Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Enrollment Numbers 2013-2014: Who knew closing Hoover would be even a worse idea?

Enrollment numbers for 2013-2014 are up now (to compare, check at the 4-2-2013 board agenda). A couple of quick thoughts: (1) we exceeded the enrollment projections from last year by 68 students in K-12. (2) That's approximately a 20% increase over what we thought we would have just last year. (3) 75% of that increase was at the elementary level and spread across all parts of the district. (4) The 10-year projection is significantly higher with approximately 800 more students in 2022-23 than in last year's study. (5) These enrollment projections, apparently, do not include preschoolers and non-general education special program classes. And that could be even more of a problem because there are some indications coming from the administration that capacity numbers (but definitely not BLDD enrollment numbers) do include preschoolers and special program classes (e.g., autism classes).

Two questions: (1) Why wasn't the board informed about these numbers last night at the operations committee? (2) Why exactly are we tearing down capacity to rebuild it when we need all we can get.

Tearing down Hoover will, it appears, likely result in having 10-15 more modulars across the district.

UPDATE: I still think my overall point stands, but apparently, I misunderstood the point that the administrator in question made with regard to my point (5). The idea was that classrooms that are used for preschoolers and for special program classrooms were not part of the capacity calculations that the district uses. Although the enrollment projections don't include these students, neither do the capacity calculations. (Hat tip to Jeff McGinness and Eric Johnson for pointing out my mistake.)

Still, that method of calculation raises a number of other concerns:

(1) capacity is, then, clearly understated at schools like Hoover. Hoover is on the pretty high end in terms of classrooms dedicated to special program classes and preschool classes. I know we have a least three (a preschool class and two autism classes), and perhaps four (an additional special education class?). A number of other schools have significantly fewer of those types of classes. That would suggest that Hoover is significantly larger than the numbers suggest. That's true for other schools too like Twain. Is it judicious to act as if "operational efficiency" is lower at Twain and Hoover when the district has chosen to place good and valuable programs in those locations?

(2) We will still have a significant problem in capacity if special programs classes and preschool classes grow at a proportional rate compared to overall growth. We will probably need more preschool classrooms and more special program classes. Will not having that space mean that we (a) cut back on those valuable programs or (b) bring back our modulars. 

(3) It made me wonder about how the addition of the multipurpose rooms is accounted in capacity. At Hoover, we have 2 classrooms that are used currently to fulfill purposes that are fulfilled by multipurpose rooms at some of the newer facilities. If those classrooms were not considered as capacity because of their present use, then that will underestimate capacity at schools that will get a multipurpose facility. I'm assuming this is true across all such schools. If so, then will we get an extra two classes worth of capacity for each multipurpose room that we build. If that's likely, it hasn't been accounted as such in the calculations. (I recognize that this would help address capacity issues that I'm raising above, and that's a good thing, but it also means our capacity figures are off, no?)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gaining District Wide Support for the Bond

I've been arguing that capacity concerns in the North and West part of the school district is a concern both during the 10-year phasing plan and after the completion of the plan. I'm still concerned about those matters, but the most recent iteration of the plan has addressed those concerns to a minimal degree. Rather than swinging Lincoln through the new North Elementary, it swings Lincoln and Mann together through the new East Elementary School. That proposal is incrementally better for the North Corridor, and that's good with minimal costs.

I think it is now time to consider if it might be wiser to build the North Elementary before the East Elementary, and swinging Longfellow and Mann+Lincoln through it just as they are currently slated to go through the East Elementary. Both would still open at the same time in 2019.

Doing this would significantly increase the district wide support for the phasing plan. Since 1989, there has been a minimum of 29.5% opposition to every single bond vote. In other words, about 30% of voters rejected every single bond put forward, and typically, it was much higher with many failing. Given the likely size of the bond, there could very well be significantly more opposition to this bond on that basis. Given the assumption that there will be a minimum of 30% opposition to the bond, if any other 10% of voters choose to vote against the bond, then it will fail. If the last school board election is any indication of turnout, that would be approximately 800 voters. In short, the board and administration need to do whatever they can to ensure as much support as possible for the bond. It is important to get full and district wide support.

