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Posts from — May 2011

School Board Policy Debate II

At the last planning meeting I asked Jeanne if any families who did not choose a magnet school (Barnes or Wheeler) as their number #1 choice have had to send their kid there anyway.  She said no.  I asked if any families who have chosen Barnes or Wheeler as #1 for their kids, have had to send their children elsewhere, and she said yes.

Later, I asked Jeanne how many families from the old north end chose Barnes or Wheeler as their number one school, and were denied it because they did not possess the district’s desired socio-economic status.  She gave me an answer but I will never be able to recite it because it’s too complicated.  I am torn as to whether to post it as a block quote below.  If I do, it is not because I’m trying to play gotcha with Jeanne, who- I have to tell you is doing a great job.  The more I’ve watched her performance, the more grateful I’ve become that we have her.  She has a crazy balancing act to perform in her role as superintendent, because ultimately she serves at the pleasure of the school board- or its majority anyhow.  It isn’t her fault she’s been asked to implement socio-economic integration.  That’s what her bosses told her to do.  And she does have a million things going on, other than this one debate.  I get that.

So we’ve asked her to administer this SEI experiment, and apparently she’s hired a ‘magnet school coordinator’ to do the nitty gritty of it.  If I quote Jeanne below  I think we should also give part of the credit for the quote to the magnet school corrdinator Victor Prussack, who almost certainly provided her some of the information

OK… my question again was-  

“I am curious to know how many applications listing a magnet as number 1 resulted in the student going elsewhere because of SEI; and also in whether this has occurred for any applications listing any other schools as number 1, because of SEI (not capacity).”

Then, here’s the (operative part of the) answer I received:

“There is no 100%  clear data  as it is a matter of application deadline.  For example, at both magnets this year everyone from inside the magnet zone who applied by the deadline got in, regardless of SEI.  At IAA we wait-listed 3 families from neighborhood school zones, who did not qualify for FRL and had at least 2 years of college and 1 from the magnet zone.
 
Since the deadline, we have wait-listed one low income family without at least 2-years of college at SA and five at IAA.
 
Of the applicants just listed, at IAA all but one of the families not qualifying for FRL were offered spots (one is still wait-listed).  The spots opened up when others declined or withdrew their spots at IAA.  At the lower end of the SEI spectrum, 1 student has moved off the wait-list, leaving us with four (and growing).  At SA we are “saving” 5 spots right now for higher income folks, but have not yet wait-listed anyone for K.”

Yeah.  I didn’t really understand that either.  I breathed a heavy sigh and started writing back with all the new questions I had about this answer to my first question… at which point Jeanne, rightfully sent me to her magnet school coordinator for further questions, and turned her attention back to the numerous things on her plate requiring lawyers to deal with.

So the magnet school coordinator preferred to meet, rather than write and he asked if I could meet after the vote next week.  I was like ‘no, we have to talk this week’ and so he called me from New York City, his hometown where he was spending Memorial Day weekend with his family.  I talked to him Sunday morning.

The information he gave me was interesting.  He said it was his job to break it to families when they can’t get into Barnes or Wheeler because they are too poor.  He said that happened to five families in the 1st year of SEI (It’s been done 2 years) but none since, because… well, I can’t recite what he told me.  It’s too complicated, but it sounded like the answer I quoted above.  He did confirm that the district’s known practice was that none of the kids from the other neighborhoods would be forced to go to Barnes or Wheeler, but the kids from the Barnes and Wheeler area might be forced to go elsewhere because they did not posess the desired demographic traits.  He said it in a way which seemed to me to say- “yeah- that’s what we’re doing.  where have you been?”

I’ll stop right here to point out how this story reinforces my argument against eliminating our current school boundaries policy (see previous post).  1) If the system is too complicated to explain or understand, how can you trust that it’s fair?  and 2) If you are expressly treating  people diferently based on their income or social class, then that obviously isn’t fair.

