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.”

Follow-up: Police in school

A few weeks back, at a meeting I had to miss because of illness, the school board discussed the district’s relationship with the local police department.

The police department had been running a program in which it sent a representative into elementary schools to eat lunch with the kids. The program’s stated goal was to “maintain a positive, visible presence in the community, establish and maintain relationships in the community and hopefully open up broader communications channels.” The district tried to formalize some aspects of that program through a written agreement with the police department, and the department took offense at the district’s proposal that the “outreach assistant” not wear a uniform. The police department then decided to suspend the program and to stop any “self-initiated” visits to the schools until it received an explicit invitation to continue from the school board. At the November 22 work session, the board agreed to invite the police department to continue its outreach program and to resume “business as usual” with self-initiated visits.

I can understand the appeal of enabling kids to have positive interactions with police, whom some kids might otherwise view fearfully or in a negative light. And I know, like, and respect Henri Harper, the outreach assistant under the program. But I do have concerns about the larger issue; anything the district does on this issue will set a precedent that will apply not just to Henri Harper and not even just to police departments.

First, it was not clear what police self-initiated “business as usual” in the schools entails. The board asked for a follow-up report summarizing the police department’s activities in the schools, but I would have wanted to know what “business as usual” meant before formally inviting its return. As to “self-initiated” police visits to the schools, I wrote about several concerns here.

Second, although the department has said that the outreach assistant is “not a sworn officer and does not have any enforcement capabilities,” it’s not clear exactly what that means. I assume he cannot arrest people? But what happens if a kid mentions, for example, that one of his parents was smoking a joint? I have to think that the outreach assistant has the power to notify his department of criminal activity, and, if necessary, to testify in court. The outreach assistant works for the police department, not for the school system; the school system would have no control over how the outreach assistant handles a situation like that one. I’d prefer to have that kind of decision made by school officials.

Third, there are many organizations that might be happy to send representatives into our schools to counsel and build relationships with students. The Chamber of Commerce? The American Civil Liberties Union? The U.S. Army? Planned Parenthood? Many of them could make persuasive arguments about why students would benefit from knowing more about their organizations and what they do. The district needs to have a consistent approach to handling such requests. At the very least it makes sense for the district to want to vet such interactions and reach agreements about the content. But at some point I wonder how much it should be the district’s job to provide audiences for the outreach efforts of outside organizations, no matter how worthy the cause.

Most of the schools in the police outreach program have a high proportion of black and African-American students, and the elephant in the room that went undiscussed at the board meeting is the troubled relationship between law enforcement and racial minorities in America. The police department is a law enforcement agency. It is the entry point to our very imperfect criminal justice system. That system currently incarcerates and disenfranchises black Americans at an unbelievably high rate. On the one hand, proponents of the outreach program may hope that it will help improve the way the justice system interacts with minorities. But, especially for minority parents, the question of what children should be taught to think about the police (and about the larger criminal justice system) is a very complicated one that does not have an objectively correct answer. Just consider some of these examples of “the Talk”—the advice that many black parents feel they have to give to their kids about interactions with the police.

I don’t know the “right” way to approach that topic, and I don’t particularly trust the school district to know either, especially if its only approach is to provide the perspective of a representative of the police department. (Again, no offense intended to the current outreach officer here; but we don’t know who the next representative, and the next one, and the next one will be.) For that reason, at the very least it would make sense to limit participation in the program to kids whose parents explicitly opt them into it.

Readers: What role do you think the district should take in teaching kids about race and our criminal justice system?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

School board agenda for December 13

Sorry, I was knocked out for a few weeks by a seasonal illness and have been unable to keep up the usual posting here. I’m still catching up on the lost time, but I do hope to be able to post more as we head into the holidays.

A quick summary of some of the items on the agenda for this week:

We’ll continue the discussion of the district’s anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies.

We’ll continue (and probably conclude) the discussion of how the district should handle voluntary transfer requests at the secondary level as we open a new high school and implement new boundaries. Previous posts here.

We’ll hear an update from the committee studying transportation barriers to attendance and participation in extracurricular activities at the secondary level.

We’ll review the newly updated enrollment projections.

At our work session after the meeting, we’ll discuss the issue of the district’s use of seclusion enclosures. (Previous post here.) We’ll continue our discussion of possible revisions to the district’s facilities master plan as we move toward developing a bond proposal to fund the remaining projects in the plan. We will also discuss the feedback we received through the ThoughtExchange platform.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A class size math problem

In my last post, I discussed how smaller elementary schools tend to generate more outlier class sizes. Before I explore possible ways to mitigate that problem, here are a couple of hypothetical questions that help illustrate the issue:

1. Suppose you have a school that has fourteen rooms available as general education classrooms. What would be ideal total enrollment at that school? What would the individual class sizes be?

