Monday, March 25, 2013

We win the lottery

The meaning of "public school choice" varies significantly by locale.  In the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC) while there are a couple of small Charter Schools, what we are primarily talking about are Magnet Schools vs. your neighborhood school.

I wrote about our Kindergarten search five years ago and our Intermediate School selection process this past January. I mentioned that we had settled on the LaSalle Academy program as our first choice.  Sarah's three closest friends made the same determination.  (I refer to this group of BFFs as the Fearsome Foursome.)

To secure admission to LaSalle one must pass an admissions exam.  School officials know that more children will pass the exam than there will be spots available for admission, so the "winners" next enter a lottery.  The lottery determines those accepted immediately, the others go on the wait list.

This process and situation create two significant problems for the community.

As mentioned in the prior post, it is the case that the facilities and course selection at LaSalle are significantly more attractive than the other public school alternatives.  I mean no disrespect to all the hardworking, inspired and inspiring individuals working in the other schools.  LaSalle enjoys much in the way of outside investment, and due to its reputation seems likely to keep it.  You folks aren't given the same resources.

Last January, Oletha Jones of our local NAACP chapter had a viewpoint published in the South Bend Tribune entitled "Consent Decree Speaks To Current Problems".  The consent decree she refers to is a desegregation agreement by the South Bend community schools which came as a result of the Brown v. Board Of Education Supreme Court ruling.

I'd characterize her argument this way:  We have successfully moved from the prior "separate but equal" status quo, but we are now in a "not separate, not equal" condition.  She wrote:

We will not dispute student assignment is perhaps one of the most important requirements of the law, but there are other requirements to the law that need to be followed. We will refer to the Civil Rights Project most recent report of "Deepening Segregation, and Challenges Educators and Political Leaders to Develop Positive Policies." In this report, the authors underscore the fact that "simply sitting next to a white student does not guarantee better educational outcomes for students of color." And among the recommendations stated is that schools give "priority in competing for funds to pro-integration policies; changing the operation of choice plans so that they foster rather than undermine integration."

Even if the corporation is in compliance of the consent decree through student assignment in the magnet schools, how does that bring about compliance in the other schools? When we discuss compliance we are not simply talking about student assignment, we are also referring to equality in academics. Even if the student assignment is diverse, does that guarantee the students in the magnet program are diverse, especially in the school within a school, like the
High Schools?

I served on the magnet committee last year for the corporation. A suggestion that I made was the same curriculum and environment afforded to Kennedy and LaSalle, the blue ribbon schools, be afforded in all of the buildings. This is really the only way to establish full compliance with the consent decree both by the letter and spirit of the law.

The other problem is that even were we unconcerned with the first problem, not all children who are equipped for challenging curicula will have the chance to participate.  This is where the consent decree muddies the waters.  We can't have a straight up gifted school that admits by test score rank (assuming that was valid) because we need to honor demographic factors.  Separately, we can't have all our Intermediate Centers offer the same rich ciricula because the State of Indiana doesn't believe in making a reasonable investment in public education.  Its an unfair situation which tends to place members of our community in competition with each other when what we ought to be concerned about is good outcomes for all our children.

This came home to roost as the LaSalle letters were received by parents late last week.

The Fearsome Foursome are all very bright, well regarded, hardworking, Honorollees.  No doubt that any of them can handle the work. All of them passed the test.  Three of them were accepted (including our daughter), one was wait-listed.  What would you say to her?

The Search For Next Year's School

This is a re-post of an essay from January - "Middle School Mambo" in preparation for a follow-up piece.

It's been five years, though it sure doesn't seem like it, since I wrote about our process of picking the best primary school situation for our daughter.  We have been entirely pleased with our choice.  At Hay Primary Center our Sarah has blossomed and thrived.  But we've run out of grade levels there and another choice must be made.

In South Bend, IN (in the public school realm) parents have a few options for grades 5 - 8.  Our district school is Jackson.  Parents can also apply to some magnet programs:  LaSalle (Academy Program), Jefferson (Traditional Program) and Dickinson (Fine Arts).  We explored all four options to some degree and I thought I'd share our experience.

The magnet concept grew out a desegregation order coupled with the recognition that programs were being narrowed due to continual budget cutbacks.  Not without some drawbacks, it is a fairly neat strategy.

The basic premise is to offer attractive stuff to entice advantaged children to buildings located in neighborhoods primarily populated by disadvantaged kids. The district residents enjoy preferred status in most cases (in terms of admission) but have other options as well.  As you'll soon discover, the magnet programs vary significantly in terms of offerings and resources.  This is due to significant portions of their programs being dependent upon grants - outside the resources of the School Corporation budget.  One can easily visualize the potential that there will be ebbs and flows - thus some worries about the stability of offerings.

