Recap: student assignment committee

Tonight’s student assignment committee meeting was packed with information and updates — so much that I can’t possibly convey all of the detail. If you are deeply interested in one of the items below, click here to watch streaming video of the meeting. For those of you interested in special education assignment and inclusion, skip to the end (of the video–special education discussion begins about an hour and 40 minutes in–AND this post. Sorry, I buried the lede).

First item: details on the district’s plans to monitor the outcomes of the new assignment system.  The staff discussed a detailed 6-page draft report on all the questions it plans to explore going forward. The first annual report of assignment system outcomes will be presented to the Board in January 2012, after we have one year of data compiled and analyzed. Questions to be assessed, along with suggested variables to evaluate, include:

  • How does the diversity (race/ethnicity, special education, English proficiency, and achievement) of the student population in schools change over time? Does this diversity vary by neighborhood or school characteristics? How does the diversity of students who requested schools compare to the diversity of students who were assigned to those schools?  To assess these questions, staff will examine diversity characteristics of K/6/9 students assigned to the school compared to K/6/9 students who requested the school; and school characteristics such as language programs, special education services available, transportation services available, school API and school location.
  • How many families got assigned to one of their choices/their first choice/one of their top three choices? Do choice outcomes vary by neighborhood or family characteristics? Do choice outcomes vary by request patterns? 
  • What do families/students consider when choosing schools? What kinds of information do they have/not have? Do these variables change by neighborhood or family characteristics? Family and student surveys, likely to be mailed to every applicant after they have turned in an application, will provide insights into the above questions.
  • Do attendance area schools have the capacity to accommodate the kindergarten students living in the attendance area? Does this vary by neighborhood? Do kindergarten applicants choose their attendance area school? What percentage of kindergarten students get assigned to their attendance area school, and how does this vary by neighborhood?
  • What are the diversity characteristics of applicants who live in CTIP1?What schools are requested by applicants who live in CTIP1 — attendance area school, citywide school, or a school in a different attendance area?
  • How would the diversity of schools change and how would choice outcomes change if:  no more than 20% of students assigned to K, 6 or 9th grades for any school could live in CTIP1? If the CTIP1 tie breaker were ranked above the sibling tie-breaker? If the CTIP1 tie breaker were ranked below attendance area? If 60% of attendance area seats were reserved for students who live in the attendance area?

A report laying out the answers to the above questions (as well as many others I didn’t include) would introduce unheard-of transparency into the district’s efforts to evaluate outcomes of the new system and make an honest case for adjustments if they are needed. It is going to be hard to wait a whole year for this report, since I want to know the answers now — and indeed I and several public commenters asked for as much data as possible to be released to the public this spring after the first round of letters are sent. In the absence of any hard data on outcomes, I fear that the voices of the (hopefully few) people who are disappointed with their results will be the loudest.  Staff did pledge to make the documentation of the algorithm requirements and process flows public by February; I will continue to push to make the assignment algorithm itself open source.

Second item: additional information and analysis on the new general education transportation policy to be approved by the Board tomorrow night — and oh lord is this a major storm waiting to break when current parents realize what the implications of this policy are to them (don’t say I didn’t warn you!). Over the long term, this new policy is the way to go, but it is a big change to existing service. Routes will be eliminated, stops will shift to new locations, and families who are currently depending on transportation to offsite afterschool programs are going to find their options much reduced.  I will continue to fight for families who currently depend on afterschool transportation to have options, but it’s fairly certain that in a year or two these families will not have the same options they have today. 

Maybe you were thinking we could solve this problem by charging fees to families who can pay? Guess again — we are limited under state law to charge a maximum of $4 per trip (kind of hefty when you realize that adults on Muni pay $2) and precluded from charging “indigent” (usually defined as free-lunch eligible) students and those with IEPs anything at all. An analysis given to the Board tonight showed that even under the most aggressive and optimistic scenario, we would only recoup about $500 of every $570 in bus costs; the actual revenues would probably be much less, barely covering the projected administrative cost of such an initiative.  In other words — charging fees for transportation isn’t worth the effort.

Last, but NOT  least: Assistant Superintendent in charge of Special Education Cecelia Dodge was on hand to present the district’s interim plan for special education assignment. (Here’s an audio excerpt from her presentation).  

The discussion focused on inclusion, because most of the issues raised around the assignment of students in special education have centered around those whose IEPs currently specify inclusion.  I have written about these issues in the past, and the special education audit released in September also dealt with these issues in detail.

The district’s proposal is not perfect, but it is a huge improvement over what we do now.  Essentially, Ms. Dodge is pledging that every school will make room for students with disabilities severe enough that they require the higher level of services indicated by an “inclusion” designation on their IEPs.  This expansion of inclusive practices will begin with students in transitional grades — K, 6th and 9th — and eventually extend to every grade. Every school will be an inclusive school, something I and other advocates have been asking for over many years. 

But like I said, the proposal is not perfect.  It still sets an arbitrary limit of the number of “inclusion students” that a school has capacity to serve, and has inclusion applicants compete with each other for those limited numbers instead of allowing all students to choose the schools that work for them and pledging to serve everyone wherever they land. So what if a school could end up with lots of students with intensive needs? This scenario is a short-term resource allocation problem, and actually, an outcome a school should wear as a badge of honor — students with disabilities CHOOSE us because they know we will serve their needs! Though I’m not making much headway in convincing staff or other Board members that I’m right, it’s OK. I’m patient, because we parents of students with disabilities are used to waiting for minds to change. Eventually, they do.

The stickier part of Ms. Dodge’s proposal is also the one I’m most ambivalent about. She’s proposing to set aside each school’s inclusion capacity for applicants with inclusion IEPs, throughout the enrollment process. This is a big change, and a major improvement from the perspective of incoming Kindergarten parents, particularly, who currently face an agonizing battle with time trying to get an inclusion designation before the K application deadline. If you aren’t sure your child is ready, or (more likely) you can’t get the district to agree, you are out of luck for inclusion seats after Round I, because they are released to general education for subsequent rounds.

But the downside of Ms. Dodge’s proposal is, of course, that 2-3 seats at every school will be held out of the pool until very late in the process. Because inclusion choice patterns mimic general education choice patterns, it’s unlikely that seats at high-demand schools will go unfilled. But the fact remains that a handful of seats at each level — K, 6, and 9 — will be held empty for students in inclusion that in earlier years would have been available for general education. I worry that will set us up for a backlash, but I hope not.

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3 responses to “Recap: student assignment committee

  1. “I will continue to fight for families who currently depend on afterschool transportation to have options, but it’s fairly certain that in a year or two these families will not have the same options they have today. ”

    Rachel, with the shift to a more neighborhood-based assignment system availability of aftercare will be an increased issue for parents. Some schools have great aftercare. But some have little, or its income-limited, or there’s not enough capacity, or its very expensive (one public school’s aftercare is almost as expensive as sending one’s kid to Catholic school).

    By shift to a system with more certainty but less choice in assignment, the district has also reduced the ability to choose afterschool programs. Eliminating buses to shuttle kids between afterschool programs is going to exacerbate that.

  2. “Inclusion” will now be at every school!

    Students going into transitional grades, Kindergarten, 6th & 9th,
    with inclusion designations on their IEPS, may now apply to any school in SFUSD.

    I’ve been advocating for full inclusion at every school for 7 years now … I couldn’t help but get a teary eyed when I heard that “inclusion” kids may now apply to any school in the district. They are starting with only transitional grades, which is a drag, but it is still progress and I am still happy about it. 7 years seems like a long time to me, but I think of all the people who have been fighting for this to happen for far, far longer than I have, and I thank them.

    35 years since the passage of Public Law 94-142, (which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) …
    35 years later, and we are almost there! (sic)

    This is a great change, but they’ll need to support teachers to make inclusion work. I asked the Board of Ed for a clear definition, a policy (in writing) that states what inclusion is, (and almost as important—what inclusion ISN’T) so disagreements and misunderstandings are avoided as much as possible. I still hear about and see non inclusive practices occurring at Schools that have had “inclusion programs” for years, school staff thinking that they can choose whether or not to include children in their classes, or on field trips, staff mistakenly thinking that inclusion means “treating everybody the same way”. Inclusion is not about treating everybody the same way, it is about respecting differences because students are not “all the same”. To me, equity means recognizing and realizing that you cannot have equal treatment in unequal situations. People have a hard time understanding that, for some reason..

    It’s essential that SFUSD gives school staff the professional development they need and students the support they need as children begin to enroll in schools that have had no experience with inclusion. Use teachers who have had a lot of experience as mentors to those who’ve had little or no experience.

    390 children are enrolled in SFUSD Special Education PreK programs, but less than 3% of them are in a LRE placement.
    I asked for clarification, are the Child Development Centers also now going to stop denying enrollment to children with disabilities? Presidio CDC is the only prek program with “inclusion”, and it can only enroll 12 children altogether, spanning from ages 3-5, so in any given year it only has a few openings, at most.

    Most of the discussion was about how to reserve spots at schools for students with IEP designations of inclusion … talk of “backlash” from the general ed population if spots were set aside just for “those kids”. That sort of made me angry, I mean, we parents of “inclusion kids” have been limited to being able to apply to only 40% of the schools, and we had to do that not even knowing if there were any openings or not at the schools we applied to (EPC wouldn’t tell us). I have no problem with spots being set aside to ensure children are being allowed to be in those schools. I still think all placement decisions should be made in IEP meetings, and that means actual school sites, but I also realize that empowered savvy parents would be given an edge in that scenario. There is still the problem of many families not putting in applications at all, not knowing that they had to, and they of course get whatever spots are left over, so savvy parents also have an edge in the application scenario.

    I had hoped that the discussion would be more philosophical, about what a great change this is, and how we can do it, and how we need to give the teachers and staff support to make it all work … but instead the discussion bogged down into Placement details.

    It’s a victory, even if the devil is in the details …

  3. Does the new special education policy include every program as well? For example, can an inclusion student now apply for an immersion program, a classroom geared for ELL students, or JBBP? Also, will there now be a an inclusion teacher at every site?