Thursday, August 22, 2013

The easiest way to meet the diversity goals

One of the issues in our school board election is how to address the disparities in free- and reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates at different schools. FRL status is what the district uses as a proxy for low-income status. Some of our elementary schools have very high FRL rates – as high, in one case, as 70% – which indicates challenges for those schools that other schools don’t have to deal with. The district recently passed a diversity policy aimed, in part, at reducing those disparities between schools.

There has been a lot of brainstorming about how to meet the diversity goals. Redistricting, which will have to occur when new schools are built, can help to some extent, though too much gerrymandering would not have public support. Many candidates have suggested exploring the possibility of creating magnet schools to lure a mix of incomes to schools that would otherwise be high-FRL. I agree that we should explore magnet schools, but they do raise some logistical questions. The redistricting will almost certainly have to occur before we know whether a magnet school will have enough appeal to work. We’d also have to decide whether to devote an existing school building to the project. If we do, we’re either forcing a “theme school” on people in that attendance area whether they want it or not, or we’re eliminating an attendance area altogether and relying entirely on transfers in. One alternative is to have some kids in a school be part of the magnet program, while others are not, though then the non-magnet part might still have a very high FRL.

Board candidate Brian Kirschling has promoted an idea based on a system used in Champaign, Illinois. As I understand it, the system would essentially abolish attendance areas altogether. Instead, the district would ask each family for its list of preferred schools, then assign each to a school based partly on the stated preferences and partly on factors such as diversity, proximity, siblings, and capacity.

The appeal of the idea is that the district would no longer have to draw boundaries lines and then agonize over adjusting them when they become outdated. But the idea raises several questions. If, for example, everyone in Manville wants to attend Lincoln Elementary, but not all of them can, who would make the decision about who goes and who doesn’t? I don’t think people would be comfortable giving that kind of discretion to our school administrators. It could be done purely by computer algorithm, but the algorithm would have to be so complex that it would be opaque to almost everyone. (Would we bring in consultants to create it?) And presumably it would have to give some weight to proximity, which in effect brings back the concept of attendance areas, at least as a factor. Properties closest to an elementary school would still be especially sought after – good news for Manville and Windsor Ridge, bad news for the low-to-moderate-income neighborhood across Court Street from Hoover, if it closes. Will the rich just get richer?

Moreover, the expense of buses would put limits on whether kids in any one area could attend different schools. The more you think about it, the more it starts to sound like old-fashioned attendance areas, but with fuzzy boundaries that the administrators can adjust as they see fit. In that respect, it’s similar to the idea that Nick Johnson has advocated: Firm attendance areas in a certain radius around the schools, but administratively-assigned schools for the remaining areas. Under either system, families who live farther from the schools bear the “burden” (if it is one) of not knowing in advance where they will attend, so there is still an incentive to buy in some areas rather than another, which ultimately privileges those with the money to buy in those areas.

There’s no perfect system, and all of those ideas are worth exploring and developing. Still, I keep coming back to this idea: When the new schools are built, use the accompanying redistricting to mix populations to some extent within reason. Then, if there are still disparities to be addressed, keep diverting resources into high-FRL schools until they become so appealing that people choose to transfer into them, and FRL rates fall of their own accord. In particular, bring down the class sizes in those schools until people are banging on the doors to get in. (Bad metaphor: with our new security measures, everyone has to bang on the door to get in.)

In the last election, the candidates’ common refrain was “Redistrict resources, not kids” – an indication that the basic concept is palatable to voters. But notice that I’m not arguing that we should tolerate large FRL disparities as long as those schools have a lot of resources (though some would make that argument). I’m arguing that we should make those schools so appealing that the FRL rates in fact come down via voluntary transfers.

Think of it as essentially creating a Small Class-Size Magnet School. But it has an advantage over other theme-based magnet schools, because the class sizes can be adjusted from one year to the next until you zero in on the desired diversity goal. A curricular theme, on the other hand – such as a science- or arts-focused school, either works or it doesn’t. Re-adjusting class sizes every year is a lot easier than re-adjusting boundaries or re-adjusting themes, and anyone who wants to send their kids to the school in their attendance area will still have the option to do so.

