The district is opening a new high school, Liberty High, in 2017, so the board has to establish that school’s attendance area, which will have to be drawn from the attendance areas of City High and/or West High. Rather than draw actual secondary boundaries, the previous board settled on a “feeder plan,” identifying which elementary schools would go to which secondary schools. The idea was that the next board would then finalize the elementary boundaries, but the feeder plan itself would remain unchanged.
The feeder plan that the previous board adopted put a high value on “balance,” which is shorthand for minimizing disparities in the precentage of kids at each school who are from low-income households, are receiving special education services, or are in the English-language-learner program. To pursue that goal, the plan has to bus kids from some elementary schools to junior highs and high schools that are relatively far from their homes, when closer alternatives exist. Specifically:
- Kids in the Alexander area in the southeasternmost part of Iowa City would be bused to Northwest Junior High in Coralville, which is as much as seven miles away for some of them, instead of going to Southeast Junior High, which is well under two miles away for many of them. They would also go to West High instead of City High, even though City is significantly closer for most of them.
- Kids in the Kirkwood area in Coralville would be assigned to Liberty High (about five miles away) instead of West High (about three-and-a-half miles away and accessible via public transportation). They would also be assigned to North Central Junior High (about three miles away) instead of North West Junior High, which is literally right next door to Kirkwood Elementary. Kirkwood-area students would be given the option of attending North West for junior high, but they would be the only students there who would then go on to Liberty High rather than West.
- Wickham-area students would attend North West Junior High and West High, rather than North Central Junior High and Liberty High, even though the latter are closer than the former, in some cases significantly so.
When the board voted to adopt the current feeder plan, the administration’s estimates showed a very close FRL percentage at each of the three high schools—31%, 28%, and 29% at City, West, and Liberty, respectively—but those estimates gave a misimpression of what the actual rates would be, because part of the board’s plan was to carve out an area from City and West’s territory that would go to the planned Grant Elementary in the North Corridor, and thus would eventually go on to Liberty High. The site for Grant is in the current Wickham attendance area, which means some portion of Wickham (which the estimates showed going to West High) would naturally become part of Grant and go to Liberty. It also seems very likely that all or part of the “North Lincoln” area (which the estimates showed going to City) will be assigned to Liberty, either because it will become part of Grant, or because it will stay at Lincoln but be assigned to Liberty anyway.
Wickham and Lincoln are both very low-FRL areas, so sending portions of them to Liberty changes the FRL distribution under the current feeder plan considerably. Assuming that about a quarter of Wickham and about half of Lincoln end up at Liberty, my best estimate of the FRL rates in each high school’s zone, if we measured them using this year’s numbers, would be:
City High: 34%
West High: 33%
Liberty High: 20%
As we have discussed the issue this year, an alternative proposal has developed that would keep the Kirkwood area at West High and the Alexander area at City High, but would move other parts of City High’s zone into West and Liberty. (See below.) My best estimate of the resulting FRL rates, if we measured them using this year’s numbers, would be:
City High: 36%
West High: 33%
Liberty High: 15%
(Again, those are ballpark estimates; see below for how I made them. [Update: On May 10, the board adopted new elementary boundaries and began to make changes in the secondary feeder plan. See this post. The resulting FRL rates, under this year's numbers, are 36% at City, 34% at West, and 20% at Liberty. See this post for a follow-up.]
As we debate whether to change our secondary feeder plan, we are choosing between something like the first plan and something like the second one. Although the current feeder plan will not result in as close a socioeconomic balance between the three high schools as it initially seemed, it still provides somewhat more balance than the alternative.
At least four rationales have been offered for choosing the plan with more socioeconomic balance. The first is that students from lower-income households will perform better academically if they go to schools that do not have high poverty rates. There has been a lot of empirical research on this topic, and I’m pretty easily convinced that, all other things equal, it’s true that low-income kids benefit academically from not being in high-poverty schools.
