Middle schools: more stuff to read

At last night’s Board meeting, the Parent Advisory Council gave a report that was a pointed response to Board comments from the night before. The report is worth a close reading,  especially if you attended or watched Monday’s student assignment committee meeting.

Also, the helpful folks at PPS have posted the district’s presentation — the first third is a progress report on transportation changes and the plan to monitor the outcomes of the student assignment process (which won’t be fully complete until after all students have enrolled and actually begun attending classes later this summer). The final two-thirds of the document has the guts and the meat from Monday’s meeting. If you want to know what district staff says they are already doing to improve middle schools, as well as their rationale for continuing to recommend feeder patterns for middle school enrollment, read that section and watch the last two hours of Monday’s meeting. It may not change your mind, but it will make you feel more informed about where the district is coming from.

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13 responses to “Middle schools: more stuff to read

  1. I know this is a huge simplification but maybe the middle schools are the perfect place to start a neighborhood only placement experiment. Call it a throw back to the days of yore, where you walked to your local school. I’m sure sibling choice and preference will make that harder than it sounds but it seems like the perfect place to try and undo all the unintended damage we’ve done by tossing out neighborhood preference over the last decade.

  2. Meant to say: We’re at McKinley, set to funnel into Everett.

  3. Hi Rachel,

    My kids are at a school funneling into McKinley. We’ve been there a while and have been one of those families who’ve thrown themselves into helping a school during a time of budget cuts. We came in when McKinley was not a star on the rise. That said, we’re not willing to throw ourselves into Everett. We know money and attention is going to Everett, but simply are not OK with essentially being told we have to go a school that we in no way would ever, ever choose to send our children to. We will be among those who leave the system, which is sad, because among other things, our money (which we’ve given generously toward McKinley) will go too. Can you please explain the board’s position on keeping middle class people assigned to failing middle schools in the system? I understand that there will be a group of families that are gung ho and eager to take up the cause with now failing schools. I hope it really works out for them and for other families ready to charge forward. But I have a harder time understanding the logic of forcing people (via feeders) to go too. This should be something people opt into with the potential for a big pay off. My question really applies to families assigned to the three worst performing middle schools. Does the board simply expect a large portion of them (with options) to leave?

  4. Has the community and/or the school board completely abandoned the idea of ‘virtual K-8’? I thought that was one of the key features of the middle school feeder pattern? The social and emotional connections are key in middle school and isnt that why the K-8 schools are so in demand in the district to begin with? I am confused about all the other confounding factors and this priority it getting lost in translation. No?

  5. I agree with the posts by Beth and Michelle

    The district must offer honors classes in middle school. It can not be left to differentiation or up to the principal. It is unconscionable to let a high achieving student sit in a class bored. Unconscionable.

    Also – this is not a middle class issue. This is a student issue. My neighbor is a high-achieving 5th grader. Her parents are Latino immigrants with limited English. Together they choose (and received) Hoover (#1 choice), because the school offers academic opportunities for high-achieving students (honors classes) and other enrichment opportunities.

    Under the feeder program, this student never would have gotten Hoover and it is likely this student would not have access to honors classes (based on the current feeder plan)

  6. Marnie Dunsmore

    @Caroline:

    Regarding your comments:

    “SF_Mommy, unless you’re really elderly and attended college in the U.S. decades ago, this would be an apples-to-oranges comparison:”

    and

    “That’s because here in the U.S., the culture encourages ALL students to go to college — in facts, harshly condemns them and their K-12 schools as failures if all students don’t go to college.
    That notion would be from outer space in any other country in the world, where only the more academically adept students are expected and prepared to attend college.”

    Caroline, please see the Education Policy Institute’s Global Higher Education Report:

    In terms of affordability, the US ranks behind 12 countries. In terms of accessibility, it ranks behind The Netherlands, Finland and the UK, and just ahead of Canada. Those numbers are as of 2005. (http://www.educationalpolicy.org/pdf/global2005.pdf)

    Also, in terms of preparedness, 2009 OECD PISA scores indicate that the US ranks behind 16 countries:
    http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/54/12/46643496.pdf

    So you are, in fact, incorrect in your statement that the US is the only country that encourages young people to go to college. Certainly, your notion that “all other countries are in outer space” with respect to the concept of encouraging a college education reflects your ignorance regarding the current challenges faced by US students in terms of preparedness, affordability and access.

    Additionally, many countries such as Germany have well funded training in the skilled trades, which is something the US lacks.

    Disseminating misinformation regarding US higher education preparedness, affordability and access doesn’t help anybody.

  7. CarolineSF

    SF_Mommy, unless you’re really elderly and attended college in the U.S. decades ago, this would be an apples-to-oranges comparison:

    “I took college classes here and was baffled by the lack of general knowledge of US undergraduate students.”

    That’s because here in the U.S., the culture encourages ALL students to go to college — in facts, harshly condemns them and their K-12 schools as failures if all students don’t go to college.

    That notion would be from outer space in any other country in the world, where only the more academically adept students are expected and prepared to attend college.

