Tag Archives: middle schools

Middle school plan: pros and cons

Tonight was the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment meeting to consider the latest iteration of the Superintendent’s proposal for middle school assignment.  The staff presentation was informative, and did a good job of mapping the Board’s original goals for student assignment to the current middle school assignment proposal.

So now, it’s up to the Board. This is a tough one, because in some sense, everyone is right. We’ve heard strong objections from the Parent Advisory Council and Parents for Public Schools, objections that are centered around equity and the feedback from many parents that they would rather choose a school that works for their child than have that school chosen for them.  At the same time, we’ve heard increasingly more logical arguments from staff that there are good systemic reasons to curtail choice and instead work on building up programs that parents all over the City say they want.  Quite honestly, from my perspective it’s a little like trying to put together a puzzle where all the pieces are the same size and shape, but make a very different picture depending on how they are strung together.

It sounds a little simplistic, but I’m thinking the best way to approach this decision is to make a pro and con list to consider.

First, the pros:

  • Predictability.  Some parents have long argued for predictability in school assignments, and predictability was one of the factors I pledged to uphold when I ran for the Board. However, predictability for parents is just one puzzle piece, and the PPS/PAC reports have argued that it is not as high on the list for parents as other priorities for school assignment.  Still, principals and district administrators have made strong arguments in favor of an assignment system that allows them to better plan and tailor their programs for the students who will enroll in them. Tonight, staff pointed out that many of our middle schools are currently receiving students from 40-50 elementary schools – each of them offering different experiences and attracting vastly different students. If they could focus on 10-15 elementary schools, the MS principals say, they could do a better job tailoring their programs and serving students.  From that perspective, it’s no wonder that MS principals voted unanimously to urge the Board to adopt feeder patterns.
  • Equalizing enrollment. I think the boldest statement in tonight’s staff presentation was “with enrollment comes resources.”  The biggest capacity, highest enrollment middle schools are all on the West side of the city. When you have 1,000+ students (Hoover, Giannini, Presidio), you can offer a lot of electives like visual arts, band, language and other extras; you can also offer courses geared specifically for students of different academic prepartion. When you have a few hundred students (Visitacion Valley, Everett, ISA), it’s pretty hard to offer the same breadth of courses.  Equalizing the enrollment of our middle schools will make a big difference for under-enrolled schools’ ability to offer the courses that parents and students say they want.
  • A storm’s a comin’. Based on several different models created by our demographers, we’re looking at a significant increase in middle school enrollment over the next decade (33 percent between 2010 and 2020).  The days when “most people get what they want” in the middle school choice process (excepting the 15 percent or so who don’t) are over. This slide from tonight’s presentation was, in my opinion, the most persuasive on that point. All of the five most requested middle schools are at capacity;  there is no more room at those schools and any excess capacity is going to have to come from schools that are less requested. Whatever plan the district adopts, if the forecasts for excess capacity are accurate, more and more families will find themselves assigned to schools they do not want and did not choose.

What about the cons?

  • Inequities. It’s not even debatable — there are clear inequities between programs at some middle schools compared to others. Some of that is due to lower enrollments at some schools vs. others (see “equalizing enrollments,” above); some school leaders say they are philosophically against providing  programs that prospective parents want (e.g., separate honors tracks).
  • Broken promises. Students in language programs were promised pathways through high school. Can the district really deliver on that promise given the budget situation? Can it promise students both immersion AND electives in middle school?  The district should be honest with families if it is going to require trade-offs (language immersion vs. electives, for example) in middle school.
  • Why is curtailing parent choice the only way to build quality middle schools?  Many parents don’t understand why they have to give up something (having an equal chance to attend a school of choice) in order to help the district build quality middle schools. Why should parents trust that the district will build quality middle schools in every part of the City when that has not happened up till now?
  • Transportation and program placement.  The district says the feeder plan will allow more rational transportation planning and program placement across the district. But students will need those buses/programs starting next year. Why should we trust you that buses or programs will be in place as soon as they are needed?

I’d like to know your sense of the pros and cons of the current proposal – if you support it, what do you think the downsides are? If you are against it, where are the positives in the proposal? Let me know in the comments. 

Meeting recap: Tuesday, May 24

Congratulations to all of our graduating students, and especially those who won scholarships from United Administrators of SF, United Educators of SF, and various other educator organizations. Some very impressive young people are graduating from SFUSD schools and going on to great things this week, and being reminded of that fact was definitely a bright spot to start the meeting.

  • The Board voted to place a $531 million facilities bond on the November ballot, amending the list of sites potentially included in the bond to reflect the possibility of doing work at 135 Van Ness and 1950 Mission St.
  • The Board heard a report from our independent auditor of our bond program (Varinek, Trine & Day) as well as from the Vice Chair of the Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee (Michael Theriault).  The audits are again squeaky clean (“the notable thing about the audit is that there is virtually nothing notable about the audit,” in the words of Mr. Theriault.)
  • The Board heard for first reading a revised student assignment policy that uses the middle school feeder plan as a tiebreaker until the 2016-17 school year, at which time it would become an initial assignment for every incoming 6th grade student (students would be able to participate in a choice process in subsequent rounds).  The Board will hear the plan at the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment now scheduled for 6 pm on May 31, a meeting that will also be televised.
  • Lots of public comment, since the end of the year is coming and controversial decisions are being made on personnel and budgeting. The lion’s share of the public comment came from the Bayview, where parents are frustrated and tired of waiting for change to come. Many community members came to speak about recent events at Willie Brown MS, which will close for good at the end of June (after district summer school concludes);  promotion ceremonies have been disrupted, unpleasant incidents have occurred between families and staff, and at least one staff member has been placed on administrative leave in connection with the general unrest and unhappiness at the school. Closing schools is never easy, and closing a school in a community that feels eternally shortchanged is an extra affront.
  • A number of commenters also spoke about the STAR Arts Program, which provides itinerant art teachers to STAR schools (a previous district reform that designated certain schools as warranting extra, centrally-funded resources like a parent liaison and other things — among them an art teacher).  The STAR art funding is on hold until we have more clarity from the state;  the program is also being retooled based on feedback from school sites.  A few students from Wallenberg High School came to speak about their art teacher, Emily Van Dyke, a fabulous teacher who received a pink slip. I’m told the Wallenberg art teaching position remains funded, but because other art teachers are being cut elsewhere in the district, Ms. Van Dyke may lose her position because she has less seniority than others.  In the end, it doesn’t matter, because a cut is a cut is a cut — when school starts next year, somewhere there won’t be an art teacher.  Based on what I’ve heard about Ms. Van Dyke, though, I really hope we can find a way to keep her.

