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.