It doesn’t automatically follow, though, that the current feeder plan is better than the alternative. The FRL differences between the two are not particularly large, and the resulting FRL rates do not appear to be so high as to raise academic red flags. (In fact, according to the state Department of Education, the proficiency rate of City High’s low-SES students is higher than that of West High’s low-SES students, even though West High’s FRL rate is lower.) More importantly, the plan puts concrete transportation burdens on many kids from high-poverty areas, so those burdens have to be weighed against any potential benefit of being in a lower-FRL school.
Every indication is that the great majority of families at Kirkwood and Alexander—which are two of our highest poverty schools—do not think that the plan is what’s best for their kids. For example, our district recently surveyed the parents of Alexander sixth-graders about which junior high they’d rather go to if they know that they’ll end up at West for high school. Twenty out of thirty-three said they wanted their kids to attend Southeast. If they had been given the Southeast-City option, that number probably would have been even higher. That same preference has been reflected in the great majority of comments made by Kirkwood and Alexander parents at board meetings, in emails, and at PTO meetings.
These parents aren’t just expressing an attachment to their current schools out of history or loyalty or familiarity. Those can be real concerns for people, but we can’t possibly draw new districts without asking some families to leave schools they’re fond of. The Kirkwood and Alexander parents, by contrast, are identifying concrete hardships that going to a more distant school imposes on them. Kirkwood parents point out, for example, that there is no public transportation between the Kirkwood area and North Liberty, which will make it hard for kids to get to and from school at times not served by a school bus, especially if they come from one- or no-car households. Alexander families make a similar point, and also point to the sheer quantity of time their kids will have to spend on a bus. “I don’t own a car,” one Kirkwood parent said to me. “If my child is at Liberty and gets sick during the day, how will I get him home?”
I’m certainly not arguing that we should let every neighborhood choose which attendance area they’re in. Of course that’s impossible. I’m also not arguing that no one should ever be asked to make a sacrifice for the greater good; I’m fine with that in many contexts. I’m arguing that we should not make kids in high-poverty areas worse off for the sake of achieving balance, especially since one of the whole reasons we’re pursuing balance in the first place is to benefit those very kids. So it’s important to assess whether the feeder plan makes them worse off or better off. In doing that, my inclination is to give a lot weight to what those families think.
The second rationale that has been offered for the current feeder plan’s pursuit of (relative) balance is that schools with high FRL rates face a lot of challenges (both academically and behavorially) that make it harder for teachers and staff to give all the kids the attention that they need.
I’m sure there is truth to that. But if that’s the concern, it’s not clear why we should devote our resources to pursuing balance at the secondary level, where the FRLs are relatively low compared to those at our elementary schools. Our district has five elementary schools with FRL rates of over 70%. If there are challenges associated with high-poverty schools, those are the schools most facing the challenges.
Proponents of the secondary feeder plan would probably argue that they would like to see balance at the elementary level too, but that it is not currently politically achievable or sustainable. I think that’s probably true; there would have to be much more broad-based support to bring about the kind of redistricting that would result in balanced FRLs at the all the elementary schools. But what makes the secondary plan any more politically achievable, other than the fact that the burden of it falls mostly on high-poverty areas whose residents are less likely to organize in opposition to it? Again, if Kirkwood and Alexander families were supportive of the feeder plan and thought it would benefit their children, the issue would be much easier to decide.
One way to address some of the challenges teachers and staff face at higher-poverty schools is to devote more resources to those buildings. The current feeder plan, because it spend additional money on school buses, is in tension with that goal. (On that, more below.)
The third rationale that has been offered for the current feeder plan is that any substantial disparity between the FRL rates at the high schools will lead, over time, to a gradual migration of middle-class and wealthy families toward to the area around Liberty High, at the expense of Iowa City, and particularly the east side. City’s FRL rate may not look so high now, the argument goes, but over time it will climb higher and higher, and all the kids there will be worse off for being in a high-poverty school.
