Thursday, February 21, 2008

Houston, We Have a Problem

So I made 3 of the 4 hours of the Board work session on demographics. In many ways, it was not promising for the future of the assignment plan. (I'm hoping to hear from a couple of people about what I missed which seemed very important. Namely, Philosophy and Policy of the assignment plan which included a discussion of diversity, percentage of seats for Open Choice, how those Open Choice seats should be allocated (e.g. distance, SES, targeted geography, pure lottery, etc.), special programs like Special Ed and bilingual and how choice will work outside of Open Choice seats. )

All the Board members were in attendance as was Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson.

The biggest news is that COO Don Kennedy, after an overview of the computer systems in use and their challenges, recommended waiting a year for any assignment plan changes even if only for high school. He did not say stop planning but to not go forward with implementation as previously scheduled.

He was blunt and clear about what could happen if they do not get the software technology updated; the entire system could fail and it would be a disaster. By entire system, I mean the hardware/software they use for the enrollment process; it is beyond antiquated. (It's called a VAX system and there's one on display at the Computer Science and Engineering building at UW... as an artifact.) As you can imagine, postponing the assignment plan wasn't really well received. More on that later.

I'll give you the highlights first and then an overview (for those who don't need more than the highlights). The full report should be appearing at some point on the website but I'll caution you that some charts are confusing both in how the data is presented (its form) and what the charts say. Some Board members expressed skepticism on the data presented.

  • In Seattle, the average family size increased from 1990-2000 but is projected to decrease and flatten out by 2012 especially at the 5-9 year old age group. Caveat: This is the city overall but it could vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
  • Housing data told them that family sizes are projected to get smaller and the numbers of families with no children are growing. New housing activity doesn't necessarily mean new students. (There was some discussion on this and the explanation is that many people, after they have kids, move to get a bigger house.)
  • DeJong estimates that 18.6% of school-aged children attend private schools in Seattle (the national average is about 10-11%). This sparked a lot of discussion because, as Michael de Bell said, we know that many more kids are not in SPS than 18.6%. There was a tepid explanation that some of those kids attend a different district or their parents move to the suburbs for a bigger house; that didn't seem to satisfy some Board members. This was one particularly confusing chart.
  • From 1998-99 to now, there has been a decline of 2,280 students or 4.79%.
  • In ten years, they project that SPS enrollment will drop by about 800 students. They project a high of 47,152 and a low of 43,486 with a "most likely" number of 44,527.
  • Interestingly, at the same time but not consulting with each other, deJong and the district's demographer, Rachel Cassidy, came up with their own best numbers. DeJong's were more conservative with DeJong projecting lower kindergarten numbers and higher 12th grade numbers.
  • They predict that the Central district which has declined by975 students since 1999, will decline another 371 students by 2017.
  • The North region has increased by 322 students and they predict an increase of 139.
  • The NE has increased by 435 students and they predict an increase of 551.
  • In the NW, the student population has declined by 23 students but should increase by 175.
  • QA/Magnolia saw an increase of 459 students and a projected increase of 360.
  • In the South the area has declined by 1,244 students and will continue to with a projection of 773 students.
  • Southeast, increased by 111 and a projected 2017 increase of 252
  • In the West Seattle North, there was a decline of 810 students and it will continue to decline by 458 students.
  • In West Seattle South, there was a decline of 378 students and will continue declining by 218 students.
The first hour and a half was a presentation by Carolyn Staskiewicz from DeJong, Inc. in Ohio, a strategic services company who did the demographics. She made an interesting statement, one that I and the other members of the Closure Committee had heard from our consultants; this district has a lot of data but it is poorly organized it difficult to use it all.

There was some confusion over why DeJong included 19 year olds in the data and again, not a real clear explanation of why.

Sadly DeJong did NOT number their slides so I have to give you a title of a chart rather than directing you to a page. The chart was labeled "SPS Grade Progression Rations" and it shows the change in enrollment as cohorts move through the system. It shows a very large proportion of seniors moving through despite the stats that we know about drop-outs. Steve Sundquist questioned this and Rachel Cassidy said the drop-outs were not included. Harium Martin-Morris said "it doesn't jive with what we know".

Michael de Bell asked for a school by school breakout of the long-range versus the short-range projections because of the differences by neighborhood and by region.

Steve Sundquist got a big laugh when Carolyn showed a slide about outside influences (inflation, acts of Nature, etc.) that can influence enrollment. Steve said that if the Viaduct goes away it would be as bad as an act of Nature for the people of West Seattle.

Rachel pointed out that the district now owns this model created by DeJong and can use it for future projections.

(Mary Bass wisely pointed out that the district needs to see what the disclaimer sheet from DeJong would say about its projections.)

Michael de Bell said that if we lose enrollment because we lack capacity then the district has failed.

