Monday, August 19, 2013

School board already planning to ignore its own capacity numbers

When our school board recommended closing Hoover Elementary – just last month – the decision was based in large part on its consultants’ building-capacity determinations. Because City High’s capacity is so much lower than its projected enrollment, the reasoning went, it needs a large addition, which (for unspecified reasons) requires the annexation of the Hoover property. The consultants’ capacity determinations also drove many other aspects of the long-term plan—for example, the decision to build not two but three new elementary schools.

I and others repeatedly pointed out that the consultants’ capacity figures were unrealistically low (not to mention that enrollment estimates were probably too high) – thus overstating the need for the City High addition and for other elements of the long-term plan. Under the consultants’ determinations, most of the elementary schools would have an average of eighteen or nineteen students per classroom – and some even as low as fifteen students per classroom – even after some rooms were set aside for music, art, and other purposes. But the board’s budget doesn’t allow it to reduce class size to those levels; it can’t afford to pay that many teachers. The board will necessarily put more than eighteen kids in each classroom, on average. So the buildings will end up holding many more kids than the consultants say they can hold. (More explanation here.) 

In other words, the long-term plan was based on a fiction that no one really believed.  But many people in the school system seemed unwilling to critically scrutinize the capacity numbers, because those numbers justified much of the new construction that the plan would trigger.

Now, just three weeks later, it’s clear that the board does not believe its own capacity numbers. Last week, the board began discussing a proposal to put caps on class sizes. Class sizes would be limited to 32 in high school classes, 30 in junior high classes, 28 in third through sixth grade, and 24 in kindergarten through second grade. That’s a far cry from 18. And from what I hear, if the plan fails to pass, it will only be because the caps are unrealistically low.

It’s true that those numbers are maximums, not averages. But setting them as maximums means the board recognizes that some classrooms will end up holding more kids than the consultants say they can. It also means that the average class size is bound to be closer to 20 in kindergarten through second grade and 24 in grades three through six.* Those figures are nowhere near the averages that the consultants’ limits would allow, even with several rooms in each building reserved for other purposes. I wonder if there’s a classroom anywhere in the district that the consultants think can hold 24 students, but that’s likely to be the average in grades three through six under the proposed caps.

Because the proposal allows junior high and high school classes to be even larger than elementary school classes, the effect is likely to be that much greater there. Thus it’s no surprise that at a meeting with people concerned about Hoover, the City High principal conceded that City is not currently overcrowded, even though it has 121 more students than the consultants say it can hold.

When the new capacity numbers support the board majority’s agenda, they’re cited as Gospel – even if that means closing an elementary school. When they’re inconvenient, though, they’re ignored. I’m afraid that’s what “data-driven” education policy too often really means.

*For example, if a school had 56 third-graders, it could have two classes of 28. But if it had 57, it would have to shift to three classes of 19. On average, you’d expect it to be in the middle of that range – that is, around 23 or 24 kids per class. If anything, I’d expect the schools to manage their in-district transfers to avoid the very lowest class sizes – for example, to keep out that 57th student who would trigger the need for an additional teacher – so the average might actually be toward the higher end of the range.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Here's the P-C coverage.

The article implies (with the district's help) that if the caps aren't met, it will be because there's not enough room in the buildings under the new capacity determinations. That's misleading in two ways. First, the effective constraint is teacher salaries, not capacity. But second, the overall capacity right now is tighter than preferable (and way too tight in some buildings), but more because of imbalances between schools than because of the overall enrollment.

I ran last year's enrollment numbers (school by school, grade by grade) through this new policy. If the policy had been applied last year, the district would have needed 333 classrooms for its gen ed enrollment. The district currently has 405 classrooms. Set aside four in each buildings for things like art, music, preschools, and special ed classrooms, and you'd still have 329 classrooms for gen ed.

That is actually too tight, especially since needs in each building vary unpredictably, and it's particularly tight in some schools because it's been so long since boundaries have been adjusted. But it's not so tight that it's clear that we need three new elementaries. The case for the three new elementaries depends a lot on whether the forecasted enrollment growth actually shows up.

In any event, it's not a shortage of classrooms that would prevent the district from meeting its proposed class size goals. It's a shortage of money for teachers. All the new classrooms in the world won't make it happen.