I have already expressed how the district can gain wide support from the the Hoover community.

But there are other concerns about district wide support. In the current plan, most of the projected funded from the RPS vote are on the east side. That includes the first phase of the City High expansion, both the South Elementary School (which will relieve capacity concerns at Grant Wood), a capacity addition at Longfellow, and the new East Elementary School. There would be some east side communities that would be harmed if the bond vote weren't passed, but the current iteration of the phasing plan gives less incentive for east siders to vote for the plan. Making the North Elementary come from RPS funds and the East Elementary a part of the bond, while swinging all three schools through the North Elementary school would give more communities on the east side incentives to vote for the bond without diminishing the likelihood that communities in the North and West would vote for it. You see the bond vote is necessary for building the North High School, and it is also tied to being severely overcapacity at West High.

So, to ensure district wide support for the Facilities Master Plan, it would be helpful to address the closure of Hoover as I've suggested and it would be helpful to flip the North and East Elementary schools. Both would still open at exactly the same time, the only difference is that some of the swung schools may go a bit further to the North Elementary than the East Elementary, but the benefit for the entire district of gaining support for the bond would significantly outweigh this concern. Even if this particular proposal with regard to the East and North Elementary schools is not feasible, it is important to find a better balance to garner the most support for the bond vote.

How to convince me that its best to close Hoover?

First, I am concerned that the board has not publicly addressed the repeated concerns about the closure of Hoover. If the board plans on voting for Hoover's closure as part of the Facilities Master Plan, would all school board members be willing to publicly express your rationale for the closure of Hoover and attempt to have the issue discussed at the December 10th board meeting? Speaker after speaker at countless school board meetings and administrative gatherings have expressed repeated concerns about the closure of Hoover. In response, I appreciate that Mr. Murley has articulated reasons why the closure serves some district goals, and I appreciate that he has claimed that the board has made the decision on the basis of these district goals, but he is unwilling to defend or explain the value judgments that result in pursuing some district goals as the expense of others. For instance, he will say that the primary motivation behind closing Hoover is that it would allow the district to address equity concerns related to the facilities at the three comprehensive high schools. However, when asked specifically about why this is more important than an elementary school, he simply asserts that it is a value judgment that the board has made. It is important for the board to minimally provide an account of why this value judgment is correct.

Second, I am concerned about the level of scrutiny and deliberation that the board has had with regard to this value judgment about high school equity, if that is indeed the rationale. There are two horns to the dilemma: (a) the current iteration of the facilities master plan does not bring equity to the facility plans of the three comprehensive high schools. It leaves West High's capacity at 94 students higher than City High, and City High's capacity at 90 students higher than the North High School. If equality according to capacity is the issue, then each of those high schools should have a capacity of 1500, 1590, or 1684 (or some other such number). (b) If equity is not just about on-paper capacity but about substantive issues pertaining to how those who are least well off in the district will fare under the proposed plan, then it is important for the board to speak to these issues. What, in particular, will City High lose if it does not have access to the Hoover land? Furthermore, how will this loss affect those who are least well off at City High?

It has also come to my attention that the board has not really engaged with communities that are most seriously affected by inequalities in our district as evidence by concerns expressed about MLK, Jr. day, the ID policy, and really just not consulting with members of the minority community. If the board wants to find out whether there is an evidence-based reason based on substantive equality concerns, they should actually engage with minority community members. In that vein, I encourage the board, in the regularly meetings that they should be having with the Coalition for Racial Justice and the Center for Worker Justice, to ask for their input about whether whatever is lost by City High's not having Hoover's land will harm those who are least well off at City High.

