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Sunday, February 26, 2017

School board agenda for February 28

Some of the topics on the board’s agenda for this week:

We’ll review a draft of the certified budget for fiscal year 2017-18. More information here.

At the work session, we’ll discuss a possible resolution to express support for students from undocumented and immigrant families, and we’ll review how the district currently handles immigration-related issues.

We’ll also continue to discuss the district’s bond proposal, and we’ll review the recent history of the district’s attempts to determine the capacity of its school buildings. (There is quite a set of charts here.)

We’ll also discuss the possibility of changing the elementary attendance zones in the North Corridor area, which will be necessary if the board chooses to build the new North Corridor elementary school in a different location that originally planned. (See this post.)

All that and more! Feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention. The full agendas are here and here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Board agenda for February 14

My very quick summary of topics on tonight’s board agenda: A legislative update; a report on post-secondary readiness (see also this post); a quarterly financial report; and an update from the Integrated Pest Management task force. At the work session, we’ll talk more about the bond proposal; we’ll hear about the district’s planned 1:1 computer policy; we’ll discuss the district’s policies about student use of cell phones. We'll also consider a resolution supporting the existing collective bargaining laws. And more! Full agendas here, here, and here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Update on the bond proposal

The board tonight voted 5-2 to ask the voters for roughly $188 million in borrowing to fund its facilities plan through 2023. It also approved some changes to the plan. The list of projects is in the bottom (greenish) portion of the fourth column of this chart. I voted against the proposal, for the reasons I discussed here. Board member Phil Hemingway also voted against the proposal.

I’ll be posting more about the bond issue as time goes on. The one striking feature of tonight’s discussion was that the board’s proposal was based on a substantially revised set of building capacity numbers. From the time the district adopted the facilities plan in 2013 until this evening, the plan had been based on capacity numbers calculated by a consultant, BLDD, which were supposed to have been the result of careful measurements of all aspects of the buildings, rather than simply multiplying the number of rooms by a number of kids (as the district had done in the past). Tonight, we were presented with a new, very different set of building capacity numbers, also supposed to have been calculated on the basis of careful measurements and on the buildings’ intended use.

I agree that the BLDD numbers were flawed. But this new set of numbers—the final version of which we received less than twenty-four hours before tonight’s meeting—has not been vetted sufficiently to make it the basis of a $188 million dollar proposal. For one thing, we received unclear answers about whether the new numbers reflect our anticipated ability to staff the classrooms, whether they reflect the weighted resource allocation model, and whether they reflect a building’s current use. And the numbers themselves raise questions:

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Alexander Elementary had a capacity of 500. In fact, as soon as the enrollment rose into the 400s, the school added two temporaries and converted three non-classroom spaces into classrooms. So the new numbers will recognize that the old numbers seriously overstated Alexander’s capacity, right? But actually they say that the addition of four classrooms will result in a 575-student capacity.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district had been telling people for years that Garner Elementary had a capacity of 445 and needed a 175-seat addition to bring its capacity up to 620. The new plan deletes the seven-classroom addition and simply adds a music room and an art room—yet Garner’s “new” capacity will be 633.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that South East Junior High could hold 764 students, and that it needed an addition so it could hold 854. Under the new plan, South East still gets two new classrooms, but its “new” capacity will be 750—lower than we told people it was before any addition. Now the district can justify the addition that was already in the plan before this justification was created.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Wickham Elementary’s capacity was 428. Under the new plan, Wickham gets a new art room and a new music room—and its “new” capacity will be 575.

  • Under the plan as it existed until tonight, the district told the public that Kirkwood Elementary’s capacity was 306, and that it needed six new classrooms so it could hold 456 students. Under the new plan, Kirkwood receives only two new classrooms, plus an art room and a music room. Yet its “new” capacity is 468—even higher than we said it would be with six new classrooms.

  • Under the new capacity calculations, planned elementary capacity in the North Corridor exceeds projected enrollment by almost 400 seats—a bad sign for convincing voters that we need to spend $19 million to build a new elementary school there. I think the new elementary school is necessary—but if we ignore our capacity numbers and enrollment projections whenever we think we know better, why should voters trust them at all?

