On west side boundary changes

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Having served on the former west-side boundary task force, and after noticing some posts about new district proposals for boundary changes, I thought I could say a few words about this dangerous topic.

#1. It’s not so dangerous or uncommon. For all the debate and deliberation on this issue, it’s not as important as providing an excellent setting for learning. Like the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “Love the one your with” really makes sense in Madison – elementary schools that are well supported seem to do just fine. MMSD tends to keep a very close eye on how things are going at elementary schools, and many of the management/educational fundamentals are strong. They just can’t handle it when people suddenly bail. Successful schools are somewhat self-fulfilling. However, certain schools need special support delivered in a timely and creative manner. I’ll defer to professionals on this one. If pairing is deemed beneficial for _the purposes of learning_ I can support that.

#2. If we are smart, we’ll really think critically about how schools are networked with other children and family services. We should look to better support of early childcare as part of the equation. Parent transportation is another major issue.

#3. While we went over many, many alternatives during task force and break out meetings, we really didn’t make much headway on boundary changes. We didn’t touch pairing or Midvale-Lincoln’s (our school) with a ten foot pole. We didn’t really effectively address race or low-income, or even the efficiency of transportation. However, we did give a lot of comments, which drew more from the community, and we all learned a bit more about neighboring schools. The data resources, the planning processes, and day-to-day knowledge has been growing within the district, and we shouldn’t judge based on old information.

#4. There have been some significant changes since the task force. I threw out my binder a few months after the task force. Once people knew the new school and Leopold addition were to be made, that changed the draw to homes in the areas. Also, changes to the budget and class-size changes have affected the capacity numbers significantly.

#5. This is an iterative, often frustrating and seemingly non-democratic process. At the end of some long day in the near future, a few people, looking at all the data and comments they get in, will make the decision about boundaries and pairing.

#6. Our job is to keep the eyes on the prize, to adapt, to prepare our kids and neighbors for a few bumps, but to stay focused on effective delivery of best practices, well-supported teachers and schools, and effective long-term planning (as best as we can provide).

#7. We need more depth and collaboration. Boundary changes need to be judged on how they effect the learning community throughout their school years. It’s not just about elementary schools, but how friends and our young scholars grow together, meet up at middle school and bring on new challenges. If there is to be another long-range planning task force – it should be with consideration of the _integrated_ effects to the students over their lovely years with the MMSD – not just their elementary experience.

#8. Be nice to folks from research and evaluation. They have no specific agenda – they are simply between the public and the administrators on looking at the issues, adding clarity when they can. We want the best data possible, clearly presented and analyzed. Let’s support that.

#9. We need the city involved. Schools matter for the health of neighborhoods and for city planning, so the city should have a clear voice and a position on the record. For something more creative, the city could facilitate and promote the community use of schools outside the school day and school year. The city can encourage people to get to know the schools on the other side of the boundary – with potlucks and parties, basketball and soccer, concerts and neighborhood meetings at the schools. Boundaries are just lines on a map – and we, with a little boldness, can step over them.

#10. Don’t forget about the east side! Sprecher Road area and other changes are really significant, and we may have to do more of a master plan that brings in all high school attendance areas into the mix.

– Jerry Eykholt

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3 Comments

Filed under Best Practices, Equity, Local News, Uncategorized

3 responses to “On west side boundary changes

  1. Jerry

    Good thoughts. Thank you.

    I was wondering if you have any more thoughts you would like to share about task forces in general (not just boundary task forces), especially in relation to your #3, #5 and #7. What I am getting at is your take on the (somewhat unrealized) potential (or lack of potential) for task forces to mitigate some of the “problems” identified and how this might be accomplished.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to the Equity Task Force and some I’ve talked to take the relative failure of some recent task forces to have issues explored and understood as a reason to just stop having task forces. I don’t agree and have tried to think of how things could be done in a better and more productive way.

    I am interested in your thoughts.

