EAC Meeting Review - 1/23/2013


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Tonight's EAC meeting definitely got a lot more attention than any previous meeting. I would estimate that around four times as many people attended as in prior meetings. There was a pretty good media presence with reporters from the Dorchester Reporter, Boston Globe, NECN, BNN, and maybe others. BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson was there along with School Committee chair Michael O'Neill. Also there were my state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and possibly my future district city councilor Suzanne Lee.

Most of the meeting was taken up by a presentation by BPS on the three new proposed models. BPS made a point of starting and ending the presentation with a discussion steps BPS has taken and will take to improve quality.

The presentation also covers several elements that BPS is proposing regardless of which plan is selected. Most of these have been announced before, like grandfathering of children already in schools and their siblings. Others are new. For example BPS says they are "Committed to finding space to serve downtown families, where current walk-zone access is limited." As far as I know, this is the first time they've put this in writing.

They also say they will actually call families after assignments have been sent out in the spring to determine which families are not planning to send their child to the BPS school he or she has been assigned to. Children who won't be attending a BPS school will be removed from the school's roster which will allow more children to be admitted from the wait list well before school starts. This will be a major improvement for families waiting for an assignment who often don't get a seat until several days into the school year. It will also help schools by reducing the number of new children who are moved into schools after the school year starts.

They then moved through a description of the three plans as well as the overlays for English language learners and students with disabilities. I won't go through the details as it's all pretty well explained in the presentation.

There's a slide in the presentation on the definition of quality used by BPS for the purposes of these plans. In the past, BPS was defining a "quality" seat as being in the top two thirds of seats in the district. They've now changed that to the top 50%. They've also made a change to the formula used to calculate the quality measure they're using. In the past, they were giving equal weight to an absolute measurement of achievement (percent of kids proficient or better on MCAS) and a relative measure of student growth. They're now giving two-thirds weight to the achievement measurement and one third to student growth.

In the past, I've been critical about the way they've calculated this quality index. I spoke to some people after the meeting about this. I'm still not certain that I know how BPS is calculating this, but Peng Shi told me that they're now using a weighted average of the achievement and growth measurements. This would be a much better method than the "quadrant analysis" they were using in the past. I will try to confirm this as I think it is vital that they fix this problem, especially since two of the three plans rely on the quality measurement when determining which schools a family can choose.

The presentation includes several slides that compare the three new plans to the current plan and to each other. One is a chart showing the lowest percent chance a child has of getting a quality seat under each plan. It varies from 19.5% under the current plan to 25.5% under the home-based plan B. This was the only slide on equity in this presentation and it only shows the worst case in each plan.

The next chart is about predictability and shows the percent chance of a student getting one of his or her top three choices. This is 72% in the current plan, around 80% in the 10 zone and home-based A plans and 77.5% in the home-based B plan. It's important to note that the reason all of these plans offer more predictability is that they reduce the number of choices parents have. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you have a better chance to get into the school of your dreams, because that school could have been removed from your list completely. It does mean that of the schools on your list you will have a better chance of getting one of your top three choices.

The final slide is about proximity to home. It shows that under the current plan the average student's walking distance to his or her school is 1.87 miles. The new proposals range from 1.12 to 1.19. I do have a complaint with the chart itself. Because the scale starts at one and not zero, it exaggerates the perceived difference. For example, under the current plan children walk about 60% farther than they would under the 10 zone plan. But the bar for the current plan is more than 7 times longer (600%) than the bar for the 10 zone plan. The whole idea of creating a bar chart in the first place is to make it easy to visualize what the data means. This chart has the opposite effect.

The presentation also presents an interesting new metric designed to gague how good a plan is at sending children who live near each other to the same school. It looks at how many children who live within half a mile of a child will be in that child's school and grade. The three new plans would increase that number, on average, by around 25-30%. However, since that number is currently just over 3, it really means adding about one child. Of course, when you look at children in all grades or extend the range beyond a half mile you might see a more significant increase.

