Seattle School District Boundaries - A New Thought?

From the NY Times, a story about a quiet young man who, single-handedly, came up with the idea that will now drive the Boston School District enrollment plan.  Quite a feat. 

While school officials and parents here were debating how to assign students to Boston’s public schools, a lanky young man was quietly observing their public proceedings. 

He quickly saw the Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle: How could the school system design a plan that would send children to a good school, close to their homes — in a city that had too few good schools?* And could that plan also ensure that students from poor neighborhoods had the same chance of attending good schools as those from more affluent neighborhoods?  

*Note, I don't actually believe we have "too few" good schools in our district but in the name of fairness, this would really close that gap.

Over the last year, a 27-member advisory committee pored over its options and weighed competing proposals, but became hopelessly tangled up as it considered proposals that created more zones to fix the inequality. 

The young man, Peng Shi, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began asking questions and talking to parents. Then he made a suggestion: why not drop the idea of zones altogether? 

Using choices that the parents had made in the past, Mr. Shi built computer simulations, did demand modeling and generated hundreds of thousands of files and graphs. 

It went through several iterations. The final one gives families a list of at least six schools starting with the two closest high-quality schools, then the next two closest of at least medium quality.  

That it took a dispassionate outsider with coding skills but no political agenda to formulate the model is a measure of the complexities facing urban school districts today. Many such districts, like Boston’s, are plagued by inequities, with too few good schools and children mostly of color trapped in low-performing schools.  

“He started saying things like, ‘What I’m hearing is, parents want close to home but they really care about quality,’” Ms. Wolf said. “He said, ‘I’m working on something to try to meet those two goals.’ He didn’t have a political agenda.”

What's interesting is that this would not mean the Board would have to overhaul the whole "neighborhood" plan, just tweak it.  

And boy would it really send the charter school idea into a spin. 

Wonder if there is anything here we could learn from or use?


Catherine said…
I will repeat my "there is no magic perfect single solution," and "what are the assignment plans goals and objectives?"

Knowing the above, I do believe a look at the mentioned system is a worthwhile use of time.

I know that there was a BIG push to having a predicable school for your future children when you purchased a home. I seems like the described system wouldn't do that. But then, it seems like the current system isn't either.
Anonymous said…
We don't need this here because all Seattle Public Schools are Quality Schools! hahahahaha

Southender, good point (wink).

However, how do you think this would play in the southend if parents there believed they had a better chance of getting into a school that would better serve their child?
Eric B said…
What I'm wondering, and wasn't very clearly explained in the article) is how they deal with the crowding at the "good" schools. Is everyone guaranteed an assignment at one of the six schools on the list? At one of the top four if they want it? How does it really work in practice after an Open Enrollment?

Some people would certainly take the close school in their community, even if it isn't as "good" as the one a few miles away. Bu tit seems like a better use of resources to actually focus on making the not so good schools better. Yeah, I know where that's led us over the last few years, but a man can dream, right? Is it crazy to ask what's wrong with a school and actively work to fix that?
Anonymous said…
How is that really different from what we just had? And didn't it also privilege informed parents who could make choices? It seems to me that things were just as unequal before, it was just different schools that were unequal.

I think as long as we educate students locally there are necessarily going to be inequities. Good parents are always going to try to get their kids into good schools- and we as a society would frankly judge them very harshly them if they did not. The best we can do is a pull model- try to load schools which seems weak with attractive programs and staffing, try to have a diverse school systems so that parents are drawn to different schools for different reasons, don't just see "one" school that they either get or don't. That seems to have worked with JA, and longer ago, Thornton Creek. And don't I remember 5 years ago it was so awful to be assigned to Hamilton, but now everyone loves it, because of APP and language immersion? The push model has again and again failed, and only made the problem worse, wherever it was tried.

Anonymous said…
Two thoughts came to mind when I saw this article this morning by chance....1)I read no plan to improve the poor quality schools, and 2)How insulting to choose between a great school, an ok school, or a poor school. Let me think, which school would I want my student to go to.....?
Who the hell is going to pick the under performing schools, and why?

I am not impressed with this 'solution'. To me it ignores the problem(s).

A year and a quarter to go.
a said…

So if you live in an area with a 'Not Really Excellence For All'
school, you didn't try hard enough and you are not a good parent and should be judged harshly?

