Troubling repercussions from the Boston decision on teacher evaluations

The new teacher evaluation system, adopted in Massachusetts, is an important tool in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our public schools. We have long needed to replace the cursory system of checking a few boxes labeled “satisfactory,” replacing it with a thoughtful series of rubrics based on essential components of high-quality instruction.

As an evaluator, I have worked very hard to build trust and understanding on the part of my staff. I have encouraged them to set ambitious goals for themselves and their students. I have set high expectations, including the understanding that not everyone is proficient in all aspects of the art of teaching.

Unfortunately, all of this hard work is in jeopardy, as the Supervisor of Records in the Secretary of State’s office has ruled that the Boston Public Schools must release teacher ratings aggregated by school. The Boston Globe requested the data, and intends to publish it as a measure of the quality of a school.

This ruling is laced with unintended and harmful consequences. As the principal of a small school, I know that one or two ratings of less than proficient would certainly lead to speculation as to which teacher received the low rating. It would be impossible to give a single teacher an unsatisfactory rating without that lone rating pointing to the teacher who received that evaluation, a disclosure that would undermine the confidentiality of individual evaluations, a confidentiality that is protected under the public records law.

Publishing aggregate scores will lead to the possibility that evaluators will be influenced by the publication of scores. Will evaluators inflate the results in order to give the appearance of a better school? Would there be an incentive to rate educators more harshly in order to give the appearance of holding staff to higher standards? Evaluators need to be insulated from external pressures that would potentially undermine the validity of the evaluation.

It is particularly troubling that Boston, with a plethora of small schools, isn’t challenging the Secretary of State’s decision through the courts. By releasing the school-by-school ratings, Boston would be setting a precedent that makes it more difficult for other districts to resist.

Releasing aggregate ratings at the school level was never a goal of the teacher evaluation system. It is not an effective metric for the quality of a school, a measure that is effectively reported through the state’s school accountability system.  It will not benefit any public purpose, but would interfere with an evaluator’s efforts to promote continuous improvement among educators.

As an educator, and not an attorney, I don’t know what we need to do to overturn this ill-conceived ruling by the Secretary of State. I don’t know if the Boston Teachers’ Union has the standing or ability to request judicial review of this decision. However, as the finding is based on an interpretation of the public records law, one solution is legislative. I intend to contact my state representative and state senator in the morning, asking for legislative action that would block the release of school-level aggregate evaluation scores, and would allow us to implement the new evaluation system in a rigorous and trusting context.

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Did you know?

The Arlington Public Schools enrolls 4,903 students (October 1, 2012). Our students are 77% white, 10.7% Asian, 5.1% Hispanic, 3.2% African-American, 3.8% multiracial. 11.5% of our students have a first language that is not English, and 5.0% are classified as Limited English Proficient.
100% of Arlington high school graduates complete the MassCore curriculum.
98.2% of Arlington’s core academic classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.
• Arlington’s per pupil spending of $12,942 (2011) is $419 less than the state average of $13,361
• Arlington’s education spending as a percentage of total municipal expenditures (2011) is 43.8%, significantly below the state average of 48.1%.
• Arlington is a high achieving, high growth district. Arlington’s Median Student Growth Percentile is 54.0 (English Language Arts), 57.0 (Mathematics), significantly above the state median of 50.
Arlington is a diverse, fiscally prudent, high-achieving district.

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Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Elementary School did all the right things to secure their building. Locks, buzzer, lock-down drills. There was no police officer, but that would have also been a minor obstacle for a mass murderer with multiple military weapons.

The NRA solution of more guns in schools is no solution at all, and would only succeed in making things worse. Gunmen who want to create massive carnage before they exit the world in a hail of bullets will not be deterred by additional guns in and around their target when the gunmen plans for his death as part of the rampage.

It is painfully obvious that we cannot solve this problem at the local level. The solution to this constant stream of semi-automatic gunmen is to separate the unstable civilian gunmen from military weapons. Can we do this while we preserve our second amendment rights?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

For those who view the constitution most conservatively, looking at original intent, it’s clear the founding fathers were talking about the citizenry’s right to muskets. Specifically, they were informed by the British regulars marching through Menotomy and Lexington on a mission to remove muskets and powder secured for the Concord militia. A central power that could disarm the local militia was a threat to a free State, and a well regulated Militia was a clear balance to the potential of a powerful federal government.