Lastly, to make the argument for closing Hoover air tight, I would like to know if the board and administration have explored other avenues of securing land near City High to prevent the losses associated with not having Hoover's land. Here I have in mind efforts to buy, for example, Chadak field (the 5 acre plot of land that is one block, or 200 steps further from City High than the closest part of Hoover's land), and/or buying land that becomes available adjacent to City High property over the next 6-7 years. If those efforts have failed despite an honest effort by the board and administration and if what City High loses will have a direct or indirect detrimental impact on the well-being of those who are least well off in our district, then the board will have my full and unqualified support for the closure of my children's school. And I suspect that goes for almost all of us.

What say you?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Response to "How much longer can our district's children wait?"

Jean Jordison recently wrote an op-ed in the Press-Citizen. I made a rather long response as a comment, and I am including it here.

I'm rather new to Iowa City, but I share your concerns about allowing older facilities to deteriorate while new ones are built. I believe these matters significantly affect the achievement gap, and I think there is good research to back that up.

Nevertheless, I have a few concerns about framing equity primarily in terms of facilities: first, I think it misses the point that equity needs to be thought of much more comprehensively as (a) a matter of educational interventions, (b) a product of class and school size, (c) a product of underlying racial and economic demographics, (d) related communal problems, as well as (e) equal facilities. (I don't intend this list to be exhaustive.) Second, the current iteration of the FMP is, in effect, conditioning a number of renovations to older facilities on expanding the size of those facilities. The land problem at Mann Elementary is a significant barrier to its expansion (at least in the next couple of years), and tying its renovation to its expansion delays its renovation. And we are conditioning renovations on expansions dispite significant evidence that larger schools tend to exacerbate the achievement gap.

Second, I think we have to be careful about equivocating on what "equity" means. If there isn't good reason to think that a certain change will reduce, say, the achievement gap, then we should be careful about imposing too rigorous a standard. A too rigorous standard might, for example, require that each of the comprehensive high schools have the exact same capacity according to a standard measurement. In one sense, it is more equal but it isn't clear what benefit that conveys on those who are least well off in our district. In fact, larger facilities at all levels are correlated with increases in the achievement gap, and at least that feature of the FMP is likely to harm the least well off in our district.

I should also note that I strongly support many features of the FMP -- bringing older facilities up to code, making them ADA accessible, having better heating and AC systems, building sufficient capacity to remove our temporaries, and so forth. But, for reasons of equity, I am vigorously opposed to the idea that we need larger and fewer schools that are significantly further apart, on average, from its students. That's a recipe for further exacerbating the achievement gap.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Will Bigger Schools Harm the Goals of the Diversity Policy?

In the past year, the Board of Directors passed the Diversity Policy and adopted the Facilities Master Plan. In many respects, these two policies complement one another. The renovations to older schools, such as adding air conditioning, will likely improve academic performance at many of our community schools that currently have the highest free and reduced lunch rates. The new schools, particularly new South Sycamore Elementary School, will solve the overcrowding problem at Grant Wood. In these respects, the goals of the diversity policy and the Facilities Master Plan align, and mutually support one another.

Unfortunately, there are other features of the Facilities Master Plan that undermine the goal of the diversity policy. At least one of the goals of the diversity policy is intended to reduce the effect of socioeconomic differences on student achievement, but it is also the case that one of the central features of the Facilities Master Plan is to have larger and fewer elementary schools that are farther away from each other. The Facilities Master Plan is building three new 500 capacity elementary schools, and it expands (often extensively) Longfellow, Mann, Twain, Shimek, Penn, and so on and so forth. It also expands City High to almost 1,600 students while building a 3rd comprehensive high school with a 1,500 capacity.

The rationale for this building plan is that larger schools allow the district to reduce operating expenses. This argument only has merit, however, if (a) larger schools produce similar academic outcomes compared to smaller schools, and (b) it does not conflict with other district goals. Research on the relationship between school size and academic achievement, particularly low-income students, consistently and unanimously indicate that the larger a school (e.g., a 500 student elementary school or a 1,500 student high school) the more detrimental it is to academic achievement among low-income students. The first study was a National Report called the Matthew Project, and their results have been replicated in Georgia and Washington, D.C. Follow up studies have indicated that the result is not simply about schools that serve low-income areas, but that it affects low-income students within large schools more generally (Howley and Howley, 2004). The explanation for this is fairly intuitive – if poorer students, on average, lack the support network that more affluent students have, on average, then the school community will provide that support network if it's small enough and stable enough, and furthermore, it is much easier to get lost in the shuffle in a larger school than in a smaller one.

