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.


Mary M said...

Interesting blog post. Despite Rex Tillerson's statement that children are products, they are not (nor are teachers robots where each teacher can teach the same number of students regardless of ability and needs). I find ICCSD's weighted resource allocation model (WRAM) problematic because 1) children are not products and teachers are not robots so optimal class sizes will likely vary based on the skill level of the teacher and the needs of the students, and 2) both ICCSD's superintendent and chief financial officer have admitted that the model is not financially sustainable long term without more money from the state than the district has currently been receiving so blindly continuing with the WRAM model doesn't make sense and the board should address this problem now.

What if instead, the problem is viewed differently and the practical capacity of each school is a range where minimum and maximum capacity numbers will recognize that boundary definitions will result in a changing mix of students each year and that the group of students have different needs from year to year. (E.g. one class might be particularly challenging based on needs and/or behavior and need better staffing ratios than another.) Boundaries should also be reviewed every "X" number of years or if the number of students drops below the minimum capacity number, whichever comes first.

Under a different model, a school district might retain and hire the best principals it has or can find, make it a requirement that they have enough teaching time in the classroom to have a good understanding of what is required to ensure children learn (and requiring the same of administrators), provide them with professional development that includes budgeting and finance, and allocate each principal a budget for staffing the general education needs of the children within the boundaries of their assigned school (special education is financed differently since, in theory, the IEP team can, for example, assign a paraprofessional to a student). In other words, give the building principal more control over staffing and number of students in each classroom.

Such a model would allow a principal more discretion about how to best meet the needs of the students in his or her building. So if you have, for example, 36 students in a grade, the principal can decide, if space permits, whether to split the class or whether to assign a teacher plus a half time teacher to the room. Or if a principal knows that a fourth grade class has some learning needs and personality challenges, the principal can decide how best to meet the needs in the classroom or that a particular kindergarten group might need a teacher plus a paraprofessional.

One danger in such a model is that effective teachers might be assigned too many challenging children too many years in a row and decide to leave; however, this may be happening now and 360 evaluations along with some minimal amount of oversight could address this. There also needs to be a sufficient amount of discourse between teachers and principals over how to best staff a building so the people closest to the children have a significant amount of input in how best to address their needs. The WRAM model has removes a lot of discretion from the principal about how best to staff a building.

Finally, where are you getting your capacity numbers? If we assume the district's audit is mostly correct, it has capacity and square footage of each building listed at https://auditor.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/audit_reports/1630-3141-C00F.pdf starting on page 96; however, it lists the capacity number for old Hoover at 330 for years even though 377 enrolled during one year of this period of time, and then starting in 2013, the capacity jumped to 437 and enrollment ranged from 372 to 272 during this period of time.

Chris said...

MaryM — The capacity numbers the board is using for the FMP can be found here. It’s very interesting that you found a link that cites very different numbers.

I agree that it would make sense to give the building principal some discretion about how best to use additional resources that can be provided to a particular school, as long as it’s clear that the goal of the additional resources is to try to narrow the proficiency gaps were seeing among different sets of students.

I haven’t heard the superintendent say that the weighted resource model is financially unsustainable; I suspect any statement like that was probably meant to say that the particular class size “ceilings” that the board has set will not be sustainable without sufficient funding. Whether the concept of trying to provide more resources per student to schools that are considered “high need” is sustainable is really a political, not a financial, question.

As far as using a capacity “range” versus a “target,” I’m not really disagreeing, since drawing attendance zones to generate particular enrollments is never going to be an exact science. Either way, the number ought to be based on some concept of how the rooms will be actually used, and should be designed to minimize (as much as is realistically possible) the occurrence of outlier class sizes.

Karen W said...

Chris, it looks to me like you are asking the right questions. It seems to me that prior to the FMP, we should have spent time talking about and building some sort of community consensus around what education programming should look like in the "21st century", an educational programming master plan, if you will. I have my own ideas about these things, but buildings planned for constructivists may look different from buildings planned for instructivists, buildings planned for small class sizes different from those built for larger class sizes, and so on. How much and what kinds of technology should we be planning for (network infrastructure, charging stations, computer labs or not)?