I doubt the founding fathers wanted the village idiot wandering around the common with a musket or two, and the amendment was certainly not written for the purpose of guaranteeing gun rights to the village idiot or any one individual.

We already place significant limits on civilian ownership of weapons. The second amendment doesn’t guarantee civilian ownership of nuclear weapons. You can’t park a fully-operational tank on your front lawn. You can’t ride around with rockets and mortars in the back of your pickup truck.

There’s a line. We just need to find a place where that line should be drawn to preserve reasonable rights and public safety.

Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are military weapons. They have no legitimate civilian use, and we should prohibit civilian use of these weapons. Similarly, high-capacity ammunition is necessary for our military, but its only civilian purpose is mass murder.

The words “well regulated” should also bring us to the point where we can regulate the licensure of gun owners and register guns. Again, under the village idiot in the town common interpretation, licensure and registration should be required for firearms. Because the amendment declares it “necessary to the security of a free State,” let the states register weapons and license users, much as we allow the states to register cars and license drivers.

It is also clear that mental health services are woefully inadequate. If we are to live in a safe society, we need view treatment of mental health issues as a critical public health issue. We need adequate resources so folks get the treatment they need, to protect themselves and their neighbors.

Again, this is nothing we can solve on a local level. This requires significant courage and resolve from our federal legislators, in the face of a powerful lobbying industry that wants to flood our nation with even more military weapons.

A solution delayed is a solution deferred. Our national leaders need to take action now.

 

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Spanish immersion?

My recent post regarding change.org came as a result of the following “petition.”

I am writing to let you know that I want broader-reaching foreign language instruction beginning in September 2013 in our elementary schools. Implementing comprehensive foreign language programs (immersion, FLES & after-school) in Arlington will keep our public schools competitive while providing essential skills and enhancing cultural sensitivity, while also benefiting English Language Learners in our school system. A large group of parents support comprehensive foreign language programs in Arlington’s schools. We believe it is imperative to begin a pilot immersion program in 1 or 2 kindergarten classrooms, at a minimum, starting in September 2013 so students benefit immediately while the program develops multiple offerings. Over 95% of hundreds of parents surveyed affirmed that they want to see this important program established in our community. Other public school systems have implemented successful immersion programs; some are Cambridge (Spanish and Mandarin), Framingham (Spanish), Maynard (Spanish), and Millis (Spanish), to name just a few. Bilingual children have greater executive functions, perform better on standardized tests, and do better in math. Let’s get APS into the top 10 in Massachusetts. Immersion programs are very low-cost and high-benefit. The question of teacher salary is usually net-neutral, because retiring teachers are replaced by new teachers who are dual certified. Each year, a new grade would be added to the program, up to grade 5 or 8. Initially there will also be the expense of obtaining pedagogical materials for each grade level, but the materials can then be re-used in subsequent years. The program would begin in one to two schools, and given the high level of demand that we have gauged, a lottery system would be used to fill available spots. As our country’s demographic includes more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants daily, the ability to communicate with millions of people not only in Latin America but in our own country will be a critical skill. Please establish Spanish immersion strands in September 2013 as part of APS elementary education curriculum! Thank you.

The emails generated by change.com do not offer the opportunity to respond or engage in a discussion on the topic, so I am going to use this space to outline my concerns.

First, let’s start with the basics. Should Arlington students graduate with the ability to be literate in more than one language? Of course. I would love to see our graduates walk across the stage with the ability to speak at least two languages. It’s a worthy goal. The question is, how do we get there?

Arlington had a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) Spanish program when I first joined the school committee in 2001. During a tight budget season, we eliminated the program. It wasn’t a particularly difficult vote, because we found that students who came up through the elementary program were landing in Spanish I at the Ottoson Middle School. It was a popular program, but it didn’t advance the goal of students speaking a second language.