This is an argument I feel a good deal of resistance to, for a number of reasons. First, it invests an awful lot of explanatory power in our boundary decisions; if such a migration does actually occur, it will probably happen for many reasons in addition to the secondary school FRL rate differential. Second, it is essentially unfalsifiable; even though there is no current indication that the FRL rates at City or West will be considerably higher (see note below), this argument just asserts that they will inevitably spiral upward.
Third, though I believe this argument is made with good intentions, it has a tendency to shade into a kind of alarmism about the presence of poor people in Iowa City that is hurtful to those in low-income neighborhoods and ultimately does not help City High. We have been hearing for years now that the east side is on the verge of a “tipping point” because the number of poor families (and therefore the high school FRL rate) has risen. Yet the east side has continued to grow, people continue to choose to live here, new homes (including high-end developments) continue to be built, and City High remains one of the best high schools in the state. There are a lot of reasons to see Iowa City and City High as at least partly success stories, rather than as being on the precipice of a downward spiral.
Fourth, this argument has an all-or-nothing quality to it. Under its logic, any noticeable difference in FRL rates between the high schools will lead to the inevitable decline of one into a high-poverty school. But even the current feeder plan is likely to have about a 14-point FRL difference between high schools, and so could be objected to on the same grounds. To bring all three high schools to a roughly equal FRL rate would take even more extensive redistricting, would require more money spent on buses, and would create even more transportation burdens for kids from low-income families.
Fifth, no matter how carefully it is made, this argument is bound to be experienced as unwelcoming by families in high-FRL areas. I can only imagine what it is like to be a student from the Alexander neighborhood and to hear that if there are too many kids like you at City High, people will no longer choose to move here. Or to be a Kirkwood student and hear that the kids in your area have to attend Liberty High to keep it from becoming too appealing to people.
Finally, there are countervailing concerns about what will happen to the areas around Kirkwood and Alexander under the current plan. More than one Kirkwood parent has told me that if the district goes ahead with the current plan, “Kirkwood’s FRL will be 90%”—because anyone who can afford to move will move. The ongoing development of single-family housing around Alexander has the potential to help bring down Alexander’s FRL rate, but a feeder plan that would send kids to junior high seven miles away is not exactly a selling point. The claims about what will happen to the neighborhoods around those schools are as hard to evaluate as the claims about what will happen on the east side, but they seem at least as worthy of being taken seriously.
It’s also true that the current feeder plan costs money, and that expense is in competition with funding that could put more resources into our higher-poverty elementary schools. The board was initially told that the feeder plan would require spending about $250,000 annually above what we would spend under a plan that put a higher value on proximity to school. (Kirkwood-area kids, for example, would not need busing to go to North West Junior High, and much of the Alexander area would not need busing to go to City High.) Under the current plan, the board might also choose to run after-school activities buses to areas such as Kirkwood and Alexander, which would make the cost even higher.
It is hard to justify spending money to pursue balance at the secondary level when we have elementary schools with much higher FRL rates that could benefit from those same resources. There is also a good argument that it makes more sense to invest that money in the early grades and in early childhood education, in hopes of putting kids on the best footing at the beginning of their school years. When I recently met with a group of Kirkwood families, none of them thought the current feeder plan was anything other than a burden to them. They were very enthusiastic, though, about the prospect of having more resources (for example, smaller class sizes) at their elementary school.
Will the money “saved” actually be redirected to the schools that most need it? And will it add up to enough to make much difference? Those are fair questions. But the first step toward redirecting resources has to be identifying resources that could be redirected. In my view, there are uses for the money that will be spent on busing that are likely to be more beneficial to kids in higher-need schools. (It is also true that we need to find a way to tilt resource allocation to higher-need schools no matter what we do with secondary boundaries. That issue is on our agenda for tonight’s meeting.)