These matters were discussed to some extent in the visioning process –  (see specifically, pg. 23-24) – and although the presentation says "there is no definitive causal relationship" it later suggests that the differences are mediated by economics, race, and other factors. It behooves us to consider how at least one of the major trends embodied in the FMP may, in fact, set us back in mitigating the achievement gap.

The solution to this problem is not to keep our schools small in low-income areas, but it does mean that as a community that we should be concerned about the trend in our district to have fewer and larger schools that are farther apart from each other.  We should not sacrifice the least well off in our district for the sake of the few dollars that are saved by building larger schools. The costs are much too high to do that, since we aren't likely to get the same results, though we may lower our financial costs.

So, my question is: is a 500 student elementary school (note that Penn will be significantly larger than that) and a 1500 student high school the "sweet spot" or is it just the sweet spot for our relatively well-to-do students?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When do you change course?

At what point should one change course on a local political decision? Is it when there is significant public opposition despite majority support among elected officials?  Is it when the relatively popular incumbent who supported the decision lost and did much worse than expected in her own backyard?  Is it when voters reelect by wide margins the incumbent who voted against making that decision? Is it when a petition for overturning the decision garners 650 signatures in a week and half? Is it when a petition hits 10% of the population who voted in the last school board election (with admittedly very high turnout) -- which would only be about 200 more signatures than those obtained in a week and half? What about 15% or 20%? Is it when the remaining supporters of the decision lose in the next election cycle? Is it when the required bond fails the first time? Or does it take it failing twice to get the message?

When do you choose to move forward in the best way that you can without sacrificing the whole?

Many people have asked me similar questions about the issue in question, and I confess that I'm probably too much of a strategic voter to vote against my own self-interest. I think most people who show up at school board meetings are similar to me. I don't think that's true of most people. If most people disagree with an important substantive feature of a decision, they will let you know with their votes. So, I put the question to those responsible for making the decision: at what point would you be willing to change course? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Proposal for Modifying the Revised Phasing Plan

I sent the proposal included below to the School Board and Superintendent.

Proposal to Amend The Revised Phasing Plan

There are two significant problems with the proposal before the board.

First, based on the expected growth and capacity in, for example, the 2018-2019 school year, elementary students in Coralville and Western Iowa City will lack a combined 442 seats and in North Liberty, they will lack a combined 339 seats. The new North Elementary School will not be used by residents until 2020-2021.

Second, the capacity for all elementary schools at the end of the phasing process will have space for approximately 8,681, not including the 230 preschool students (2012-2013) or schools that are not filled to capacity, but we are expected to have 8,317 students at that time. If you add the current 230 preschoolers to that figure (a figure which will surely be on the rise), the total comes to 8,547 assuming every single school is filled to capacity. This will put us at 98.4% capacity after all the capacity additions over the next 10 years. It would also be helpful to know whether special programs capacity is included in the enrollment projections from the DeJong-Ritcher report.


1. Flip the timetables for completing the North and East Elementary Schools.

2. Keep Hoover open and do a full renovation, but not a capacity addition. Alternatively, do not close Hoover until after Longfellow, Mann, and Lincoln have swung through the new East Elementary School, which would probably be in 2021-2022.

3. Delay the expansions of Longfellow and Mann until after the East Elementary School is completed. Consider doing both renovations simultaneously with a 4-plex modular, if needed.


1. Relieves burdens related to capacity inadequacies in Northern and Western part of the district by building the North Elementary School earlier.

2. By not being tied to closing Hoover in 2019, there is less need to expedite the East Elementary School and the expansions of Longfellow and Mann.