Now we have a proposal and a lobbying effort for a Spanish immersion program. It goes beyond the first premise that we all agree upon – that children graduating from our schools should be able to speak a second language.

Here’s how the proponents have gone past the first premise. The proponents decided that the language should be Spanish, decided that we should institute an immersion program, decided that we should start the program in kindergarten in 2013, and decided that it should move up a grade level every year. They have gone way beyond the initial statement of need, to place a pre-packaged program at our doorstep. I see lots of problems in the package.

On its face, it sounds like a good idea. If we had unlimited resources, we could hire a new teacher every year and see if the program succeeds. However, as anyone who is involved in a Massachusetts school system knows, resources are rather limited thanks to Proposition 2.5 and the relative lack of state support for public education in our beloved Commonwealth.

Let’s think about what happens if we adopt their proposal. If we go into one of our elementary schools, and convert a kindergarten class to a Spanish immersion class, what would be the impact? We would need to move out a kindergarten teacher and replace her with a new bilingual kindergarten teacher. The following year, we would need to move a first grade teacher out of the school. The following year we move out a second grade teacher. Every year we would disrupt a different grade-level team, removing one member and replacing that teacher with a Spanish bilingual teacher. Which school community wants its successful grade level teams ripped apart to institute a new program?

One of the reasons why we have excellent elementary schools is that we have built successful professional learning communities and grade level teams. It’s an important component of excellence in teaching. If we start an immersion strand in one of our schools, we also end up ripping apart the grade level teams in these schools.

We just went through the pain of a long redistricting process. The school committee acted to create buffer zones, to adjust enrollment to provide an equitable opportunity at all seven schools. After all that, what happens when we place an immersion program in one or two schools? What happens to the people from across town who want the program, and what happens to the people who live in that sending district? Do they get pushed out of their neighborhood school?

We also have a limited administrative staff. We have limited capacity in the district to develop new initiatives. We have strategic goals, we need to institute a new teacher evaluation system, we need to align our curriculum with the new Common Core standards. Which of these do we put aside to institute an immersion program?

Here’s another issue of concern. In Arlington (2011-12), 12.5% of our children speak a first language other than English, 5.3% are classified as limited English proficient. In East Arlington, 28.7% of children at the Thompson school speak a first language other than English, 12.5% are classified as limited English proficient. 19.8% of children at the Hardy school speak a first language other than English, 12.7% are classified as limited English proficient. Spanish is not the predominant second language in town. How does a Spanish immersion program make sense in schools with 20-25% of the children come to school with a home language that is neither English or Spanish? Shouldn’t a program take advantage of the multicultural resources already in place in our schools? Shouldn’t a program have a dual task of helping our second language learners become proficient in English while they help their classmates to learn their language?

So, my thinking is that we should put the brakes on this Spanish immersion program, and go back to the first step. We can acknowledge that we want our children to be multi-lingual, then work together to find a solution that makes sense in the Arlington Public Schools.

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change.org

Recently, an Arlington resident started an online “petition” on change.org that is directed to the members of the Arlington School Committee.

I am asking that folks who have a cause that might be placed before a local governing body (selectmen, school committee, redevelopment board, et al.) refrain from using this (or a similar) device.

Since the start of this weekend, I have gotten more email from change.org than from any other source of perpetual spam, including green coffee beans, credit reports, loans, Viagra, and Magic Jack. The mechanism behind this website is that it generates a significant number of email directed at the target(s) selected by the initial petitioner. This might be a winning practice if you are trying to get Hasbro to picture boys on the box of the Easy-Bake oven, trying to get Walmart to address the working conditions in its factories, or trying to get Malala Yousufzai a Nobel Peace Prize nomination (all causes on the change.org front page). It may be a winning practice if the goal is to generate sheer volume of email. It certainly is a winning practice if a for-profit corporation wants to harvest contact information for people who identify with a cause. It’s not an effective method for persuading local elected officials in a New England town.

I have found that folks who are elected to local office are thoughtful, responsive folks. If you communicate with any of our elected officials, you are very likely to get a thoughtful response. If you communicate through change.org, that’s impossible. While change.org generates a boatload of emails when you sign their online petition, and sends an email with your name on it when you enter a comment, the email all comes from mail@change.org. There is no way for me, or any other local official, to respond to your request.