Carolyn said that urban districts across the country are steadily losing enrollment and Seattle is actually on the low end.

Sherry Carr asked about getting the private school enrollments and Carolyn said there was only one state in the US that required that information to be given to school districts (Tennessee) and that it is usually provided in such a unwieldy form that it is difficult to use.

So there was then a break and Mr. Kennedy and Tracy Libros, head of Enrollment, weighed in.

Ms. Libros told the Board that they just lost the head of Technology, Marjorie Mills, who "has 80% of the institutional memory walking out the door with her". She also said they have major difficulties retaining staff in the Technology department.

Mr. Kennedy, as I mentioned, laid out how tinkering with the VAX system is very risky and that the district needs to "focus resources to complete VAX migration projects".

Ms. Libros laid out some ideas to spur some change in the assignment plan without the software system changes. She said the enrollment procedure guide had some outmoded policies/rules that could be changed. As an example she said a SPS student going for a foreign exchange for a semester could retain his/her seat but a family with an SPS student who goes on sabbatical could not. She also mentioned being able to do manual one-for-one swaps (for example, if a 9th grader at Roosevelt wanted to go to Garfield and there was a 9th grader at Garfield who wanted to go to Roosevelt, that swap would be possible on a one-to-one completely similar - general ed to general ed, for example - basis). She stressed this was strictly at the idea stage.

I give Mr. Kennedy a lot of credit for being blunt and to the point in his assessment. Michael de Bell said that he had many frustrated people in his region (QA/Magnolia particularly) and they couldn't wait another year. Discussion followed with the understanding that the planning could procedure but maybe not the implementation.

I left at this point so I missed the last hour. I'm hoping to hear from others who attended and can fill in that piece of time.

One irony; the Facilities staff wants to take $3.5M out of the BEX III Technology fund as part of the $10M for Sealth. I wrote to Mr. Kennedy and urged him to use that money for the updating of the VAX system to use for the assignment plan as the Sealth project was NOT an emergency and the assignment plan, when it changes, has got to have the best possible foot forward to give the best outcomes to as many families as possible.


Anonymous said...

As a parent of in incoming kindergarten student, and therefore dealing with what seems like a Rube Goldberg enrollment process, it doesn't surprise me that the software is on a VAX system.

Is there not an industry-leading system that *most* districts around the country use for what a selection process like this? Is SPS that different that we have built our own customized system that we (evidently) find difficult to update?

When we get our kindergarten assignment, I won't be that confident that the system worked as it's supposed to. Maybe it will put is in the school we want to go to (but don't have much apparent chance to), but I kind of doubt it...

(By the way, we've actually been pretty impressed with the 4-5 schools we've toured, and if we get into any of the 3-4 schools we'll put on our list, I think we'll be satisfied. Optimistic, perhaps naively so, but...)

Anonymous said...

The assignment policy changes have been talked about since the (nominal) end of the school closure process. What is absolutely shocking to me isn't the bad news about the technology...it's that this is the first point in the process when it's been publicly presented as a complete showstopper.

The degree to which this points out the district's ongoing problems both with external communications as well as discourse between staff and board members cannot be overstated.

Tracy Libros has been, in my opinion, a very capable interface between the public and the staff in terms of the evolving enrollment policy. Her efforts are mightily diminished by this particular bombshell. I wouldn't blame her if she followed her colleague and walked out of the District w/ the rest of the institutional knowledge around the enrollment process. I would.

Anonymous said...

PS. I don't believe the central district projection for a second. Not with the amount of employment headed to south lake union, and -- at the top of the economic scale --the subsequent well-paid employees who will want to live and work in general proximity to each other. There needs to be an overlay w/ business development projections.

On the other end of the economic scale, the central district has some of the most dense development in the city. Those who can't afford to buy and are sensitive to soaring gas prices are going to be renting and wanting to live someplace w/ great bus and walking access to downtown. Central district again.

To Michael DeBell's point, if you plan assignments based on only these demographic studies, you may limit capacity and become self-fulfilling in your enrollment declines.

Anonymous said...

the technology fiascoI work with makes more sense now.

any data we want about kids comes from 1 place and another place and then it is cut and pasted or manually typed into yet another place - and then you get fed up and quit whatever the idiotic project is because - I have a job to do -- teaching, not cutting and pasting.

there are a lot of reasons these fiascos exist. some of the more inexcusable but normal reasons:

- empire builders don't want anything to be easy, or they won't have an empire.

- skilled and capable geeks who have NO clue that the reason the systems and the tools exist is so that people can get stuff done, not wait for the availability of geeks.

- unskilled and not competent geeks who ... need I finish?