3. Keeping Hoover open will give us more space to handle growth.

4. Keeps an effective, and relatively cost-effective school in operation; removing a divisive issue.

Possible Objections to the Proposal:

1. Expanding City High could be more challenging without closing Hoover during Phase II.

2. There may be parking problems at City High.

3. There may be problems finding sufficient space for extracurricular activities on City High grounds.

4. The delayed expansions to Longfellow and Mann will delay needed renovations at the building.

Response to Possible Objections:

Response to 1: Cramped expansion

A. During the initial phasing proposal, it was an acceptable cost to be cramped during expansion until new classrooms and construction were completed. Recall that the entirety of the City High expansion was completed before Hoover was to be demolished.

B. Over the next 7 years, we could attempt to purchase land near Hoover/CH to alleviate the burden. This could be done periodically over time as space becomes available.

C. City High's expansion could be slightly reduced to 1,500 rather than 1,590, and it would be equal in size to the new comprehensive high school. This modification would likely be cheaper, and it is within the acceptable range to mitigate equity concerns. Furthermore, the savings would likely to sufficient to fund full renovations of Hoover.

Response to 2: Parking

A. On a warm September day and a cold November day, the number of unmarked, available parking spots were counted number during peak times of attendance. There were 81 and 64 unmarked, available spots on those days.

B. City High currently has 1,540 students. Based on current driving practices of students, it does not need increased parking unless current parking is eliminated.

C. Reducing the expansion to 1,500 would alleviate parking even more.

D. The amount of parking spaces should be made on the basis of the driving habits of the likely inhabitants of the students at a school rather than having the same number of parking spots at each of the three comprehensive high schools.

Response to 3: Extracurricular space

A. Consider Chadek field as a possible venue for a practice field/court. It is within two blocks of campus, and the owners have indicated willingness to sell for the right price.

B. As above, consider buying property as it becomes available in lots adjacent to Hoover/CH. There are a number of years before the expansions will be complete, and that gives us time to buy lots as they become available for extracurricular activities.

C. Reducing the expansion to 1,500 would alleviate, in part, the need for more extracurricular space.

D. If Options A and B are unable to resolve the issue, then consider having some extracurricular activities further from campus but still relatively close. This is a cost that is outweighed by (1) the risk of having a significant number of elementary students in modulars, and (2) the risk to the whole community that comes about by losing Hoover Elementary.

Response to 4: Delaying Needed Renovations to Longfellow and Mann

A. Doing the renovations simultaneously by swinging them both to the new 500 capacity Elementary School would mitigate this objection.

B. It is only a temporary delay of these renovations until after the new East Elementary is opened. This is a cost that is outweighed by the benefits to the entire district.

C. If the renovations are urgently needed at Longfellow and Mann, then perhaps we can do the renovations without the capacity additions, which would (1) save the money and (2) could be used on a 4th new elementary school as it is needed.

Swapping Sides

I mentioned in my prior post that I had two concerns about the revised phasing plan. The first concern was about capacity. I argued that there will likely be too few seats at the elementary level overall and that, up through 2020-2021, North Liberty and Coralville will be particularly burdened by not having the new North elementary school coming online until 2020-2021.

In the process of investigating these concerns, my second concern came to the fore. I realized that I have no idea how the administration and board are planning to distribute the elementary schools that will eventually feed into each of the three comprehensive high schools.

The table shows the distribution of capacity at the three comprehensive high schools. If each of them were at capacity, then West would have 35% of the students in the district, City would have 33%, and the North High School would have 31% (all are rounded to the nearest percent). I assumed that we would want the elementary schools that feed each of these high schools to be proportional in size to the high schools. To illustrate this roughly, I multiplied the percentage by the total capacity for K-6th grade. The results shows that 2,891 students should feed City High, 3,062 students should feed West, and 2,728 students should feed the North High School. I realize these number could vary, but it is a good, rough guide.

