A curve ball on middle school assignment

Update: Last night’s Powerpoint is posted.

At tonight’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Board members were thrown a little bit of a curve ball as part of a progress report on the work to rethink and redesign elementary to middle school feeder patterns.

Regular readers of the blog might recall a major kerfuffle last fall when parents of children enrolled in dual-language immersion programs and parents in southeastern neighborhoods reacted strongly to the district’s first pass at elementary t0 middle school feeder patterns. As so often happens when redesigning complex systems, what initially seemed a straightforward change took on many unanticipated and unintended consequences. So staff, with the Board’s agreement, decided to go back to the drawing board and re-think the implementation of the middle school portion of the new student assignment policy. A working group made up of middle school principals and key central office staff, with input from PPS and the Parent Advisory Council, has been delving into the problems identified last spring, and tonight was the first public peek at where they are going.

Some of the new directions are surprising, and the budget and program implications are complex. The presentation shown to the Board tonight began with a striking overview of capacity and demand data — specifically, that we are expecting a 39 percent increase in middle school enrollment in the next three to five years based on current elementary school enrollment trends; also that almost 50 percent of SFUSD middle school students are enrolled in just four of our 15 middle schools: Aptos, Presidio, Giannini, and Hoover.  Finally, five schools are operating at less than 50 percent of capacity (Willie Brown, Everett, ISA, Horace Mann, and Visitacion Valley).

The project working group has begun with the mission to ensure quality programs at all middle schools, “extending language pathways, and other academic program options, from elementary to middle school allows for effective implementation of a new ‘virtual K-8’ student assignment policy that meets the academic and social needs of all middle school students.”

There are many benefits to the “virtual K-8” policy (which doesn’t mean virtual in the sense of online but rather school assignment patterns that ensure that cohorts of students will remain together in the same schools from Kindergarten through 8th grade). For one thing, the current system that unpredictably reshuffles students between 5th and 6th grades hampers planning for middle school administration teams. Assistant Supt. Jeannie Pon, the administrator in charge of all SFUSD middle schools, pointed out that Hoover MS alone receives students from 45 different elementary schools, making planning for and coordination of curriculum and program needs very difficult. A system of feeder patterns does make student populations far more stable and predictable from year to year, which is helpful in budgeting and other planning.

For another thing, the sense of community fostered by a stable cohort of students and families staying together from elementary school through the turbulent middle school years is desirable and probably helpful in supporting positive student outcomes.

But all that predictability and stability comes at a price that might ultimately be quite large. Ensuring that students in elementary school language pathways are afforded appropriate (and in some cases, legally-required) language paths in middle school means that the district must dramatically expand language programs to make sure they are available when and where they are needed. A chart shown to Board members this evening predicted that the district would need to go from three different language programs currently offered in middle schools  (Cantonese, Japanese and Spanish)  to at least six language programs by 2016-17 (Cantonese, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Tagalog). (I forgot to mention Korean, which fits in there somewhere too). Currently 15 percent of all 6th grade students are enrolled in some kind of language program/pathway; by 2016-17, it’s anticipated that 34 percent of all 6th grade students will be enrolled in a language program/pathway. Additionally, district staff are characterizing language pathways as “dual-language,” which  comprises two-way immersion programs as well as bilingual programs created to support students who are English learners.  In my mind, this is somewhat unusual, since students enrolled in bilingual pathways tend to have different needs and goals  than students enrolled in two-way immersion programs.

Anyway, it’s not as if this coming expansion hasn’t been anticipated, but what has emerged in conversations with middle school principals is the trade-off necessary if students are enrolled in a language program as part of a six-period day: most would have to sacrifice other electives such as art or band in order to continue with their bilingual study. Instead, principals said, it would be much better to extend the day to seven periods in order to preserve students’ ability (and the Board’s oft-stated goal) to be bilingual as well as exposed to electives such as art or music. The problem is, adding another period to every middle schooler’s day is fantastically expensive — at least $9 million based on Commissioner Wynn’s memory of the cost of a similar proposal a decade ago (the cost could easily be millions of dollars more than that now). Whatever the cost of adding a seventh period, that cost  could well be money we just don’t have at the moment.

