[Rachel Norton published the following update on her website (http://www.rachelnorton.com/) on January 19, 2011.]
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).
The project working group has begun with the mission to ensure quality programs at all middle schools, “extending language pathways, and other academic program options, from elementary to middle school allows for effective implementation of a new ‘virtual K-8′ student assignment policy that meets the academic and social needs of all middle school students.”
There are many benefits to the “virtual K-8″ policy (which doesn’t mean virtual in the sense of online but rather school assignment patterns that ensure that cohorts of students will remain together in the same schools from Kindergarten through 8th grade). For one thing, the current system that unpredictably reshuffles students between 5th and 6th grades hampers planning for middle school administration teams. Assistant Supt. Jeannie Pon, the administrator in charge of all SFUSD middle schools, pointed out that Hoover MS alone receives students from 45 different elementary schools, making planning for and coordination of curriculum and program needs very difficult. A system of feeder patterns does make student populations far more stable and predictable from year to year, which is helpful in budgeting and other planning.
For another thing, the sense of community fostered by a stable cohort of students and families staying together from elementary school through the turbulent middle school years is desirable and probably helpful in supporting positive student outcomes.
But all that predictability and stability comes at a price that might ultimately be quite large. Ensuring that students in elementary school language pathways are afforded appropriate (and in some cases, legally-required) language paths in middle school means that the district must dramatically expand language programs to make sure they are available when and where they are needed. A chart shown to Board members this evening predicted that the district would need to go from three different language programs currently offered in middle schools (Cantonese, Japanese and Spanish) to at least six language programs by 2016-17 (Cantonese, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Tagalog). (I forgot to mention Korean, which fits in there somewhere too). Currently 15 percent of all 6th grade students are enrolled in some kind of language program/pathway; by 2016-17, it’s anticipated that 34 percent of all 6th grade students will be enrolled in a language program/pathway. Additionally, district staff are characterizing language pathways as “dual-language,” which comprises two-way immersion programs as well as bilingual programs created to support students who are English learners. In my mind, this is somewhat unusual, since students enrolled in bilingual pathways tend to have different needs and goals than students enrolled in two-way immersion programs.
Anyway, it’s not as if this coming expansion hasn’t been anticipated, but what has emerged in conversations with middle school principals is the trade-off necessary if students are enrolled in a language program as part of a six-period day: most would have to sacrifice other electives such as art or band in order to continue with their bilingual study. Instead, principals said, it would be much better to extend the day to seven periods in order to preserve students’ ability (and the Board’s oft-stated goal) to be bilingual as well as exposed to electives such as art or music. The problem is, adding another period to every middle schooler’s day is fantastically expensive — at least $9 million based on Commissioner Wynn’s memory of the cost of a similar proposal a decade ago (the cost could easily be millions of dollars more than that now). Whatever the cost of adding a seventh period, that cost could well be money we just don’t have at the moment.
Finally, staff floated some trial balloons for how a new middle school assignment system could work — none of which sounded particularly simple to navigate or easy to understand (originally a major goal of the new assignment plan). I’ll quote directly from the Powerpoint we saw tonight :
§ Option 1: Build feeder pattern based on proximity and capacity with language pathways as a “city wide choice option.”
§ Option 2: Assign elementary schools with language programs based on proximity, capacity, and school readiness, and then assign the remaining 27 elementary schools based on proximity and capacity, with mitigation for specific equity challenges. (Editorial comment: what?)
§ Option 3: Build language pathways over the next five years and allow feeder patterns to emerge as enrollment grows in middle schools. (Editorial comment: what?)
So how did Board members respond to all of this? Most of us voiced some concerns about the idea of merging immersion and bilingual strands into generic “dual language” strands; we also felt the options presented by staff represented “outside the box” thinking but needed more time and reflection. Personally, though it’s not my first choice, I am wondering whether our stated goal of supporting dual-language proficiency for all students is at odds with the idea of middle school feeder patterns. I asked staff to come back with some thinking on whether supporting language pathways and creating feeder patterns are mutually exclusive goals.
I appreciate that we are taking a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to the second pass at this policy — I have no idea where we will end up, but clearly we are trying to do our due diligence. The current plan is for a full proposal to be unveiled at the Feb. 1Committee of the Whole meeting, and then to embark on an extensive community engagement effort in February and March. The Board is scheduled to vote on a final middle school enrollment proposal for 2012-13 and beyond sometime in May.