2. Suppose you have a school that has ten rooms available for general education classrooms. What would be ideal total enrollment at that school? What would the individual class sizes be?

I chose fourteen classrooms and ten classrooms because those numbers work especially well for class size. In a fourteen-room school, you can have two classrooms for each grade level from K through 6. In a ten-room school, you can have two classrooms in each grade from K through 2 (where we usually try to have smaller class sizes), and then one classroom in each grade from 3-6 (where we usually tolerate larger class sizes).

The only constraint: You have to assume there will be an equal number of students at each grade level. So if there are 30 total sixth graders, there are also 30 total kindergartners, though you’re free to split some grade levels into multiple classrooms while not splitting others. (The reason for this constraint is that there is no good way to draw attendance zones that would result in consistently different enrollment totals in the lower grades than in the higher grades.)

Assume that the school is not a high-need school that would qualify for lower-than-average class sizes under the district’s weighted resource allocation model. So the district’s goal would be to keep the class sizes below 26 in grades K-2 and below 30 in grades 3-6. You can exceed those caps if you think that’s the best solution. But you should recognize that anything falling significantly below those goals will put your school below the district averages and make it harder to allocate teachers to high-need schools.

What are the best answers?

Small schools and class size

As will come as news to no one, I put a high priority on keeping our existing schools open; among other things, I think it’s a key ingredient in maintaining community support for district initiatives and it plays an important role in maintaining livable, family-friendly neighborhoods in the central core of Iowa City. But I don’t deny that there are costs involved in keeping our smaller schools open, and I think it’s important to think about what those costs are and whether there are ways to mitigate them.

In this post, I want to consider the effect of small schools on class size. When the district sets class size goals, it can give the impression that class sizes can be fine-tuned. For example, the most recent draft of those goals suggests that most elementary schools should have class sizes of no more than 26 from kindergarten through second grade, and no more than 30 in grades three through six. (The class size goals are lower than that in schools with higher levels of academic need, but most schools will not fall into that category.)

But conforming to those goals is easier said than done, especially in our smaller schools. A school with an enrollment of 240 is likely to have about 34 kids per grade. What do you do with that number? A 34-kid kindergarten classroom is much larger than ideal, so the district would almost certainly choose to break it into two 17-kid classes—a lot nicer, but way below what we could afford to staff district-wide. What if 40 sixth-graders show up? Again, 20 is a wonderful class size, but it’s way below the district median for sixth-graders.

In other words, smaller schools tend to produce more outlier class sizes, forcing the district to choose between class sizes that are significantly above the goals or significantly below them. This effect lessens somewhat as you get into enrollments of over three hundred. A 300-kid school will tend to produce class sizes in the twenties, which is at least better than having to choose between 17 or 34. But it would still be subject to year-to-year fluctuations that could generate uncomfortable choices, and class sizes in the low twenties are still below the district median.

By contrast, large schools give the district enough flexibility that they seldom result in outlier class sizes. In a 600-kid school (assuming the kids are spread out evenly over the seven grades), you can have class sizes of about 21 in the lower grades and 29 in the higher grades. Even if a bigger-than-usual group shows up in one grade, it gets spread out over three or four classrooms, so it’s not liable to generate class sizes as high as 34. As a result, the large school may be less likely to get an additional teacher than the small school with the 34-kid cohort.

In particular, smaller schools pose a challenge for the district’s weighted resource allocation model—that is, the effort to allocate smaller class sizes to school with higher academic need. To create smaller class sizes in high-need schools, we need to tolerate larger class sizes in the remaining schools. If that effect is spread out over many schools, the effect on any one school will be smaller and thus the model will be more politically sustainable. But it’s not so easy for smaller schools to take a “fair share” of that effect—again, because the choice will often be between a class size that greatly exceeds the goals and one that is much smaller than average. If the smaller schools get lower-than-average class sizes, even when they are not high-need schools, the burden of the resource reallocation will fall disproportionately on larger schools. If the smaller schools are expected to tolerate class sizes far above the goals, the burden will fall disproportionately on them. Either way, it becomes harder to sustain the reallocation effort.

Again, I’m certainly not trying to make the case for closing smaller schools. But if we’re going to resist the ongoing pressure to consider closing some of them (and not just Hoover), it makes sense to do some problem-solving around the issue of outlier class sizes. I’ll explore some possibilities in an upcoming post.