  • District-wide, under the new capacity calculations, the planned elementary capacity exceeds projected enrollment by over 1600 students. But don’t worry, the administration would never propose more school closings.

Maybe the district finally has the capacity numbers right this time. But I came out of tonight’s discussion even more convinced that it’s a mistake to rely on our capacity numbers and enrollment projections to commit to additions (as opposed to renovations) too far in advance of seeing whether we actually need them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Some thoughts toward a bond proposal

This month, the school board has been discussing what sort of bond proposal to make to allow continued funding of projects in the district’s facilities plan. Without some new source of revenue, the district will not be able to move forward as planned with projects scheduled to occur after the 2017-18 year. A bond proposal would need 60% voter approval to pass; the proposal would likely appear on this coming September’s school board election ballot.

Some of the questions we’ve been discussing are: How many years of projects should the bond proposal fund? Should some of the planned projects be changed? Should the order of projects be changed? Should there be changes to overall facilities plan, even if the whole plan is not funded by this proposal?

The board majority seems to be headed toward a very large proposal, one that would fund six years of projects. The exact details are not yet settled, but it looks like that proposal would be somewhere in the $190 million range.

Broadly, there are two issues the board needs to worry about. The first is whether the bond proposal and facilities plan make sense. The second is whether the bond proposal has a realistic chance of passing. These two concerns are related but separate. A plan that is hard to defend is going to be hard to pass, but even a good plan may be hard to pass if the price tag is too high. Here are the specific concerns I have about a $190 million proposal:

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Sheer size. I think it will be very hard to achieve 60% voter support for a bond proposal as large as $190 million. According to our administration, that proposal would be more than twice the size of the largest school bond ever passed in the state of Iowa, and apparently it would be more than three times the largest school bond ever passed in our district. Granted, we have more taxpayers now than in the past, and there are many ways to measure the magnitude of a bond proposal—but no matter how you slice it, $190 million is an enormous number.

You don’t have to look too far to find other districts in Iowa that have recently struggled to pass school bonds. A few months ago, for example, voters in Mount Vernon rejected a bond proposal that would have had an impact on their taxes comparable to the one a $190 million bond would have in our district. Only 37% voted in favor. (See also, for example, the news here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Our own district’s history of bond measures is a mixed bag of successes and failures. (See my comment on this post.) When the district asked the voters in 2013 to support its Revenue Purpose Statement, which gave the district access to approximately $100 million in sales tax revenues, the “yes” vote was only 56%—enough to pass that proposal, but not enough to pass a bond.

Our district has not exactly maximized its opportunities to earn the trust and confidence of the voters. In 2013, many voters felt betrayed when the district waited until just after getting voter approval of $100 million in spending authority before raising the possibility of multiple school closures (and ultimately approving one closure). There was dissatisfaction with the district’s special education practices for years before the state issued its report last year citing the district for non-compliance with special ed laws; the district has yet to squarely acknowledge that its non-compliance may have affected whether kids received services they were entitled to. The district’s reputation for a retaliatory culture also predates that report—I even raised it in my campaign for the board—and more evidence of it emerged in our recent special ed staff climate survey. The board’s recent decision to give the superintendent a sizable raise—the biggest in the district, and not just one raise but another for next year—will rightly be seen as brushing off the legitimate concerns people have about the district’s practices and climate.

I share a lot of those concerns and yes, they do make me at least pause before entrusting the district with a large amount of spending authority. Many voters will do more than just pause and will vote “no” on a bond to express their displeasure with other aspects of the district’s performance.

The arguments for a $190 million proposal often strike me as variations on the sunk cost fallacy. So much time and effort has gone into the facilities plan, the argument goes, that we shouldn’t turn back now by asking for anything less than the full funding. But if that proposal is unlikely to pass, the sooner we realize that and act on it, the better.

