Tag Archives: middle school

Recap: Sept. 11 Board Meeting

Several Board members had other commitments tonight so the meeting was unusually short, adjourning at 7:05 p.m.  However, there were a few items of note:

  • In his “thoughts for the evening,” Superintendent Carranza announced that he will be withdrawing the staff proposal to eliminate the middle school grades at International Studies Academy (ISA) on Potrero Hill (currently a 6-12 school). Originally introduced at the August 28 Board meeting, the proposal would have kept ISA a high school and fed students from Daniel Webster and Bryant MS to Everett MS instead of ISA as originally proposed .  However, the Webster community continues to advocate for a K-8 facility on Potrero Hill, and the Everett community has expressed concern about the capacity of the school to absorb students from two additional elementary schools. In addition, there are transportation issues and our demographic trends indicate a need for more middle school seats and fewer high school seats.  I suspect the withdrawal of this proposal will be a mixed bag for Webster families who have been watching this news closely — on the one hand it keeps the K-8 idea alive, but on the other hand means the issue will not be resolved until next spring. At the Sept. 18 Committee of the Whole, the staff will lay out some of the unresolved issues and questions around the Webster/Bryant/ISA/MS feeder/HS capacity issues and attempt to explain why this is a complex decision with a lot of moving parts. The plan is to return to the Board with a revised recommendation sometime in the spring.
  • Several families from New Traditions spoke during public comment to express dismay with the actions of a teacher at their school. These kinds of situations are so difficult because no one — staff or Board members alike — can explain what steps have or have not been taken and why or why not.  These are personnel matters and like all employees, teachers have due process and privacy rights.  As  I’m writing this, I’m watching an ABC-7 News report on alleged mistreatment of special education students in another district — and while the allegations make my blood boil, I feel some sympathy for the Board members because they cannot comment or take any kind of public action without opening up their school district to a serious liability. Hopefully, they are taking action behind the scenes, just as I’ll be following up on our own issue with staff.
  • We  also heard an update on a great partnership with UCSF that pairs interested high school students with working scientists and gives them experience working in research labs for the summer. Wallenberg HS  senior Chelsea Stewart wowed the Board and staff in presenting her research into an autoimmune disorder causing degeneration of the optic nerve. Ms. Stewart says the experience taught her a great deal and underscored her determination to go to college. One of my favorite parts was when UCSF administrator of the program, Katherine Nielsen, said that after participating in the program, students said they were surprised to find that there were UCSF scientists who were women and/or people of color, and that “scientists were nice.” Since I am surrounded by scientists in my immediate and extended family, I’m all in favor of a program that reminds us that scientists can actually be very nice people but I’m particularly glad to see that we are encouraging more girls and people of color to enter the field as well.
  • The Board approved a resolution in support of No Texting While Driving Pledge Day on Sept. 19. Apparently, 43 percent of teens admit they have sent text messages while driving even though 97 percent say they know it is dangerous and illegal. Students (and adults too!)  are asked to take the pledge not to text and drive.
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Board unanimously approves revised feeder plan

Tonight the Board unanimously approved the feeder plan recommended by the Superintendent.  Up until a day ago I was expecting a dissenting vote or two, but I think in the end the staff’s decision to modify the proposal to be a “tiebreaker” system until 2016-17 was the change that convinced Commissioner Wynns (notably the strongest doubter in her public comments previous to tonight’s vote) to support the plan.

I know that in the end it was the decision to refrain from an initial assignment and instead use a tiebreaker process that helped to convince  me. I heard a lot of the doubts about equity and access from parents who would receive preference into less-chosen schools; the PAC and PPS’s original recommendation to dump the feeder plan altogether was very compelling.  But in considering all of the factors, the unknowns and the overarching policy objectives, I finally came down on the side of the feeders.  Specifically:

  • The new elementary-to-MS feeder patterns will allow us to plan more rationally for MS improvements. That’s why the MS principals unanimously supported the plan, because they knew they would have more stable and robust enrollments at their schools AND because they knew the plan would help them build academic and social support bridges between their schools and the elementary schools that would provide their target enrollments.
  • Choice in school assignment isn’t, by itself, a school improvement strategy.  Our experience with a full choice-based assignment system has had some unintended consequences: schools that aren’t chosen have fewer resources and fewer ways to attract those resources, creating a vicious cycle; and choice creates a strong backlash among those who feel entitled to a nearby school but do not get it because it is competitive citywide.  And even though our previous choice system did allow some families to “discover” previously overlooked schools, it’s clear that over time it also supported starker segregation patterns and disadvantaged vulnerable school communities.  In other words, choice is great if you get one of your choices; not so much if you don’t. And since we are forecasting a coming bulge in middle school enrollment, finding a way to offer everyone a more equitable experience — and still allow people at least some ability to choose where their child will attend school–is becoming more urgent.
  • The “tiebreaker” phasing-in of the feeder plan allows some time for families to kick the tires of proposed schools before they are involuntarily “fed” into them through an initial assignment offer.  I believe schools like Denman, Martin Luther King and Visitacion Valley MS will benefit from families who are willing to take a second or third look if their first choices don’t pan out. One of the benefits we’ve seen with choice over the years is the incredible effect of critical mass — once parents see that families they regard as peers are happy at a particular school, they are much more willing to consider it as an option for their own children.

