There is a huge problem in the Geneva City School District report on realignment. The very study they call upon to support their decision to radically alter the structure of elementary education in the district actually presents the best argument yet against realignment.
To the District’s credit, they have shared a great deal more information about this
proposal in the past few weeks than they have in the entire year (or more) the plan has
been in the works. Unfortunately, the more they share, the more questionable the
plan looks, at least from the point of view of their justification for it. What was initially re-visited as a cost-saving measure in the face of budget shortfalls has become only a face-saving plan eroding trust.
As the plan inches closer and closer to final approval, more and more doubtful District ‘insiders’ are coming forward with their reservations. Externally, within the larger community, much the same is happening. Frankly, there is not nearly as much support for the plan as the District would have the School Board and the public believe.
Tonight (Wednesday, March 25th), at 7pm in the North Street School Auditorium, the Geneva City School District Administration will hold the final public forum on the elementary realignment proposal before turning the matter over to the School Board for deliberation. All interested parties should attend and pay attention to what they hear, and ask questions.
As we reflect on what has become yet another quagmire of failed process and policy in the City, we see here what we saw with City decision-making in years past. People with the best perspective and the most to offer (staff, management, and community members in the ‘inner circle’ of decision-making) feel that they’d have a lot to lose if they speak up, or out. They, therefore, tend not to make bold public statements or ask too many questions.
NoStringsGeneva has a no leaks, no gossip policy. This means we do not accept disclosures of confidential material from ‘anonymous’ sources, nor do we repeat unsubstantiated rumors. What we have received recently from ‘insiders’ to this decision-making process has been overwhelming. Serious questions have arisen about the basis for this change.
Here are the three issues that are of major concern, and in need of answers from the District:
1. In the final Superintendent’s recommendation for reconfiguration (available online here), several studies are cited as evidence to support the move away from K-5 schools to the preK-2, 3-5 arrangement. An entire section is devoted to the idea of creating “a community of learners” (p. 15), citing a study entitled “Turning the Tide: The Achievements of the First Things First Education Reform in Kansas City, Kansas public Schools.”
Get this. The First Things First program itself stresses smaller multi-year schools as the key component of student success. To quote the program directly (and you can access a comprehensive description and assessment of it in this report), the first of the “Seven Critical Features of First Things First” is:
“Provide continuity of care by forming small learning communities that keep the same group of professionals, students and families together for extended periods during the day and across multiple school years (p. 35)." It warns against transitions between shorter-term groupings, saying “schools with two-year communities were still struggling to implement the critical features. Older students needing to recover credits were forced to switch small learning communities to do so; and collective responsibility for important outcomes, such as graduation…and high stakes testing was difficult to ensure with students moving into the upper-level communities with entirely new sets of teachers after two years (p. 10).”
This Kansas City, Kansas school district that is the focus of the study the District is hanging its ‘community of learners’ argument on, operates on a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 model, as you can see from their school directory, here.
So the very study being used to support this idea of a preK-2, 3-5 system to enhance our ‘community of learners’ is based on a district that uses Geneva’s existing configuration. One community, yet achieving its success through more than one K-5 school because a community of learners requires a continuity of care!
2. The second issue relates to transportation, but in a way different from what we have discussed in a previous post. According to the Superintendent’s Report (the same one referenced above and available here), the new bussing arrangement is made possible through staggered start times at the two reconfigured elementary schools. Common sense says that the less time on the bus the better, especially when older kids and younger kids are all riding together. As we’ve said before, bus drivers aren’t meant to be babysitters.
But under the realignment plan, the preK-2 kids who would attend West Street would be dismissed at 2:20pm. Rather than heading directly home, they would all travel to North Street where they would wait on the bus for the older children to board at 2:40pm. Given the amount of time it takes to get kids on the appropriate busses, this means that drivers could start their route around 3pm. Is keeping young children on the bus for at least forty minutes every afternoon sound educational policy? And for children who live farther away from the school, can they reasonably be expected to patiently wait to be dropped off for over an hour? That’s quite a long time to expect kids from ages 4-10 to sit still and interact positively.