For all of those reasons, I lean toward a significantly smaller bond proposal, one that encompasses projects that are necessary and make sense to complete in the short term. On that list, I would include:

  • A new elementary school to be built at the newly acquired location in North Liberty. According to our projections, the enrollment in North Corridor elementary schools will be almost 500 students over capacity in 2019 if that school is not built.

  • The renovation of Horace Mann Elementary. Renovating Mann is an important part of keeping Iowa City’s central core schools open, and the updates are long, long overdue.

  • A renovation and expansion of North Central Junior High. Under the secondary boundaries that will take effect next year, North Central’s territory becomes significantly larger. This change will quickly push it over capacity. As a result, it needs an addition sooner rather than later.

  • One of the larger east side renovation projects—either Southeast Junior High or phase II of the City High renovation, but without the additions to capacity. (See below.) These renovations are overdue and affect a large number of students and staff.

I would happily go to the public and defend those projects. There are certainly other worthy projects in the plan, too, but those few already put the proposal into the $50-60 million range. It will be hard enough to pass a bond that big; making it bigger will only put those projects at even more risk of delay.

Would a relatively scaled-back proposal mean changing the facilities plan? It would, since it would mean re-ordering some projects and proceeding at a somewhat slower pace. But I just don’t see any pathway from a completely unchanged plan to 60% voter approval. I’m (reluctantly) open to adding a few more projects (West High?), but if the proposal grows so large that it sinks under its own weight at the polls, we’ve gained nothing.

Keep in mind that a smaller bond proposal does not mean that we’re cutting the remaining projects from the plan. It just means that the remaining projects would then have to be funded through other means, such as additional bond proposals in later years.

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Hoover closure. I’ve been pointing out for years why it makes no sense to close Hoover Elementary School. It is a school big enough to house fourteen gen-ed classrooms (which means about 350 kids or more) in addition to two preschool rooms, two special ed rooms, an art room, and a music room, with a room to spare. In terms of square footage and number of classrooms, it is bigger than Hills, Lincoln, Mann, Longfellow, Shimek, and Lemme. It has more kids within a square mile than all but two other district elementaries—in many cases, way more. It can easily be filled without running a single gen-ed bus. It is a mainstay of a central Iowa City neighborhood, and plays an important role in maintaining a livable, family-friendly central core to the Iowa City metropolitan area. And just two years ago, the district invested almost a million dollars in updating it, including the installation of air conditioning.

I do not understand how we can ask the public for tens of millions of dollars while we’re simultaneously throwing away a $10-12 million asset. In fact, the facilities plan currently contains an $8 million dollar project that includes adding five classrooms to Lemme Elementary that would be unnecessary but for the closure of Hoover, and that project makes up for only a fraction of the capacity that is lost by closing Hoover. If you throw away over three hundred seats of elementary capacity in a growing district, you will eventually need to replace those seats; you’re creating a capacity need that will compete with real needs in other parts of the district.

As for its effect on the likelihood of bond passage: Tying a school closure to a bond proposal is like tying a rock to a kite. This is especially true when the district has for years been unable to answer basic questions about the justification for the closure and the planned use of the property. It is even more true when the closure came despite supermajority opposition to school closures at the district’s community workshops on the facilities plan. It is even more true when it asks Iowa City voters, many of whom are concerned about the issue of urban sprawl, not only to fund new schools on the outer edges of the district, but to do so while closing a school in the city center. If we’re serious about passing a bond proposal, why persist in needlessly alienating a big chunk of voters?

I would support a bond proposal like the one I describe above—one focused on a limited number of significant short-term needs—even if the Hoover decision remains unchanged. I would at least consider a somewhat larger list of projects. But the combination of a high price tag, a school closure, and the inclusion of unnecessary projects (see below) is beyond what I can support, and well beyond what I think can pass.

