Well, I have to hand it to Commissioner Kim, who led her first meeting as the newly-elected Board President. (Commissioner Mendoza was elected VP). The agenda was incredibly long, but somehow we adjourned just after 10:30 p.m.
Still, tonight was one of those meetings that felt full of drama. The meeting opened with the annual tasks of electing new Board leadership and re-adopting the Board rules, then the awards and commendations we do at every meeting. There were a large number of people waiting to speak on the district’s Ethnic Studies pilot program, and another large group waiting to talk about the Superintendent’s recommendation regarding the locations of the General Education and Montessori programs at Cobb Elementary.
The Ethnic Studies group went first, discussing the importance of including Ethnic Studies as a 9th grade social studies course. The proposal for the pilot would create the two-semester class at five high schools; many students came to tell us they found the proposed class to be more relevant to their experience than other history courses they had taken. Teachers also stressed the importance of connecting history to the actual life experiences of our students. The underlying idea behind the pilot would be to empower students who come from marginalized groups, and address the lack of a 9th grade history course, and lackluster scores in the 10th grade California Standards Test in World History. It has a community service component and a course of study that examines the role of race, ethnicity and culture in history. The Superintendent told us he is still examining the plans for the pilot and will bring us a proposal in the coming months, one that aligns the $300,000 proposed cost with our strategic plan and our new A-G graduation requirements.
But the big news of the night was the fate of the Cobb General Education and Montessori programs. Families in both programs have been in agony in recent months, uncertain whether their school would survive what best resembles a contentious divorce. Originally, the district placed the Montessori program at Cobb in an effort to offer an innovative curriculum to the school’s predominantly African-American students. But the program never caught on with the Cobb families, perhaps because it wasn’t what they wanted or perhaps because the engagement of the African American community was flawed. The issue came to a head when the district’s Program Placement committee approved a plan to expand the Pre-K Montessori program into a full Pre-K through 5th grade program — a plan which called for phasing out the General Education program at Cobb.
At that point, the General Education teachers cried foul. While there were attempts to inform and engage the broader Cobb community about the Montessori plans, in retrospect those attempts were not enough, and mixed messages were sent. The community organized around the General Education program, and the rest is history.
There was no ideal solution before the Board tonight. Over the past few months, I’ve been convinced by the robust community support that we should give the Cobb General Ed program more of a chance. And yet I’ve remained a strong supporter of Montessori and our efforts to bring a high-quality program to our public schools. Still, the divisions between the two communities were so deep, and so bitter, it became increasingly clear that they could not co-exist on the same campus. And in any event, Cobb is scheduled for construction next year, so it physically would not have space for both programs.
What made the decision worse was a long-overdue fiscal analysis of the costs of both programs. While Cobb GE is currently under-enrolled, a relatively small increase in enrollment would keep the school fiscally viable. Montessori, on the other hand, costs more money to operate because the model requires more adults in the classroom than a traditional program — a fact that Board members realized we were not clear on until now. In addition, moving either program would cost the district additional money.
In the end, the Board voted 6-1 to keep Cobb’s General Education program where it is and move Montessori, on a temporary basis, to the district’s Jackson St. property six blocks away (at an estimated cost of $235,000). There was discussion of “fiscal irresponsibility” by opening up a new school, but any solution that involved moving a program would have cost us money — and there was no other site the staff could identify that would be able to accommodate seven classrooms on the ground floor (required under fire codes for students younger than 7 years old). In any event, part of the point of keeping the Montessori program is that it is wildly popular, with a long waiting list. If it ends up boosting overall enrollment in the district, we will probably come close to recouping those costs. On the other hand, if we continue to hem and haw every year about where the program should be located, that would take away from its popularity.
Still, I’m hoping we learned something about planning and community engagement from this experience. We shouldn’t just plop programs down in schools that didn’t ask for them or participate in the program placement decisions. And district staff needs to be much clearer with each other and with the Board about the potential costs of new programs.
There is, however, much to be happy about. The Cobb GE community should be proud of the strong advocacy they did for their program, and I look forward to seeing them take it to the next level. And the Montessori parents can breathe easier, looking forward to a fresh start in a new site next year. Hopefully, we will be able to craft a longer-term solution before June so that this program, too, has a sense that its future is secure.