3. The middle school effect. According to the Superintendent’s report,
“Our data indicates that the current merging of West Street and North Street students in 6th grade at a time when adolescents are least tolerant creates a large number of altercations between these two groups. By moving the whole grade level as a single unit, we hope to minimize any negative impact the transition has (p. 14).”
This statement assumes two things: 1. That student ‘altercations’ are due primarily to student identification of the elementary school of origin; and 2. that eliminating that distinction will eliminate the ‘large number of altercations’ attributed to that factor.
Is it really the District’s contention that middle school ‘altercations’ are not the product of preteen angst, out-of-school interactions, cyber-bullying, social judgments about clothing, hair, or music, or any of the other well studied factors of tension amongst that age group? While we would certainly love to see a solution to bullying and fighting in general, the District seems to want us to believe that ‘altercations’ are a middle school phenomenon directly related to inter-school rivalry.
If that is true, then what accounts for elementary school altercations, or altercations amongst middle school students who attended the same elementary school? Unfortunately, we believe that this age group is more prone to fighting in general, and the solution lies in comprehensive prevention and supervision strategies that have little or no bearing on elementary school realignment.
We conducted our own similarly-unscientific study of the ‘altercations’ amongst 6th graders this year. While it is true that some fights occurred between students from different elementary schools, a further discussion with the students indicates that the fights were about 'relationships', hair, clothes, or the way someone looked at someone else, often between 'friends', not a localized version of a West-Side-Story-esque “Jets vs. Sharks.” Turns out, a lot of West Street and North Street students come into middle school already knowing each other from other activities. Yet, even some of those students get into ‘altercations.’ How does realignment significantly change that dynamic?
Overall, we’re glad the District is trying to provide more information in defense of its consideration of this move. But the truth of the matter is that the brighter the light we shine on this information, the more it reveals a real lack of compelling evidence. And it’s our position at NoStringsGeneva, that a fact-based point of view trumps an opinion-based ‘fact’ every time!
Wednesday, March 25
There is a huge problem in the Geneva City School District report on realignment. The very study they call upon to support their decision to radically alter the structure of elementary education in the district actually presents the best argument yet against realignment.
Posted by Capraro and Augustine at 1:25 PM
Thursday, March 19
After our recent posts chastising Geneva School District administrators, the Board of Education, and the Finger Lakes Times for the ‘Information Blackout’ surrounding the proposed elementary school realignment proposal, we are happy to report that there has been and will be a flurry of public attention and discussion around this issue in the remaining weeks of March.
On March 16th at 7pm, the School Board held a meeting to receive an update on the proposal. It was a work session format, setting up interaction between the Board and the Superintendent’s make-shift realignment committee, heavily loaded with pro-realignment district employees. This meeting was open to the public and held in the High School library.
The following night, March 17th, a meeting to update the public on the reconfiguration proposal was held at 7pm. There will be a second meeting on the topic Wednesday, March 25th also at 7pm. These meetings are in the High School Auditorium.
Still left unanswered are the nitty-gritty details of the plan. Specifically, how might class sizes be affected by the realignment? At the last public hearing, Dr. Young said that research on class size had convinced him that elementary classes should aim for 17 students or less (the current average at North Street school). But recent figures obtained by the local paper show that one teacher and one assistant per elementary grade would be cut. Strangely, following this past Monday’s meeting the paper reported that the realignment would save teaching jobs. What’s up with that? With the same number of students and fewer teachers, there is no way that class sizes could do anything but increase.
With regards to transportation, are staggered start times the key to cost savings? If so, why can’t that be implemented under the current system regardless of realignment? Are there actual ridership statistics that can be distributed instead of hastily drawn route maps?
Then there are the facilities questions: How much will it cost to provide Head Start and Kindergarten classrooms with the individual restrooms that they need within the West Street facility? How much will upgrades to parking lots at West Street cost, and have permits already been obtained for an expanded lot on Optical Street? Which playground equipment will need to be removed to make room for age-appropriate offerings?
If all of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, then the questions of logistics remain. Where, when, and how exactly is this transition going to happen? Dr. Young’s statement that the first three days of September have been “set aside for the move” seems quite ambitious, and this is another area where parents and the community at large might offer some help.