The first step is the South Bend Community School Corporation Magnet Fair.  This happened last fall at the Century Center, and each magnet program had a table set up with literature and people to talk with. We were primarily focused on learning about the LaSalle and Dickinson programs.  We planned to explore Jackson's offerings at a future date.

It was nicely done.  Dickinson had student musicians performing, LaSalle had their robotics club, etc.  There was a big crowd coming to see the offerings. It was crowded and noisy, and pretty darn great.

The Academy and Traditional middle school programs have counterpart programs in the Primary Centers, and I'd never been clear about what differentiated the two.  When you read the literature you have the impression that serious study and discipline are the prime focus of both.  Adding to my confusion was the insistence by the Primary Academy spokesperson that their program was not a "gifted student" program.

Anyway, we spoke with the LaSalle and Dickinson folks, picked up an application and made note of their open house dates.  Then we noticed Jefferson's table. Though we hadn't considered Jefferson, we thought we'd take the opportunity of talking with their representatives as well.

So we wandered over to the table, where the woman there proudly expostulated about their "B" rating from the state this year.  We gamely nodded, but my wife and I are highly unimpressed with the Tony Bennett grading scheme - particularly since the school that has set up our daughter for success was saddled with a "D".  Still, it seemed a good opportunity to ask the question I had on my mind.  The woman seemed a bit flummoxed by my query and motioned to the man a few steps away - the Principal apparently.

Turning towards him, I explained my confusion and asked, "So how does your program differ from LaSalle's?"  He gave a bit of a smirk and replied, "Well, it's like Lyndon Johnson explained the difference between the Senate and the House - 'one is chicken soup and the other is chicken ....'"

I was taken aback, to say the least.  I was a serious parent asking a serious question, and this was far from a serious response.  Plus, he seemed to be implying that LaSalle's program was somehow inferior to his - a laughable proposition.  So I stopped taking him seriously.

My wife was more game and pressed for useful information.  We discovered that Jefferson is primarily a neighborhood school with a magnet subset.  The magnet program appears to be of the infamous "no excuses" ilk - where children are taught to submit and become useful worker ants in the collective.  Our inference in the end was that this program was aimed at parents who thought their kids are screw-ups or might become screw-ups in the future.  One down.

Our first open house was at LaSalle.  Small groups of parents were assigned three LaSalle students (each) as guides.  The students took turns describing the facility and answering questions.  LaSalle has pretty complete offerings in terms of curriculum - including three years of Spanish.  Bus transportation is available and the school enjoys an excellent reputation, even nationally.  Students must test in.

Next up was Dickinson.  The fine arts magnet was the one I originally thought might be the most comfortable fit for our daughter.  She's a bit of an artsy gal, and I thought she might really blossom with more opportunity to explore that.  I also have some concern about how she'd react to the pressure of an Academy program.

But Dickinson is very much a work in progress.  They don't have anything much like a science lab.  They offer no foreign language instruction.  Their arts program is heavily weighted towards the visual category - it would be difficult to do much music and theater in combination.  Also, no bus transportation (though we did know that in advance).  On the plus side, like LaSalle, they offer pretty extensive after school options.  It's pretty clear that a great deal of what they offer and what they hope to offer is dependent upon grants - which makes it's future less predictible.

My wife then made an appointment for us to see Jackson.  Unlike the other schools, we went while classes were in session.  A teacher showed us around the building and answered many of our questions - then we had a sitdown Q & A with the Principal. 

If the decision were to be made purely upon the Principal, the nod would have to go to Jackson.  Margaret Schaller is an extraordinarily impressive person and a clear force for good.  As for the school building itself, Jackson is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporaticly offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes, and one would assume that would be per subject.  Ms. Schaller tried to put a good face on it, claiming "Kids learn by taking tests" - her only dubious claim in our meeting.

It's bad enough that kids lose 90 minutes of instruction time every three weeks (in service to only the ISTEP monster) but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

I've known kids who have gone to LaSalle and (prior to that) Kennedy Academy, and many of them seem emotionally wounded.  It's a chicken and egg proposition to determine what caused what, but they certainly seemed ill suited for programs as demanding as these.  This knowledge in part caused us to choose Hay over Kennedy five years ago. I am also bothered by the knowledge that if you have a high acheiving kid and want to be in the public school realm - there really is only one clear choice in intermediate centers in South Bend.

But our daughter, who we view as sensitive and perhaps a bit delicate, comes from two very tough-minded parents.  She'll probably do fine in a more demanding setting, and course availablity and content begins to matter more at her current age.  Also, her three closest friends have picked LaSalle as their number one choice.  So they all four will be taking the entrance exam soon.