    TJ

  2. Jerry Eykholt

    TJ,

    I should first say that a lot can be gained by the task forces, and that I’m not necessarily nervous that the district abuses them. A bad task force isn’t composed of bad people – it’s often the outcome of a poorly developed mission. Administrators are ultimately in charge of taking the ideas forward, for finding ways to measure progress, and for distilling plans and outcomes to present task force recommendations to the public. If this is a bit undemocratic, I think there are some ways to improve things – but not to change fundamental roles of the task forces (a recommending body), the administration (an implementation body), or the school board (an oversight body).

    Still, I’m thinking there needs to be some more work in advance to really develop the objectives, metrics, and base data sets to be used in planning and discussion. One of the problems with the equity task force is that equity is such a broad concept, a quality that has different meanings to different people. It seemed that the equity task force came up with some important recommendations. Where does it go from here?

    For boundaries, we went through a process to identify our values – but not to set numerical standards for setting boundaries that would tend to dampen the large variation in low-income percentage in MMSD elementary schools. However, this was a specific charge from the school board. From our work on the long-range planning task force, we made very little progress on using boundary changes to change the make-up of schools. This came about primarily through finding good boundaries for the new school. I think the goal was a bit bigger than what we got.

    There are some crazy boundary solutions that were set up 20 years ago or more, and people think of the boundaries as legal property markers that cannot be moved. Oddly, it might be necessary to go through a major revision of boundaries just to break this cold-hard resistance that nothing can change with boundaries. Although a starting point could be that the district identify a logical outer boundary of each school border that is in play, it may become apparent to people that good solutions can be accomplished with quite moderate changes in boundaries. This automatically sets up opportunities for a mix up, and (with our super-duper spatial databases) we can come up with rather quick data summaries for alternative plans.

    The problem is our inflexibility, some coming from good reasons and painful history. It can waste millions of dollars and a lot of our community energy on long debates. Ultimately, we’re not focusing on learning and educational resources.

    I’m not so innocent, though. I, at one point, argued against a boundary plan that would have taken a significant number of low-income students from Midvale-Lincoln. The main reason was that there was no realistic plan to bring more students into M-L, and no over-arching basis for balancing boundaries at other schools. It’s this lack of basis and standard that causes the most problems.

    I did learn a lot from the experiences of other members, though. I realized that schools with lower percentages of low-income kids might have some greater needs (because M-L was already very well supported). Schools without the ability and tools to adapt to rapidly changing low-income populations seem to have the greatest need. My defensiveness about M-L really decreased during task force meetings, and I began to realize that we’re all dealing with much the same issues.

    For the finesse of the best solutions, we’re ultimately talking about community negotiation, and there are probably experts around that can facilitate this.

    Administrators and/or board members could clarify the mission and set up some useful, quantitative tools. To be most meaningful, the rationale behind the metrics should be presented. I’m skeptical about having perfect metrics (they probably don’t exist) – but we have to start with something that is somewhat definitive (budgets, staffing ratios, low-income percentage targets, maximum walking distance, diversity scores, critical cultural and community connections, and more). It’s important that experts set the prioritization and rationale for the metrics to be used (which may be multiple and ranked) – because the task forces rarely come to consensus about these sorts of things.

    So, we need some clarity on the mission of task forces. We also need to identify that new ideas and creative strategies can emerge from the task forces, and that development of a team of folks who know certain issues well is a real asset to the district. We’re certain to have similar problems in the near future and we’ll need to draw from the knowledge and deeper perspective – one that may be mellowed and winnowed by self-study, the community discussion, and reflection.

    Sorry for my long note. I imagine parts of it will be used against me someday!

    – Jerry

  3. Thanks again Jerry

    I have a busy day and only have time to touch on two tangential things you said (I hope to we can continue on the more central and bring some other voices in…hint, hint).

    The first is:

    “I did learn a lot from the experiences of other members…I began to realize that we’re all dealing with much the same issues.”

    This was very much my experience on the Equity Task Force and I believe the experience of many others. Task Forces aren’t the only way to make this happen, but they offer the advantage of tending to draw upon those who are already involved and active and therefore in a position to spread this truth.

    “I imagine parts of it will be used against me someday!”

    As you might guess, I gave up that worry long ago, but I still worry about things I say being used against my friends and causes.

    TJ

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