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Unnecessary or questionable projects. Some of the projects currently in the facilities plan are simply too hard to defend. In particular, I think it’s unwise to commit the district to additions—as opposed to renovations and upgrades, such as air conditioning—years before we know whether we will have enough enrollment to justify them, and when our own projections do not show a need for them. For example, the current facilities plan includes a four-classroom addition to Borlaug Elementary six years from now—even though Borlaug’s enrollment is under its current capacity and our projections show its enrollment declining by over a hundred students over the next ten years. Yes, I take our projections with a big grain of salt, especially as to ten years out, but I would not include additions in the facilities plan until we have better reason to believe that we’ll need them. That is exactly the kind of project that should be left to future funding sources, if it ends up being needed at all.

The facilities plan also includes additions to Northwest Junior High, South East Junior High, Lemme Elementary, Garner Elementary, and City High that are not justified by our enrollment projections, even ten years out. The enrollment projections for Northwest Junior High never rise above its current listed capacity. The projections show South East’s enrollment being under its current capacity for nine of the next ten years. If the new elementary school is built at the new site, there is no urgent need for a Garner addition; if there is eventually an elementary school near the new high school, we may never need the Garner addition. The City High zone is projected to have between 31 and 96 students over its current listed capacity, but the projections do not account for the fact that some of City’s students (probably at least 50) will end up at Tate Alternative High School—yet the plan calls for adding 150 seats to City.

(I understand that some buildings need larger common areas (cafeterias, libraries, etc.) even to accommodate their expected enrollments. My objection here is to classroom additions that are designed to accommodate increases in enrollment that our projections don’t support.)

The plan also includes an addition to Wood Elementary, and the board is considering including an addition to Alexander Elementary. Alexander is certainly over capacity, and our projections show growth at Wood. But before spending millions on additions, the board should at least consider simply making those schools’ attendance zones smaller and reassigning some of their areas to other schools where there is available capacity. Instead, without any discussion of that option, the plan’s solution is build, build, build, no matter how high it pushes the bond’s price tag.

Liberty High’s enrollment is projected to be 322 students above its initial capacity ten years from now. But the plan calls for a 500-seat addition. I tend to think the growth in that area will exceed that projection and that enrollment will probably eventually approach 1500. But the addition is still five years out; why commit to borrowing $6 million for a 500-seat addition that far in advance of knowing what the need will be?

Facilities planning will not come to an end in 2017. If additions become necessary, the board can incorporate them into the ongoing long-term plan. Until there’s a better indication that we will need them, it strikes me as very unwise to commit the district, years in advance, to paying for them.

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Finally, I’d like to see the district commit to developing a career and technical master plan. We need to take a close look at whether we could better serve the significant number of students in our district who are not college-degree-bound. That would entail both curricular and facilities planning; but since we haven’t yet done that planning, it would be premature to identify those facilities needs in this bond proposal.

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I’d like to be a “yes” vote, because I know that there are worthy projects that need funding. The concerns I list above are my starting point; again, I’d be willing to compromise on the list of projects, but there are some proposals I could not in good conscience support. I assume all of the board members have limits to what they can support, and it may well be that there is no common ground on which everyone can agree. On a bond proposal, unanimity is worth trying for, but it’s not the supreme value; in my view, the voters are entitled to know a board member’s candid assessment of any proposal. Ultimately, the decision is up to the voters; if the arguments for a proposal are persuasive enough, it will pass. I could be wrong about how the voters will react to a $190 million proposal, but my instinct is to err on the side of creating the most defensible proposal possible.

Update here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

College readiness and completion of ICCSD high school graduates

The state recently released some “post-secondary readiness” data about Iowa high schools. Specifically, there are charts showing the college enrollment and completion rates, up to five years out, of the graduates of the high school class of 2010. They also show, as to those students who enrolled in a public college or university, what percentage took at least one remedial English or math course within a year of graduating from high school. (That part of the data is from more recent graduating classes.) Here are the charts for City High and West High (click to enlarge, or click on the school name to go to the site):







You can go on the site and look up any high school in Iowa. It’s important to be careful about drawing broad conclusions from any one set of data, but I wanted to post these because I’ve always been curious about college completion rates and about just how many students start pursuing a college degree but don’t finish. One thing it shows is that five years after graduating, a significant portion of our high school graduates—between 30 and 40 per cent—had not received a college degree and were not pursuing one. I know we will never send all of our graduates to college, and I don’t see that as the goal. But I think it’s still a fair question whether we are adequately serving those students, whether college is in their future or not.