Yes, your contact information is being collected by change.org, but it isn’t being passed on to the folks who are the targets of the campaign. Your name is used, your name comes through in the email header, but your contact information is used for a purpose other than fostering communication with the target of the campaign.

Please note that change.org is a for profit corporation, and their own website states that, “Like most companies, Change.org has a business model that allows us to grow rapidly and be financially self-sustaining, providing tens of millions of people with a free empowerment platform for change.” In other words, they are selling the information of petitioners as part of a for-profit business model.

The school committee website lists our personal email addresses.
http://www.arlington.k12.ma.us/asc/#members

The selectmen’s website has links to their personal email addresses.
http://www.town.arlington.ma.us/Public_Documents/ArlingtonMA_Selectmen/index

If you have a local cause, if you want to persuade your local officials to take action, please address us directly and personally. Your message will be read, and you will get a thoughtful response. Please do not use change.org to generate high-volume automated email to your local officials.

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Arlington School Committee – FY 2014 Budget Timeline

The Arlington School Committee is beginning its preparation for the FY 2014 budget. Members of the public who want to have a say on the contents of the FY 2014 budget should pay attention to the budget calendar that we adopted in October. Please mark your calendars so you can be informed about the decisions being made during our annual budget process.

Budget Calendar for FY 2014
Adopted and approved by Arlington School Committee October 11, 2012
Approved and revised by School Committee October 25, 2012

Month Date Present, Prepare, To Do
December 6 Hear from principals & dept. heads on priorities for next year.
December 20 Discuss School Committee priorities for budget and hear from public on these as well
January 10 Set School Committee priorities for budget.
Vote first budget number to Town Meeting (the bottom line)
February 14 First look at budget detail
February 28 Budget hearing
March 14 Final vote on budget
March 28 Approve documents for presentation to Finance Committee (FinCom)
Budget to FinCom

 

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Overarching Goals

The Arlington School Committee is participating in the District Governance Support Project, a joint project with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A product of this work was the Overarching Goals of the Arlington Public Schools, which we adopted at our September 27 meeting.

All goals are not created equal. I look at Goal 1 as the heart and soul of the document; the rest is commentary. Goal 1 takes ownership of our diploma, ties our mission to our expectations for students when they walk across the stage. Everything else is derived from this vision. In fact, one sentence says it all.

The school committee “will ensure that every graduate is prepared to enter and complete a post-secondary degree program, pursue a career, and be an active citizen in an ever-changing world.” 

Goal 1 starts to describe what we will do to achieve this goal, and begins the commentary from the core statement. How will we ensure we meet our commitment to our students? “By offering a rigorous, comprehensive, standards-based and data-driven K-12 system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that integrates social, emotional and wellness support.”

The remaining three goals are the broad levers of change; things we must do in order to meet the core commitment we make to our students in Goal 1. Goal 2 commits us to supporting our educators. We can’t achieve excellence for our students without excellent teaching, and we need to support our professional staff. Goal 3 focuses on providing the resources that our educators need to do this important work. Goal 4 is essential because we are a public school district, and we cannot be successful in our mission without the support of the entire community.

As the committee moves forward, the Overarching Goals must play a central role in our work. The school committee must frame its work from the perspective of these goals. Do our budgets support these goals? Do our policy decisions support these goals? As we craft an agenda for our meetings, are we using our time strategically in support of these goals?

This also becomes an important framework for the community to evaluate the work of its school committee. Here’s the full text of our Overarching Goals.

File: BA-E
OVERARCHING GOALS OF THE ARLINGTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Introduction
Overarching goals provide a broad vision for the school district, are strategic in nature, define the district’s hopes and dreams for its students, articulate the district’s top priorities, and generally are achievable within a ten-year period. Overarching goals guide the development of annual district goals developed by the Superintendent and approved each fall by the School Committee.

Goal One – Student Achievement
The Arlington Public Schools will ensure that every graduate is prepared to enter and complete a post-secondary degree program, pursue a career, and be an active citizen in an ever-changing world by offering a rigorous, comprehensive, standards-based and data-driven K-12 system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that integrates social, emotional and wellness support.

