EAC Meeting Review - 1/31/2013

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The EAC met last night to discuss various topics. The meeting started with a discussion of scheduling. There is already a community meeting scheduled for Monday at 6 pm at the Orchard Gardens school. On Tuesday, the EAC will hear public comment from 6 - 7 pm at Suffolk, then have a working meeting from 7-8:30. At the working meeting they will likely try to get through the rest of their recommendation memo.

It looks like they will meet again on Thursday for discussion and debate on the three proposed plans. The tentative plan is for the committee to vote on a plan to recommend on Saturday morning, February 9th. They currently have a room held at City Hall, but may try to find a bigger space.

Miren Uriarte expressed concern that there won’t be enough time for the community to understand the plans and give feedback before then. Ron Gittens suggested filming Monday's community meeting and putting it on YouTube. Carolyn Kain asked if it can be televised live like Boston School Committee meetings. Rebecca Frisch from the Mayor's office said she'd look into the possibility. Craig Lankhorst and others echoed Miren's concern that there’s not enough time.

Helen D├íjer asked about the possibility of setting up an additional Q&A session with Peng and BPS to help the EAC understand the plans. This might be scheduled for an hour before the meeting at Orchard Gardens.

I think the consensus is that the committee isn't ready to commit to a 2/9 vote yet. They'll need to gauge the community response and have more time to understand the plans themselves before they'll know if they'll be ready to vote.

Next, the committee heard a presentation from Carleton Jones of BPS with some neighborhood-level analysis of the new plans. The major message from BPS is that they have made or will make changes to offset the loss of access to quality in certain neighborhoods. For example, they have already increased capacity at several high quality schools, but this happened after the first assignment round last year so it's not captured in the MIT report.

John Nucci raised his concern that some plans will reduce access to quality in some neighborhoods. He's reluctant to endorse any plan that would reduce a neighborhood's access to quality schools in the neighborhood, especially if it doesn't allow kids to go to schools much closer to their homes. Really, though, it's hard to imagine any new plan that doesn't negatively impact some neighborhood and the reality is that there will be winners and losers no matter what the committee does. Laura Perille noted that the home-based plans could adapt over time to get children closer to home if quality improved in many schools. This led to discussion over the method BPS is using to put schools in four tiers. Since the tiers are based on the top 25% of schools, the second 25%, etc., one fourth of the schools will always be in each tier. This would mean that the home-based plans would not change significantly over time. Laura suggested that an absolute measure of quality needs to be adopted.

Miren Uriarte presented on the proposed English-language learners (ELL) overlay (this presentation is not yet on-line). She described the progress BPS has made towards better aligning ELL programs to where the students who need them live. There is much more work to be done on this. The overlay would essentially be an eight zone map separate from whatever assignment plan is adopted. ELLs who are nearing proficiency in English would be assigned through the regular plan.

Miren endorsed the overlay and said that the ELL task force has as well. This almost guarantees that the EAC will recommend the overlay.

Next up was Carolyn Kain to present the overlay for students with disabilities (SWD) overlay. This is similar to the ELL overlay and again one of the major goals is to put programs where the students who need them live. Students with a low level of need would be assigned through the regular assignment plan, while those with greater need would be assigned through the overlay. Carolyn endorsed the overlay as being less than perfect but a significant improvement over the status quo. SpedPac has not yet endorsed the final plan, but it seems likely that they will as they have been involved in its development and Carolyn is the chair. This overlay is also nearly certain to be recommended by the EAC.

Finally, there was a presentation on the middle school pathway that BPS is proposing. The pathway would give every student a predictable path from kindergarten through 8th grade. Six more schools would be converted to K-8. For other schools, one or more elementary school would feed into a designated middle school. Parents who did not want to send their child to the designated school could apply for another school. BPS has not determined how this would work, but they expect that the assignment system for these students would be similar to whatever plan is approved for entering elementary students.

While there was general agreement that the predictability and continuity of this plan would be beneficial, there were some concerns as well. For example, if all the schools feeding into a middle school are of low quality, what would the effect on the middle school be? Could these feeder patterns lead to increased segregation? BPS has not released any data on this.

The presentation on the middle school overlay also contains a brief section on advanced work classes (AWC). BPS says they will work to put more classes in areas where the students who quality for them live. They are also proposing to allow a student who qualifies for AWC to go outside his or her choice list if there are no AWC schools on the list.

The meeting ended with community comment. Several people expressed concerned about the short timeline to get feedback and vote on plans.

 

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I was struck by how deeply ambivalent the EAC members were about the plans. There wasn't enough reduction in transportation for some members, or enough improvement in access to quality for others. I am not sure the EAC and the plans are done yet, as much as they would like to be done.

BPS needs to better explain the proposals. Eg, they should have emphasized the point about tradeoffs - we can have less transportation, but that means less access to quality. It's a balance. (And there really needs to be a much more accessible summary of the recent MIT analysis.)

My instinct is that these might not be the best achievable plans, that there are plans that could achieve more of the objectives. Peng Shi's earlier Grouped Schools plan was very tailored to the quirks of the geography of Boston and its schools. It raised expectations that more might be possible. Though certainly the robustness over time of the Home Based plans is a significant plus.

While the Home Based plans are simpler than Grouped Schools in some sense, they are still complex. Once we're using a plan that requires you to enter your address in a tool, we might as well take it farther to achieve more optimality.

What some are saying is, if this is all we can do, why not have a simpler plan? And to some degree they are right. Though the question may instead be, if we are going to adopt a complex plan, can we do better?

We should keep in mind some of the substantial benefits of the zoneless plans (which BPS should also be reiterating):

(1) in practice, they will converge toward a closer to home model over time if schools improve (it would be great if there was a way to demonstrate that), and

(2) the flexibility of this type of plan lets us recognize the current realities of the school system, and it changes over time as the realities change; it doesn't ask anyone to rely on promises of improved quality at some future date.

In regards to flexibility notice what Josh said about the rigidity of there always being 4 tiers with 25% of the schools in each tier. This is one of my main concerns as this does not promote flexibility. By definition there is always going to be a tier 4, so even if by some divine intervention all the schools in the city had high MCAS scores tomorrow we would still be busing everyone around.

You have a really good point however when you say that if we are going to have a plan that requires everyone enter their address in a tool, then the ship has sailed on it being simple, so you might as well try to do something better then what we have here.

I know I always throw out ideas, but why not have it where your address gets 2 schools either a tier 1 and 4 or tier 2 and 3. That way everyone has a 50% chance of going to a top 50% school, and we get predictability of it only being a 2 school choice. Since there are no zones on a map anyway you can craft them down to a house by house level to make the capacities work.

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