Posted by Capraro and Augustine at 10:30 AM
Wednesday, March 11
President Obama cautioned opponents of his economic stimulus package in Congress not to simply object, but to offer alternative solutions to problems everyone agrees the country is facing. They are wise operating instructions. All too often, people are happy to oppose ideas and/or efforts to solve problems, but, when pushed, are unable or unwilling to offer alternative solutions for further discussion.
NoStringsGeneva strives not only to identify problems but also to offer real and workable solutions. And we do it in a way that is fact-based, tied to reality, and brought forward as reasonable opinion. So while we may have a ‘wish list’ (as we will share in an upcoming lakefront post), we are also able to find ways to synthesize economic realities with the community values contained therein.
Our recent posts on the school district’s elementary realignment proposal have conveyed our bottom-line, fact-based point of view on that proposal: it will not achieve the stated objectives of the district. Of course, it’s been difficult to know exactly what those objectives are because the Finger Lakes Times has only recently seen fit to cover the issue in any meaningful way. We keep waiting for them to delve into the Superintendent and School Board members’ thinking on the matter. The only facts we’ve been able to gather have come via the Superintendent’s comments in the Panther Pride newsletter, the public meeting regarding the realignment proposal, and the more recent newspaper articles.
In other words, what is the problem they are attempting to solve? As far as we can tell, the school district’s pressing issue is a possible budget deficit for 2009-2010 that could be as high as $2.4million. How was such a massive deficit not foreseen in the 2008-2009 budget year, or earlier? After all, this is a major discrepancy for a district of this size, and we would hope that the numbers don’t just creep up on us all and take the district leaders totally by surprise.
Assuming that this financial problem is both real and immediate, we have some ideas that the district might consider:
1. It came as a shock to read the Superintendent’s statement that almost 200 elementary students are bussed every day from their home to the school across town, at the request of the parents. (You can read the District's own data analysis on that point here). This means that students who live in neighborhoods where they are supposed to attend North Street are bussed to West Street, and vice versa, at the parents’ request. That is the equivalent of five classrooms of students being shuffled around the City each morning! That impacts pick-up times for other students and creates routing headaches for drivers. We cannot find any State Education law that requires the district to provide door-to-door transportation for ‘traditional learners’ (those students not receiving special education services) who opt-out of their geographically aligned school building. How much does that extra busing cost?
2. While we’re on the topic of transportation, we have to say that the transportation data that was provided to the realignment committee did not make a compelling case for any cost savings resulting from the change. The proposal indicates that all students—regardless of age—in a particular area will be transported by bus to one school (for students near West Street, that will be the first stop, likewise for students near North) where those who attend are dropped off and then the remaining students will travel on to the next school. In theory, this increases the number of cross-city bus trips as every bus will be required to stop at both buildings. It also raises questions with regard to start times and the need for more monitors to ensure that students, especially kindergartners, find their way OK. But this policy, too, makes the assumption that door-to-door transport is a District requirement. If you’ve ever been out during morning pickups or afternoon dropoffs, you’ll know that the district expects drivers to not only stop at every student’s house on the route, but if the student is not out front (in the morning) or an adult is not out front (in the afternoon) then the driver is expected to beep and wait until the student emerges or the parent waves them on. In the afternoon, this sometimes results in the driver having to continue on with his/her route and return to the student’s home later.
Not that long ago, as a school girl, Augustine rode the bus, both during her elementary years in Geneva and her intermediate years at Midlakes. Rather than door-to-door pickup, both districts used a general bus stop program. Back in the 1980s, for example, the bus stop for students living on her street (State) was the corner of Exchange and Toledo. In Seneca Castle, which is more rural in character, students living within a few houses of one another were told to gather in one person’s driveway for pick up. While it’s true that these routes were less forgiving, no driver was expected to track you down, bussing was more streamlined and less costly! It also meant less time on the bus for all kids! Although it may be unpopular at first, we think that District parents might eventually warm to the idea of more centralized bus stops, especially within the City limits.
