Monday, March 30, 2009

School Boundaries

March 31, 2009, 8:45 a.m. (modification of paragraph 1, addition of paragraphs 7 and 8, and link to David Brooks column)
March 30, 2009, 1:30 p.m.

Tonight's Schools Meeting
and the more to come

(brought to you by*)

Well, it has not been "a quiet week in Lake Wobegon."

The discussion in today's blog entry is limited to this evening's [March 30] meeting regarding our local schools.

But later this week I may be writing about the six days that began last Wednesday evening with my Cyberspace Law Seminar, the Thursday morning visit at home with one of the nation's leading speech pathologists, Dorothy Craven (back here from Hawaii for a distinguished alum award), Thursday evening dinner (and the following day's breakfast) with a Japanese scholar, Shinji Uozumi, who came to discuss his work and mine promoting "community" media, Paul Krugman's lecture Friday afternoon and dinner Friday evening (I'll report on my exchange with him), and a Saturday trip to the Riverside Casino where the remarkably creative, talented, and very, very funny Tommy Smothers (aka, "Yo-You Man") suggested my wife and two of our sons come early for the sound check and to have a private dinner with him before the show that evening (thereby providing us an additional 1-1/2 hours of entertainment before the "Smothers Brothers" show at 8:00 with Dick -- and a visit with both of them after the show), and today, which started off with my teaching "media law" for 50 minutes to Professor Gigi Durham's "Journalism Issues" class in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, following which in a half-hour I'll be meeting with a distinguished Serbian physicist and journalist, Baki Rexhepi, who is, among other things, Editor in Chief of RTV Spektri, and here on a State Department-sponsored "International Visitor Leadership" tour.

That's all in addition to what more I'll have to say later on this week or next about the Chinese computer invasion [John Markoff, "Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries," New York Times, March 29, 2009], the fate of the auto industry [David Stout, "Obama Issues Ultimatum to Struggling Automakers," New York Times, March 31, 2009; David Brooks, "Car Dealer in Chief," New York Times, March 31, 2009.], more on Secretary Tim Geithner [e.g., Paul Krugman, "Geithner Plan Arithmetic," March 23, 2009], and what Obama should be doing with Afghanistan [see, e.g., Bobby Ghosh, "Obama Afghanistan Plan Breaks Old Ground," Time, March 28, 2009].


. . . Tonight: I can't attend the Parkview Church Iowa City Community School District public meeting at the Parkview Church this evening, so you please go and represent my positions along with your own..

Parkview, if you don't know, is at 15 Foster Road, off of North Dubuque Street to the left (as you're heading north), near the Iowa River, but before Dubuque crosses Interstate 80. The meeting starts at 7:00 p.m. and there's plenty of parking there.

It's an important meeting for the future of pre-K-12 education in Iowa City and Johnson County.

My own most recent comments about "boundary issues" followed the March 7 meeting held at Northwest Junior High regarding the proposed Roosevelt Elementary School demolition. Nicholas Johnson, "Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools," March 9, 2009; and Nicholas Johnson, "Demolition Disaster," March 10, 2009. The former contains links to, among many other things, seven prior pieces on the issue, some from my time as a school board member, and the latter contains a reproduction of "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters, An ICCSD Board Document," Approved April 11, 2000.

If you're not yet familiar with it, I'd also urge you to take a look at the Web site of the local organization "Citizens for Outstanding Public Education in Iowa," available at, and the op ed by one of its members in this morning's paper, Gary Whittington, "Looking at the big picture," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 30, 2009 ("preserving existing attendance areas and policies would have [a 'catastrophic effect'] on our schools and our community").

Other relevant and consistent morning commentary includes, Stephen Kuusisto, "What happened to the great ideas? please," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 30, 2009; and Janet Riley, "Assigned Enrollment is the Way to Go," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 30, 2009.

My previous writing on the subject, some of which is linked above, is the best source of my ideas, but here are some overly-summarized snapshots.

To make change politically possible announce plans/intentions that will not take effect for, say, six or seven years -- with the result that no child now in school would be affected by the proposal. With that in mind:

1. Build more, and smaller high schools. The best data indicates enrollments from, say, 600 to 800 students are ideal. Above that the problems increase: absence, dropouts, drugs, fights and bullying, graffiti and other property damage, teen pregnancy, etc. Increasing the enrollments at City, Tate and West is the exact opposite of the best way to go. Putting construction dollars into expanding them is irresponsible financial management as well as educational lunacy. (The least worst way to go down that ill-fated path would be to use temporaries.)

Question my assertion? As but three supporting examples of the rather overwhelming data and arguments favoring smaller schools in general and smaller high schools in particular, see Roger Ehrich, "The Impact of School Size," (with "Factors Affected by School Size" and some 13 referenced works); U.S. Department of Education, "School Size: Archived Information;" Karen Irmsher, "School Size," College of Education, University of Oregon, Clearinghouse on Educational Policy and Management, ERIC Digest 113, July 1997 ("None [of the studies] recommend fewer than 300 or more than 900 students").

