When individual School Board members cast their individual votes on the proposed realignment plan, they owe it to their constituents, first, to engage in a public debate about the issue, and then, to give reasons for their vote. It is not enough to say that after a long process they simply support the administration’s recommendation, especially when, by now, the Board must be aware of how flawed the decision making process has been.
The series of district-sponsored information sessions about the proposed elementary school realignment is now complete. The jury is out; in other words, the decision whether or not to move from the current West Street (K-5) and North Street (K-5 plus Head Start) model to a K-2 plus Head Start (at West Street) and grades 3-5 (North Street) model is now in the hands of the School Board.
The decision the Board will have to make on April 6th is twofold: First, should the district adopt this change? Second, if the switch is to occur, does it have a reasonable chance of coming to fruition immediately (for September of this year), or does it warrant additional transition planning time (making the change in September 2010)?
While the District has grudgingly put out some information and half heartedly agreed to allow the public to comment on recommendations provided to the Board by an advisory group, we are left with the same fundamental question that we had when we the plan was first brought to our attention: What, exactly, is the problem that needs to be solved; and in what way is realignment the best solution to that problem?
Unfortunately, try as we might, we simply cannot divine an answer to those questions from the multitude of responses the District has dished out. Here’s our attempt to recap (for the benefit of District residents, our readers, the Board and our own sanity) what’s been said by District officials thus far:
- They say: “The District is facing a budget gap of $2.4 million, and realignment will close the gap by saving $1.2 million in annual expenditures.
This was the first and most public reason given for raising the realignment question and the first and most public reason given for the conclusion that realignment was the best solution to the problem. It was also the projection passed along to the Budget Advisory Committee and subjected to serious scrutiny and questions.
Reality: In the course of public disclosures, savings alleged by the district have steadily decreased from $1.2 million to $250,000 (according to the Superintendent, March 25th meeting), and the specific whereabouts of any savings has never been given.
That is just shy of a one million dollar downward shift in projected savings. So, while it may have initially seemed that realignment was the best way to cut the deficit in half, that argument no longer holds water.
2. They say: The current elementary school model is outdated and not in keeping with the best educational practices of the day.
In other words, what we’re doing right now is not working and the District has found a way to fix it. The problem with this argument, unfortunately, is that it seemed to take the following form:
Claim #1: Socio-economic status (SES) is the most important limiting factor on student achievement.
Claim #2: North Street and West Street are out of balance when it comes to SES.
Claim #3: Realignment will neutralize the negative effect of low SES.
Conclusion: Realignment is the best way to improve student achievement.
Reality: The Superintendent is right about Claim #1, but wrong on Claims #2 and #3.
There is a large body of sound educational research that supports the conclusion that higher rates of achievement are associated with students from higher income households and lower rates of achievement are associated with students from lower income households.
And according to the figures presented in the Superintendent’s report (see page 10), 69% of students at North Street School qualify for free or reduced lunch while 50% of students and West Street School qualify, so while neither school is predominantly wealthy, North Street School has a larger number of students who, according to the research, would be at academic risk due to SES.
But the next page of the Superintendent’s own report states “There is a difference in student achievement on NYS assessments of ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, with North Street performing slightly better” and statistics to support that assertion.
And this is where the District’s argument outlined above breaks down. Given a student population that is at a greater economic disadvantage, and knowing that such disadvantage usually results in a lack of educational achievement, you might expect that North Street would be performing worse than West Street.
So, rather than supporting the conclusion the District seems to have been hoping for, the District’s own data endorses the current K-5 educational model at North Street School. Could it be that the only bearing this has on the realignment debate is to indicate that North Street students will likely fare worse with a change?
3. They say: In response to this concern about the data, and its tendency to
prove the opposite conclusion from the one that the District intended, the Superintendent provides the following new argument for the realignment proposal:
Claim #1: 24 students each year make a disruptive transition from Head Start (at North Street School) to kindergarten (at West Street School).
Claim #2: The transition from Elementary School to Middle School is difficult on the students who are meeting for the first time.
