Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What is the future of these schools?

On the topic of this post, I think a lot of people have lost sight of just how much bigger Hoover is than some of the district’s other schools. Take a look at the capacity figures:

The district no longer has any plans to expand the capacity of any of those schools.

If the district is willing to close Hoover, there is every reason for people in those other attendance areas to be worried about the future of their schools.

I think the district should recognize that its existing schools are worth preserving, that it makes sense to use existing capacity before building expensive additions elsewhere, and that not all schools should be the kind of 600-kid mega-schools that the district is building farther out.

Hoover school closure not an isolated issue

[This post appears as a guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today. I’ve added some links here.]

Last month, our school district’s administrators released several possible “updates” to the district’s facilities plan. All of the updates continued to close Hoover Elementary, and two of the three updates would have closed additional elementary schools as well.

District officials were taken aback by the coverage of the updates, which emphasized the possibility of more school closings. The “recommended” update closed only Hoover, they argued, not the other schools. The other updates were just “thought exercises,” the superintendent said.

But no one had to look very far for evidence that the administration is inclined to close more schools. During the facilities planning process two years ago, many of the scenarios included school closures, and some would have closed multiple schools—even though district enrollment is projected to grow. And, of course, the school board did vote to close a school, Hoover, even though the wide majority of the public feedback favored keeping all our existing schools open.

As the school board election approaches, the people who support the Hoover closure will try to convince you that Hoover is somehow unique. “We want to close Hoover,” the argument will go, “but don’t worry, we’d never want to close your school.”

But a candidate’s support for closing Hoover tells you something: it shows a willingness to close a school for less-than-compelling reasons. For there have never been convincing reasons to close Hoover. We were told that we can save money by having fewer, larger schools—but any savings is dwarfed by the millions it will cost to replace Hoover’s lost capacity. We were also told that City High needs the Hoover property for—well, for something, someday. (Don’t ask what.)

Anyone who finds those reasons convincing will have no trouble finding reasons to close additional schools, such as Horace Mann, Lincoln, Hills, Longfellow, and Shimek—all of which are significantly smaller than Hoover and thus cheaper to replace elsewhere.

The administration’s “updates” made it clear that the issue of school closings is not going away. If you think we should value our existing elementary schools, rather than close some and super-size others, you should ask this year’s board candidates where they stand on the issue.

And if the answer is, “I support closing Hoover but I’m against school closures,” you’d be smart to look for another candidate.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

School board adopts amended proposal for new school day and year

At the school board meeting tonight, many members of the public spoke about the administration’s proposal to change the school day and year. None of them were in favor of it. Most speakers—including at least one pediatrician and several high school students—focused on the harms of making teenagers start school at 7:45.

After hearing the community comment, several board members seemed reluctant to move forward with the change, especially given how little opportunity the community had had to learn about it. But the board was concerned about the collective bargaining implications of not going forward with the proposal, since the proposal was the basis of a tentative agreement with the teachers’ union about work hours. If the board did not go ahead with the change, it might then set negotiations back and have other bargaining consequences. The board went into a private session to discuss the bargaining implications with district administrators.

When they returned, the board members quickly approved a modified version of the administration’s proposal. The proposal was exactly the same, except that everything had been shifted fifteen minutes later. So elementary school will go from 8:45 - 3:45, while junior high and high school will go from 8:00 to 3:10. The school year will be 175 days long instead of 180; the summer break will be thirteen weeks long. As I understand it, time lost to weather cancellations will not be made up (unless it brings the total hours below 1080, which is unlikely).

Given the way events unfolded, I’m sticking with my initial hypothesis. My guess is that if the board had insisted on maintaining the current school day and the 180-day year, the union would likely have insisted on additional pay to compensate them for the longer year. That, in turn, might have forced the board to go through another round of budget cuts like those we experienced last year. Let’s hope that tonight’s discussion about cutting back the school year will be in lieu of a discussion about more program cuts.