Don't have the money to staff a fourth high school right now? It wouldn't be the first time an educational or other institution built first and staffed later. Besides, if you moved some of the students from the two overcrowded, conventional high schools into the new high school presumably some faculty would be shifted as well; it's not like all faculty positions would be in addition to those we already have.

West High's capacity is 1800; City High's is 1600; and we'll soon (2017) need space for 4,000 -- coincidentally 600 over our current capacity, a near ideal size for a high school. Why not build it now rather than wait for a crisis?

2. Consider (a) district-wide after-school activities centers, for, e.g., sports, music. This could be done by designating existing high schools as the District's center for all District high school students interested in a given activity, or a new, multi-purpose center for all activities. (b) Individual schools could retain their own teams and music groups, or (c) if we really want to win state-wide football and other championships year after year, we could have single "Iowa City" teams that draw on all schools.

3. Relieve over-crowding in high schools by adopting the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year. It concludes the senior year is largely wasted by students anyway. By getting, say, different groups constituting roughly one-half of the senior class out of the building on any given day you can pretty much eliminate the overcrowded hallways some students (and teachers) now believe to be a problem. So what will they be doing out of the building? A variety of things, from attending courses at the University of Iowa or Kirkwood, to job shadowing assignments, to public policy research on community problems.

4. In elementary schools equalize class size, building utilization, boundary equity, while easing the burden on administrators, with the "cluster school" concept -- with three or four elementary schools to a cluster. Each school would have a "lead teacher," and the cluster would have one administrator/"principal." Some 50-to-70% of the enrollment for each would come from within a circle around that school; a population guaranteed attendance at that school. The rest would come from (a) within the much larger circle around all three or four schools, but outside the schools' smaller circles, and (b) from the areas beyond all the elementary schools' large circles. Those students could be assigned to schools at the discretion of the Administration, in an effort to balance the assignment of low income students, or achieve other goals.

5. If there would still be gross disparities in the percentages of low income students in each school, bus them the minimum distances necessary to achieve near parity of distribution.

6. And, of course, as COPE-Iowa suggests, make an equal effort with junior high schools and high schools with regard to percentage utilization of each building, and distribution of low income students.

7. Exhibit a little more willingness to "think outside the boxes" that we've always had. I'm told last evening's [March 30] meeting produced a couple: (a) make one of the junior highs a K-12 school. (There's Iowa City precedent in the University Elementary and High School, now "North Hall," that operated from the early 20th Century through the early 1970s.) (b) Move the 9th graders from West into the west-side junior high buildings. I'm not suggesting either of these suggestions would represent nirvana; but they do represent the kind of creative thinking about alternatives that we have failed to fully explore.

8. Someone needs to provide a little reality and tough talk for Iowa City's parents. The Iowa City Community School District is a public educational system, funded by all property tax payers regardless of whether they have children in school or not. I'm happy to pay my share, and probably most are willing to do so. As the bumper sticker has it, "if you think education's expensive just wait 'til you start paying for ignorance." Everyone benefits by living in a community with a well educated population.

But parents whose children are in the public schools are getting the benefit of an essentially cost-free education for their kids that would be at least $10-20,000 a year in a private school -- an amount that some could afford to pay now (and a fraction of what they will later be paying for a child's undergraduate and graduate tuition). That doesn't mean all of Iowa City's kids shouldn't get the best public education we can provide, that their parents shouldn't be kept in the loop on educational policy and future decisions, or that they are not entitled to being treated with dignity and respect by the District's administrators, teachers and staff.

In fact, parental involvement in the schools, monitoring students' homework, attending teacher conferences, considering a run for school board or other volunteer work in the schools, and attending a meeting like the one at Parkview March 30, are one of the most important factors in a child's academic success. So parental advocacy for students is natural, to be expected, and should even be encouraged.

But none of that means that parents can have it all; they cannot dictate District decisions (as they might at a private school). Professions of a sense of entitlement are misplaced. In a public school system district boundary lines may need to be redrawn for the sake of district-wide equity and efficiency in ways parents would not have chosen, courses may not be offered that a parent would like to have, days and hours of school schedules may change, and students may be bused in, or out, of schools -- including their own children -- in ways that cause the parents minor (or even major) inconvenience.

There's a lot there to discuss, debate (and probably dismiss) I realize. But it's some of what I've thought about as a school board member and since. (And of course see "Long Range Planning Process and Parameters, An ICCSD Board Document," Approved April 11, 2000, referenced above, which I played a major role in drafting.)

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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1 comment:

marigolds said...

Would you believe that the Iowa Administrative Code effectively bars district wide activity centers for larger cities? Check out Chapter 36 Section 20(7) in the Education codes.
While it does not expressly bar district wide teams and extracurriculars, it effectively bars them for a city the size (and extracurricular caliber) of Iowa City with the substantial prejudice clause.