What if they don't even know they have a choice.
It's not like the district promotes option schools.
They don't want to pay for the transportation.

I don't believe the pull model is working all that well.
It sounds just like "Excellence for All"

Transportation is key.

Boston must have a huge transportation budget to contemplate this plan.
Anonymous said…
I don't know if you should be, but you are. Do you disagree with the premise that society thinks "good" parents care about their children's educations? That this is one of the descriptors of good parents, in fact a "privelege" for children with those parents?

Not knowing you have a choice is the potential problem with these plans (though they have other benefits), which favors informed, often wealthier parents.

I don't think it's ever going to be perfect, but I like the pull model because we can keep working on it to fluidly benefit struggling schools. The community and neighborhood buy in you lose by bussing is significant, and this doesn't have that drawback. But no, no plan is going to get rid of inequality and cure cancer tomorrow.

I wish there were more option schools, maybe. The ones I know about mostly have huge wait lists- but I don't know about all of them.

Anonymous said…
I thought the same as "a year and a quarter to go," but then rethought -- great school can be in the eye of the beholder. Those schools merely considered "good" in the rankings might be quite attractive to a family seeking a smaller environment, more art classes or a less homework-intensive experience (to name just a few factors). I would be satisfied if I felt all Seattle schools were good, some were considered excellent, and none were in the just OK and below category.

Eric B, that is exactly what I wondered. Someone must lose at this game. As long as there are bad schools there will be families assigned to them no matter what the assignment system. How is that fair?
Anonymous said…
I will never understand why a school with a huge waitlist isn't replicated. Look at who is applying and see if geographically you can split it into 2 or at least offer the option in north and south ends.

Anonymous said…
How about spreading out programs, instead of say two language immersion programs In one neighborhood...

Fine and good if you live in North central Seattle but let's acknowledge the traffic issues here and the fact we shouldn't have to have kids on the bus for an hour....

--should have bought in Wallingford
Anonymous said…
"Eric B, that is exactly what I wondered. Someone must lose at this game. As long as there are bad schools there will be families assigned to them no matter what the assignment system. How is that fair?"

Yep, so should we should think about class-based bussing. Crowded schools in the northend vs. underutilized ones down south...

--should have bought in Wallingford.
Anonymous said…
Under the NSAP, Seattle is moving from a city of 3 desirable High Schools to at least 6 or 7, while Cleveland now has STEM and RB is getting IB, both of which should attract more students and families. RB's PTA deserves a ton of credit for not abandoning their neighborhood school, but digging in and doing all they can for it, and it will pay off.

With option schools, struggling neighborhood schools get bypassed by those who seek alternatives, and the district takes the lazy route of saying, "if you don't like it, go somewhere else. You have that option." And we get three strong high schools with long waiting listss, and the rest are below average "also rans" or worse. We must reject that model.

With the current NSAP, we are on the right track at the high school level, because, without the "just leave" option where the districts sits on its a$$ and lets unpopular schools rot, under the NSAP, parents have the lever of "we have no viable options" to force the district and community to give their schools the attention they need.

Yes, this is pie in the sky theory, but overall, the district we have was not stronger under the choice system, because the community participation rate and ownership at neighborhood schools was far too low, while neighborhoods and communities were ripped apart all over town.

There is no argument that wealthier student populations in better neighborhoods will likely continue to have "better schools" if for no other reason than the money their PTAs can raise. But with the current NSAP, organized communities, well-off or not, have leverage as a community that they did not have under a choice system.

After a combined 14 years in this district, my answer for what's the fastest way to turn a "bad school" into a "good school?" The right principal.

If and when SPS starts hiring principals more committed to educating children than climbing career ladders, we will see the number of "good schools" across the entire district go way up.

IMHO as always. WSDWG
a said…

So society is justified in providing bad schools for children in some areas because their bad parents couldn't afford to live in a better area.

You say buy-in, I say entrenchment.

"Excellence for All" is a barrier to children of lower socio-economic classes.
It is fluid inasmuch as concrete is fluid, and is hardening as we speak.

I believe that successful schools should be expanded.
Replication is not as reliable.
Then again, good parents at successful schools will probably fight expansion because it may put their children's education at risk.
The 'I've got mine' attitude.
Anonymous said…
a said, I didn't say that and never would. What I mean is that people will always be trying to get their kids into better schools, not because they are jerks but because that is what parents do. If you just think everyone who sends their kids to a school considered good is selfish and awful, none of us are doing to get very far.