    Back on the middle school feeder proposal: I agree with many parents that the proposal is a poor idea for a number of reasons, a primarily one being equity.

    A gentle caution: I don’t think it’s a good idea for any school community to say “We don’t want to feed into X middle school; we want to feed into Y middle school.” That can only be read as “let some OTHER K-5 school community have the middle school we don’t want,” which is never going to be an effective message.

    I don’t have a dog in this hunt as my kids are past middle school age, but I care very much about the future of our school district, and in many years as an SFUSD parent I’ve seen the damage done by previous misguided assignment policies (remember the zip code preference? Or the requirement that schools of assignment “release” kids who wanted to apply elsewhere, based on their race?). So I hope to see the district avoid further misguided assignment policies .

  8. Rachel, in one of their slides, the District claims that they are looking at middle school choice patterns, proximity, and access in developing K-8 feeder patterns.

    Has the District provided the BOE with a table of first choice requests for each elementary school (for example, School X has 45 fifth-grade students who made 35 1st-choice requests for MLK, 5 1st-choice requests for Hoover, 3 1st-choice requests for Lick, and 2 1st-choice requests for Denman)? Also, it would be instructive to have a pin map showing 1st-choice requests for each MS by home address (the proximity/access piece).

    My children attend Miraloma, where 5th-grade students overwhelmingly put Aptos as their first choice in Round 1. To my knowledge, no one put Denman (our proposed feeder school) as a 1st-choice, and, quite possibly, no one put Denman as any of their choices at all. From the stand point of MS quality, choice patterns, access, proximity, and diversity (all the factors that the District supposedly considered in designing feeder patterns), Miraloma should feed into Aptos as originally proposed in August 2010. Furthermore, the last consideration, language pathways, also plays in favor of Miraloma feeding into Aptos, because Miraloma is entirely GE and Aptos is entirely GE, which minimizes wasting scarce budget dollars on deconstructing and reconstructing educational programs and disrupting faculty positions at a functional middle school. The District should be spending scarce dollars on middle schools that need improvement or on establishing magnet programs (such as science, technology, language pathways, or vocational programs) at underenrolled schools to attract students.

    I hope that BOE member are considering all these factors before approving the current K-feeder proposal, esp. the Feb. 1 map, which has many flaws and did not incorporate feedback from the Community Forums.

  9. Unless the school district makes sure that all non-parent funded opportunities (gate, honors, arts, music, etc.) are equally available at every school, before trying to force students into a single school with no choice, they will have high numbers of students home schooled, going to private schools, moving and/or suing. I know I will not have my child’s opportunities affected so the district can conduct a poorly thought out social experiment. At least with the current system there is a chance to get into a decent school and if not, then look elsewhere if possible. With feeders, no choice whatsoever. If you get a bad feeder, tough luck. The District is attempting to make parents fix the failing schools themselves, instead of the District getting its act together and making a difference. Harsh? Yes, but apparent.

  10. Yes, thanks for tackling the honors issue.

    Differentiation is nice in theory. HOWEVER, I have not seen it at my daughter’s school (and Rachel, I’d be happy to talk more with you about it offline, so as not to call out a specific school in public…), and her current teacher IS THE GATE COORDINATOR. It’s VERY hard with a class of 33 kids to have honestly differentiated instruction which addresses the needs of kids whose skill/proficiency level ranges from several years below grade level to several years above.

    Math is my biggest pet peeve, though reading has proven to be an issue this year as well (none of the offerings in my daughter’s 5th grade class were above a 5th grade level, and many were 4th or below. )

    On 2 of the tours I went on (and I visited a wide variety of schools!) I was told explicitly by staff and/or administration that it was a policy decision in the school to discontinue the honors program for reasons of social justice. So, whatever “guidance” is given at the central level is apparently only suggestions, and schools get to do what they want. At a meeting I attended some time ago with parents and administration involved with GATE, I was also informed that the elementary schools are NOT REQUIRED to evaluate children for GATE, and that while many do, not all choose to do so. (Not sure of the accuracy of this, but I recall seeing that J. Serra listed no GATE identified students, which does seem in line with the decision not to evaluate.)