A fourth rationale for the current feeder plan is that if the FRL rate is higher at one high school than at another, the curricular offerings will not be the same. There is probably some truth to this, since curricular offerings are at least to some extent driven by demand. However, we’re talking about high schools that will have over a thousand students each. There will still be lots of demand for college prep and Advanced Placement courses, for example, and the high schools will still accommodate that demand.
We have also heard arguments that balance is necessary because lower-FRL schools win more athletic championships and have more successful extracurricular activities, and that the whole school benefits from those successes. I find it hard to give much weight to those arguments. Again, the high schools will still have large and diverse enough student populations to offer lots of athletic and extracurricular opportunities. Athletic championships are nice, but raising the odds of winning titles doesn’t justify the burdens we’d be putting on kids from low-income families under the current feeder plan.
I don’t blame anyone for wishing that our high schools all had similar demographic profiles. But I’m not willing to pursue that outcome no matter what the cost. I guess it is also true that I am just not that alarmed by the prospect that the high school on the east side might look like the east side’s population and seek to serve that population.
As you can tell, I come to this issue from the perspective of someone living on the east side in a City High household. All of my kids will attend City High; one is already there. I live next door to the school. If I were to argue for the current feeder plan, I would in effect be arguing that we need to have fewer poor (and black) students at my kids’ high school. To make that kind of argument, I’d have to feel very confident that I was doing what’s best for those kids. I just don’t have that confidence.
I realize that my personal perspective should not affect my conclusion about the issue—if I lived in North Liberty, the potential moral hazard would be reversed—but I can’t deny that that perspective informs my thinking about the issue.
I do think that it’s important to acknowledge that when we talk about FRL rates, we are talking not just about poverty but also about race. Though of course not all black people are poor and vice versa, students receiving free or reduced-price lunch are disproportionately black. There is a strong argument that anything we do with redistricting or with resource allocation has to be accompanied by a sea change in the way that the district engages with black students. Our district has taken steps in a good direction—for example, by developing a comprehensive equity plan—but still has a ways to go.
Not everyone in the affected communities believes that spreading the poor and black population out evenly across our schools is an unmitigated good. There are multiple perspectives on what the district’s approach to engaging with poor and minority students should be. I certainly don’t know all the answers, but I do know that what I hear from the families affected by our decisions does not always match my preconceptions. In general, I think the district needs to be more open to perspectives beyond those coming from within the institution.
There are also capacity issues underlying the entire secondary boundary discussion. It is unavoidably true that once Liberty is open, some areas currently assigned to City High will have to end up elsewhere. City cannot continue to enroll 44% of our high school students when we have three high school attendance areas. So the hard thing is determining which areas it makes the most sense to re-assign. There, the balance and proximity issues are in direct conflict. The kids who are closest to the other secondaries are in many cases the ones from the most affluent areas, while the higher-poverty areas are often very convenient to Southeast and City.
At the same time, there are issues about how many students we can put at Liberty High, which will have a capacity of only 1000 students until its sixth year of operation, when it will get a 500-seat addition. As I wrote about here, assigning Kirkwood students to Liberty High will put that building significantly over capacity by its third year of operation. Given that there is room for Kirkwood at West High, it is very hard to justify sending them to Liberty. If Kirkwood is kept at West, though, it becomes even harder to justify sending Alexander there.
What, then, is the alternative to the current feeder plan? This board is not discussing what the previous board identified as Plan 5C, which tried to assign areas purely on the basis of proximity and available capacity. That’s partly because Plan 5C assumed that we would keep a “clean” feeder system, with elementary populations staying together all the way through high school. All things being equal, I think most people would prefer a clean feeder plan, but because of the locations of our schools (and especially our junior highs), having clean feeders greatly complicates the districting process, and is in direct tension with concerns about proximity and capacity. As a result, I do think it makes sense to consider departing from a clean feeder system.