Goal Two – Staff Excellence and Professional Development
The Arlington Public Schools will recruit, hire, retain, and build the capacity of a diverse staff to be excellent teachers and administrators by providing high quality professional development aligned to needs, instructional support, coaching, and an evaluation framework that fosters continuous improvement.

Goal Three – Resources, Infrastructure and Educational Environment
The Arlington Public Schools will offer a cost effective education that maximizes taxpayer dollars and utilizes best practices, academic research, and rigorous self-evaluation to provide students and staff the resources, materials and infrastructure required for optimum teaching and learning in a safe and healthy environment.

Goal Four – Operations, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement
The Arlington Public Schools will be run smoothly, efficiently and professionally. The district will operate transparently and engage in effective collaboration and responsive communication with all stakeholders. It will provide timely, accurate data to support financial decision making, envisioning of the district’s future, and long range planning in partnership with other Town officials. Through these actions it will create broad support for a high quality education system, that is the communities most valuable asset.

The goals shall be revised from time to time by the School Committee to reflect the changing strategies of the Arlington Public Schools

CROSS REF.:
BDFA-E-2, District-Wide Goal Setting and Performance Objective Process
CBI, Evaluation of the Superintendent

Adopted: September 27, 2012
Arlington Public Schools

 

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Adventures in wonkishness

I guess you can tell that I am one of those policy wonks that finds joy in the obscure corners of municipal funding formulas. As a policy wonk and a teacher, there isn’t much that is more fun than having the opportunity to explain some of this obscurity in the context of some wonderful news.

I find great joy in being able to vote to eliminate the kindergarten fees. As a newly-appointed (May) replacement player, I am coming in at the end of the process and I am really thrilled to be able to cast the vote later tonight. It is a vote that I wanted to cast for my previous six years on the committee, and I celebrate my good fortune to have the opportunity to do so now!

There was lots of hard work before this point, including a committee that went around looking at how kindergarten was being financed all across the state. Tonight (and on cable replays) you will have the opportunity to hear the story of how this all happened. As these stories are told, I will add links so the folks who did the hard work to bring this to the committee can be celebrated for the tremendous contribution they brought to our community. I didn’t do any of this work, but after six years of voting budgets with this awful fee, I am thrilled to just have the job of casting a vote at the end of the process.

Your Arlington: Kindergarten mom digs out lead that helped end fee

Kindergarten committee members were parents Dolores McGee, Brendan O’Day, Farhana Riaz and Ruthellyn Jacob; Deborah D’Amico and Julie Dunn, administration; and William Hayner.

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Ending the Kindergarten user fee!

When I returned to the school committee, I came back with a few items of unfinished business. There were a few things I wanted to achieve that were not possible during my earlier two terms (2001-2007). The biggest unfinished item will be crossed off the list tomorrow night. We are about to eliminate kindergarten fees. We are about to refund the fees paid for the 2012-13 school year. The state is going to pay us to get rid of the kindergarten fees.

Why can we do this? To understand why this works, you need to understand how the state funds local school districts and the Chapter 70 formula.

The state’s Chapter 70 program is based on a few simple components:

  1. A foundation budget, based on the cost of educating the children educated in the district, is calculated. The foundation budget is based on what is known as the October 1 count, which is the student enrollment reported on October 1 of the previous school year. (For example, the funding for the 2012-13 school year is based on the enrollment on October 1, 2011.)
  2. The state determines how much a city or town can afford to contribute to the foundation budget, and requires the municipality to contribute that amount. This is the required local contribution.
  3. The difference between the foundation budget and the required local contribution is funded through the Chapter 70 local aid account.

For Fiscal 2013 (the 2012-13 school year) Arlington’s numbers are:

Foundation Budget: $45,702,617.25
Required Local Contribution: $ 37,180,313.00
Chapter 70 Aid: $8,522,304.25

The Required Local Contribution is a function of the previous year’s Required Local Contribution. It is determined by multiplying last year’s Required Local Contribution and increasing it by the Municipal Revenue Growth Factor (the amount of growth in local municipal revenues).