 In the table above, I've included capacity numbers for all the schools that could ultimately feed into City High. These schools are all currently or projected to be located within the current confines of the City High district. So, what's the problem? If you look at what I've labeled "TOTALS EAST," you'll see that there is capacity for 2,400 in those schools. If my figure of 2,891 is in the ballpark, then any two of these would put City High significantly above its capacity figures. For example, if you put Shimek and Mann together with the other 7 elementary schools, you'd have a capacity of 3,156, which would be about 36% of the district and likely the biggest and most crowded of the three high school. If you only add, say, Shimek, however, you only have 2,739 students which is about 150 students fewer than what it ought to be if the feeders were proportional.

So, I am assuming that two of these three schools will be redistricted under West High or the new North High School. Based on FRL rates, I suspect it would be Mann and the new South Elementary School.

Note also the differences between the projected enrollment and capacity. It appears that the new capacity at Mann will pull a number of students from the 6 current elementary schools districts in the top of the table, and they will be redistricted to one of Shimek, Mann, or the New South Elementary School, and then those kids could end up at West or the North High School. For example, it could very well be the case that a current Hoover student will be redistricted to Mann, and then will ultimately end up going to high school at West High or at the new North High School, even though that students lives less than a mile from City High.

It is pretty clear that under the revised phasing plan that the South Elementary School will probably be districted to West High, and Mann or Shimek will be redistricted away from City High. I do really think that the districting of the new South Elementary School to West High will be good for the district. It could pull some enrollment from the east side while balancing FRL to help bring the district in line with the diversity policy. And we will have to pull enrollment from the east side of the river to make the proportions at the three comprehensive high school work out. What seems strange, however, is that we are tearing down capacity on the east side just to replace it, and then we will send the students who are in those districts to the other side of town and away from the high school that is, in some cases, less than a mile away.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will there be enough capacity?

The Iowa City School administration will present a revised phasing plan for the Facilities Master Plan to the school board on Tuesday November 12. I have been advocating on behalf of (a) not closing Hoover, and (b) not using Hoover as a swing school. The revised proposal addressed all of my concerns about not using Hoover as a swing school, and for that I am grateful.

Unfortunately, I believe the plan is still problematic for different reasons, and it should be revised again. I have two major, but related, concerns. The first concerns capacity. I worry about the small amount of wiggle room between overall projected enrollment in the district, according to the DeJong-Richter report  and the overall capacity available on the elementary level at the end of the phasing plan in 2022-2023.

 In the table, I make a number of very minimal assumptions that will most likely err insofar as they are too conservative. For instance, I am projecting no growth at the preschool level from 2012-2013 to 2022-2023. Furthermore, I am treating a preschool student the same as a K-6th grade student, but there are fewer preschool children per class than K-6 children per class. Additionally, I am assuming that special programs -- such as Hoover's autism programs -- are included in the enrollment projections. I am not certain about whether that is actually so. Lastly, I'm assuming that no schools will be under capacity for external reasons (e.g., geography). Yet, even under these conservative assumptions, we are projected to only have 134 empty seats over the entire district. That amounts to 1.5% of overall capacity. A slight bump in growth and we are back in modulars after all our new building are up and open.

It gets worse. This problem is most acute under the revised plan for North Liberty, Coralville, and Western parts of Iowa City, and it is particularly bad before the new North Elementary School is slated to be available in 2020-2021 (after it is used as a swing school for Lincoln the prior year). The table shows overall figures for 2022-2023, and more importantly, it shows 2018-2019 data. Remember that the conservative assumptions above are in effect here too. Even more so, since I'm not including any preschoolers in these figures. Still, we will be overcapacity by about 339 students in North Liberty. 134 students in Coralville, and 308 students from the West part of town. I give a hat tip to some North Corridor parents who alerted me to this problem

Looking at these figures made me ask a number of questions that I will examine in a subsequent post about what the result of the revised phasing plan will do to the feeder system. I don't have answers to those questions at this time, but it is important that they be addressed: which elementary schools will ultimately feed into the new North High School, and which will ultimately feed into West and City High? And how do our construction priorities fit into this feeding system?

I am also trying to think of ways to tweak the plan in order to address these concerns. What do you think? How can these problems be resolved?