For those five families who could not get into their neighborhood school, when that was their choice- the district was saying, your preferences do not carry the the weight of those with more money, or those from other parts of the city.  Where is the equity in that?  We don’t necessarily know what’s best for richer families, but we know what’s best for poorer ones?  Ah- I get it.  We sell the idea to the rich, and force the idea on the poor.  That’s pretty much been the story since the beginning of time, hasn’t it?  Either we should sell it to everyone or force it on everyone.  Enlightened modern public education is about the equality of all people, is it not?  To Victor Prussack’s credit, he said he was working hard to try to sell the idea of integrating north and south of the magnets to poorer old north end families, rather than just forcing it on them.  But I don’t think the forcing part should be an option at all.  Do you?

That’s why I find it so I ironic when I’m accused of protecting the interests of wealthier families by opposing the elimination of the school boundaries policy.  I’m not agruing for the wealthy or the poor.  I’m just trying to argue that elected representatives owe it to their constituents to infuse the public policies they create with the mechanisms of fairness.  What passed out of the Curriculum Committee, and what seems likely to pass next week is… ‘The superintendent can assign kids however she wants.’  That is an abdication.

I still hope we can work out some compromise language that gives everyone an equal shot at their neighborhood school if they want it.  Maybe if they enroll by a deadline, they will get guaranteed placement as long as there’s room, and then after the deadline, the the superintendent follow her rubric with SEI in it.  Something like that.  The Chairman of the Board suggested the policy committee might take a look at it between the first and second readings- if the proposal passes.  Then what happens will depend largely on commissioner Chasen, a co-sponsor of the proposal to eliminate the school boundaries, and a member of both the curriculum and policy committees.

By the way if you are planning to come to speak about this issue- It’s Tuesday June 7 at the Edmunds Middle School Library- public comments start at 8pm.  Come if you want, but I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.  If I wasn’t on the school board, I would not want to go to a school board meeting either.

May 31, 2011   17 Comments

School Board Policy Debate

The Burlington School Board will be faced with a choice at its June Meeting.  Keep or modify our existing policy:

School Boundaries

Pupils shall be enrolled and attend the school located in the district in which they reside except as otherwise authorized in accordance herewith.

District boundaries shall be determined and may be revised by the Board of School Commissioners.

Individual requests for variance shall be acted upon by the Superintendent. Variances from one school to another will only be allowed when they directly benefit the education and/or welfare of the pupil. The Superintendent shall establish procedures to govern parental requests for variances to established District boundaries.

In the event that a neighborhood school has reached established class size limits, students may be assigned to another school at the discretion of the Superintendent. This assignment will remain in effect for the remainder of the school year. (See Policy EED – Student Transportation Services).

Or replace it with this:

Student Assignment

The Burlington School District is committed to providing excellent and equitable education for all students. The District believes that each student deserves the opportunity to learn from a comprehensive curriculum with a diverse population of peers that is similar to the demographics of the district as a whole.

The District shall provide both neighborhood and magnet school options. The administration shall formulate and implement staff and student assignment procedures that ensure excellence, equity and balanced demographics at every school in the District. The Superintendent shall report each April on procedures and outcomes regarding implementation of this policy.

I’ve been trying to convince the school board that the second choice would remove predictability from our neighborhoods and housing market by eliminating the default geographic student placement method. It would also take away the requirement that a variance for non-geographic placement be in the best interest of the particular pupil involved.  I think removing those two elements of the policy would be a huge mistake.  If we make this change, expectant parents cannot have any assurance of what school their baby will eventually attend.  It will depend on whatever procedure the superintendent comes up with five years down the road.  There will be no default placement, and since there’s nothing in the new policy about the pupil’s best interest- if you don’t like where your kid gets sent-  there’s no basis in the the policy on which to argue your case.

The change proposal is a piece of unfinished business for commissioner Amy Werbel from Ward Five.  She’ll be resigning from the school board at the end of June to go to China on a Fulbright scholarship, and she wants to get this done before that.   Amy was a driving force behind this resolution which turned Barnes and Wheeler into magnet schools and introduced the concept of “socio-economic integration” into the Burlington School District:

Motion re: Creation of Magnet Schools
Passed by School Board August 28, 2008

Motion (Flemer/Pillsbury) to direct the administration to form Vermont’s first two magnet schools at the
Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler Buildings, with the goal to pilot these K-5 programs beginning in the
Fall of 2009.