Finally, staff floated some trial balloons for how a new middle school assignment system could work — none of which sounded particularly simple to navigate or easy to understand (originally a major goal of the new assignment plan).  I’ll quote directly from the Powerpoint we saw tonight :

  • Option 1: Build feeder pattern based on proximity and capacity with language pathways as a “city wide choice option.”
  • Option 2: Assign elementary schools with language programs based on proximity, capacity, and school readiness, and then assign the remaining 27 elementary schools based on proximity and capacity, with mitigation for specific equity challenges. (Editorial comment: what?)
  • Option 3: Build language pathways over the next five years and allow feeder patterns to emerge as enrollment grows in middle schools. (Editorial comment: what?)

So how did Board members respond to all of this? Most of us voiced some concerns about the idea of merging immersion and bilingual strands into generic “dual language” strands; we also felt the options presented by staff represented “outside the box” thinking but needed more time and reflection. Personally, though it’s not my first choice, I am wondering whether our stated goal of supporting dual-language proficiency for all students is at odds with the idea of middle school feeder patterns. I asked staff to come back with some thinking on whether supporting language pathways and creating feeder patterns  are mutually exclusive goals.

I appreciate that we are taking a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to the second pass at this policy — I have no idea where we will end up, but clearly we are trying to do our due diligence. The current plan is for a full proposal to be unveiled at the Feb. 1 Committee of the Whole meeting, and then to embark on an extensive community engagement effort in February and March. The Board is scheduled to vote on a final middle school enrollment proposal for 2012-13 and beyond sometime in May.


23 responses to “A curve ball on middle school assignment

  1. Back to the K-8 school organization idea. Here’s a few quotes from a new article “The Middle School Mess” (http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-mess/)

    ” … a recent study of New York City middle schools … on the impacts of grade configuration on learning and concluded that “middle schools are not the best way to educate students” … In fact, they argue that “students who enter public middle schools in New York City fall behind their peers in K–8 schools.” The effects are large, present for both math and English, and evident for girls as well as boys. And perhaps most troubling, “students with lower initial levels of academic achievement fare especially poorly in middle school.”

    Other districts are re-assessing their middle schools — shouldn’t we look at it?:
    “The number of “elemiddle” schools, the new term for K–8 schools, has jumped from 4,000 nationwide to just under 7,000 in the last 10 years. Cleveland has closed all 16 of its middle schools, re-opening most as K–8 schools. Philadelphia has closed 21 of its 46 middle schools since 2002. ”

    Yes, it would be a complex undertaking involving the restructure of many elementary schools (e.g. some with three classes per grade would need to decrease to two classes per grade to make room for the 6-8), and I appreciate SFMamma’s comment that some middle schools offer great art programs, but perhaps those programs could be shared between nearby K-8 schools and not lost. Why not examine the proposal for a portion of our schools, especially those middle schools that aren’t performing? How many students does the district lose at this grade level – either to the private schools (which almost all add an extra class at 5th or 6th grade) or to the suburbs?

    PS – I apologize for my earlier description of Rooftop; I should have said that it was one of the most requested schools in the district. The article cited above explains some of the reasons that might be the case: “Veteran New York educator Kathleen Cashin, a regional superintendent, explained the trend away from middle schools, when she told the New York Times that parents “were clamoring” for a return to K–8 schools. “It’s an elementary-like nurturing environment,” she said. “Because children are older doesn’t mean they don’t need that nurturing care of a loving, caring adult. I have found the attendance is better, almost always. The violence is less, the younger kids defuse the older and the academics are at least as good if not better.”

  2. While I appreciate that there are stated objectives by the board, the actual changes that have been put into place seem to me to be more responsive to the reactionary responses received by the initial proposed feeder patterns. Parents from Buena Vista raised their voices the loudest, and now they are getting a great facility (Horace Mann) and a K-8 program. I also learned today (although just by word of mouth) that the board intends to change my daughters’ feeder school of Fairmount to Everett. In the initial plan, we were to feed into Lick, which made perfect sense because it is the closest to Fairmount; its population is already comprised of a similar region of parents (based on the powerpoint maps); and most importantly, it already has a Spanish immersion thread. Now, it feels as though our quite voices approving the feeder plan (most Fairmount parents were satisfied with Lick) have been overwhelmed by the loud voices of parents dissatisfied with their feeder schools. It would be a shame to feed our still upwardly improving yet still struggling STAR status, all Spanish immersion school into a school with dropping test scores and no immersion program. This, occurring, all the while our all-immersion counterpart, BV, gets K-8 Spanish immersion program. I’m not sure how this great disparity meets the stated needs described in the presentation of providing language pathways for immesions, but it certainly quells the outrage from last year’s proposal. Needless to say, this mom is very disappointed with the rumored proposed feeder school changes. It’s feels as thought the District is playing Whack-a-mole, and Fairmount just got whaced.

  3. As far as immersion programs go, research shows that being multi-lingual actually benefits cognitive development in more areas than just how many languages you can speak. Most countries in the world (notably in Europe and Asia) have their students start learning multiple languages from a very early age. These are the same countries that we keep hearing we are “falling behind.” I hope that our district (and eventually state and nation) move toward multilingualism as an expected goal for all of our children.

  4. I appreciate the comments that distinguish (in the case of Rooftop, particulary) a school that has “favorable demographics” from “the best school in the district”. Limited (unfortunately) to standardized test scores as the main measure of school quality, it doesn’t take much digging to find that student demographics (esp. SES and parents’ education) are the strongest predictor of school “achievement” as measured by those tests. I applaud efforts to redesign elementary school assignment to create more SES diversity at all schools. My support for any middle-school assignment plan hinges primarily on how well it accomplishes this same goal. A feeder system that front-loads a few middle schools with the highest performing elementary schools will produce “high-achieving” middle schools at the expense of those students who are most in need of a change of school culture and attitude that can come from a more diverse student (and parent!) population.

  5. ImmersionMommy

    “Isn’t the whole idea of immersion to teach immigrant children proficiency in English so that they can do well in English-language schools?”

    Mommy of a K-immersion kid here. It seems to me that the elementary school immersion programs here in the city are one of the few things that is actually working amazingly well. Many other school related issues pitch different populations with very different interests against each other. Do we need ethnic diversity or neighborhood options? Do we challenge kids or look for the lowest common denominator? English learners have very different needs than most of the kids from middle class families, so in many cases, these differing and sometimes contradictory needs lead to a tug-of-war about funds. One group wins, the other loses. Or some painful compromise hurts all. In the case of immersion, these very different groups of parents actually work with each other as well as with the district. That is why immersion, in addition to bilingual programs for those who wish them, are such an important option. English-speaking middle class families interested in language development for their kids have been dragging some low-performing schools out of the mud, using their creativity and their willingness to volunteer and to support yet another fundraiser, because they believe in the FLES and immersion programs their kids attend and are passionate about them (yes, I know, there are also parents who turn around GE programs, but the draw of language options is so great that people are willing to travel across the city and completely pour themselves into them, so I believe that they greatly benefit S.F. rather than selfishly eat up resources without giving anything back, as I sometimes find it implied by non-immersion parents in discussions such as this one). These programs turn English learners (and, if you like it or not, S.F. is city with a lot of immigrants) from a drag on test scores to an amazing asset, because without them, immersion doesn’t work, so they’re really win-win. To have built a system of immersion schools on the elementary school level that is the envy of many other cities was a smart move. Don’t trash that wonderful achievement by abandoning those kids in middle school or by coming up with half-hearted and sub-standard elective offerings that essentially shut those kids out from other electives and gifted options. We have been promised by this city when originally signing up for this that there will be continuity on the middle and high school levels, so I am glad to see that the originally proposed feeder pattern that completely ignored the issue is being revised. Thank you so much for that!

  6. “Isn’t the whole idea of immersion to teach immigrant children proficiency in English so that they can do well in English-language schools?”

    You’re confusing immersion programs (make Anglophone and non-Anglophone kids fluent in English and the target language) with bilingual/biliteral programs (make non-Anglophone kids fluent in English, while retaining and reinforcing their ability in their native tongue).

  7. Hi Rachel, why is there a need for foreign-language immersion in middle school? Isn’t the whole idea of immersion to teach immigrant children proficiency in English so that they can do well in English-language schools? Does San Francisco have thousands of non-English-speaking middle school students from Spanish-speaking countries or from China’s Canton province who require special immersion programs? How does this need compare to the need of thousands of other immigrant children who don’t speak Spanish or Cantonese but still need help learning English? And how does it compare to the need of American children who want to learn foreign languages as our society becomes increasingly globalized? I wonder how much these immersion programs cost, how many children they’re actually benefiting and whether this is proportional to the need of all San Francisco school children to have access to language instruction. At some schools parents are paying out-of-pocket for foreign-language instruction in after-care programs. This doesn’t seem fair. The other thing is, after 6 years in an immersion elementary school, why would those students need immersion in middle school? Shouldn’t they all be proficient in English by 6th grade?

  8. Michelle Smith

    This is a discussion and issue that I have been following carefully as we are new to SF (relocated at the end of August from the East coast) and have a 5th grader at an “up and coming” K-5 who is bored out of her mind.

    I’ve visited 7 middle schools — James Lick, Denman, Everett, Aptos, Giannini, Hoover and Roosevelt. I’m a big proponent of urban public schools, and am myself a product of the NYC public schools during one of the worst budget crises public education ever had in that city. So, I decided to visit some of the less popular choices that are reasonably accessible from our corner of SF.

    I found that I liked some schools, and disliked some. In the end, though, I’m limiting my list to those schools that have some sort of homogeneous grouping for core subjects, which in SF translates to “gifted” classes in middle school. Just as a child who needs to hear a math concept explained 10+ times is best served in a class where the teacher can devote time to it, a child who gets it relatively quickly should be in an environment where the teacher is able to meet that need. I’m not looking for “special treatment,” or “better teachers” or a less ethnically diverse school — I’m looking for a place where my child is continuing to learn. What I hear over and over is that I shouldn’t worry — my child will be well prepared for 6th grade. Frankly, this has never been my concern — I’m pretty sure she’s already academically ready for 6th or even 7th grade in some schools. In theory our schools do “differentiated teaching,” but the reality falls short.

    So, while I really loved a lot of what they’re doing at James Lick, and it would be a really simple commute for us, I cannot, in good conscience, put it on my MS application. I cannot subject my child to another year with a teacher who only has on grade and below grade reading material to assign. I know there will be times when my daughter is less than challenged, and we both understand that a teacher with 30+ students can’t customize every lesson for every child, but an honors track, or honors classes (or call them “accelerated learning” classes if that is more palatable) make it possible both for children who need more reinforcement and children who are ready for something more to get what they need.

    In all the discussion about attracting students to the less popular MS choices, I have not seen anything about extending gifted programs into those schools. I know for us, if some of the middle schools in our part of town offered these classes, my MS application would look very different.

    I’d appreciate feedback and comments, both from the community and from Ms. Norton.


    Michelle Smith

  9. My kid’s at a K-8, so have no personal dog in this fight.

    But I think a feeder system is fixing a problem where there isn’t one at the moment. There’s a whole bunch of complex problems with a feeder system that a citywide system doesn’t run into, as seen by the difficulty in figuring out how to handle immersion programs.

    In addition, a feeder system is going to make it harder to “turn around” elementary schools in the South East where the weaker middle schools are clustered.

    In Bernal, it’s going to a hard sell to convince folks to back turning around Flynn GE or Junipero Serra if mediocre middle schools like International Studies Academy are a package deal with Flynn: it’s a lot harder to turn around a middle school than an elementary school. I’d see us losing a lot of students to the parochial schools if that were the case.

    “Rooftop is a K-8 school and by all accounts the best school in the district.”

    Disagree. Rooftop has very favorable demographics, and has had a large gap between its low-SES kids and the non-low-SES kids. IMHO, schools like Clarendon, Lillenthal, Taylor, Moscone, Monroe, SF Community beat Rooftop on performance of low-SES kids.

    On raw test scores, AFY, Clarendon, Lawton, Stevenson, Alamo, Lilienthal, Scott Key, Jefferson, West Portal, Stevenson and Ulloa are ahead of Rooftop. Plus Peabody, Yick Wo, Argonne, Taylor, and Yehall Chin are within a few API points of it.

    Rooftop is a good school, but there’s many other good schools in the district. It has a central location, which makes it popular.

    If I had to name the best school in the district, I’d maybe pick Taylor or Moscone for delivering the goods despite challenging demographics.

  10. Was there any mention of special education services and classes in the meeting?

  11. Hi @DaddyD – I wrote “editorial comment: what?” after several of those options because I, like you, have very little idea of how they would work. Last week’s meeting was very much a “trial balloon” the staff was using to get a sense of the mood of the Board. My comment to that part of the presentation is that the various ideas presented were interesting but didn’t seem to meet the “simplicity” test. So at this point I have very little information but I think all of us will learn more in coming weeks.

  12. Hi Rachel –

    Could you explain how each of those 3 options would work, especially in regard to language programs? For example, does a “city wide choice option” for language programs mean that those programs would separate from their elementary school cohort, or does it mean something else? Option 2 sounds like elementary schools with language programs will stay together. Regarding option 3: how can pathways just “emerge”? That makes no sense to me. It sounds more like the “we’ll-make-it-up-as-we-go” plan… not very reassuring. Do you have a different take? Thanks.