I don’t blame the teachers’ union for negotiating the best deal it can get for its members, and I don’t blame the school board for facing reality if the options were limited. I appreciate that they were able to take some of the edge off the early start time. I do blame the Governor and the state legislature for preferring tax cuts and teacher leadership programs to general school funding.

The losers tonight? Teenagers, who will now start school at 8:00 instead of 8:05 or 8:10, though at least that’s not as bad as it might have been. Elementary schoolers, who will now have to add another half hour to the six hours they’re already cooped up in class, all in the name of “more time on task.” Working parents, who will have to line up three more weeks of child care over the summers (which probably means over $1000 per child per year). Members of the public, who learned about the proposal only a few days ago and never got the full story of what is driving the change. And, if my hypothesis is right, teachers, who might have preferred to work a longer year for commensurate pay, rather than three fewer weeks for presumably less pay.

Winners? I suppose the people and corporations who got the biggest tax cuts from the Branstad administration.

What’s the real reason for the proposed change in the school day?

The more you look at the district’s proposal to change the school day, the less credible the rationale is. District administrators said that the change is “aimed at increasing instructional time for elementary students,” because “more time on task is great for our students.” But while it increases the total hours in school for younger kids, it also decreases the total hours for the older kids. That’s because the junior high and high school day will be the same length as it is now, but the school year will be at least five days shorter. In the end, it’s likely to be a wash, or even a net loss of instructional time overall. (I’ll put the math in a comment, below). This is not a proposal designed to increase instructional time.

My best hypothesis: there isn’t enough money to give the teachers decent raises next year, so the teachers sought a shorter school year instead, and this was the only way to pull it off. If that’s true, then the only alternatives to the calendar proposal are (1) to give the teachers little or no raise next year for the same work schedule as this year, or (2) to give them a raise and then go through another round of program cuts like those we experienced last year.

Those are all unappealing options, and the blame needs to fall primarily on the state for putting the district in this position. Governor Branstad and the Republican legislators have made it clear that they would rather cut taxes than fund schools. Democrats aren’t blameless, either, since they supported last year’s bill creating the “teacher leadership program,” which ate up the money that would have been available for school aid this year. (Many of them also helped pass Branstad’s tax cuts.)

For what it’s worth, the teacher leadership money means that many teachers will be getting additional pay next year. Basically, the state decided that (1) our most experienced teachers should spend less time in the classroom and more time teaching other teachers, (2) we should fund that teacher-leader program with the money we otherwise would have gotten as supplemental aid, and (3) as a result, we should have that much less money to pay the remaining teachers, to keep class sizes down, or to fund curricular programs. Thanks, legislators!

The superintendent’s proposal essentially shifts the costs onto parents and kids, by making the young kids sit through a longer school day, making the teenagers start school at 7:45 in the morning, and making parents pay for more child care coverage over the summer, which will now be thirteen weeks long.

What a mess. If my hypothesis is right, the state is pitting parents against teachers, and the stinginess at the state level is falling ultimately on the kids and their families.

At the very least, the district should be up-front and transparent about what’s really driving the issue. Maybe my hypothesis is wrong and something else explains this proposal, but it’s impossible to believe that it’s about “more time on task,” as the district has portrayed it—since it’s not likely to add any instructional hours overall.

Friday, May 8, 2015

How not to schedule the school day

Our school districts’ administrators released the proposal to lengthen the elementary school day, and it’s pretty much as described in the update on my previous post. Elementary school would be half an hour longer, going from 8:30 to 3:30. Junior high and high school would be the same length as they currently are—seven hours and ten minutes—but would start and end twenty-five minutes earlier, running from 7:45 to 2:55. One consequence is that the school year would be five days shorter, ending on May 25 next year.

The only justification identified in the article is that “more time on task is great for our students.” “We’re able to provide them 30 more minutes of instruction each day.” What’s the logic there? More time in school is always better? No matter what the baseline is, and no matter how young the kids are? If that’s true, why end five days earlier? And why not have an eight-hour school day, or a nine-hour one? More is always better, right?