Claim #3: Realignment would allow all Head Start students to remain in the same building for Kindergarten.
Claim #4: Realignment would eliminate the difficulty with the Middle School transition.
Conclusion: Realignment is the best way to ease student transitions.
Reality: While we don’t doubt that the first two statements are true, we, again think it’s important to note that the research in education clearly states (as we have cited in previous posts) that any transition to a new building has a negative impact on student learning, at least in the short term.
Students have the guaranteed first transition from home to school (that may be Head Start or it may be Kindergarten). But under the realignment, students would have another mandatory transition, from the primary school (K-2) to the intermediate school (3-5). Then, they would have a third transition from the intermediate school to the middle school.
We question the soundness of a policy that increases a known negative condition for 160 students annually in order to avoid that same negative condition for a much smaller number of students.
This brings us to the main problem with this argument in general. While realignment might be one way of approaching the transition issue, there is no evidence to support that is the only, nor the best way to do so. In fact, the past two times this concept has been publicly discussed and rejected, several strategies for dealing with transitional issues were offered, yet none were adopted.
This makes us question the true importance of this issue in the eyes of the District, because we could understand looking at other options if none of the previously suggested strategies had worked, but when none have been tried, how does realignment again become the default?
4. They say: The last argument is to reduce the negative influence of older children on younger children. It goes something like this:
Claim #1: There is a large age range between kindergarten and fifth grade.
Claim #2: Under the current school configuration, older children are negatively influencing younger children, causing them to ‘grow up more quickly.’
Claim #3: Segregating ages allows each group to flourish.
Conclusion: Reconfiguration is the best way to protect the innocence of young students.
Reality: If this one feels like a stretch, that’s because it clearly is. After all,
in early discussions, the administration was stressing their commitment to
keeping older students in contact with younger students, citing research that supports the idea of mentoring between students as beneficial for both the older and the younger participants. So we not only see a change in the talking points on this issue, but another disregard for the data and the real consequences of the proposed realignment.
In addition to the data that supports multi-age interaction within elementary schools, there is also a mountain of evidence that ‘small schools’ where students are one of 90 or less students of the same age are much more successful at education children (especially children from a lower SES) than large schools where students are one of 100 or more. So, not only would realignment prevent that multi-age interaction, it would also create a greater sense of anonymity within grade levels, by making students one of over 160 students per grade.
There’s also that pesky detail of bussing. As we pointed out in a previous post, the staggered start times that would be required under this proposal would result in long bus rides for students of all ages, all together on the same busses. Whatever concerns there are about negative interactions within the school hallways pale in comparison to the real concerns of negative interactions on the bus where the driver is there to drive, not to babysit, and the District stated that it has no plans to hire additional monitors.
There are many additional concerns that have gone unaddressed, or only partially addressed as well as the concern expressed in our most recent post that the very evidence the District cites as support for a primary/secondary split is actually derived from studies on a District that operates on a multiple K-5 building system.
Reality : All of this leads us to a conclusion of our own, best summed up as follows:
Claim #1: There is no evidence that realignment provides a greater cost savings than other creative strategies.
Claim #2: There is no evidence that a realignment along K-2/3-5 lines is educationally superior to the existing model.
Claim #3: There is evidence that indicates that the addition of transitions at the elementary level is disruptive to education, particularly amongst students with educational risk associated with low SES.
Conclusion: Realignment fails to emerge as the best option for meeting the District’s objectives and, moreover, appears to present a direct threat to the educational outcomes of students with low SES which make up a majority of District pupils.
We don’t deny the legitimacy of the pocketbook concerns of District residents. After all, taxes are already high and most people’s income is not keeping pace. But we don’t just elect a School Board to cut costs without regard to the effect on education. Instead, we should expect from school district spending the same things we need to expect from city government spending: A reasonable return on our investment. That requires accountability.
And until this Board can say that it has trimmed every expense that does not have a direct negative impact on education, it must not proceed with a proposal that—by all objective measures and all data-driven analysis on the topic—will result in a net negative for the largest portion of the student population and no guarantee of a positive return for the rest.