There was some discussion at last night’s Student Assignment committee and again at tonight’s meeting about whether to change the order of tiebreakers for middle school assignment while they are in effect (2012-13 through 2015-16). The PAC and PPS recommended that the Board move CTIP or some other “equity mechanism” above the feeder patterns as a tiebreaker, which in the end only Commissioner Wynns supported. I can’t speak for other Board members, but the reason I opposed giving CTIP higher priority in MS assignments is that I am not convinced yet that it does what we think it does;  I have concerns that it is simply advantaging a subset of families who happen to live in those zones but don’t otherwise fit the racial and socioeconomic profiles we are hoping to advantage.  I would like to see the effect of the strong CTIP preference on K applicant pools and school composition before I agree to “double-down” for MS enrollment. 

I do recognize that some people will be deeply upset and angered by the Board’s decision tonight. I don’t think the Superintendent and staff have done a good job explaining HOW they are going to improve some of our middle schools;  nor have they acknowledged the areas where we should be doing a better job. They actually haven’t even defined very well what a “quality” middle school is. I plan to continue bringing these and related topics to the Board’s Curriculum Committee to help guide the staff in developing an improvement plan for each of our MS.

Tonight the Board also heard about a little thing called the 2011-12 budget, which was introduced for first reading.  It was almost 10:30 p.m. by the time the budget item came up  (another item ate up more than an hour of the Board’s time before that) so there wasn’t really any discussion. The Board will hold an augmented Budget and Business Services Committee meeting on June 21 where the budget will be discussed in greater detail. 

Middle schools at the Curriculum Committee

Tomorrow night at the Curriculum & Program Committee we’ll be hearing several items of interest in the current middle school debate:  strategies for serving high-achievers and parent perspectives on middle school quality.

Serving high-achievers in middle school: Originally, I had asked staff to present a report on the various strategies we use to serve high-achievers, the research behind them, and the guidance, if any, we give sites as far as accelerated programming, ability grouping, and tracking to serve students of varying academic preparation and ability.  Unfortunately, several key staff members will not be available tomorrow, so instead we’ll start the discussion with a short staff presentation, and hopefully hear from members of the public with perspectives and questions on this issue.  As a result, we’ll have to return to the topic later in the year, but it will be helpful to have specific input and questions from the public and the board to shape the discussion. In the meantime, I’ve received this survey of programs at various middle schools; the K-8 schools serve students in heterogeneous groupings without specific “honors-only” programming. I’ve also been doing a bit of research on my own with respect to programs for truly gifted students; from the little I’ve read it seems clear that the two strands of conventional wisdom in our middle school debate (students must be tracked by ability vs. students can be served in heterogeneous classrooms with no additional resources or training for teachers) are both wrong.  If you are interested in exploring this topic further with an open mind, start here:

Parent perspectives on quality middle schools: A panel of PAC and PPS members will be on hand to share a variety of perspectives on quality middle schools after participating in the community engagement survey earlier this year.

The Curriculum Committee will meet tomorrow (June 6) starting at 5 pm in the Boardroom.

 

 

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.

Feedback on the middle school plan

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.

Accepted to Gateway MS? Read this

Today I heard from a friend whose child received an acceptance to Gateway MS and is trying to decide between that and another offer. Among the positives for Gateway, the mom told me, is that “you’re in through high school.”

Actually, you’re not. I’ve heard this misconception from a number of people who attended information sessions at Gateway MS,  and I want to make very clear that Gateway Charter MS and the highly-requested Gateway Charter HS are separate schools. Attending Gateway MS will not give students preferential admission to Gateway HS.  I was concerned enough this morning to call Sharon Olken, the head of Gateway HS and the person managing the MS startup, to ask her what parents were being told at information sessions for the middle school.

According to Ms. Olken, Gateway has told families that they hope many MS families will ultimately apply to Gateway HS, and that the school would welcome the opportunity to work with students from 6th to 12th grades. However, she acknowledged that the school is prevented under charter school laws from giving anyone other than siblings preferential admissions to the school.

This is an important thing for families to keep in mind — the Gateway HS lottery is competitive, and I know some families would love a competitive edge if it were available. I was quite clear when I voted for the Gateway MS charter (it squeaked through on a 4-3 vote) that it was a standalone middle school, and I feel strongly that “locking in” middle school families through HS is not fair to all the other families who may, in 7th or 8th grades, realize that Gateway is a good option for their child.

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). Continue reading