It’s hard to take the administrators’ rationale at face value. They seem unbothered, for example, by the fact that the new schedule results in thirty-three fewer hours of “on task” time for junior high and high school students. The real reason for the proposal may be that school staff prefer the shorter year to the shorter day. (The proposal was negotiated with the local teachers’ union, since it affects the work schedule.) But the calendar needs to serve the students’ needs first. There is no good reason to keep elementary-age kids in school for seven hours a day. And having teenagers start their day at 7:45 is plainly a change for the worse, educationally.

In any event, one thing is clear: If the elementary kids will be getting thirty more minutes “on task,” that means the district won’t be giving the kids even five more minutes for their measly lunch period.

According to the superintendent, lengthening the school day has gotten “a universally negative reaction from parents” in the past. Why, then, does the administration keep pushing the idea? Why does our administration’s agenda so often differ from what the community wants?

Monday, May 4, 2015

How’s that again?

Last month, the school district decided to cancel the planned 180-student addition at Horace Mann school. Still, it’s worth remembering that many people told us we had to close Hoover if we wanted to add six classrooms here:

but were perfectly comfortable with the idea of adding seven classrooms here:

(The pictures are on the same scale.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Update on the length of the school day

I think I’m slowly getting a better understanding of the issues around lengthening the school day. I’m probably still missing something; if so, please let me know in the comments.

As far as I can tell, the most recent 2015 district calendar will comply with state law even if there are no changes in the length of the school day. (See the math below.) If that’s true, then any proposal to make the elementary day longer isn’t being driven by state law, but by something else. Here are the candidates:

More instructional time. The administration may argue that elementary schoolers need more instructional time. I just don’t agree. They’re already cooped up in school for six and a half hours, which seems like more than enough, especially for kids as young as five. More isn’t automatically better when it comes to education.

The superintendent has argued that the district has the shortest school day in Iowa. But who cares? What matters is the total number of hours in the school year, and we’ll be meeting the same hours requirement as everyone else.

It’s true that adding a half hour to the elementary day would put us over the required number of hours. But the administration has reportedly stated that, because of the excess, we would not have to make up snow and heat days—which is inconsistent with the whole idea that we’re doing this to give the kids more instructional time.

More time for lunch. This leaps out as a reason to lengthen the day, but I have no reason to think it’s what the district is after. Under the proposed calendar, 22 minutes is about the longest we can give the elementary school kids and still meet the 1080-hour requirement (because lunch doesn’t count toward the hours requirement).

If the district were to extend the elementary lunch period to 25 minutes, it would have to add about three minutes to the school day under the latest calendar. (Alternatively, it could add a day or two of school.) To have a 30-minute lunch, it would have to add about seven or eight minutes to the day (or go about four days longer). I understand that any addition of time to the day can complicate the bus schedule, which has to work in conjunction with the junior high and high school days. But it’s hard to see how even eight more minutes for lunch can justify an additional half hour on the day.

Again, it’s not at all clear that the district would use the longer day to give kids a longer lunch.

A desire to make the school year shorter. Apparently one of the selling points for the longer elementary day is that we could make the school year five days shorter. I get how this might be appealing to school staff, but it does not strike me as a good enough reason to keep young kids in school for seven hours a day.

Money. Finally, I suppose it’s possible that a longer day (with a shorter year) could result in some kind of cost savings. Again, I’d just want to see those numbers.

The reasons for making the elementary day half an hour longer are even less persuasive if it means that we’ll have to start the junior high and high school day at 7:45. The current start time of 8:10 is bad enough for teenagers, who are notoriously not morning people. For what it’s worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that junior high and high school days start no earlier than 8:30, because of teenagers’ later sleep cycles.

We’ll know more when the district releases the details of the proposal. The key questions to ask will be: How is this an improvement on the current schedule? Is this being driven by what the community wants, or just by what the administration wants?

Here is the math I used to evaluate the most recent 2015 calendar: