Friday, November 4, 2016

Dismantle the boxes

Several schools in our district contain enclosures known variously as (depending on who you ask) “time-out rooms,” “seclusion enclosures,” “isolation boxes,” or “solitary confinement cells.” The nature of these enclosures varies from school to school, but some of them are made of unfinished plywood, are about six feet by six feet, and are built right into the larger classroom. Some of them appear to be poorly lit to the point of being outright dark inside. The photos above show enclosures at Grant Wood Elementary School.

A child can be confined in such an enclosure as part of the school’s behavior management practices. When the enclosure is built right into the larger classroom, children in the class watch as a child in put into the enclosure. The child in the enclosure can hear the class activity going on outside, and the other kids in the classroom can hear a child’s cries coming from inside the enclosure.

There are state-enacted rules regulating when and how the enclosures can be used, though there have been questions about whether our district has complied with the rules. The Gazette had an in-depth set of articles about the enclosures in September; you can read them here, here, and here. The Daily Iowan reports on the issue today here.

I know there are difficult situations when a child may pose a risk of harm to self or others and that the district needs to have a way of dealing with those situations. There is a lot to discuss about how best to handle those situations. But it doesn’t take an extended inquiry to see that the district can do better by its students than these plywood boxes. The district needs to discontinue using them and dismantle them, in favor of creating more humane spaces and practices for dealing with difficult behavior.

School board agenda for Tuesday, November 8

Very brief meeting scheduled for this Tuesday, in Room 113, since the board room is being used an election polling place. But feel free to chime in with any comments on the agenda.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Liberty High curricular and extra-curricular offerings

New information about the curricular and extra-curricular offerings at Liberty High School when it opens next year is here and here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

U.S. Office of Civil Rights to make site visit to ICCSD

This past Friday (October 28), the superintendent notified the board that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education will be making a site visit to our district this coming Spring. Here’s the superintendent’s email:
In 2009 the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights pulled some historical District data to review. In 2013 the OCR contacted the District to discuss their analysis of the data. As a result of that conversation, in the fall of 2013 the District signed a Settlement Agreement to address concerns that arose during the data review. Over the past three years the District has been working with OCR to complete fourteen program improvement items outlined in the agreement. The OCR has been able to verify completion of six of these items based on District document submissions. As a normal part of the agreement process, the OCR will be visiting the District this spring to validate completion of the other items. As more details are confirmed I will continue to keep you up to speed on the process.
As of now, this is all I know about the site visit. I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

A bit more background: The concerns that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) identified in 2013 involved the disparate treatment of African-American children in special education placement decisions. An OCR press release summarized the concerns:
OCR reviewed the files of all students who were initially evaluated for special education. OCR identified several African American students, particularly very young elementary students, who were identified as eligible for special education due to behavior issues and were placed in special education for a large percentage of the school day, and noted that some white students of similar ages identified as eligible for special education for behavior were placed in special education for a smaller percentage of the school day. OCR also identified several students who were found eligible for special education even though the presence of one or more potential exclusionary factors was noted in the file. Further, OCR found several students identified as eligible for special education despite scores that did not appear to be significantly discrepant from their peers.
In the settlement that our district reached with the OCR in 2013, the district agreed to take specific remedial measures designed to ensure that the district does not treat African-American children differently from other children in special education placement. You can read the Settlement Agreement here; the OCR press release about the settlement agreement is here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What’s curriculum got to do with it?

As I’ve been listening to people’s reactions to the proficiency gaps we’re seeing in our students’ standardized test score data (including from commenters here and here), I’ve been struck by how seldom people seem to raise the role of curricular choices. I’ve seen comments debating the effect of pursuing socioeconomic balance, and comments about the need for more diverse or culturally sensitive staff—both of which are certainly topics worth discussing. And I’ve seen more general comments about the district’s competence and about accountability—which are certainly relevant concepts too, though they need some definition. But isn’t curriculum kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to proficiency data?

My sense is that many people think of the topic of curriculum as a specialized area in which they are inclined to defer to experts (which is to say, to the professional educators that our district hires to make those decisions). It’s hard to argue with that at some level, but it also seems to me that the board can’t entirely relieve itself of the responsibility to be involved in the issue. Curriculum decisions do come before the board for approval, for example. And even if the board were inclined to defer to administrative judgments on those approvals, everyone agrees that the board is responsible for “holding the administration accountable” for the district’s outcomes. How could we do that if we defer completely to their judgments about what the best choices are?

To put it more specifically: Is it possible that the curricular approaches we have taken unnecessarily advantage the kids who have lots of academic support and help at home, at the expense of kids who have less? I say “unnecessarily” because some effect like that is probably unavoidable, no matter what curriculum we adopt. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that some curricula might generate more disparities than others.

For example, when I see how much our schools’ curricula rely on homework, even in the elementary years, and how often my own kids seemed to struggle with it to the point where they asked for parental help, I have to wonder how much harder it must be for kids with fewer resources at home—that is, for example, kids whose parents, on average, can’t help them as much with the math assignments, or just don’t have as much time to read to them, etc. If we are, in effect, outsourcing a portion of our instruction to parents, or relying too heavily on the assumption that kids will get certain experiences at home, aren’t we practically asking for proficiency gaps? I don’t mean to say that homework is the cause of the problem; I just mean to give an example of how curricular choices could conceivably play a role.

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem? What is the board’s responsibility on that issue, and how should it exercise it?