Friday, April 25, 2014

ICCSD: School Boundaries Simple Three-Step

April 25, 2014, 8:15 a.m.

Note and Summary: This blog essay was first posted two years ago. As Iowa City School District school boundary lines are once again in the news (e.g., Holly Hines, "Parents Want Kids Walking to School; Concerned Proposed Longfellow Boundaries Would Limit That Option," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 25, 2014, p. A1), it seemed worthwhile to post it again. In brief, it's a suggestion that (1) to ease stakeholders' buy-in to any proposal the changes' effective date might better be six to seven years in the future, and (2) rather than regularly returning to these divisive and disruptive boundary issues when changes are needed, the School Board might be well advised to adopt a flexible boundary policy (with two, rather than one, boundary lines for each school), giving the Board, and its superintendent, the ability to respond to modest changes in population over time that only affect parents and children who are new to the District.

School Board Alternatives to Procrastination and Frustration

Who goes to which K-12 schools and why?

There are 15,000 school districts and school boards across the country confronting those questions.

[Photo of prior, not current, ICCSD Board. Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Apparently the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) school board is now doing so again.

Here's a three-step process for easing everyone's pain.

Step One. Decide to do it. You. The Board members. Not a community committee or a consultant or the Superintendent. Not a series of open forums prayerfully in search of what one board member called "a solution that satisfies the whole community." Alesha L. Crews, School board members talk about next steps; Say portable buildings a short-term solution, should not be permanent," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2012, p. A3.

You are the buffer among the District's stakeholders -- students, parents, administrators, teachers, staff, property tax payers, and citizens. Face it, you'll never satisfy them all.

Only you can create "fairness" for the poor and working poor and lower middle class District parents, when the contests arise in which their interests are pitted against those of our most economically and political powerful families.

Remember, this is a public school system. No one but you has a right to dictate policy. Dissatisfied students and parents who want more absolute control over the details have options, from private schools, to other school districts, to home schooling.

Consider their wishes? Of course. But to think, as one board member put it, that it is "absolutely critical that we don’t ignore anyone’s needs," is a classic example of the triumph of hope over experience. It will inevitably produce the K-12 equivalent of the line that "a camel is a horse built by committee."

Nothing against camels mind you, but only the Board can create a rational, efficient, school system in which all the pieces fit, work together, and optimize the desired output -- increased numbers of students graduating closer to their academic potential.

As Nike says, "Just do it."

Step Two. Think specifically about District goals, not generally about drawing lines.

This is where "if you don't know where you want to go, the odds are very high that you'll never get there" comes into play.

Here are some of the destinations you might want to think about:

(a) Are you willing to take your time, or do you have to do it right now? You could announce a new approach to redistricting that will take effect six or seven years from now. That would eliminate most of the emotional opposition from students and parents affected by a shorter time in which to accommodate change. Most of those who will be affected by a future plan don't yet have kids in school -- or haven't even yet moved to Iowa City.

(b) How much flexibility, or rigidity, do you want? Flexibility is a variable that can be turned up or down, like a rheostat controlling the lighting in a dining room. Do you want fixed, immovable lines -- until the next time you have a redistricting crisis? Or would you like to give the Superintendent, and yourselves, some flexibility?

For example, you could provide (and, if (a) is adopted, not until, say, seven years from now) that (1) once assigned to an elementary school a student could finish at that school, but that (2) there would be two, not just one, geographical areas feeding that school. [i] One would be immediately contiguous to the school, a small enough area that virtually no projection of increased population would result in more students living there than the school could properly hold. The children of families living in, or moving into, that area would be assigned to that school. [ii] The other, larger area, would give the Board and Superintendent the flexibility to assign students living there to any one of three or four closest schools. (Of course, once assigned, under principle (a) the student could finish there.) Thus, as new families moved into that larger area they might know the probabilities of where their children would be assigned, but they would not have a firm commitment of a school from the District. (For more discussion and detail, see, e.g., "Disparity in Class Sizes: Simple Solution Rejected," October 13, 2010.)

