Thursday, April 25, 2013

Parents Opine on Elementary Reshuffle

On April 18, Superintendent Morse hosted a forum for parents potentially affected by the proposed elementary school reconfiguration.  I would estimate over 100 people participated.  Parents who didn't attend missed a scary moment when a toddler fell off the stage while his mother was speaking at the podium.  The boy seemed OK as he was carried out by his mom.

Board members attend forum
There were about as many people at this forum as at the last deliberative session.  Board members Charle, Howland, Rotner and Chairman Barth attended. The questioning of the superintendent by parents went on for almost two hours.  I was very impressed by the knowledge and passion for education displayed by the parents, most of whom I did not know.  It was a real reminder of just how much the people of our district value education.  At the end of the meeting board member Rotner made a very welcome statement about how the parents were truly heard.  It's too bad that the meeting doesn't seem to have been recorded.

The basic problem to be solved is the inequity created by the enrollment difference between Mast Way and Moharimet.  The superintendent has been talking about a situation where Moharimet has 400 students and Mast Way 300.   That's a bit of an exaggeration -- the current difference is 69 students and the worst projected difference is 80.

Long Term Planning Committee Projections for Elementary Enrollments

Let's look at some measures of imbalance.
 (A) % needed to be switched to balance = (400-300)/(2*700)=7%.  
 (B) mohariment/mastway as %= 400/300-1 = 33%.

Let's look at the imbalance measures in the projections.

None of the projections is quite as dire as the superintendent's 33% example.  The imbalance stays pretty constant starting at FY17.  This is probably telling us something about how the projections were created. It may mean that the years through FY17 were estimated using actual births in the district while after that the numbers are just extrapolated.  For imbalance purposes, FY17 is probably the last useful year projected.

Nonetheless, the imbalance is clearly a problem.  In FY15, the first year I believe we're aiming to change, Moharimet is forecasted to have 60 more students (20% more) than Mast Way.  Moharimet has modular classrooms we rent for over $20,000 a year; Mast Way has empty classrooms.

Three options were presented: Option 1 turns Mast Way into grades K - 2 and Moharimet into 3 - 4. (As enrollment declines, preschool may move back to Mast Way and 5th grade back to Moharimet under option 1.)  Option 2 is centralized registration, where the district chooses your elementary school, i.e. it puts new kids in Mast Way no matter where they live.  Option 3 is redrawing the bus lines, which is probably the most common solution a school board chooses for this sort of problem, and has been the district's traditional remedy.

The March 6 meeting agenda has the options detailed (page 39), along with a (skewed, IMHO) list of pros and cons of each.  Due to the football presentation, the superintendent didn't present the topic until the March 13 meeting.   Here's the video of the presentation at that meeting.

District parent and Kindergarten
 teacher Trisha Hall prefers
more grade levels per school.
Option 1 (MW is K-2, MOH is 3-4) seemed to receive the most pushback from parents and educators.  It's by far the most disruptive, and would cost real money to implement.   John Collins among others referred to research indicating that more grades in a single school is superior.  (Basically more transitions to new schools means more time adjusting and less time learning. ) The bus routes are longer under option 1, as the plan would be for each elementary bus to stop at both Mast Way and Moharimet.  My point was with an expected 312 assigned to Mohariment and 395 assigned to Mast Way, this 83 student difference is more imbalanced than the largest projected imbalance of the status quo, so doesn't really solve the problem.  Former board member Krista Butts points out that the imbalance isn't as as bad as it seems, as Kindergarteners are currently half-day students.  The superintendent seemed to imply that it was more OK to be inequitable across grades than within the same grade, but he's way too savvy to ever say that.  Moharimet and Mast Way are each a central focus of social life in their respective towns, and option 1 may disrupt that.

Options 2 and 3 as presented had obvious drawbacks, but these seem much easier to overcome than those of option 1.   Centralized registration would result in families that move in near Moharimet sending their kids to Mast Way.  Redrawing bus lines would cause around 25 families to be forced to change schools.  I think it was Krista Butts who pointed out that the growth in the district is largely in Madbury, so the redrawing of the bus lines as proposed is probably insufficient and would need to be redone sooner rather than later.

I would propose a hybrid option 2 & 3 scheme in which the district is divided into three zones: Moharimet, Mast Way and Maybe. Within the Maybe zone the district would do centralized registration.  It could alleviate disruption by grandfathering families with students already in a given school.  The Maybe zone should be kept as small as possible, but needs to be large enough to handle potential inequities that may arise for at least a decade.

The superintendent was hoping for a decision this June.  There was a show of hands in which many parents indicated they would prefer the decision to be pushed later to allow for a more thorough exploration of the issues.

I believe at least part of the current imbalance stems from a perception that Mohariment is a better school than Mast Way.  The superintendent stressed that this was not the case.   For what it's worth, one of my children attended both schools and generally had a better experience at Mast Way.  It was pointed out that Mast Way is a SINI (School in Need of Improvement).  The superintendent rightfully downplayed this.  The SINI designation came from the Mast Way "educational disability cohort" (students with IEPs) not achieving proficiency at the rather high rate expected of other cohorts for two years in a row.  That cohort did make adequate yearly progress (AYP) last year.  If it does again this year (results soon) Mast Way would lose its SINI label.

That's about it. I did want to mention one thing that stuck with me.  Former board member Jocelyn O'Quinn spoke at the meeting. Her point was that it would be wise to consider the elementary school reconfiguration decision in tandem with the tuition issue.  In particular, Ms. O'Quinn seemed to prefer an option with a minimum of tuitioning, which then saves money by closing (and, she said, selling) one of the district schools.  It reminded me that board member Ann Lane asked about the economics of closing a school, I believe at the March 13 meeting.  And of course readers of Foster's or this blog know Calvin Jarvis is against tuitioning.  It makes me wonder if the district is once again cleaving along those old lines.   I'll be sure to write more posts about this soon, so please check back.

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