It’s been an exceptionally long day, and tonight’s meeting was packed with information I haven’t fully processed yet, so these are my preliminary reactions. I will probably update these observations in the next day or so.
Parents for Public Schools and the Parent Advisory Council presented extensive findings and recommendations from their two-month public engagement and outreach project around the district’s plan to implement feeder patterns as a strategy for creating quality programs at every middle school. Hundreds of parents and staff in neighborhoods across the city attended meetings; notes were taken from each discussion and the transcripts of those notes were analyzed to cull the findings from the meetings.
The overarching recommendation was for the district not to implement the feeder plan, and instead retain the choice system for middle school enrollment, while strengthening the quality at all schools. It’s an oversimplification of the groups’ work to focus just on this recommendation, but it’s definitely the biggest “takeaway” from the evening pending further reflection and more time to digest the 24-page report.
For their part, district staff articulated the various initiatives underway to ensure quality programs at every middle school. The work has focused on the findings of the “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades” study of high-performing middle schools published by EdSource last year. Still, it’s simply a fact that some middle schools offer more robust programs than others, and that enrollment and parent involvement have a lot to do with the ability to offer a wide range of electives and other programming parents and students want. According to a draft FAQ on the district’s quality middle schools program:
There is a link between robust enrollment and a school’s ability to provide equitable access to an enriched learning environment. Under-enrolled middle schools have fewer teachers, fewer parents, smaller budgets and therefore less opportunity to make sure all of the students enrolled at the middle school have access to electives, athletics and enrichment programs available to children enrolled in middle schools that are five times as large.
And so staff is continuing to recommend that the district continue with the implementation of feeder patterns, but now says the proposal should be phased in over five years: the feeder pattern would become a tie-breaker after younger siblings but before CTIP in determining assignments. Starting in 2015-16, students entering 6th grade would receive an initial placement offer based on feeder patterns, then have the option to participate in a choice process in later rounds.
The problem with the feeder program is that it is a “push” strategy — at its worst, it pushes families into schools they’d rather not choose in order to enlist their help in building up the program. On the other hand, the “pull” strategy only works if you can somehow build up the program without the kids there in the first place. Clearly, the hope is that by phasing in the preference, the push will become more of a pull over time.
Of course, one could argue that the choice-based system is also a version of the “push” strategy: it works great if you get one of your choices but not so much if you are pushed, through supply and demand, into a school you didn’t choose. The projections for coming middle school enrollment in the next few years, if they come true, would mean that regardless of the assignment mechanism we use, more families in coming years will feel pushed into schools they didn’t choose.
The Board’s reaction to all of this was, to my mind, somewhat unclear. Commissioner Wynns and Commissioner Maufas were probably the least equivocal in their comments — Commissioner Wynns pronounced her mind changed on feeder patterns and said she was disinclined to support the staff’s proposal; Commissioner Maufas expressed disappointment with the report’s findings and said she believed it would be short-sighted of the board to abandon its feeder policy because the current choice-based system has been found not to create the outcomes we want for our students (she also reminded us of the many people who came before the board last year and expressed a desire for predictability). Commissioners Yee and Murase expressed cautious support for the direction outlined in the staff proposal. Commissioner Mendoza and I are both deeply undecided.
I need to spend some time mulling all of this over. After attending one forum and hearing reports from many others, as well as getting an earful from a number of constituents, going into tonight’s meeting I had provisionally decided that perhaps we had rushed into the feeder program without really evaluating its budget and program placement implications. Now we’ve had a chance to look at those things more deeply, and perhaps feeders are a great idea whose time has not yet come. In addition, the PAC/PPS findings underscore that parents don’t really feel inclined to take another leap of faith on programs that aren’t yet built.
But there are still the nagging quality and program differences between schools. Now that we’ve acknowledged that some programs are more robust than others, what are we going to do about it? The staff’s answer is that if the bodies (students) are there, the program offerings at all middle schools will expand and become more robust. Combined with other important steps already underway, like common planning time for all middle school staffs, frequent use of data from our formative assessments to guide and differentiate instruction, and additional professional development for principals and teachers, the staff argues that all schools will be where we want them to be.