Since Kindergarten, our daughter has raced up the steps of her bus each day - she's that eager to go to school.  Our great hope is that that won't change.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Part 3: Decision Time

Part 3 of our Kindergarten Odyssey

Beginning with the Kennedy Academy Cattle Call , and followed by parts two and three , I have shared the process of enrolling our daughter into Kindergarten for the next academic year. This has turned out to be a very different process for Paddy and me than it was for my parents.

Growing up in Evanston, IL (District 65), my parents probably walked the two blocks to Willard Elementary School and registered me. Because I was born in the first half of the calendar year, I was placed in afternoon Kindergarten. Willard would have been the obvious choice. That school system was very good and remains so today.

In our case as parents, we considered four public school magnet programs, our neighborhood school, one charter school and two private school options. The private schools were terrifically expensive, and I'm a firm believer in participating in the public school system - unless there's serious evidence that doing so will harm your child's chances for a good outcome.

If everyone withdraws their advantaged child from the public school system it will soon become a Medicaid version of education. That's what people like Bush and Daniels are shooting for. The children in it will be from poor families, or developmentally challenged, or both. Class sizes which work fine for kids "ready to learn" don't work so well with kids who only eat at school, or have dysfunctional family lives or worse. The anemic Title 1 programs can't keep up with the current circumstances - there is no chance of them being able to handle every kid in every public school.

I've made this sound like a simple decision, but it isn't. It's very hard. Where does the line of your child's outcome intersect with you being a responsible citizen? I'd only suggest that it should be thought about carefully.

We have the incredible advantage of a good neighborhood school. Sarah will be able to meet kids in her neighborhood (as I did), whom she can form friendships with, invite here, etc. She will be going to Hay Primary Center.

But let's say we were living in my house on Dayton St., and the neighborhood school was Lincoln - everything would be different. The neighborhood school option wouldn't be nearly so attractive - we'd likely pick another option. All because we lived a few miles away from where we do; though in the same school system.

So I'll be happy Sarah's at Hay, and I'll be thinking about how we can make all our neighborhood schools more like Hay.

Update:  Hay received a "D" rating from the Indiana DOE for the 2011-2012 academic year.  A total crock.

Our Next Stop

Part two of the Kindergarten Odyssey series

When Paddy started looking into our daughter, Sarah’s, options, she contacted Kennedy Academy to arrange a tour of the facility. The response from the administrator was that they didn’t permit that sort of thing there. We were told we could attend an upcoming open house - if we liked.

Well, we didn’t much like, but that’s what we did. I wrote about that experience previously.

Our neighborhood school is Hay Primary Center and that was to be our next stop. Paddy’s call there had a completely different result. The principal (who has miscellaneous other duties) had to check his schedule, but then called back and set up a meeting for 12:30 earlier this week.

As it turns out, Hay is one of the best performing of the neighborhood school system. Though its test scores are not as high as Kennedy’s they are at or above state average and well above the district averages. And it’s important to remember, Hay does not self select for “students ready to learn”.

Hay has also achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) (as determined by the No Child Left Behind act) each year. Ninety-four percent of their teachers are deemed “highly qualified” and most of the faculty has long tenure in this particular school. Interestingly, Kennedy’s figure is eighty-four percent.

When we arrived for our meeting, I felt a big difference in the atmosphere of the building itself. The entrance opened into a generous lobby, almost every running foot of the facility was covered with students’ artwork. Though a modest structure, the cinder block walls were painted with warm and bold colors. The place felt comfortable and welcoming.

Because Kennedy wouldn’t allow visitation while in session, some comparisons between the two schools become difficult. The students we saw at Hay seemed relaxed, attentive and pretty happy, for the most part. This impressed me quite a bit because the learning atmosphere interests me at least as much as the specific programs available.

After a short wait, the Principal, Craig Haenes, welcomed us into his modest office which was adjacent to the Teachers’ Lounge. Unlike the Kennedy principal, he was a very warm and more relaxed person. He was genuinely pleased to talk to us and very proud of the work and record of his school. There was a lot he wanted to tell us.

He told us their superior English test scores were likely due to a reading program (Wilson LiPS) he had successfully lobbied for that only his school (in the SBCSC) was using (up until this year). He told us that Hay had accepted a number of students from Wilson Primary due to that school’s AYP challenges. He boasted of the active PTO at Hay, went into great detail about the many programs and answered all of our questions. Then we went on a lengthy tour.

It was pretty impressive the way they had made do. The school has been through changes over the years and in the latest incarnation the number of grade levels in the building is fewer than in the past. So when a computer lab was deemed necessary a no longer needed shower room off the gym was converted to that use. It’s an odd sight – children leaning into old Macs in a room that is completely lined with ceramic tile.

He let us poke our heads into several working classrooms, introduced us to passing faculty…

In all, he spent over an hour and a half with us in an attempt to close us on his enterprise. As you can tell, he did a heck of a job on me.