We also should have had a community conversation about preschool. How much, if any, of the capacity issue at the elementary level is driven by onsite preschool classrooms? Does it make sense for the district to be pursuing expansion of the preschool program and is that expansion already baked into the current FMP? Some districts are moving preschool programming out of their elementary schools to make room for their elementary students. I don't know what the right answer is, but it needs to be one that the community supports. In any case, I don't think there's much hope for more preschool money from the state to offer either more hours per child per week, or spaces for more children.

I see that the future of TREC is listed on the agenda for Tuesday's work session. You have already touched on the problem with FMP capacity numbers not accounting for special education classrooms. Yes, the district may have some flexibility in assigning those classrooms to different buildings, but all of those children served have to be physically present somewhere and need to be accounted for in the capacity numbers somewhere. TREC houses a number of programs (seven or more?) that serve children who are physically present in the building. All of those children will have be to accounted for in some other buildings capacity numbers too, if the administration proposes closing TREC.

I agree that a minimum/maximum capacity range is probably more useful than fixed numbers.

Chris said...

Thanks, Karen. I agree that the district's idea of what "21st-century" classrooms would require was based on a lot of unexamined assumptions. I love the idea of starting with an educational programming master plan -- and I would add that some component of that should be a career and technical master plan geared toward the needs of our students who may not be four-year-college-degree-bound.

As for preschool, we were told at a recent education committee meeting that the major constraint on expanding our preschool program was the availability of space in our buildings. As I understand it, state funding for preschools comes on a per-student basis, so it's at least conceivable to expand our preschool enrollment if we could find space in locations that would be attractive to interested parents.

I agree about TREC.

My only concern about using an "ideal enrollment range" is that people might perceive that we're under-utilizing a building if we're not at the upper end of the range, when in fact it may well be that a number in the middle of the range is the most cost-effective use of a building.

Karen W said...

Chris, thanks for the information about preschool. Now that you mention it, I don't know why I thought enrollment was limited by state funding, rather than interest and space. I stand corrected.

Preschool is still a voluntary program that the district can participate in through by funding classrooms in private preschool centers so I think there should still be some conversation about whether the community wants to bond to build preschool classroom space and, if so, how much preschool space we want to bond to build (or bond to build space for elementary students displaced by preschool classrooms). Do we have any specific numbers on how the existing preschool classrooms are, or are not, contributing to overcrowding at the elementary level?

Chris said...

Karen -- I don't have specific numbers on that. We were given the impression, at our education committee meeting, that preschools would not be placed in a building unless there was available space. On the other hand, I do think there may be a reluctance to move a preschool classroom out once it has already been placed in a school, which may explain why Hoover continued to house a preschool room even when it was using temporary classrooms. The same thing may be true right now at Alexander, where there are two temporary classrooms but also at least one preschool room. The rooms are movable in one sense, but since they tend to serve the nearby population, it's probably not so easy to just move them elsewhere when you suddenly wish you had a free room.

Mary M said...

Chris, I see your capacity numbers came from David Dude. I don't know where he got them from--perhaps BLDD? If they were created by a firm that is now doing building work for ICCSD, that seems to be a conflict of interest and could have resulted in underestimating the the current capacity. Shouldn't the capacity numbers in the audit report be accurate?

A quick Google search brought up these articles about capacity--http://patch.com/iowa/iowacity/analyzing-the-iowa-city-schools-facilities-assessment374a6a5d08 and http://patch.com/iowa/iowacity/analyzing-the-iowa-city-schools-facilities-assessment374a6a5d08

Karen W has raised good questions about preschool capacity. The state doesn't pay extra for preschool buildings or space, just a per student amount for operating--so will the board discuss whether it makes sense to bond for preschool space?

Staffing depends a lot on financial resources, and if the WRAM staffing model isn't financially sustainable long term, that could result in budget cuts and school closings down the road. The time for the board to address this issue is now. Also, if the WRAM model is put into place and can't be paid for long term, the public will be more upset when class sizes increase.

Chris said...

MaryM -- Yes, as I understand it, our current capacity numbers came from BLDD. I have asked for the BLDD report in which they were originally contained (mentioned here), but haven't yet received it.