(c) Settle upon your position with regard to the demographic balance represented in the assignment of "free and reduced lunch" students to the schools. You may want greater disparity than we now have, less, about the same, or have no position, leaving the outcome to chance -- the latter in all probability a policy that will produce an increase in the disparity. Just make up your minds; hopefully with specific numbers.

(d) There are many other variables you can think about, resolve, and announce. Do I have personal preferences on some of these District goals? Of course. But that's irrelevant. These are the Board's decisions to make. My focus at the moment is not on what you decide but what it is you decide about.

By laying out your own very specific metrics for where you say the District is headed, and providing that they will have little to no impact on today's students and parents, because they won't take effect immediately, you provide stability for the future, and virtually eliminate the emotional opposition.

Step Three. Evolve toward your goals. With a little advance individual reading and thinking, Steps One and Two should be capable of resolution with one or two weekends of Board-member-only workshops. Remember, it's your decisions we're talking about, not those of some consultant. Once you announce the outcome, where the District is headed, it will be possible -- without forcing decisions, but as needs for tweaking arise (like now!) -- to make those decisions consistent with your longer range plan (without imposing it wholesale ahead of schedule).

When I confront computer frustration, which seems to happen with some regularity, my computer consultant son, Gregory ( usually advises, "Well, Dad, there are three steps," following which he puts in simple, three-step language what it is that his cyberlaw professor father should do to get on with his personal life in our digital world.

I thought this "Three Simple Steps to School Redistricting" might be helpful for our local School Board as well. We'll see.
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Chris said...

Nick – I agree with a lot of this. Certainly the board can’t possibly please everyone and should not let the mere existence of some objections stop them from making a change. But I think the board can go too far in the opposite direction, too. They shouldn’t try to please everyone, but they should care about whether their decision is acceptable to most of the community, if only to ensure that the decision is sustainable. In other words, they shouldn’t do something so outlandish with the boundaries that it all gets undone after the next board election—even if they’ve concluded that it’s the “right” thing to do.

I agree that the FRL disparities are too high and that there must be ways to reduce them without doing anything too extreme with the boundaries. But I do think that a responsible board would care about whether there is significant public buy-in for the changes, and not just impose them from on high.

Anonymous said...


I also believe that district-wide buy in to a solution to address achievement gaps and equity is possible, but it just may not be the specific vision of a solution or on the timetable that some already have in their minds.

In other words, a poorly designed plan developed without input from the experts in our district and without input from the people it supposedly helps is probably not it.

I really feel you are on to something with having this take place in the future - it gives folks time to adjust.

It just so happens with construction of new elementary schools slated 4-5 years out for many folks, this could help for our situation right now.

Glad you recommended something similar to this PRIOR to the current redistricting - otherwise you would just be accused of being on a "side" and "Just trying to delay" etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Was the diversity policy adopted by the district in force when your original post was published?
The diversity policy appears to be the school board's answer to the loss of control over the school boundaries due to No Child Left Behind and so many of the elementary schools in the district being schools in need of assistance.
The free and reduced lunch ratios of the different schools would be a non-issue if the instruction at the schools mitigated the effects of poverty.
Sadly, the district has chosen poorly the reading and mathematics programs. Too much of the instruction is happening at home and too little at school.
The lack of school centered education only increases the stress on children from homes that qualify for free and reduced lunches and likely results in greater disparity in outcomes between the two classes of students.
All instruction in the elementary schools should occur at school with no home work. Then we can have a clear assessment of the effectiveness of the instruction in our schools and make appropriate changes to staff and materials.
Additionally, The teachers should follow the students from kindergarten to 6th grade. The teachers should own the success or failure of their students. The current system encourages teachers to ignore "problem children" since they will be rid of them in 8 months and they will be someone else's "problem".
The district diversity policy is being used to take away the choice of the parents to send the student where they feel the student will be best educated. The district lost it's right to dictate to the parents when it failed to educate effectively.
The problem is not the boundaries of the schools it is the lack of effective instruction inside of the schools.