Even the current plan, which took clean feeders as a given, departs from the principle in practice, since Kirkwood students have the option of attending North West Junior High before going on to Liberty (and it is likely that many would choose that option). In theory, we could offer a similar option to Alexander students (though the current plan does not). But most of the feedback I have heard from families in those areas is that they are not happy being put to that kind of choice, because if they choose the more convenient junior high, their kids will be the only kids at the junior high who will end up at a different high school than all of their classmates. If there were a way to send roughly half of a junior high to one high school and the other half to another, splitting the feeder after eighth grades might be more palatable, but there is no scenario I can imagine that would have that result.
Instead, it is possible to consider splitting some feeders after sixth grade. For example, the North Lincoln area could remain at Lincoln Elementary, but after sixth grade, all or part of that area could attend North Central and Liberty. The “North Mann island”—i.e., the Peninsula neighborhood and its surrounding area—could remain at Horace Mann, but then attend North Central and Liberty. The “Twain west side island” could stay at Twain, but then attend North West and West High. In each case, splitting the feeder would take a relatively large group of kids—roughly half of Mann and Lincoln, about a third of Twain—and move them together to a different secondary path. It would also be a way of reducing the City High population without re-assigning kids who are very close to Southeast and City. All of those areas are currently bused to their elementary, junior high, and high schools, so redirecting them would not add busing costs (and might well reduce them, since much of North Lincoln is not within busing distance from Liberty). And it would also make the best use of our existing elementary capacity; we have more elementary capacity on the east side than in the North Corridor or on the west side, so keeping those areas at east side elementary schools makes sense.
Splitting feeders is never an ideal choice, but given the other feasible options—which involve putting real transportation burdens on families in low-income areas—these ideas seem like the least bad option.
There are more aspects of this issue that I could discuss, but I should bring this particular post to a close. My main goal was to provide an explanation of my thinking on this issue to the many people who have contacted me about it. As with all blogging, though, I am also using this space to think out loud to some extent. I am not sure any of us will ever succeed in mastering all the aspects of this issue, and I’m sure I still need to be educated about additional perspectives on it. Please chime in with comments.
Note on calculations: To estimate the FRL rates under the different possible secondary boundary plans, I took the current number of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch at City or West this year (1086) and reallocated that number among the three secondary zones in the current feeder plan and in the alternative plan. To do that, I assumed that the secondary enrollment from each elementary attendance area would be proportional to each area’s share of the total elementary enrollment. I ended up with the following FRL rates under the current plan: Liberty: 222 FRL out of 1100 students (20%); West: 435 FRL out of 1319 students (33%); City: 429 FRL out of 1277 students (34%). Under the alternative plan: Liberty: 153 FRL out of 1000 students (15%); West: 449 FRL out of 1342 students (33%), City: 483 FRL out of 1355 students (36%). I assumed that the FRL rate of Tate High, the district’s alternative high school that does not have an attendance zone, would remain at roughly 64% under either feeder plan.
It’s not a perfect way to estimate, but it’s the best I could come up with, and I think it yields pretty good ballpark figures. Again, it is based on what the numbers would look like this year under the different scenarios. Will the numbers change in the future? Almost certainly they will, but is very hard to project FRL rates into the future, since they hinge to some extent on changes in the economy, on changes in the location and availability of affordable housing, and on the degree to which eligible families actually enroll in the free- and reduced-price lunch program. (The company that makes our enrollment projections does not attempt to project FRL rates.)
Some have argued that FRL rates at the secondary level will continue to rise, and have cited the higher rates at the elementary and junior high level. There is probably some element of truth to that, but it’s hard to quantify, because historically FRL rates have consistently been higher in the early grades and lower in the later grades. On average over the past ten years, the high school FRL rate has been about four percentage points lower than the junior high rate, and that difference has been even larger (eight points) at Southeast and City. So even though Southeast’s current FRL rate is higher than City’s, it’s not safe to assume that City’s will rise to that same level.