There are also charts showing socio-economic and racial/ethnic diversity under the proposed plans. The way they're looking at this is to look at the range of percentages at schools for various groups of students under each plan. For example, under the current plan, students can have anywhere from 11-36% black students in school with them. Under all of the new plans this range would be 9-36%. All of these measurements are similar. They show a small increase in segregation compared to the current plan.

The EAC had many questions about the presentation. I tried to capture as many as I could, along with the answers from BPS and the MIT team.

Kelly Bates asked how kids in areas without quality walk zone seats will get seats in quality schools given walk zone priority. Carleton Jones of BPS said that the EAC could recommend a change to walk zone priority. BPS evaluated the plans based on 50% walk zone priority, but it sounds like they may have used a different method for applying the priority which could be more advantageous to walk zone students.

Rahn Dorsey asked why walk zone needs to be a consideration when the plans are already engineered for proximity. Carleton essentially said that goals can be met through a combination of choice list (which schools a family can choose) and assignment process (the algorithm). It's really up to the EAC to decide what should be done.

Rob Gittens asked about predictability of choices for families under home based plans. Carleton said they have a tool to see your choice list created by Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. It should be ready soon. There was a related question about grandfathering when choice set changes. Carleton said it would happen but there would need to be a decision on how long kids would be grandfathered. Tim Nicolette said that to increase predictability that they might only change choice sets periodically, maybe every five years with two to three year warning. Laura Perille really likes the adaptability of the home-based plans and says five years seems too long to respond to change. Carleton emphasized that five years was an example not a BPS proposal.

Miren Uriarte asked whether students on the same block could have a different choice list. BPS said no, unless its a really long block, but That's not quite true. I confirmed with Peng that it's theoretically possible for next-door neighbors to have slightly different lists. This would probably be quite infrequent. Tim Nicolette explained that as you move farther away from a certain location your list would gradually change. From the same six schools to five out of six, four out of six, etc. I think this is the right way to look at it. Everyone on the same block will usually have the same choice list, but if they're different it will only be a slight difference, most choices will overlap.

Someone asked whether the comparisons between the current plan and the proposed plans all looked only at kids assigned during the first assignment round. Tim said yes, all data is for round 1 only.

Helen D├íjer asked whether, as we move choices closer to home, do we need the walk zone? She said it seems like if the a student is lucky enough to have good schools nearby, the walk zone makes the student double-lucky. If the student is unlucky, the walk zone makes the student double-unlucky.

Craig Lankhorst asked about seeing equity analyses of home-based models. Tim said it's coming in the full technical report from MIT which will go to the EAC and the public, but he couldn't give a date.

Rahn Dorsey asked EAC to think about whether the change in equitable access in these plans is enough. Are the costs worth it, do we need to press for more? I think we need to see the full report to start to make this evaluation. The one equity measure that was in the presentation isn't enough to go on.

Laura Perille emphasized that even though BPS says they haven't considered and aren't recommending parent compacting as part of the student assignment plan, that the EAC is currently in has a recommendation in their draft memo that BPS try it on a pilot basis.

The committee's next meeting is Thursday, January 31st from 6-8:30 pm at Suffolk. I hope that they will have the technical report from BPS by then and can discuss the plans in more depth. If not, they will probably continue to discuss the general recommendations in their draft memo. There is also a community feedback meeting scheduled on February 4th from 6-8 pm at the Orchard Gardens school.

If you have any questions on these plans, post them in the comments and I'll do my best to get you an answer.


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There were a few points worth emphasizing for those trying to understand the plans:

- It was news to most people when it was explained (2+ hours into the meeting) that the new BPS plans were an evolution of Peng Shi's Grouped Schools plan, and that he considers the Home Based models to be an improvement. His explanation on that is available here:

- When reading the plan, it's worth knowing that BPS has promised much more analysis in far more detail. So things like a map of the access to quality across the city are coming. The new plans raise a lot of questions, and they are promising more answers.

- BPS put a heavy emphasis on the measures they are planning to improve quality in the schools. The point presumably is they are trying to demonstrate their commitment to improve quality in the neighborhoods that have fewer quality schools.

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