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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Discouraged

I have recently achieved what is, without a doubt, my greatest success as an education activist. Strangers are walking up to me and thanking me for single-handedly saving APP. Of course I graciously demur, noting the role of the Student Learning Committee. False modesty aside - I started the chain of events that postponed the middle school APP split and I should feel some satisfaction from this victory.

I don't feel any satisfaction at all. Quite the contrary. I am, right now, perhaps more discouraged than I have ever been about the effectiveness of family and community activism in Seattle Public Schools. I'm not going to quit, but my efforts - all of our efforts - have never appeared more obviously futile than they do right now.

On Tuesday, the Chief Academic Officer told the Student Learning Committee that the Superintendent would "postpone" his decision to split middle school APP between Washington and Hamilton. This ended the Board review of the decision. The Superintendent didn't rescind the decision - he only postponed it. The District staff fully intends to bring it back. They have not indicated any intention to change it even one whit. They have not indicated any intention to address the decisions multiple faults. All they intend to do is bring the decision back as part of a larger student assignment policy change so this element - splitting middle school APP - won't get as much attention as it is getting as a stand-alone decision.

The Student Learning Committee's review of this decision had revealed it as thoughtless, unnecessary, ineffective, problem-creating, impractical, unpopular, and generally horrible in every possible way. All through the review the staff were uncooperative, reluctant to answer questions, reluctant to provide requested data, and churlish. At the next stage of the review, members of the community would have an opportunity to participate. If the Committee were permitted to complete the review they would, without a doubt, have ruled against the decision. Now they won't have that opportunity.

I'm not upset about having been out-maneuvered. I can take that. What troubles me is that the District staff are so committed with moving forward with such an obviously flawed plan. What troubles me is how desperately the staff refuses to have any kind of dialog with the community.

Although the Chief Academic Officer told the Student Learning Committee on Tuesday that the postponed process would include opportunity for public input, the staff refused to engage in a dialog with the community for ten months prior to the decision and clearly refuse to have any dialog on this topic as part of the postponed process.

So despite the Student Learning Committee's good work, despite all of our efforts, the District staff roll on making some truly horrible decisions, without openness, without honesty, without transparency, without engagement, and without accountability. Everything just moves forward anyway, despite all reason, despite all the lip service paid to these values, despite all of the good intentions in the world.

We simply cannot do any good. We have no hope of being effective. They hold all of the authority and all of the power. They are going to do whatever they want. The best we can do is slow them down a bit. We can't even get them to talk with us. It's pretty damn discouraging.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Charlie,

I always like reading your posts, they are thoughtful and insightful. In a perfect world how would you have liked to see the public input process/community engagemment handled? Would you like a district official to sit down with you and hear your concerns, sit down with the APP larger community and hear their collective thoughts? Would you like a large community meeting with all of the public invited? What will work? And, will it work for everybody? Will it be applicable to each issue that we as parents/community want to address?

Melissa Westbrook said...

What will work? There's two issues here for me.

One is to find out if the RCWs give the Board any more enforcement power than what we (they) currently have. It's hard for me to believe that the only stick that school boards have in this state is over the superintendent. That makes it either an adversarial relationship (and what use is that?) and it makes the Board weak. Why write policies that staff refuses to follow thru on? The Board might as well serve as advocates solely for parents and citizens if that's all they are able to do (and, by the way, that isn't their role even though some parents believe it to be so).

Two, I had been toying around in my head (loosely here so don't jump on me with blah, blah, won't work, blah, blah, impossible - help me) with the idea of writing a SPS parents manifesto. We are going to have a new superintendent, we are likely to get at least 1 and possibly 4 new School Board members, why not identify to them what it is we are most concerned about? Make it a top five (3?) list and explain what we currently have, what works, what doesn't, what we want them to figure out will work (meaning, we don't have all the answers) and try to figure out what programs currently cover what issues. (That's a major problem; we have many programs out there that many of us don't know about, may overlap or worse, work at cross-purposes.) The district told us by closing schools we were streamlining this district. Okay, well, we want to see a streamlined vision with a laser focus.