These charts, by the way, are defining “remedial math course” very narrowly, to cover only non-credit-bearing remedial work. Karen W. explains here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

School board agenda for Tuesday, January 24

Some of the things on the agenda for this week’s school board meeting:

  • A report from the Student Climate Survey Task Force


  • The 2016-17 enrollment, demographics, and class size report


  • The results of the district’s drinking water lead testing, including some results that were “notable”

At our work session, we’ll continue to discuss the facilities master plan and related bond proposal (info here and here).

The full agendas are here and here. Please chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Listening posts are for listening

I enjoyed last night’s school board listening post on the facilities master plan at Kirkwood Elementary School. About twenty people (and several district staff members) came out on a cold winter night to exchange views and ideas about the district’s building plans. (It was almost caucus-esque!) Two more listening posts are scheduled next week.

One thing I wish had been different, though: A listening post on the facilities master plan should not be preceded by a twenty-minute commercial for the facilities master plan. I understand that it’s helpful to present some information at the outset so people can have well-informed discussions, but it should not be presented in a way designed to influence the opinions we’ll hear from the participants.

The hard question facing the board is just what it takes to create a bond proposal that has a reasonable chance of attaining 60% approval at the polls. I was very curious to hear people’s opinions on that question last night. Of course, people who attend the listening posts may be particularly likely to favor the bond, but even those who most strongly favor the bond have to think objectively about how to maximize its chances of passage. If they voice their opinions only after sitting through a lengthy pro-bond argument, without hearing any of the likely counterarguments, they’re going to be in less of a position to realistically assess the prospects of different proposals.

Similarly, the group activities should not involve leading questions. (“Please share a short story of how the facilities project(s) have impacted your students.”)

I’ve written before about how our district sometimes seems incapable of soliciting public input without trying to manipulate it. Why walk right into that criticism?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Enrollment projections versus planned capacity

In preparing for the board’s discussion of the facilities master plan and possible bond proposals, I updated my chart showing projected enrollment versus planned building capacity. I thought I might as well post it in case anyone finds it useful. I don’t trust myself not to have made any errors in filling it out, so please let me know if you catch one. The sources are listed at the end.

Notice that the entire table is based on the future elementary and secondary boundaries. So, for example, there are projections for Grant and Hoover East in 2017 and 2018, even though those schools won’t open until until 2019.

This document can give you a good sense of the timeline of projects under the current facilities plan, which was created before the board drew new attendance zones and before we received our latest set of enrollment projections. An overview of the facilities plan, with estimated project costs, is here. More detail here.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

School board agenda for Tuesday, January 10

This week, among other things, the board will hear an update on the district’s progress on the issue of seclusion enclosures (previous posts here and here), we’ll hear an update about state legislative issues that affect the schools, and we’ll consider whether to adopt the latest version of the draft policy articulating the district’s weighted resource allocation model—that is, its effort to funnel more resources toward higher-need schools.

At the work session, we’ll discuss how to go forward with the plans to ask the voters for bonding authority to fund projects in the district’s facilities master plan. (Info here.) The board chair, Chris Lynch, has proposed that we initially ask for authority only for projects in the first two or three years of the plan, which would mean asking the voters to authorize about $75-95 million in bonds. The remaining projects could be funded either by subsequent bond votes or via the SAVE tax if the legislature eventually extends that tax.

The board will also discuss whether there should be changes in the facilities plan as we consider what an initial bond proposal would include. A (presumably non-exhaustive) list of potential topics appears here.