It’s true that diverting resources to one school necessarily means taking them from others, but that cost would at least be spread over many schools, and wouldn’t fall on any one group or neighborhood. (Presumably any magnet school would require diverted resources.)


Fellow blogathoner Karen W. chimes in on a different aspect of the diversity discussion here.


Karen W said...

Way back in January you talked about the board having evaded all the hard questions when they drafted the policy.

Well, those questions don't look any easier now do they?

I don't see how Kirschling's system would work here--hey, list your first five choices of where you want your kid to have Everyday Math, PBIS, and no less than a fifteen minute lunch! At least under the current system, you are guaranteed a spot at a nearby school for that program.

As for magnet schools, the difficulty is this: there must be enough open seats at one school to attract the students needed to meet the goals into. Is there any plan to ensure that is going to happen--or is every school planned to be close to or above "capacity"?

I'd argue that the easiest way to meet the diversity goals is to have a single campus like College Community--there are no geographic attendance areas--and children are assigned to schools as they enroll the first time to maintain similar demographics at each elementary school. Every family in the district is treated exactly the same but perhaps this only works well with a single middle school/high school program?

Oh, and then there is the price tag for replacing all the schools . . . but they could all be brand new, 21st century ready!

Chris said...

Karen -- Thanks. I agree that the schools are so uniform now that there wouldn't be much reason to choose based on anything but proximity (though I believe Kirschling would also favor throwing magnet schools into the mix). More on that in another post soon.

I've been wondering the same thing about magnet schools. The districts would have to be drawn before we know whether the magnet school actually works to draw transferees in, but you'd still have to draw the initial attendance area relatively small, so there's room for all the desired transferees. You'd also want to estimate where the transferees would be coming from, and district the other schools accordingly. Seems awfully tricky. And if you guess wrong, what do you do? Redistrict again?

Anonymous said...

I'm concerned about this concept of picking your top five elementary schools. Do we know what criteria the District would use? Would some of the criteria be given a higher weighting? Would kids possibly be moved multiple time during their elementary career? That would seem to have negative educational impact especially on any struggling learners. Also, I'm curious how SINA transfers would impact this plan.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks, those are interesting questions. I would certainly hope that any one student would enter the lottery only once, when he or she first enters the system, and then would continue in that school and its associated junior and high schools.

Good question about SINA -- if there are no attendance areas, are there no longer any SINA schools? Or would the feds recognize that there are de facto attendance areas because proximity would play a large role in the selection?

Anonymous said...

I hadn't considered what happens as students move to junior high and high school. It would follow that if that elementary schools met whatever District criteria, then the junior highs and high schools would meet those criteria as well. Maybe? Would a parent be locking into a certain junior high and high school with their picks for elementary school?

Chris said...

Anonymous -- It would seem that way. But again, they're not going to send three high school buses to one neighborhood, so they'd almost certainly have to have de facto attendance areas for junior highs and high schools.

Tired of the ICCSD said...

Has anyone been noticing in the wake of all the budget cuts the redistricting process? I am for the diversity plan, but the new attendance zones do not appear to be helping FRL kids. Windsor Ridge kids will still be going to Longfellow, while kids that actually live in the neighborhood of Longfellow, some two blocks away are being bused to Twain. Wouldn't it just be easier to move the Windsor Ridge kids to Twain?
Also, with Wickam's new zone it does not appear that their FRL rate will change, the new kids they will be getting will come from Lincoln. Why aren't the schools being balanced better in regard to FRL?

Chris said...

TiredofICCSD -- I assume they didn't move Windsor Ridge because they know that Windsor Ridge will end up at the new East elementary and didn't want the kids to change schools twice in a short period.

I do wonder about the fact that the redistricting scenarios don't all comply with the Diversity Policy goals. I'm agnostic about whether those specific numerical goals are worth pursuing until I know more about what it will take to achieve them. But if the district tells people that a certain change is necessary because of the Diversity Policy, but then feels free to be out of compliance with it somewhere else, I do think it has some explaining to do.

Anonymous said...

The attendance zones that are being suggested for some parts of the district are not acceptable. Kids that live in walkable neighborhoods should be able to attend there. As in the case of Longfellow. Lincoln kids north of the interstate are now to go to Wickham? How does that help the FRL? They must be a better way than that is being suggested.