow (because the District is actively trying to make it bigger) and general education students will continue to be squeezed out. They will just be squeezed out of a Washington with an enrollment of 900 instead of being squeezed out by a Washington with an enrollment of 1,050.