    Michelle

  11. Dear Rachel; thank you for taking on the honors issue. I was raised and schooled in Europe and find the honors curriculum here in SF to be comparable with many general education strands outside of the US. I took college classes here and was baffled by the lack of general knowledge of US undergraduate students. To me it seems that offering honors tracks is not about elitism but about providing children who do have the potential and parental support with the basic skill sets needed to compete in a global economy, while at the same time, through non-honors strands, focusing on catching up with the kids whose families struggle with language and socio-economic disadvantages, resulting in serious non-proficiencies in those kids and related challenges for those kids’ teachers. Ideally, those of these underprivileged kids motivated to remedy their non-proficiencies should get the focused support that they need, while those that feel they are simply not interested in college should be able to finding alternate vocational emphases about which they might be more passionate in MS and HS, while still being raised up to whatever academic achievements they are able and willing to work towards, rather than hurting the overall standards. But of course, the funds are probably again not there for such a diversified approach. It seems to me that this problem, not ethnic arrogance, is why many of the (both Asian and non-Asian) families yearn to continue honors (and are worried that there are now discussions about either immersion through MS or honors but not both and other non-honors tendencies). Dragging schools down to the lowest common denominator (and not offering honors/eliminating or weakening those tracks, as some parents have suggested on other boards, or hoping that high achieving students will “inspire” those who struggle if not challenged in a separate track but kept in the mix, as some educators seems to prefer) would hurt not just the children affected by this but all of us, I feel. I am not sure if GATE identification is the right approach to honors tracks, but figure that teachers and the district have to pick and choose who will benefit from such accelerated, globally compatible education approaches and that standardized testing is probably the easiest way of going at that. I personally would prefer and all-“honors” approach and then extra help for students who turn out to need remedial support. I have a hunch that the all AP middle school curriculum at Alice Fong Yu is part of the huge draw of that school; but its “English-proficient”-only one-way immersion focus is one of the reasons this has worked in the past, by excluding struggling kids from the get go. It is tragic, how the financial realities force us to choose between arts and state-of-the-art general education and to compromise on our kids’ abilities to achieve all that they can achieve (aside from those lucky enough to have parents who provide the extra challenges and stimulation outside of school).
    Regards, SF_Mommy

  12. I’m starting the conversation about honors at the June meeting of the Curriculum Committee (5 pm on June 6, in the Board room). I’ve asked staff for a report on what guidance we give schools about heterogeneous vs. homogeneous groupings of GATE students (e.g., honors tracks vs. “differentiation”), and what the research says, if anything.

  13. Thanks for all your work on this issue, Rachel. As someone whose child’s elementary school was initially slated to feed into a very under-enrolled, low-scoring middle school without honors and with limited electives and which is now slated to feed into a big higher-performing school with honors and more elective offerings I can honestly say that I have believed the feeder patterns were a good idea since they were first announced. I think the benefits of the virtual k-8 for my child, and for all the kids in our district, outweigh the growing pains of moving to this model.

    **There is substantial research regarding the benefits of keeping kids together through middle school. These benefits are about communication and articulation for teachers and administrators, as well as providing a stable group of peers. These benefits are outlined in the district report and the papers you linked to. Unless I am completely naive (and I may be) these benefits are the driving force behind the feeders–as well as the knowledge that we will have more students at the middle school level in the near future.

    *Schools with higher enrollment will have more resources and be able to offer more enrichment/electives that seem important to many people, such as orchestra. If all schools do not have high enrollment then all schools will not be able to offer these things. The feeder seems like a good way to fill up more schools which in turn should provide more enrichment/electives to everyone.
    *Although “social justice” as a term gets thrown around a lot, there is evidence that in schools where the majority of kids are high-need the teachers cannot do their jobs as well and the kids suffer. If we can have more classes with lower concentrations of high-need kids this will benefit everyone and let teachers do their jobs better. I also think feeders will eventually improve the way funds are allocated to students with more needs, and the money will follow the students to all middle schools rather than being allocated in huge chunks to certain schools with high concentrations of kids in need of support.

    *As someone whose child did not receive any of the schools we chose for him in the kindergarten lottery, and who is relatively happy with the school where we ended up, I can see that the pure “pull” system leaves a lot of families out in the cold because there is not enough room in the highly desired schools. I also see that the “push” system in effect when families are pushed into schools they do not initially consider acceptable results in a greater number of schools that are acceptable to more people. From what I have seen most people (not all of course) who did not receive any of their kindergarten lottery choices ended up pretty happy at a school they did not initially consider. If families accepted the feeder system I believe we would have the same result as in elementary without the whole agony of the lottery and with the benefits of keeping kids together and providing a more streamlined and continuous K-8 experience.

    One big question I have is about honors. Many parents feel honors classes are important because they feel their child will not be challenged or engaged in a classroom where kids range from below basic to far above average. Some schools offer honors and some don’t. I think the question about honors is a more important one than those about which schools have orchestra, etc., because schools with a diverse group of families and good enrollment should be able to provide a wider range of electives (of course this is all relative with the funding crisis!!). Honors, however, seems like something that should be a policy, not determined by the school site. It is confusing to parents that honors is offered at one site and not another. Is honors necessary to support high-achieving kids, or not?? I am personally not sure honors/tracking/ability grouping makes sense for anything but math, and would rather see more differentiation and supports for struggling students in the classroom, but it seems wrong that the district would allow one site to have honors and not another. Can’t the district create a policy regarding honors, and if not, why not? Maybe I missed it, but this issue seems to be left out of the planning for quality middle schools as well as the “Gaining Ground” paper. If there is research supporting a model for differentiation (honors or not) then it seems like something the district should implement at all sites. The whole honors thing should be addressed in this plan.

    Thanks for reading this long ramble. Good luck sorting out this crazy puzzle with pieces of immersion, transportation, academics, safety, choice, parent perceptions,electives, pushing, pulling– and very little money. There are parents out here who support the feeder pattern!!