The theme of the Barnes magnet school shall be Sustainability, and it will be named “Sustainability
Academy at Lawrence Barnes.”

The theme of the Wheeler magnet school shall be Integrated Arts and it shall be named the “Integrated Arts
Academy at H.O. Wheeler.”

The Board directs the administration to formulate and implement staff and student assignment policies that
ensure excellence, equity, and balanced demographics at every school in the District.

So the resolution passed telling the superintendent to “formulate and implement staff and student assignment policies that ensure excellence, equity, and balanced demographics at every school in the District.”   First of all, the superintendent may “formulate policies” but she cannot enact policies.  The Board does that.  The Board makes the rules, so the resolution was flawed in its wording to begin with.  What she was really directed to do was come up with procedures. I have no idea about what staff assignment procedures she came up with to fulfill this, but here are the student assignment procedures that have been in effect in Burlington for the last couple of years…

Instructions for New Student Registration and Magnet School Registration

Welcome to the Burlington Schools! Families in all Burlington neighborhoods should rank their preferences for elementary schools on the New Student Registration Form. An additional magnet school application must be filled out if Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler (IAA) or Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes (SA) is one of your choices.

Enrollment in all schools is ultimately determined by school capacity. Within that we create priority lists for 1st choice schools based on:
1. Sibling
2. Socio-Economic Integration (for magnet schools)
3. Proximity

Registration is open from now to March 17, 2011. The week of May 2nd, families will be notified about placement. If there are more first choice registrations than there are spots, we will look at families’ 2nd choices. When a student doesn’t receive their first choice school, a district employee will contact the family to discuss their options for schools.*

Well, ok. So obviously there’s a schism between the current policy and the current practice.  I guess Amy wanted to address this back when Marrisa Caldwell was chair of the policy committee, but Marrisa fought the SEI idea and dissuaded Amy either from passing a policy change or from even trying to pass one, I’m not sure which.  Amy decided to stick the policy change in her back pocket, and wait for the heat of the moment to pass.  The heat, you may recall, included a rallying cry led by my neighbors Tom and Annie Treat: “No Bus For Us!”   The ‘No Bus’ folks were arguing that socio-economic integration might lead to involuntary placement of students requiring them to travel to educations across town, in order to get the desired mix of rich and poor kids at each school.

Last year Amy revisited this at the policy committee when I was then a member and Alan Matson was the chair.  I was able to convince the committe at that time to table the discussion.  Amy warned us then that if she didn’t get satisfaction on this from the policy committee, she’s raise it in the Curriculum Committee which she chairs.  This year I’m the chair of the Policy Committee, so I guess she figured she’d just go straight to plan B and put it on the Curriculum Committee agenda.  She did and it passed out of the committee on a vote of 6-1 on Tuesday.  Now the full board will be asked to vote on her proposal to replace the school boundaries policy at the next meeting:

•Tuesday, June 7, 2011 – Board Meeting – at the Edmunds Middle School Library- public comments start at 8pm

If you care about this issue, please show up and speak!  And write or call a School Board Member!

Now I don’t think that the idea of socio-economic integration of students in necessarily bad per se.  The magnet school model seems to be working to some extent.  Over 90% of Barnes and Wheeler’s students were eligible for free and reduced lunch (ie poor) before the two schools became magnets.  Through voluntary applications to these schools from outside their neighborhoods, those percentages have been lowered to something like 75 and 65 respectively, I think.  Correct me if you have better numbers.

The point is, it’s been voluntary.  And that’s fine.   And it’s all taken place with the old “school boundaries” policy still in effect.  However were we to ever try achieving economic integration by force- by the conscription of non-voluntary placement- well that would be a problem.   I believe Amy’s policy change idea opens the door to exactly that, and that’s why I am so opposed to it.

I believe I have found a way to reconcile the existing policy with the existing practice.  The current system of ranking schools can constitute a request for a variance under the existing policy when parents rank a school outside their boundaries (eg a magnet school) as their first choice.  The addition of a little text in the policy illustrates this.  We should keep the language about the “welfare of the pupil.”   If parents agree their child’s placement, they’d never have a reason to bring it up, but if they don’t like the placement for their child, the “welfare of the pupil”  language is a powerful tool and a basis for recourse.  Here’s what I propose to counter the Curriculum Committee’s proposal.  The existing policy with some old language stricken and some new language in bold as follows:

School Boundaries

Pupils shall be enrolled in and attend the school located in the district in which they reside except as otherwise authorized in accordance herewith.

District boundaries shall be determined and may be revised by the Board of School Commissioners.

Individual requests for variance shall be acted upon by the Superintendent. Variances A variance from one school to another will only be allowed when they it directly benefits the education and/or welfare of the pupil. The Superintendent shall establish procedures to govern parental requests for variances to established District boundaries. Such procedures may include a system wherein parents rank schools in order of preference- with the ranking of a school outside of one’s district of residence #1, constituting a request for variance.

In the event that a neighborhood school has reached established class size limits, students may be assigned to another school at the discretion of the Superintendent. The Superintendent will consider the welfare of the pupil and may consider the demographic balance of the district when assigning him or her to a school. This assignment will remain in effect for the remainder of the school year. (See Policy EED – Student Transportation Services).

If all you wanted to do was reconcile the policy with the existing practice, then these changes should be perfectly sufficient.  It reconciles the policy and the practice and maintains the stability and predictability of a geographic placement by default.  Further, it maintains a basis in policy- the welfare of the pupil- upon which arguments against involuntary placements can be made.  That’s a good thing.  It protects the rights of parents.

If you think the Board should vote for my proposal instead- or if you just have an opinion about what the school board is about to vote on, show up:

•Tuesday, June 7, 2011 – Board Meeting – at the Edmunds Middle School Library- public comments start at 8pm

  And write or call a School Board Member!

May 19, 2011   11 Comments

School Board Update V:05.11.11

Well we’re into to my second year on the school board for real now.  Last night we had a full board meeting and executive session.  Tonight was the board retreat, which is basically another long school board meeting with another long executive session.  I’m the chair of the policy committee this year, and I have to build an agenda for its first meeting by tomorrow.  It all feels kind of back-to-workish.

Update Sunday May 15 7:45am:  Board Docs Lite!  So all current board agendas and some documents are up at our new public system.

1) Go to https://www.boarddocs.com/vt/bsdvt/Board.nsf/Public

2) View committee agendas by scrolling through the field on the left of your screen.  Currently there are two agendas for May 17… The Curriculum Committee and the Policy and Advocacy (P&A) Committee meetings. 

3) Click either one and then click “view the agenda” in the center of your screen.  The agenda items for the meeting will be on the left.   I notice Curriculum’s agenda has some viewable documents, and P&A’s doesn’t.  Amy Werbel is chair of Curriculum.  I’m chair of P&A.  I guess she was more on top of submitting board docs to board docs than I was this time.  All well.

May 11, 2011   2 Comments

A City’s Priorities

Aqueducts and roads are the essential elements of a city.  There is no city without clean water and sanitation.  There is no city unless goods and people can circulate.  Therefore the top priorities are our water mains, water treatment facilities and our roads.  The people who live along our aqueducts and roads desire the protection of safety and law.  Therefore fire and police services are the next most important priority.  With our basic needs met, and our safety ensured we turn to the higher mind.  An excellent education for our children, and an excellent public library for all are the city’s next most important priorities.  Open and natural spaces are important for health and well being, so parks are the next priority.

The City of Burlington does a lot of other things of course.  It provides electricity and telecommunications, buries the dead, runs an airport, promotes the arts and lots more- but if you asked me my top proirities for the city, the answer is:  1)Water 2) Roads 3)Fire 4)Police 5) Schools 6)Libraries 7)Parks.

May 7, 2011   9 Comments