I worked for a huge local company and the big cheeses came up with this idea that anyone who saved

was it 100 grand or 1 million?

would get this plastic plaque!!!

the only people stupid enough to value a plaque for saving a million or 100 grand are also too stupid to figure out how to save a million or 100 grand

and the only people smart enough to figure out how to save a bundle aren't going to be motivated for an $8 piece of junk ...

sounds like the school district is getting set up to get fleeced for 5 or 50 million on 1 of those technology overhaul fiascoes that accenture and earnst make a killing on.

Anonymous said...

I noticed the demographic information from the consultant is now on the District's assignment process website. This blog will have a whole lot to talk about, given the amount of data in the report.

But before we all get to that, let me chime in to say that the technology debacle aired in the workshop is the most disheartening piece of news I've heard out of the district in a couple of years.

Can't you see the headlines now? "World Class Technology City's Computer Program Too Outdated to Enroll Kids in Neighborhood Public Schools."

Pathetic doesn't begin to describe it.

Charlie Mas said...

Here are links to the demographic data and presentation by DeJong and to the presentation by the staff which describes the need to delay yet another year.

Charlie Mas said...

So, let me get this straight.

The District staff have known for two years already that a new Student Assignment plan is coming, but they have not yet started to get together the technology necessary to implement it, knowing that even after they acquire the technology, they will need a year to prepare it?

There is, of course, no one responsible for this failure to prepare because we have had three Chief Operating Officers in the past year, the technology budget has been cut again and again, and now the person in charge of technology for the District is leaving.

How long have people known that we don't have the necessary technology to implement for the2009-2010 school year? They thought that they could do it as recently as February 6. In just the past two weeks they discovered that they can't?

It sounds to me like the District still has an institutional culture that inhibits people from reporting up bad news. Consequently, bad news doesn't reach decision-makers until it is too late for them to do anything about it.

Our new quarter-million dollar Superintendent has no response to this. I'm not saying it is her fault, but here is yet another highly publicized "plan" from her which has been deferred. She is back to planning to plan.

Our new Board with their highly touted management skills have no response to this. Our new Board with all of their promises to demand accountability have no response to this. So much for the value of management skills and get tough accountability.

Charlie Mas said...

With the technology in place for 2010-2011, will they be able to implement the new elementary and middle school plan as well as the high school plan? Is it only high school which is getting put back yet another year, but the elementary and middle school plans are still on the same schedule they were on two weeks ago?

Anonymous said...


Why take the Tech funds from Sealth here - will $3M make that big a difference? Are you advocating cuts from other school's budgets as well?

It seems distressing to me that one school's budget is fair game especially when Sealth is in play now for so many changes and without a rebuild but just upgrades - and the co-location/merger, good or bad depending on one's viewpoint and with so much potential with the IB program coming on line.

Anonymous said...

"As an example she said a SPS student going for a foreign exchange for a semester could retain his/her seat but a family with an SPS student who goes on sabbatical could not."

I realize this is a tiny point out of a discussion of much more important issues, but I know people who have been driven away from the district by details like this. I applaud Tracy Libros for working toward a saner policy.

There is actually a district policy that allows for an administrator to sign off on a longer absence for a student if there is considered to be no academic risk, but apparently most administrators refuse to do so.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Using the BEX III Technology money for the assignment plan is not poaching from Sealth.

First of all the extra money to Sealth is not a done deal. Second, it's buy-off money and Sealth doesn't want to be bought off. Third, it isn't part of their budget or the budget of their BEX project; it is money that is the Technology part of BEX III.

If we don't have the technology to create a new assignment plan that everyone seems to agree we need, why are we using money from BEX III to appease Sealth when it could go to something that affects every single student and parent in the district?

Charlie Mas said...

Director Carr asked an excellent question at the last Board meeting.

Where, she asked, would the additional $5 million come from to fund Denny-Sealth Option 3?

The staff had no answer.

Both the question and the answer are revealing.

First, the answer. It reveals that the staff hasn't even considered Option 3.

As for the question, why does anyone need to ask it? Why wouldn't the additional funding just come from the contingency fund for the project? Why not? Because there does not appear to be any contingency fund for the Denny-Sealth project. Other projects go over-budget, but we're told not to worry because there is a contingency fund to cover such events. So where is the contingency fund for Denny-Sealth? Aren't Option 2 and Option 3 the sort of contingencies that would trigger its use?

If the District moves forward with Option 2 and there are - as we know there will be - cost overruns, in the absence of a contingency fund, wouldn't the scale and scope of the project be reduced to keep it on budget? And, if there are, oh, let's say, $10 million in cost overruns, then wouldn't all of the extra stuff for Option 2 be wiped out completely? How funny would that be - if the District reneged on their pay-off to the Sealth community?

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the technology issue add subtext to every assignment and enrollment plan conversation that has happened in this district since the Millenium, at least? All this time there has to have been a core of staffers who knew it couldn't be done, at least without very significant time and money being added to the technology end.