We don't have the buildings for expansion, and I agree that transportation and neighborhood buy in benefit to close schools is enough of a barrier that replication is the best option. We have some really attractive programs right now- language immersion and STEM, and a lack of Spectrum programs that could be placed to help. If the district moved faster on placing these, that could help a lot, and quickly.

Anonymous said…
Here's a thought. It's not a perfect analogy, but bear with me. An overcrowded school is somewhat analogous to an overbooked flight. Back in the day, if you were the unlucky person on an overbooked flight, you were just out of luck. Then, someone had the bright idea to ask for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for compensation. If the compensation is not enough to draw someone, the airline raises it. It's a win-win of sorts. The airlines get to fill their planes. The passengers who lost their seat choose to do so in exchange for compensation they felt was worthwhile.

Could this work for schools? Consider how much SPS spends - often wastefully - on dealing with capacity issues. Families at an overcrowded school could be offered compensation to enroll instead at a school with space. That compensation could be straight cash or something like an educational savings account that could be put towards tutoring, summer programs, higher education, etc.

There are several ways to implement this. E.g., kids could be offered a seat at their choice one of the 3 closest schools geographically (perhaps that meet some quality metric). Once choices have been made, families at overcrowded schools are offered compensation to pick a different school. Compensation is raised until enough families voluntarily move.

It's *not* an alternative for long term planning and investing in all our schools, but it could smooth the seemingly annual pain due to overcrowding, potentially do it more cheaply, and leave families who are affected more satisfied.

Overbooked many times
dw said…
All this talk about "good schools" vs. "bad schools" is utter nonsense.

What makes a school "good" or "bad"??

- The walls? No.
- The bathrooms? No.
- The stairways? No.
- The parking lot? No.

It is the student body. That is what people are really talking about when they complain about a school, but no one wants to admit it.

As Charlie has said many times over the years, if you bussed every student that currently goes to Eckstein down to Aki Kurose and vice-versa, which school would be the "good" school? Would the ed-reformers claim victory for Aki because test scores went up?

To some degree a good principal can make a difference, and individual teachers can sometimes be problematic, but everyone needs to admit (at least to themselves) that when you say a school is "bad", you're really talking about the kids/families.

It's all troubling, but at least admitting what the issue is will allow people to focus on meaningful ways to address the problem. Updating old physical buildings into fancy new buildings will not turn a "bad" school into a "good" school. Shuffling principals around may help around the edges, but it's not going to "fix" a "bad" school.

Engaging the community is a much better plan. Everyone in a given community needs to buy into the notion that education is important, regardless of income level, education level, race, background, whatever. Until that happens, until our city (and our country) admits this, we are just going to keep spinning our wheels.
a said…
It's about access to decent schools, not transporting an entire student body to a different building.

So, the student body is 'bad'?

Or is it the 'bad' parents who apparently don't "buy in" because each work two jobs and have no money or energy for fundraising and PTA meetings.

Blame the kids or parents,
and keep them out of your school.

That'll keep you test scores up.
Anonymous said…
DW: I agree with 99% of what you say, but I strongly disagree with the impact of principals on a school. Bad principals caused a mass exodus of people under the choice system, and it's hurting the reputations of elementary schools in my area right now. Gatewood had a controversial principal way back in the early 1990's who pissed off a lot of neighborhood parents and the "bad school" reputation has lingered ever since, even though today, its a solid, good neighborhood school. But the "bad school" reputation gets recycled and re-recycled over and over again, leaving some to want to avoid it. That's one example. Another is Leschi. How many people actually new it was the Spectrum school in the CD? Anyone? Not many, because the principal and VP were opposed to the program and did not support it. So, Leschi kids went elsewhere.

Principals need to reflect the valued and priorities of the community that surrounds the school. When they don't, neighborhood kids don't go there, and the school gets stuck with the "bad school" label to the point people don't even bother visiting it or looking at test scores.

It happens all the time. At TM, people are kicking down the doors to get in, because the Principal is outstanding. The prior principal? She wasn't even there during the open house sessions when I visited.