How to do this? We can start with ourselves. I'm willing to contact as many groups including the Seattle Council PTSA to ask as many parents as possible for input. I can try to contact every school and ask to put it in their weekly take-home newsletter or daily bulletin. I would love to be able to tell the Board and the Superintendent that we got input from hundreds of parents (thousands would be better but that's too much to hope for). I would be willing to do a lot of work for this cause because I think the district needs to hear from masses of parents and not just little groups here and there. Because the problem is that it is easy for the Board and especially staff to dismiss vocal parents or groups and say well, that doesn't represent the majority. We do surveys of teachers, principals and students; why not parents? The district did it when they asked us about how to resolve the issue of weather days that needed to be made up and they got a really good feedback rate.

I think meetings get derailed and people walk away dissatisfied.

Is this a starting point? Is this something you'd be willing to do? I'm not sure I believe the Board and the Superintendent know what really matters to parents. This might let them know.

Anonymous said...

I think some background for the superintendent related to how the public and parent community want to be engaged would be powerful.

I do however, feel like the selection of the persons providing the survey and preparing the report need to be viewed as an independent body without an agenda.

Many of the people that blog here regularly have great ideas, are passionate, and have fought the great fights in the past with the district. Having some of those same names attached to a parent/community report could minimize it's effectiveness with the school administration. Personal bias and individual agendas could taint the message.

I don't know who might be an appropriate independent reviewer. In a perfect world, one would hope that SPS Family and Community Engagement would gather this information to set their program's direction.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, if you think that's bad I can tell you the district's handling of special education students is 1000 times worse. Did you know that the district decided to remove "choice" for school assignment THIS YEAR for all students who receive more than resource room support? That's right, nobody got choice this year if they were transitioning. The services vary so greatly from building to building, with no oversight or quality control, that some students must be taxi'd across town to get the most minimal services. One student I talked to has been assigned to his fourth school for elementary education! The special education advisory committee wasn't even notified of this decision. After sending Colleen Stump a lot of mail, she finally said ok... you can write down another choice in your cluster. (no schools in clusters duplicate services so that amounted to nothing). A consulting teacher also dropped a little bomb... "we've decided on our own clusters, that are different from everyone else's too... and, of course, they're secret. So, you get what you get... but we've designed an appeal process. Hope you like it." As a matter of law in Washington state, all special education students are general education students first. So, this assignment discrepancy is actually illegal too.... but that's never stopped them before either!

Charlie Mas said...

I actually do have some knowledge - not direct knowledge, but I am fairly well informed - of the way that special education students are treated in this District. I certainly have a lot of knowledge - direct knowledge - about how Dr. Stump works.

It all depends on the school, the principal, and the teacher. The range runs all the way from a dream come true to a total freaking nightmare. In a lot of cases the IEP is barely written and hardly read, let alone followed. I know people are working hard, and I know that they are under-staffed and under-funded, but that's not your fault, and it sure as hell isn't your child's fault.

I would focus hard on getting the District to establish some quality assurance. I can't say it is a strength anywhere in the system, so I would also recommend that you learn the District's complaint process and not be shy about using it.

When the new superintendent starts talking about standardized this and standardized that, that's the time for you to ask her about accountability. What is she going to do about those schools and programs that aren't meeting quality standards.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you when a special ed teacher at my school locked a 6 year old autistic kindergartener in a closet for 3 hours... she wasn't really working too hard! And that isn't really a matter of funding either. Principals, if they care, can only do so much.

As to underfunding: the legislated mechanism for high cost students is a through "safety net funding" provided by the state. After about 10 years of NEVER once using this legislated funding mechanism (costing 10's of millions of dollars) and NEVER even applying for it, SPS was funded for 1 student... something like $50,000. Seattle couldn't account for it's spending.... and could never even apply... but it could complain about the kids and their cost, not the cost of the district's failure!

Charlie Mas said...

The District does not account for its spending on anything. I kind of shift back and forth on this. On one hand, that sounds really horrible and mismanaged. On the other hand, there is nothing else in the world like public agency accounting. Seriously. You have people who are paid .2 FTE from one source, .3 FTE from another source, and .5 FTE from a third source with their benefits having a whole different set of funding sources. Then I switch back and reckon that yes, public agency accounting is a nightmare, but it is still their job so they have to do it and they have to do it well. Then I switch back again and remember that the District cannot compete with other businesses on salary when trying to hire accountants so they can only afford people who are out of their depth, and then it all comes back to funding again.

I want to hold people accountable, but part of that is making sure that they have the resources they need to do the job.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

This thread has taken an odd turn. I would like to respond to the first anonymous at the top.

What would public input look like if it were done correctly? It would be a conversation - a dialog in which the district staff would invite involved and informed members of the community to join them at the table as they form their plans. The community members would be invited in, like any other stakeholder, at the "it appears we have a problem" stage not at the "Here's our plan" stage. The community people would be a normal part of how the District makes decisions and does business. It would not be a big production with community meetings and public forums or very much like that at all.

For nearly every special interest or program or school in the District there is an Advisory Committee or Leadership Team. These are the people who would represent the voice and expertise of the community in these conversations. They, of course, would have to keep in close contact with their constituents. They would host regular community meetings and, when necessary, public forums with District support.

It just makes sense to talk to people before you make any decision that is going to impact them. To do otherwise is demeaning and insulting. It's treating them like cattle rather than human beings. The District doesn't have to do anything extraordinary. On the contrary, they only have to do the ordinary: talk to people before you monkey with their lives.

Anonymous said...

How would the district determine who was informed and involved? How many people would they meet with? As many as show interest, or a limited number? Would people that have differing views all go to the same round table? Who would represent "the district"? Would these meetings take place for all changes, or just the big changes?

I agree with you that the district must come up with some way to engage and listen to the community, I have trouble visualizing a way to make it work effectively. What if it were a hot topic like school closure and hundreds of people show up at the meeting? How does everyone get heard? It has to be organized, and then it begins to look like the community meetings that the district facilitated in regard to school closure. Do they have small group meetings, so all can be heard? They may have to have hundreds of these to tackle the big issues like assignment, transportation, closure. Just wondering how to make it work, because you are right, something needs to change.

Charlie Mas said...

These are good questions.

"informed and involved" was intended as a synonym for those community members who have been appointed to the various advisory committees. These committees typically have people with contrasting perspectives.

I see no reason that the meetings could not be open. I would love to go to a Program Placement committee meeting, even if I didn't have the opportunity to speak. I want to know how the District conducts its business.

The trick element here is that District staff don't invite other district staff to their meetings - even when they are stake holders. You have no idea how the dysfunctional culture of fiefdoms, power, factions, rivalries, and internal conflicts has crippled the proper function of the organization.

I envision these meetings with the community members as the meetings that district staff should be holding (but don't) to get together to develop solutions and plans. In a healthy organization these meetings are common, informal, and no bigger - or smaller - than they have to be.

Some big decisions, such as student assignment and closures do require full-blown public forums. Smaller decisions, such as how can we provide Spectrum to elementary students in West Seattle-South, can start on a more human scale.

Let's have open, honest dialog between all stakeholders on some of those smaller decisions and build some trust before we try to play to a bigger crowd.

The District staff need to come out of their fortresses and realize that we're all on the same side here: to promote academic achievement for every student in every school. There is no other side.

Jet City mom said...

Charlie don't sell yourself short
I know it is infuriating to deal with the district, inc individual schools.

Your voice reaches people who otherwise would not have a clue that they were not the only ones who were frustrated.

I know you are discouraged- and no wonder. The district takes community input and does nothing with it.

How much feedback do they need and when do we get to hear how they are addressing that feedback?

Do we get to see how effective the measures are to improve student performance?

How are the Seattle city schools serving the residents of Seattle?

Population is increasing- but not in the district- why is school choice read as you have a choice- move


Will this change when Goodloe-Johnson comes on board in two months?

Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the second of two superintendent finalists in town to speak with Seattle school officials and community leaders, told an invitation-only forum on Friday that she didn't consider herself a cheerleader for education.

Instead, the current superintendent of the Charleston County School District in South Carolina emphasized her reliance on data, research and communication to make decisions that may not always please parents and teachers. ...

Speaking about Seattle's recent experience of closing seven school buildings, Goodloe-Johnson said the city's preference for small schools is financially untenable. "When I looked at Seattle, I was surprised at the number of schools. If we were in business, we'd be bankrupt. When you have schools with very, very small enrollments, you still have to pay the light bills, water bills and hire teachers." ...

Describing her approach to closing the achievement gap between African-American students and other groups, Goodloe-Johnson outlined a comprehensive strategy that included 15 extra hours of tutoring per student each week, Saturday classes and summer school. After touring Seattle schools, Goodloe-Johnson said she disagreed with separating special-education kids, instead preferring to mix students with different abilities.


Why can't kids who need extra support get it during the school day?
Why should they have to give up their sports and other extra curricular activities / jobs/friends/family activities, because the way the material is being presented isn't accessible to them during the school day?

Roy Smith said...

Instead, the current superintendent of the Charleston County School District in South Carolina emphasized her reliance on data, research and communication to make decisions that may not always please parents and teachers. ...

Speaking about Seattle's recent experience of closing seven school buildings, Goodloe-Johnson said the city's preference for small schools is financially untenable.


I hate to say it, but I don't have a particularly good feeling about the new superintendent. First of all, she may rely on data, but one person, or a small group of people relying on data cannot necessarily be counted upon to properly interpret the data, to choose the relevant data for solving a given problem, or to overcome their own particular biases when analyzing the data. Those problems are less likely to be a problem when there is a high level of authentic community engagement. For instance, data selection and her own biases probably has something to do with her statement that Seattle's preference for small schools is financially untenable; there is a fair bit of academic research and data out there that shows that small schools are no less financially tenable than big schools, and furthermore, small schools do almost everything else that we say we want our schools to do as well as or better than larger schools. There are people in the SPS community that will bring all of this information up, but if she has already made up her mind, then she has effectively shut out the possibility of there being additional information that should be considered.

As an aside, it always scares me a bit when I hear a statement like "if our schools were a business, we'd be bankrupt". If our schools were a business, we would not serve customers (students and families) that we couldn't possibly make money serving, and our sole criteria for success or failure would be financial performance. Do we really want to underserve problem or high-needs students, and do we really want to subordinate every other criteria to high efficiency in our financial operations? Schools are not a business, and trying to operate them like they are has proven to be very destructive of all of the goals of education.

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson has talked a fair bit about standardization; it seems clear she has a bias for standardization, and may not be receptive to data that may indicate that standardization may not always be appropriate, and is even less likely to be receptive to community input from people that feel standardizing everything about our schools is just wrong in principle.

Elsewhere, I have heard her quoted as saying she doesn't think part of her job is politics, and that her job is simply to make the best decisions for student education. What happens when parents, teachers, or students don't agree with her interpretation of what the best decision for student education is? That's what much of politics is: people disagreeing on the best way to accomplish a common goal.

I don't see a predisposition to community engagement from a superintendent who doesn't think politics is part of her job and who says that she "relies on the data" and therefore isn't worried about the reactions of teachers or parents, and I am afraid that we are going to end up with another Superintendent with a tin ear when it comes to the concerns of the community.

Here's hoping I'm wrong, but the data is not encouraging.

Elise said...

Charlie! Say it isn't so!! You have such a gift for advocacy without hysteria, and honesty and directness without being insulting. Whenever we worry about what is happening with APP, we look to...what is Charlie saying?? You are the voice of reason in the middle of a big pile of ???? We know you will have the facts, and state them clearly. You call a spade a spade, and basically expect that people do their jobs. I really appreciate it, and hope that you keep on being our advocate, and posting your insight for people on all the sides. Thank you thank you thank you.

Anonymous said...

Roy - I have the same nervous feelings about our new Superintendant for the same reasons you have pointed out. Time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Roy: I have the same concerns you have re: Goodloe-Johnson. We'd be foolish to ignore her statements describing how she'll do business. If she was walking into a district with a plan in place, I wouldn't worry, but we obviously have a lot to worry about.

I think she'll put the finishing touches on whatever the board and district have decided to do. Being a good listener isn't a important trait for this kind of work. WenG

Anonymous said...

Charlie, I want to thank you personally for your advocacy and encourage you to continue the good fight. We need you.

Anonymous said...

We all want a superintendent that "listens". ??? Manhas listened and listened and listened while closing schools... until he found a few where people didn't have the time or resources to spend their life squawking. Somebody who can face the nimbyists will be an improvement.

Charlie Mas said...

People spoke.

Manhas never listened.