Wednesday, March 30, 2011

High School 'Overcrowding'?

March 30, 2011, 7:30 a.m.

Are ICCSD Stakeholders Open to Educational Reform?

It appears that the Iowa City Community School District Board, Administration, high school principals, and other local stakeholders are once again addressing what to do about our increasing high school enrollment. Josh O'Leary, "District seeks crowding solutions; Prefers short-term ideas to building new high school," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 30, 2011, p. A1.

Since, as the headline on Josh O'Leary's story suggests, they seek "crowding solutions" and prefer "short-term ideas to building new high school," what option do I have but to oblige?

As a school board member (1998-2001) I offered up a number of ideas in a variety of forums, including a Press-Citizen column every two weeks (collected online here). After a respectful couple years of silence, from time to time since I've written on K-12 issues in this blog or in newspaper columns. (A Boolean Google search on -- "Nicholas Johnson" ("K-12" OR elementary OR "high school") (FromDC2Iowa OR "Iowa City Press-Citizen") -- produces 633 hits, which can't possibly be all mine, but I don't have the time to figure out a more refined search. Or, see links and a Google tool to search either the Web site or blog on the main Web site,

My previous writing on the subject, some of which you can find there, is the best source of my ideas, but here are some overly-summarized snapshots, taken from a blog entry two years ago today:

The place to begin, of course, is by asking, "What are we doing inside these buildings and why?" When the Board was, I thought, moving a little too quickly to ask an architect to "design a school for us," I observed that normally, before enlisting an architect, the client is able to tell him or her "whether they want a courthouse or an outhouse." When high schools are about to burst at the seams is an ideal opportunity to consider reforms and redesign not only of physical buildings but of curriculum, mission, measures, educational philosophy, and output. Following which, hopefully, the latter will determine and drive the former.

If we want to continue to do exactly what we have been doing then, yes, we probably need more space somewhere. But there are numerous options that could produce a higher quality output at a lower per-student cost. Historically, many (but not all) ICCSD Board members, administrators, faculty and parents have shown a disinclination to adopt data-driven, innovative, "best practices." That may well still be the case. But one shouldn't assume that until we discuss them once again.

Of course, to make change politically possible it is essential, in my view, to 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, fourth, 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. [This data is from 2009.] 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 -- any one of which, the data indicates, would eliminate the need for construction costs, reduce personnel costs, and increase the benefits to students.

[The following three numbered comments primarily involve elementary school innovation, but are otherwise of related relevance:]

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.

Of course, this is not an essential element of the cluster school approach. If the District's stakeholders would prefer to keep, or make worse, the disparity in the number of low income students in each school, it would also be possible to adjust the inequity up or down as preferred.
7. Exhibit a little more willingness to "think outside the boxes" than we've usually had. I'm told last evening's [March 30, 2009] 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 shouldn't be listened to, or 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.

9. These points are nothing more than examples. I claim neither expertise in the profession nor graduate degrees in "education." But that only strengthens my point. All I know I picked up from the writings of those who have done the research and have the credentials -- including ICCSD teachers and administrators. If even I can learn something about K-12 operations, anyone can. It doesn't require advanced degrees; it doesn't require attending conferences. It just requires the desire to make our K-12 system the best it can be, plus some imagination and time spent with Google and the Internet. Trust me, you'll be surprised with how much is available and the number of times you'll be saying, "Wow! I didn't know about that. Why aren't we doing that?"

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, which I played a major role in drafting.)

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Overall a good post--I and many others would support building a third high school now before the board throws money at existing high schools. I would like to see activities placed at the schools so many more students have opportunities for starring roles. The focus should be on what's best for students, not keeping the status quo.