  13. @Helga – that data certainly exists; I believe I’ve seen pieces of it but I am not sure it’s routinely published–probably because staff is trying not to give the impression that one has a greater or lesser chance at a particular HS based on the middle school you attend. I’ll see what can be pulled together.

    As far as your second question, I’ve asked Orla to update me on when this info should be available. (The reason you couldn’t comment on my Dec. 14 post was that comments on this blog are only accepted for 30 days on any given post — this discourages spam comments).

  14. Hi Rachel,

    Does SFUSD publish what % of 9th graders at Lowell, SOTA, etc. come from what middle schools? This could be a way for students and parents to determine or prioritize their best fit middle schools.

    The next question is off topic, but I could not comment on your Dec 14 post. What specific date (vs. “late Jan/early Feb”) will the Transportation policy be presented to the Board? I’ve been waiting to submit my enrollment application (due Feb 18) based on this information… and am starting to get anxious.

  15. This is an interesting discussion about middle school program quality. One thing I recommend is that people read the Edsource report “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades,” which was a major study released last year. Among many findings, one was that K-8s and comprehensive middle schools can both offer quality programs — grade configuration by itself doesn’t make a school “better” or “worse.” I understand that many parents like the certainty and intimacy of a K-8, but I would NOT say our K-8 schools are all “better” than our 6-8 schools. They have different strengths and weaknesses.

    Here’s the link to the Edsource report and lots of other related-resources- http://www.edsource.org/middle-grades-study.html

  16. Clearly there is no one size fits all, per the posters comments.

    While portable classrooms could be an option to expand more K-5 to K-8, the fact that there is capacity in existing middle schools needs to be taken into account from a cost standpoint. I’d love to see more language options on the middle school side and an expanded 7th period. That seems more enriching for the money than making more schools incorporate 6-8 grades.

  17. I’m a middle school parent of two kids at Aptos. I disagree with SH that “by all accounts” Rooftop is the best school in the district. There is no data to support this (and in fact, one could point to many schools that are doing a terrific job with a wide cross section of kids – Aptos included.) Rooftop is fine, but there are plenty of others that are doing as well or better.

    With one kid finishing 8th grade, I’m very happy we did NOT have a K-8 school for our kids – there really is no “one size fits all” school or student and the chance to have options was important to our kids and family. One example: Aptos has a thriving band, orchestra and visual arts program which is an integral part of the school and is an offering that smaller schools like Rooftop cannot provide. Our staff has data that shows that kids, even historically lower performing kids, perform better academically with participation in our arts programs. My own kids have loved the larger school – both because of the arts offerings and because they have enjoyed a wider group of diverse friends from a large number of schools (interestingly, we now know many more kids in our neighborhood that attend Aptos that attended different elementary schools – it’s been a community builder with families making their own choices!”)

    So, I hope choices are not limited for families in middle school. I’m happy this has been put on hiatus.

  18. No – it was not televised (Committees of the Whole generally are not) nor was it broadcast on the radio. The only way to hear the meeting is, unfortunately, to request a tape from the Office of Equity Assurance.

  19. It’s disappointing that there is not one mention of special education services and classes in the powerpoint presentation. It makes me think that, as usual, students in these classes will be an afterthought, and made to “fit into” whatever system SFUSD devises, rather than being considered during the initial planning stages. Unfortunate.

  20. Was this meeting televised? I can’t find it in the Board’s video archives.

  21. Thanks for this, Rachel. A thorough and informative assessment.

  22. special ed parent

    SH — I like your idea, but am not sure your actual suggestion could be physically done the way you are suggesting, and I don’t think it could be done in a way that would make unnecessary some set of large standalone middle schools. Another way is to increase the size of some of the K – 5 schools by putting in more classroom trailers — there are some (but by no means not all) schools that could increase in size enough to become K through 8s. Schools like Commodore Sloat have enough schoolyard space to expand in that way. Some of the lower performing middle schools could then be reconfigured as K through 8s. The combination could reduce, but not eliminate the need for standalone middle schools.

  23. Why not change to real K-8 schools, and eliminate the need for assignment mapping? Rooftop is a K-8 school and by all accounts the best school in the district. The middle school buildings could be re-purposed as new elementary K-8 schools. Art, Music, and other elective teachers could split time between the smaller schools. Let’s rethink the whole thing. Smaller schools work for children, especially in the “turbulent middle school years”.