(Fiscal 2012 Required Local Contribution) $35,933,423
* (Increase by Arlington’s Municipal Revenue Growth Factor of 3.47%)  1.0347
= (Fiscal 2013 Required Local Contribution) $37,180,313.00

No matter what happens to the foundation budget, the Required Local Contribution remains the same. It is a function of the previous year’s Required Local Contribution and the Municipal Revenue Growth Factor, and nothing else. (This is the key to the equation.)

If something happens to increase the foundation budget, and the Required Local Contribution doesn’t increase, the state must fill the gap with Chapter 70 state aid.

What could happen that would cause an increase in the foundation budget?

Generally, the foundation budget goes up when enrollment goes up. If the number of English Language Learners goes up, the foundation budget goes up even more. If the number of free or reduced lunch students goes up, the foundation goes up even more.

For the current school year (FY13 – based on last year’s October 1 count), here’s how much a student contributes to the foundation budget.

Half-day kindergarten: $3,576.91
Full-day kindergarten: $7,153.90
Elementary: $7,197.06
Jr. High/Middle: $6,822.68
High School: $8,508.67
ELL Half-day kindergarten: $4,573.40
ELL Full-day Kindergarten, grades 1-12: $9,146.78

On October 1, 2011, Arlington had 344 half-day kindergarten students and 30 ELL half-day kindergarten students. Almost all of these students attended full-day kindergarten, but the second half of the school day was funded by a user fee that tops out at $3,000.

Here’s how these students contribute to our foundation budget:

(Not ELL) Half-day kindergarten: $3,576.91 * 344 = $1,230,455.94
ELL half-day kindergarten: $4,573 * 30 = $137,202.04
Total half-day kindergarten:  $1,367,657.98

We currently budget $970,000 in user fees to support these students.

What happens if we decide we aren’t going to charge a user fee for full-day kindergarten? Half-day kindergarten students who pay fees become free full-day kindergarten students who cannot legally pay fees. The district loses $970,000 in fees. However, it changes the foundation budget as follows:

(Not ELL) Full-day kindergarten: $7,153.90 * 344 = $2,460,968.71
ELL Full-day kindergarten: $9,146.78 * 30 = $274,403.46
Total full-day kindergarten: $2,735,372.16

Moving all our half-day kindergarten students into free full-day kindergarten seats increases the foundation budget by $1,367,685.77. The required local contribution (what Arlington pays) does not change. Because the required local contribution increases by the municipal revenue growth factor, and not the foundation enrollment, every dollar increase in the foundation budget that comes from converting to a free full-day kindergarten must be funded by the state through the Chapter 70 formula. Next year.

Bottom line. If we eliminate $970,000 in user fees this year (2012-13) we receive approximately $1.4 million in additional Chapter 70 aid next year, and that number will be incorporated into our Chapter 70 aid every year thereafter.

Tonight (September 12), the Finance Committee voted to endorse a plan to take $970,000 out of reserves and appropriate it to the school committee. The Finance Committee plans to adjust our fiscal stability plan to allocate an additional $970,000 to the schools in subsequent years (to cover the elimination of the user fees), and the remainder of the Chapter 70 increase will be returned to reserves. This will pay the town back for advancing the $970,000 in this year’s budget.

When I was on the school committee in 2001, we inherited a fee-based full-day kindergarten. The fee started at $1500, and we were able to reduce it to $500. We were poised to eliminate it in 2003, but that was the year that Mitt Romney became governor and reduced our Chapter 70 aid by 20%. That year, we were forced to make significant cuts and raise fees.

Eliminating the kindergarten fee is a dream deferred, but it’s a dream we will realize on September 13, 2012.

It’s a win-win all the way around, and the most joyous vote I will take as a school committee member.

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Dancing on the third rail

The third rail of school board service is thought to be engaging in the the process of redistricting elementary school attendance zones.

During my previous service on the committee, we successfully kicked this can down the road without fear of touching the third rail. Some schools were oversubscribed, but we were still in the midst of a program to rebuild our schools. Whenever the rebuilding project is done, we would redistrict. I left the school committee in 2007 without facing the issue head-on.