I'd like to see the local newspapers do a story on this one. These are the sort of (nationally) embarrassing headlines sure to light a fire under the administration to address the problem immediately. I don't get the feeling at the moment that there is the sort of district urgency around the matter that needs to be there. If the district can't grasp the negative headlines to be gleaned by this of all cities not having the technology infrastructure to enroll children, then it deserves the response it will get.

Anonymous said...

www.seattleschools.org/area/is/spstechplan.pdf says the migration is supposed to be done by 2010. "Legacy System Migration Project (a.k.a. Relational Academic Information
System Project (RAIN)) – This project will migrate or rewrite remaining legacy
systems related to the original VAX-based student information system that
were not replaced by the new Student Information System (eSIS). Key
systems include transportation and student assignment. VersaTrans has
been selected as the transportation system software package and
configuration and conversion activities are currently under way. The District’s
student assignment system will be developed in-house to meet the unique
needs of Seattle Public Schools. This project must meet two goals: (1) to
support the needs of a new student assignment plan and (2) to rewrite the
system into new sustainable technology. A new geographic information
system has also been selected and will be implemented to support both the
transportation and student assignment system requirements."

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

just for a reality check here :)

VAX/VMS is a fine little OS and the hardware is as current as the HP buyout of compaq ca. 2000.

the OS isn't the concern really. the system itself could be anything from well designed to cludged lisp code. what is really of concern is the statement that 'most of the organizational knowledge' left with the person.

this can be an opportunity though to spur an improvement in the system rather than just incremental change which would otherwise be the govt norm.


Anonymous said...

I live in the CD, and I have a very hard time believing that there will be enrollment declines. There are many, many preschoolers in the area. Older houses are changing hands, and young families are moving in. Also, many families don't want to leave the city when they have kids, and many of the condos and apartments on the eastern slopes of capital hill have kids living in them.

Anonymous said...

GIGO (garbage in; garbage out). I'd suggest you get an outside verification or check of the SPS demographic data and growth projections. Since the City of Seattle has been cool toward SPS in the past, you might get some objective information from the city's planning office. They may have nothing to gain or loose within SPS by helping you to check for accuracy. If SPS says a neighborhood is in decline or that a specific number of births today will cause (or not cause) enrollment increases in certain schools 5 years hence, the city planning statistics people can easily tell you if someone at SPS is gaming the system or not.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"The District’s student assignment system will be developed in-house to meet the unique needs of Seattle Public Schools."

Helen, that's an interesting find for two reasons. One, this idea that every software has to be personalized (there is nothing out there that needs only minor tweaking? really?). Two, Harium Martin-Morris raised this issue at the previous work session saying, as a person who works in the software industry, he thought it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to create such a plan using cobbled together bits of different software.

Anonymous 7:27, I think that's nostalgia speaking not reality. The VAX system IS old-time stuff (I've got UW computer scientists telling me this) and it needs to go BUT you need the information off of it for sure.

Anonymous 10:08, what I understood from the consultant is that they did use information about the City's housing permits to make projections. Both Rachel (district) and Carolyn (consultant) mentioned the City not having a demographer and that King County makes such projections. That would be interesting to look at as well.

And for gosh sakes, give yourselves names.

Anonymous said...

Last I checked, the County has one demographer. I can't see how he could possibly be able make projections at the neighborhood level. His main job is to put together the Annual Growth Report. The KC website seems to be down right now. You can search for the AGR at kingcouty.gov.

Surely, the City must have a demographer of it's own.

Anonymous said...

As of 2005, Seattle does *not* have a demographer, due to budget cuts. www.seattle.gov/dpd/demographics Considering the typical salary for a city demographer is not all that high (ballpark $50,000), it seems like a terribly shortsighted move.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

Housing permits might be a reasonable data source, but I'd be worried about the assumptions we're makign when estimating from them. It is a flawed assumption that condos don't have kids living in them. Condos are affordable for middle class familes, where houses (at least in city) are not.

Attitudes about having kids in the city are also changing. Staying in city to raise kids is quite trendy at the moment, all over the country. Broadway on a Saturday morning these days has as many familes with babies as hung-over 20-somethings. This was not true 10 years ago.

VMS Spoken Here said...

If the VAX hardware is a problem as you say, it's easily replaced by a Windows system running a VAX emulator. Nothing has to be changed in the software:


[Shameless Plug Alert (tm) -- I am a CHARON-VAX reseller.]

VMS Spoken Here said...

If the VAX hardware is a problem as you say, it's easily replaced by a Windows system running a VAX emulator. Nothing has to be changed in the software:


[Shameless Plug Alert (tm) -- I am a CHARON-VAX reseller.]