Recap: Quality middle schools and transportation cuts

Lots of news out of tonight’s Committee of the Whole, specifically:

  • Staff outlined several options for middle school assignment, including an updated map of how MS feeder patterns could look and a recommendation to phase in the feeder patterns gradually. (See these handy-dandy lists–sorted by MS and by ES — which are way easier to read than the maps. I must caution again that these are draft proposals — not set in stone. There is a whole community feedback project happening in February and March, so everyone will have a chance to weigh in. I see some problems myself.)
  • Staff also presented more specifics about transportation cuts already approved by the board, including a list of schools that will lose buses in 2011-12, and additional schools that will lose buses in 2012-13. Together, the two-year reductions will reduce the number of school buses operated by the district by 43 percent. (For more info, read the district’s excellent FAQ on the new transportation policy, here).

So, first up: building high quality middle schools in every neighborhood. This is the frame being used by the project team, and while it sounds kind of obvious, it’s still the overarching goal. It’s also honest, since it’s the district’s acknowledgement that not every middle school is where it should be.  According to the presentation:

Creating quality middle schools requires us to build stronger programs and pathways in a number of areas: Academies/Magnets; GATE/Honors; Language Pathways; Special Education; Visual and Performing Arts.

In order to do this, the district has previously committed to several different projects: an ambitious redesign of special education, and  enhancing and building language pathways K-12 to support English Learners (our legal obligation under the Lau decision) and to provide opportunity for every child to become bilingual and bicultural. There is good work underway to expand academies and magnet programs, but in my personal view, GATE/Honors definitely needs more attention. The Superintendent is also proposing to extend the school day at middle schools to 7 periods in order to accommodate the increased language pathways, estimates this would cost almost $6 million; another option might be a 4 x 4 block schedule that would have students alternating courses on a MWF and TuTh schedule — according to the Superintendent’s statements tonight, the cost of such a block schedule would be similar to adding a 7th period at all middle schools, but provide additional course choices to students.

So how would MS enrollment work? The staff presented three options:

  • Choice – forgoing a middle school feeder pattern at the current time and identifying other ways to accommodate expected growth in demand for middle school seats.
  • Implement K-8 feeder patterns for 2012-13, which would allow the district to quickly realize the benefits of virtual K-8 pathways but could create a sense among families that the patterns unfairly create “winners” and “losers,” undermining the expected benefits of the policy.
  • Phase in K-8 feeder patterns, by using the feeder patterns as a “tiebreaker” in MS enrollment. This would encourage voluntary parent participation in building virtual K-8s, but would mean that benefits would be realized more slowly.

Staff and the board’s clear preference was for the third option, which would make feeder patterns more voluntary. There was some discussion over the proposed order of tiebreakers, since tonight’s proposal prioritized feeder patterns over younger siblings — most Board member’s disagreed and thought younger siblings should still be the top preference, followed by feeder-pattern preference, then CTIP, then attendance area.

Next steps: staff will continue working on the project plan, incorporating feedback gathered by PPS and the PAC, which will be leading the community engagement effort over the next two months. A final proposal will come to the Board sometime in May.

Then, the transportation proposal. As I’ve previously written, the Board last month voted to cut transportation by $1.4 million over two years, going from 44 buses in 2010-11 to 25 by 2012-13.  Tonight’s presentation detailed the staff’s plan for phasing in those cuts.

The staff presentation has lots of detail on which schools will lose what buses when, but by 2012-13 these schools will lose all bus service: Alamo, Argonne, Buena Vista, Cleveland, El Dorado, Glen Park, Hillcrest, Lafayette, McKinley, New Traditions, Ortega, Rosa Parks, Redding, Sheridan, Starr King, Stevenson, E.R. Taylor, Tenderloin, Ulloa, and Visitacion Valley Elementary.

Remaining bus service will be prioritized to allow students living in CTIP1 (low test score) areas access to language programs and K-8 programs. Additionally, schools that are already have robust ridership from CTIP1 (Lakeshore) will be able to keep their buses. Busing to all or most non-SFUSD afterschool programs will be eliminated.

I don’t feel we have much choice but to cut transportation, and I’d rather spend precious dollars on actual programs than moving students around. At the same time, I understand it’s important to preserve access, and I think the staff plan does a nice job of balancing our budget realities with the Board’s priorities. I am most worried about the transition from one system to another — I know there are going to be lots of families who depend on the buses and will be taken by surprise by these cuts.

Review the detail in the staff presentation, and then offer any feedback you might have on the district’s online survey.  You can also print out this form, fill it out, and return it according to the instructions on the form.