Now I find myself at the tail end of a redistricting process that is coming before the school committee. An advisory committee has worked for the past year to come up with a plan that can be presented to the school committee for approval.

They have done good work. They started by moving the fixed lines, which met with objections from people who would have been moved into another sending zone. The committee went on to develop a far more conservative approach using buffer zones that fuzz the existing lines. They also grandfather current students, keeping children in their current schools, and keep siblings in the same school.

It is the job of the school committee to review and approve a new map. I am only one member, but I am bringing some key values and principles into my decision making process. Here’s what I am looking for, in no particular order.

  • We need to respect our history. People love their neighborhood and love their school. While a bold plan that starts from scratch may provide the best theoretical result, it disregards the personal connections of friends and neighbors. Thus, a plan that makes minimal changes for families of our students is preferable to an elegant system that reassigns a significant number of children.
  • We need to be grounded in fact. We cannot make difficult decisions based on speculation, or accept assertions as fact without supplemental evidence.
  • We must be fair. We are asking people to give up a guaranteed place at a school. We can’t take this lightly, and we should honor and respect this fact. As we move forward, we should strive to apply our decisions equitably and consistently.
  • We must be reasonable. The standards we apply to the process must make sense.
  • We have seven excellent elementary schools. Though they have somewhat different flavors, the town has deliberately created equity in programs and quality. There is no school that is demonstrably better than the others, there is no bad school, and our decisions merely move children from one good school to another.

When the fifth draft of the plan came before us, it was a good plan. However, there were portions that could be improved to conform to the principles I have for the new map. I thought it would be reasonable to make some adjustments to the proposed lines based on proximity to schools and walking patterns. I also thought that reasonableness and fairness permits moving homes into a buffer zone, but that people moved from one school to a buffer shouldn’t be removed from the buffers into a new school zone one year later.

Most of my thoughts were incorporated into the advisory committee’s Redistricting Map 6D.  The advisory committee expanded and improved on my view of reasonableness. They looked at homes across Summer Street from the Pierce Schol, and saw the wisdom of removing them from the Peirce-Stratton buffer zone.

As it stands today, the map meets the reasonableness standard. It respects our history. It could be tweaked, but it’s a solid plan that can move us to the next step. The next step doesn’t fix these lines in cement, any more than the existing lines are immovable. Next fall, we need to write the ground rules that govern student assignment in the buffer zones. When we implement the map, with our new rules, we will generate considerable data that we must use to evaluate the successes and challenges of the new policy.

That said, map 6D does not meet my fairness standard in one respect. After extensive conversations to people in Buffer H (currently in the Brackett district, to be placed in the Brackett-Bishop buffer), I think the plan for Buffer B (and two other buffers) doesn’t meet my fairness standard. We are asking the people of Buffer H to give up their place at the front of the line for a Brackett seat for the common good of the town. Some residents of Buffer B (at the bottom of the Spring Street hill, south of Menotomy Rocks Park) have requested to be moved into the Brackett district. I am happy to give them the opportunity to choose Brackett from within a buffer, but I don’t think it’s fair to put them ahead of the folks being moved from Brackett to a buffer when students are assigned to a school. Similarly, I think it is unfair for folks who moved into this buffer to lose their rights to attend Bishop School. Right now, I would like to see this problem resolved before approving the map.

I have been spending considerable time listening to folks who care about this issue, and seeking out the opinion of folks I respect, as I consider how to vote on redistricting. I write this four days before the scheduled vote on the redistricting proposal. My mind is open to new evidence, new arguments, and thoughtful challenges to my values and principles.

I can’t say enough good things about the folks who have engaged in the process. I have had many thoughtful conversations about redistricting, all have been respectful. Whether we have changed our viewpoint, or agreed to disagree, we have improved the final product as a result of our conversations. Maybe I have been dancing on the third rail, but hard work and lots of listening have reduced the voltage considerably. Thanks to all who have made this possible.

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Addendum (June 13, 2012): The redistricting subcommittee had posted its final draft (map 7) on the Arlington Public Schools redistricting website.

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Public school governance, and other topics of interest, in a large New England town.