Principals really do matter, a lot. Ask anyone from Lafayette, which is on their 3rd or 4th in 2 years.

Hate to disagree, because I totally agree with the rest. It's the families and kids who make the schools "good," not all the other stuff so much.

dw said…

Thanks for the comment, and I will make an adjustment to what I said about principals. Not that I'm really changing my mind, but I think better clarifying.

It's absolutely possible for a bad principal to destroy a building or program. I've seen it firsthand as well. So I totally agree with you there. Point taken.

But in general, putting a good principal at a "bad" school (and note that I keep putting "bad" in quotation marks) can only help so much. Julie is a one-percenter exception, and even in her case at TM she brought a couple hundred kids and a bunch of seasoned teachers. She didn't go into a bad situation and turn it wildly around on her own. The population changed, which is kind of my point.

"a" (above), on the other hand, doesn't seem to be able to grasp the concepts.

It's about access to decent schools, not transporting an entire student body to a different building.

So, the student body is 'bad'?

Or is it the 'bad' parents who apparently don't "buy in" because each work two jobs and have no money or energy for fundraising and PTA meetings.

Blame the kids or parents,
and keep them out of your school.

That'll keep you test scores up.

WTH are you talking about?

I HATE the fact that people are saying certain schools are "bad" and others are "good". The schools are a product of the students/families/teachers/principals. But mostly people are pointing at schools with poor achievement levels and calling those schools "bad". I think that's BS.

A more appropriate label would be: "School with struggling population" or "School with low achievement levels" or "Schools with excessive violence" or practically anything except "bad", which has across-the-board connotations. Each of the labels I've described would suggest certain paths of action to help. Calling a school "bad" doesn't do anything except making people want to not go there.
Anonymous said…
DW, I guess what I'm saying is that history has shown that a bad or wrong principal can do a lot more harm than a good principal can do good. You're right that JB didn't turn TM around on her own, but I know plenty of neighborhood families that avoided TM because of the former principal's antics and consequent reputation.

SPS needs to stop putting the bad-fitting principals into neighborhood schools. If they don't we will never get rid of the "bad school" labels.
Anonymous said…
a: Do you really believe it's better for a community to export its children to another community to be educated, versus the community rallying around it's own neighborhood school and advocating for it's own interests?

If your answer is "yes," are you saying there are some neighborhoods and schools that are simply hopeless? That seems to be what you're implying.

a said…
The use of the words bad and good in my comments are referring back to diversify's use in the fifth comment referring to good schools and good parents
I agree they are very simplistic descriptors, but not initiated by me.

I believe all children will benefit from racial and economic diversity in school.

Hopeless no, helpless maybe. They do not have a voice that can overcome the clamor of the powerful PTAs.

Over 80% of students at
Northgate elementary receive free or reduced lunch 60% of those are homeless.
When a school has a high
FRL it impairs academic progress.
Teachers need to be social workers first.
This study was in a book by Susan Eaton. I believe it was called the Children In Room E4.
Anonymous said…
Do children benefit from racial diversity in school, per se? There is a difference between meaningful interaction and the"we are in the same building" mentality. It's kinda like "some of best friends are..." or the sad story of zoos saying how locking up animals helps conservation.
As this is the first year of no yellow bus from southend to northend for middle schoolers, the question arises how to sensitize kids to racism and inequality without them, the northend kids, ever being around their southend peers.
Are we creating a separate but equal district?

Anonymous said…
Please don't say "bad" as it scares people away, but "excessive violence" or those other descriptors won't?
Come on, are you making a joke?

Brian said…
Let's face, SPS has a race problem. That's why we keep getting supers of color. Only a black, and I dare say a woman, could have brought the NSAP to fruition, IMO. Enfield needed to go based on her race and Banda coincides with an increased Latino presence here in Seattle and statewide. Racial politics are nationally and locally the mighty river we must ford in the future and white Seattleites need to get on the train before it leaves the station. ( I know, mixed metaphors). The whole Center School thing illustrates the sensitive nature of race. But with a non-white making the call in favor of the white family, and Banda having solid cred with the minority community, it flies.
I'm old enough to remember the late 60's and the very real fear of a race war in this country. I like to think the age demographics are turning the corner on racists. I think our district is a microcosm of the national scene and we are moving into an exciting new era of positive race relations.

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