3. Additional cost savings might come in the form of administrative down-sizing. Just last year, the Superintendent proposed an ‘executive principal’ arrangement for the elementary grades. Under this arrangement, there would be one principal charged with overseeing curriculum for the K-5 grades and an assistant principal at each building (North and West) monitoring day to day activities of the students. A ‘teacher on special assignment’ might also be used at each building to augment the assistant principal’s duties. The cost savings under this plan would be one principal’s salary minus the stipend for each ‘TOSA’, so roughly a $100,000 savings inclusive of salary and benefits.
4. The District Office might also review its operations. The human resources function is one that had been traditionally handled by a non-administrator professional. Going back to this model, with the Superintendent and building leaders taking a larger role in hiring decisions would be a step in the right direction, in our view. Speaking of the District Office, the building itself is a case study in excess. Of all the locations within the district where the central administration might be located, a lakeview parcel with a prime location near 5 & 20 seems to be the least likely. The City lawsuit with Farrish that brought that development about wasn’t an ideal circumstance by any means, and now that the new lakefront plan correctly reidentifies that area as part of a (taxable) downtown redevelopment strategy, it seems a good time for the District to consider relocating. Even renting space downtown on an interim basis would be less expensive than the maintenance and utilities of the freestanding office space. Moving out of those offices and selling that building could yield a good net return for the District.
5. When it comes to staffing, we have just one point to make. The Superintendent stated at the public meeting about the realignment that he had asked Faculty and Support Staff to forego or forestall their latest salary increases. Some mention was also made about the perpetually rising cost of health insurance. We always believe that creative solutions to salary and benefits should be on the table, but in any organization it is critical that the culture of change, or in this case—of sacrifice—must come from the top. So before it is asked what the teachers and staff can go without, we should ask first if those at the top have done their own trimming.
These are by no means all of the possible ideas for solving the school district’s financial troubles, but the first task of any government agency should be to examine its current expenses to see if smaller policy shifts might lead big results. In the case of transportation, office space, and central staffing, we believe the positive results would be significant without negative long term effects on the quality of education.
Posted by Capraro and Augustine at 8:43 PM
Friday, March 6
The February 10th public meeting held by the School District at the High School Auditorium was the first opportunity for the public to hear about and provide feedback about the proposed elementary school realignment. But what people heard limited what they could say in response. Rather than dealing in facts and figures, the meeting’s currency was largely feelings and frustrations.
Superintendent Young began the meeting by indicating that, although he favors the proposal and has unanimous support amongst the administrators for the change, it is not a ‘done deal.’ Assistant Superintendent Darnall then delivered the same presentation the Board of Education had received the evening before at its open business meeting.
The report showed higher test scores at North Street Elementary and a lower incidence of poverty at West Street Schools. In many regards, the report was encouraging. If the premise was that high poverty rates makes education more difficult (something that sound education research supports) then the results analysis from North Street School shows that they are doing something right! It turns out that one of the things that they ‘get right’ at North Street is smaller class sizes. One teacher from North Street noted that there is a great disparity between the small class sizes at North and the larger classes at West. Ironically, the same teacher came out as a strong supporter of the realignment.
But according to the District’s website, the realignment might save the District upwards of $1 million. Superintendent Young admitted that the bulk of that savings was due to the initial proposal to cut one teacher and the corresponding aide/assistant positions at each grade level. The net result would be larger class sizes. However, Young said that the research provided by Dr. Charles Achilles (whom we referenced in a previous post on this topic) had convinced the Superintendent that larger class sizes would hurt student performance. Therefore Young said, the cost savings would not be of the magnitude initially projected.
If the average class size would actually decrease under the proposal, then that would be a compelling fact-based reason to support the change. Augustine, who was present at the meeting, asked the Superintendent to provide a comparative analysis of class size as it currently exists and as it would be under the proposal, and Young said that he would do so. But this is where discussion of research and facts ended.
Several supporters of the change offered anecdotal evidence of positive outcomes of realignment. According to the West Street principal, she could offer “85 reasons why this is a great idea.” She offered just a few, but none were based on educational research. Instead, there was much discussion about the way people ‘feel’ about the schools and how feelings might improve under the realignment.