The full meeting agendas are here and here; please chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Follow-up: Voluntary transfers

At our last board meeting, I moved to prohibit next year’s ninth-graders from transferring into Liberty High from outside Liberty’s attendance area, and the motion passed. Here are my reasons for the motion:

First, ninth-grade transfers will worsen the projected overcrowding at Liberty. When Liberty opens, it will have a capacity of 1000 seats, and our enrollment projections show that, even without any voluntary transfers, its enrollment will be over 1000 as of 2019-20:


By contrast, Liberty in its first two years (2017-18 and 2018-19) is likely to be underfilled, because students from the classes of 2018 and 2019 are allowed to finish up at West High if they choose to.

As a result, I was not against allowing juniors and seniors to transfer into Liberty next year, since they will help fill the building in its initial years and will be gone before the building becomes overcrowded. But I had concerns about allowing freshmen and sophomores to transfer in next year, because they will still be there when the enrollment exceeds the building’s capacity. By the time next year’s freshmen graduate, Liberty is projected to be already 12% over capacity (while we anticipate plenty of space available at West High). Any transfers we allow will simply make that number worse.

Second, the board needs to consider this issue in light of its decision assign the Kirkwood area to the Liberty High zone. The board chose to require students in the Kirkwood area, which has a relatively high proportion of students from low-income households, to attend Liberty, in order to promote socioeconomic balance among the secondary schools. I voted against that decision, because I was concerned that Kirkwood-area students would be made worse off by having to attend schools that are farther away and more difficult to get to and from. But now that they’re assigned to Liberty, the least we can do is not overcrowd the building.

Moreover, there is a fairness issue. Many Kirkwood-area students are effectively required to attend Liberty whether they want to or not. Freshman and sophomores are ineligible to transfer out of Liberty in 2017-18, and even if transfers were available, students must provide their own transportation, which lower-income families are less likely to have the means to do. Again, the board majority justified the Kirkwood decision on the grounds that it would promote socioeconomic balance and reduce overcrowding. So how could the board then allow better-off families—those with the means to provide their own transportation—to transfer into Liberty, even when it would undermine socioeconomic balance and worsen overcrowding? If we’re willing to say “no” to low-income families, we need to be willing to say “no” to better-off families too.

At the meeting, I could not get a clear sense of how the administration planned to handle transfer requests into Liberty, so I moved to close Liberty High to transfers from ninth graders (except for those who meet hardship criteria) next year. The motion passed, 4-3. (Board members Hemingway, Roesler, Roetlin, and I voted yes; Directors DeLoach, Kirschling, and Lynch voted no.)

Liberty is slated to receive a 500-seat addition as of 2022-23 (a year after next year’s freshmen will graduate). As we get closer to that date, become more certain of the funding for the addition, and have a better sense of how much growth to expect in the Liberty zone, it will make sense for the board to revisit the transfer issue.

Previous posts here.

Follow-up: Changes to the science curriculum

At a board meeting last month (the one I missed due to illness), the board approved an administrative proposal to change the junior high and high school science curriculum. One aspect of the proposal was a change to the current practice of allowing students to accelerate by skipping the ninth-grade Foundations of Science class and taking Biology instead. By accelerating in that way, those students are then able to take more advanced science classes before they graduate. Under the new proposal, students would be able to accelerate only by doubling up on science classes in either eighth or ninth grade. Moreover, eighth-graders would be allowed to accelerate only if they scored in the 95th percentile in science on the Iowa Assessments as seventh-graders and were enrolled in the more advanced junior high math course.

Others have written more extensively about the drawbacks of this new approach (links below). I agree with the one dissenting board member, Lori Roetlin, that the administration should go back to the drawing board and develop a proposal that would not make acceleration so problematic. In particular, I have the following concerns (all of which have been raised by others as well):

  • The new requirement, by incentivizing students to double up on science courses, will inevitably hurt enrollment in other elective courses. It will likely decrease participation in music and art courses. Many disciplines, given free rein, might choose to expand their share of the students’ school day, but the board needs to take all disciplines into account when setting curricular requirements.

  • The 95th-percentile cutoff for allowing students to accelerate in eighth grade appears to be entirely arbitrary—designed to fill a set number of seats, rather than to match students with the best course. As Karen W. writes, “The Iowa Assessments are not placement exams and the administration has provided no evidence that this particular cut score would predict success in the new [Earth and Space Science] course or that students with lower scores would not be successful.”