I suspect the Academy model is highly beneficial for many students. If your life lacks adequate discipline or structure, then I have no doubt of the benefit of those characteristics in one’s schooling. Unfortunately, the children who probably need those elements the most are unlikely to be “ready to learn”.

Underlying those things appears to be a serious drive to success and I’m not sure these qualities are what our five year old really needs at this point in her life.

I wish I knew more children who attend Kennedy. The only two I know are fairly nervous people.

There is a certain mythic ism among people we know, about the program. Originally, I bought in completely to the idea of -- if you have the choice – this is where you want your kid to go. But now I’m leaning the other way.

Of course, maybe we’ll be turned down by Kennedy.

And to be honest, it’s a nice problem to have to pick between these programs.

The Kennedy Academy Cattle Call

I am re-posting the series I wrote when we were exploring our daughter's options for Kindergarten.  This was the first installment.

My wife Paddy, I and daughter Sarah recently visited John F. Kennedy Academy on the west side of South Bend recently for Sarah’s admission test. That’s right -- there is a test to determine whether one is worthy to enroll in Kindergarten in that school.

To be fair – some winnowing is needed. This year, for example, 295 students are vying for 115 openings in the program. Still, the idea of my child facing a pivotal moment in her life -- when she’s not yet five – makes me uneasy. More on that later.

For those unfamiliar with the evolving South Bend School Corporation program, a magnet school program has been in place for some time. By next year, the program will have expanded to four target schools. The purpose of this concept, as I understand it, is twofold:

SBSC has struggled to achieve racial balance in the system and (like in most areas) forced bussing has not gone over well. Our neighborhoods probably are segregated more in terms of socioeconomic status than by strict racial lines, but of course there is a racial component to SES. By placing attractive programs in schools which are located in “minority” neighborhoods, a certain amount of voluntary integration is achieved.

The other half of the strategy is to offer programs with specialized emphases at the magnet schools. I won’t attempt to explain the distinctions (I’m not sure I understand them entirely) – rather I’ll use the broad terms employed by the school corporation. An academy program, a traditional program, a fine arts program and a Montessori Method program are available by application to students in the district – all in addition to the standard neighborhood schools.

Back to the stock pens…

Our odyssey to primary education began with an orientation session in early December along with dozens of other families. This consisted of a presentation and a tour, which I found pretty useful. But it, and the subsequent event, began somewhat inauspiciously.

The Kennedy School building was constructed in the 1960s when architects seemed to be fixated on innovation. Necessary components of innovation seemed to require that the buildings be severe and dramatically ugly. Rough, unpigmented concrete was the fa├žade of choice in many of these buildings and Kennedy is no exception.

The main entrance can only be described as weird. One enters through a short, narrow vestibule (which provides an airlock). That empties into a small, round lobby. There are no exterior windows, only glass block. There is one small interior window – reminiscent of a ticket window – on a curved wall which offers the only contact with the front office. Every event seems to begin with us being held in this small pen until those in charge granted us access to a larger area.

On our test date about thirty children were invited. They were split up into six groups of five and led off to their testing out of our view. I found that mildly disconcerting – but that’s on me, not on them. I’m the parent of a young child and I will have to adjust. And I will.

That left the parents and ancillary children in the gymnasium for a presentation given by the school principal. There’s no point in sugar coating this – it was dreadful. The principal is likely a highly capable administrator, but the material was not well organized and redundant in a repetitive way. The delivery was bordering on admonishment.

Here’s what I got out of it. They expect children to come to school. Children can’t learn if they’re not at school. Children need to behave in socially acceptable ways. The Academy program is not targeted at “gifted” students; rather, those ready to learn. (That point was made three or four times). Parents are expected to help teachers, if not in classrooms, then in other ways. Unlike the Traditional Magnet program, we weren’t required to pledge a certain number of hours of service. (Whew – there’s a load off). A certain level of conformity is expected of the children -- including corporation approved attire. You get the idea.

At a certain point, glancing at my bride and noting her expression, I leaned over and whispered something like, “Don’t worry, it won’t really be that bad for her”. She replied with a quick, somewhat weak, grin.

At this point you may wonder why Paddy and I would be so interested in having Sarah go to Kennedy. As Pad and I discussed later, where is the emphasis on the joy of learning, personal growth and creativity so necessary for successful learning?

The answer is that we have a lot of anecdotal information that tells us that children thrive at the Kennedy Academy. We socialize and interact with people who value the concepts of joy, growth and creativity and have heard many accounts from them that their children do very well in the program. In fact, I have not heard an exception to this.

We are relying a bit on that. The information from the school itself is rather off-putting.

This experience did make me think about some larger issues. That will be the theme of a follow-up piece.

What do you think it symbolizes?