But School Board Member Ford Weiskittel offered a suggestion about ‘feelings’ that actually has some sound research to back it up. Weiskittel asked if students would feel ‘more anonymous’ if they become one of 150 students in a grade, as opposed to being one in 75 according to the current arrangement? As it currently exists, a student moves through grades K-5 with the same smaller peer group which means more meaningful interactions with peers and more continuity with faculty and staff. The answer to his question was “We don’t think so.”
It may be the case that this realignment idea is a great panacea of achievement and school spirit for Geneva’s children. But, try as we might, we just can’t find any research to support that point of view. In fact, all the research we show indicates the contrary. Class size is an important factor, but also transitions and peer education. A very recent study from Prospect Heights, Illinois, outlines the potential pitfalls of a move from multiple K-5 or K-6 school buildings to consolidated ‘early learning’ (K-2) and ‘intermediate’ (2-5 or 2-6) buildings.
The study, that you can read for yourself here seems to mirror the discussion held at the February 10th public meeting. It says:
The belief of many policymakers and educators that grade configuration simply didn’t
matter educationally was unchallenged until recent research. Support or criticism of a particular school configuration or size was based on purely anecdotal experiences. Today, however, a substantial body of new research demonstrates that decreasing grade spans, thereby increasing the number of students per grade, and multiplying students’ transitions from school to school negatively impacts student achievement.
The study goes on to identify both quantitative and qualitative indicators of student achievement and provide comparative analysis to establish informative trends. We noted in a previous post that of the Federally recognized “Blue Ribbon Schools” in New York State, we found a preponderance of K-5 or K-6 models, rather than the proposed reconfiguration.
And since we don’t exist in a total educational vacuum, it’s also worth noting that a 2004 study in Canada, using data obtained in the United States, did not return conclusive results as to educational improvements attributable to the proposed grade reconfiguration. According to that study (which you can read here) ,
“Administrative purposes are often part of the reason for trying different models. These purposes may include:
However, it would likely be argued that the main purpose of a school is to educate students and the primary means of measuring success in that regard is graduation rate. We know that Geneva continues to work to improve graduation rates and minimize drop outs, so the following information from the same study seems useful to the discussion:
“The issue of drop out rates is frequently raised in discussions relating to grade span
configurations (Alspaugh 1999, Howley 2002, Renchler 2002, Rourke 2001). A key issue
identified in these discussions appears to be the number of transitions students make between schools in their careers. Generally speaking, the fewer transitions there are the better chance a student has of completing high school (Alspaugh 1998). Thus, as Howley (2002) reports, the K-12 schools compare quite favourably in the drop out rate to other schools.”
Going back to the issue raised by Weiskittel, about the feeling of anonymity when more students of the same age are brought together in one school and its possible consequences, an oft-cited study on this issue (which you can read here) states the following:
“every transition from one narrowly configured school to another seems to
disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering achievement
and participation for many students. Predictably, this damage will be most severe
in the cases of students from impoverished backgrounds. Short of providing an
adequate living for poor families, we can at least restructure our educational
system to mitigate the detrimental effects of poverty.”
If we take Assistant Superintendent Darnall’s data on student poverty seriously, we can reasonably conclude that the negative effects of reconfiguration, namely less cohesion within grades and more transitions between schools, will be borne most heavily by the very students who are being served very well by the existing system.
Far be it from us to commit the same errors that our President has chastised Congressional opponents for-- that is to criticize a plan without offering solutions to the problem at hand. According to the public presentation, the School Administration has identified two problems: First, an achievement gap between North and West Street whereby the former (North) is outpacing the latter (West); and second, systemic financial issues.
So, in a forthcoming post, we will take these issues seriously and consider: can West Street School do more to improve its educational offerings? Can other cost saving measures be found within the School District budget without serious negative impacts to education?
As we’ve said before, this community is demonstrating a rising level of civic engagement and a high degree of public intelligence. If the ‘powers that be’ can harness these resources in a meaningful way, we believe there are positive solutions to be found that will move this community forward. But we need to keep putting a premium on facts over opinion.
Posted by Capraro and Augustine at 7:30 PM