    More broadly, I’d like to see the board discuss the way the district uses Iowa Assessment scores to limit enrollment in advanced courses. What are the costs and benefits of that system as opposed to one in which students (with the advice of parents and counselors) could self-enroll in advanced course by choice?

  • The 95th percentile cutoff appears likely to have the effect of minimizing the number of minority students enrolled in the accelerated science track (see commentary here and here).

  • I’m not convinced that the new approach is the only workable way to comply with the state science standards. Karen W. makes a good case for the idea the material that would be covered in the 7th-8th-9th-grade sequence could be covered in 7th and 8th grade in an accelerated course, without doubling up. Apparently alternative approaches are being taken elsewhere (see the comments here).

Others have expanded on this list of concerns. Here is a list of posts on the topic (please chime in with a comment if I’ve missed any):

ICCSD Science Program Proposal, Revisited
Curriculum Review and the School Board
New science curriculum deserves more attention
ICCSD Science Program Proposal
Community Comment 11/8
Proposed changes to the science curriculum
More Questions Than Answers
Science Curriculum Review Report

Thursday, January 5, 2017

How should we determine the target enrollment for an elementary school?

I’ve been posting about how small schools tend to generate outlier class sizes. These posts naturally raise the question: What can we do to minimize the likelihood of outlier class sizes in small schools? But they also raise another question: How should we determine how many kids it makes sense to enroll in any particular elementary school building? In this post, I want to consider the latter question.

When the district draws attendance zones—or even if it abandons geographic attendance zones and tries something like a magnet school—it can’t avoid setting target enrollment numbers for the buildings. There is a wishful-thinking aspect to that task, since it’s hard to predict how many kids will show up from year to year. But it’s an unavoidable task. It affects not just how we draw attendance zones but also how we assess whether to build new elementary capacity.

In determining the target enrollment for a particular building, we need to assume that there will be a roughly equal number of kids in each grade level. We all know this assumption is false, and that there will sometimes be a lot of variation in the enrollment in different grades. But that variation is arbitrary and unpredictable, so you can’t plan around it. So I don’t see any alternative to assuming equal enrollment in each grade level (while recognizing that unpredictable departures from that assumption will be the norm).

Our district has assigned “capacity” numbers to its buildings. In the past, it did so by simply multiplying the number of classrooms by a typical class size (in those days, 23). More recently, it used consultants to assign capacity numbers based on square footage and other factors. But neither one of those methods gives us a good sense of what the target enrollment should be. It doesn’t always make sense to use every available room as a general education classroom, and any enrollment target has to be realistic about what class sizes the district can afford to staff.

An example: In my previous post, I argued that in a school with fourteen available classrooms, the highest number of students you could enroll, without exceeding the class size goals, is 364.  But what if there are sixteen available classrooms?  Shouldn’t that mean that you could enroll more kids?  But it doesn’t, because there’s no way to spread seven grades over sixteen rooms without creating very problematic class sizes.  In that situation, I believe the fourteen-classroom model is still your best option (subject to alternatives I’ll soon discuss).  So the presence of those extra two classrooms doesn’t necessarily increase the number of gen-ed kids you can reasonably aspire to enroll.  It may well make sense to put those two extra rooms to some other use, such as preschool classrooms or dedicated special ed rooms.

In other words, there’s a difference between how many kids will “fit” in a building and what the target enrollment should be. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the optimal numbers are; if you think there’s a better number to shoot for in a building with fourteen (or sixteen) available classrooms, I hope you’ll chime in with a comment. But many of our current “capacity” numbers are very unhelpful. Mann’s listed capacity is 242—but what is the model for dividing 242 up into classes in seven grade levels? Alexander’s listed capacity is 500—but we put temporaries there as soon as the enrollment approached 400, in part because it qualifies for smaller class sizes as a high-need school. “Old” Hoover’s capacity is listed as 304—but since it can easily use fourteen rooms as gen-ed classrooms, it would make sense to put at least 350 kids there. (Before the closure vote, it did enroll that many.) We have special-use classrooms at many schools, but we don’t adjust those schools’ capacity numbers to take into account the unavailability of those rooms. The list goes on.

Our entire facilities plan, involving multi-million dollar projects, is driven by the district’s capacity numbers, but many of them do not accurately reflect how we can and will use our buildings. The district needs to develop a target enrollment number for each building that depends not just on the size of the building or the number of classrooms, but on a plan for how the rooms will actually be used and how the grades will (ideally) be distributed among them—a plan that tries to minimize the chance of outlier class sizes.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A class size math problem, part 2

A few weeks ago, I posted a “class size math problem” to illustrate how small elementary schools tend to generate outlier class sizes. The post received a lot of good comments—but nobody did the math problem! Specifically, the question was how many students you’d want to assign to a school that had ten (or, alternatively, fourteen) general education classrooms, and what the class sizes would be in each grade. The one constraint was that you had to assume that there would be a roughly equal number of kids in each grade level.

One purpose of the experiment was to show that it’s hard, in small schools, to have class sizes that stay in the neighborhood of the district’s class size goals. The goals, for most schools, are not to exceed 26 kids in grades K-2 and 30 kids in grades 3-6. We don’t want class sizes to exceed those goals, but if class sizes are too far below them, they undermine the district’s attempt to reallocate resources to higher-need schools. (More complete explanation here.)

Without mixing grade levels, this was the closest I could come to the class size goals, without exceeding them, in the ten-classroom school:


As you can see, many of the classes are very small—way below the district goal for grades K-2. That puts upward pressure on class sizes elsewhere and makes it harder to redirect resources to higher-need schools.

In the fourteen-classroom school, this was the closest I could come to the goals without exceeding them:


This school is significantly fairer to the district’s other schools, since its average class size is closer to the district-wide medians. It does less to undermine the district’s efforts to reallocate resources to higher-need schools. It accommodates a lot more kids. You could make those early-grade class sizes smaller—I’m sure many people would balk at the idea of a 26-kid kindergarten class—but only if you’re willing to live with smaller class sizes in the higher grades, too. As the upper-grade class sizes fall farther below the goals, class sizes elsewhere in the district would have to rise.

These scenarios assume an equal number of kids in each grade level. In reality, there is often a lot of variation in enrollment in the different grades. That’s a big part of what makes class sizes hard to manage in small schools. It’s actually hard to get much closer to the district goals than the “ideal” fourteen-classroom school, but the great advantage of larger schools is in their ability to handle that anomalous year-to-year variation, since they can spread the effects out over a greater number of classrooms.

In my next few posts, I’ll consider alternatives (such as mixed grades, paired schools, and the use of half-time teachers) that can help alleviate the class size issue in small schools.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Follow-up: Seclusion enclosures

At our last work session, the board agreed that the administration should form a committee to determine best practices and consider potentially improving or eliminating the district’s use of seclusion enclosures. The committee will include parents, teachers, and interested community members. It will report back to the board within a month or two.

I think that was the best result we could have expected from the discussion at the work session on the topic. Speaking as just one board member, I don’t see the board as having delegated the decisionmaking on this issue to the committee. An administrative committee can be a great help in researching the issue and in doing the drafting of a potential policy, but it’s also true that, since committee members are appointed by the administration, a committee is not necessarily representative of the larger community. The board should review committee recommendations with an open mind but should not simply rubber-stamp them.

Meanwhile, a local lawyer has brought a complaint against the district at the State Department of Education, alleging that the district’s use of seclusion enclosures violates federal laws and regulations. You can read the complaint here.

When I posted about this topic in October, several commenters asked for a list of district schools that have seclusion enclosures. The complaint contains such a list as its Exhibit 1 on pages 7 and 8 of the PDF.

One more update: Yesterday, the federal government issued new, non-binding “significant guidance” on the use of restraint and seclusion in school, which I assume will be part of what informs the district’s discussion of “best practices.”