Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Curriculum - Arts & Music

During Jeff's update on curriculum, he talked about the impact of the budget cuts on the music program. A couple of key ideas here:

1) Instrumental Music will still be available to all 5th and 6th grade students. This is great- there was a lot of support for instrumental music during the discussions, so it's good to see that this is staying.

2) I need to get more detail, but Jeff mentioned that they were trying to work out some better options for kids who don't want to play an instrument. It wasn't 100% clear what this might look like (drama classes? art appreciation? music theory?) but it was great to see that we're not just flushing things away. I'll try to get more data on this and update the posting.

Curriculum Updates - Math

During the Board meeting this week, Jeff Baier provided a couple of updates on the Curriculum.

In the "Normal Update" topic: We've already discussed that the Math Curriculum is being updated this year. The pilots are going well. For those interested in looking at the materials, they are:

Scott Forseman enVision Mathematics
Houghton Mifflin (no link available)

You can also check out the materials in the district office.

One big benefit of the new math curriculum is that both texts support letting students work at their own pace foe each unit. If a child is "at grade level" for multiplication, they can do the exercises for "at level" students. However, if they are more adept at geometry, they can take on the more challenging geometry exercises.

The one concern raised about this concept of having three streams in a single classroom is that we'll need to make sure the teachers are pushing the kids and teaching across all three levels. The texts are designed with a single set of instructional materials, but different exercises. The parent who spoke up (not me) was concerned that the teachers might not push the kids to attempt the harder materials. This is definitely something we have discussed at the District Curriculum Council. We'll see how the feedback comes in from the 30+ pilot classrooms we're running.

Updates from the Board Meeting

I attended the Board meeting Tuesday night. Key take-aways:
  • As expected, the Board approved the layoff plan for all classified staff. We knew this was part II of the process. My only complaint is that they don't actually read the resolution out loud before they vote on it. If they decided to change who was affected, how would we know?
  • There were a couple of Curriculum Updates, which I'll include in a separate post.
  • We are now looking for 4 principals. This seems strange, given that last year we also hired 4 principals. That amounts to 100% turnover in just 2 years. There hasn't been any public discussion about this. It would be interesting to know if this has hit anyone's radar.

In the context of the budget, the admin staff has agreed to cap their benefits next year as a way of helping save money. The exact dollar amount of savings was not discussed. While any savings is good, I can't help but be a bit underwhelmed. Usually in situations like this, management sets the example by taking a greater cut than everyone else. If this is the best "management" puts on the table, it would not be entirely surprising that the LATA might take a hard line. Even if LATA makes a concession now, I will not be stunned to hear of bitter negotiations at the next contract discussion. Essentially the message this sends to certificated staff is "if you want to save the jobs of your colleagues, that's up to you."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Reminder: Important Board Meeting Tonight


Just a quick reminder that the LASD Board meets tonight. At the last board meeting, they agreed to the plan to reduce certificated staff. That is generally "core teachers". Tonight they'll discuss reduction in certificated staff. Certificated staff ranges the spectrum from the secretaries in the office to, librarians and in some cases folks we think of as "teachers". Please make every effort to attend and show support for these important and valued employees.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Advanced Math at Egan

At the Board meeting, a couple of folks expressed concern about having ~75-100 more drop-offs at the Jr High Schools. I am aware that there have been some issues- these same folks have come to the meetings previously and asked the Board to help them. Adding more bodies at the peak time seems daunting.

I suggested to Jeff Baier that they shift the start time just for kids taking Adv Math. Those 6th graders will all be in the same sections, and their classes will all start first thing in the morning. Rather than have them start at 8:12 like the rest of the school, I suggested that they start at 7:55. Their drop-offs would then be out of the peak drop-off time (giving parents like me an easier trip from Egan to Gardner Bullis to drop off my other child.) It would also create 20 minutes of prep time for the Adv Math teachers, between their 1st period and their second period class.

Jeff needs to look into some things to see if this is doable. (For one thing, it means the teacher would have to start earlier). I'd be interested in comments from folks about whether you think this is a good idea.

Kids and the Layoff

We explained to our daughters that they should wear pink tomorrow to show support for the teachers who will receive their pink slips tomorrow. McKenna asked who is affected. Since it's not official, and there's a sliver of hope that we'll be able to save these folks,we chose not to tell her who. She burst into tears and said "Please don't let it be Mrs. Evenhuis. She's really good and I really like her."

Our thoughts are with those of you who will be affected tomorrow. Hopefully this will pass, and we can work out a way to balance the budget.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Per Pupil Spending

After tonight's School Board meeting, Tom Campbell and I had a lively discussion about per-student spending. During the meeting, a Board member said that California is 47th in the country in per-student spending. Tom felt that the per-student figures are meaningless. While I agree that it's possible to lie through the statistics, there might be merit in a claim that CA is missing the boat if we're 47th in the country. After all, Los Altos is a very expensive place to live. It costs more to service a car here, to visit a dentist,, and even to buy groceries. It should stand to reason that our expenditures per pupil would also be higher than some, if not all of the other parts of the country.

This prompted me to go do some research. I wanted to know how the LASD stacked up against the national averages. I looked up the statistics on the US Census Bureau web site. The latest data they have is for 2005. Here's what I found:

CA Spending Per Pupil: $8,067
LASD Spending Per Pupil $9,739

(sources: US Census 2005 Annual Survey of Local Government Finances,
LASD 2008-09 Budget Executive Summary)

The CA per pupil spending ranks us 27th in the country, not 47th as was stated at the School Board meeting. The LASD per student spending would put us 15th compared to the other states.

Having said that, I stand by my earlier post about the desperate need to improve the district funding. We just want to make sure we're accurate in the process.

Broken Budget

Fresh from the school board meeting...

The most important thing to remember is that the budget model as a whole is highly dysfunctional. Having teacher salaries and school supplies be paid for out of year-to-year monies like the LAEF and the PTA puts our district in a constantly precarious position. Every year we have to reassess whether we can fund that science aide, that new chalk board. We need to move to a model where the community, which benefits greatly from having a top-notch school district, is funding a bigger portion of the program. After all, the property value you save may be your own.

I was on the Parcel Tax Survey Committee earlier this year. Unfortunately, in the current climate, there's just no way to pass a meaningful parcel tax. I believe that the current restructure does what we need it to do- that is, it keeps the district functioning as best we possibly can until the economy improves. Once that happens, I believe we should press hard for a parcel tax that more adequately funds the type of program we all want the children in this district to enjoy.

Until then... watch for a bake sale near you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Class (Size) Warfare

I've been asked by a few people what's the story with class size reduction. The 2009-10 budget shows that we'll save $300,000 in class size reduction. Here's where the money comes from... and goes to...

The State of California sends funding to school districts in exchange for a commitment to keep class sizes for K-3 at ~21 students per teacher. That money does not completely offset the cost of the additional teachers needed to fit under the size limit, but it's a start.

In the past, if you didn't meet the threshold, the penalties were pretty strong- I believe if you went over the threshold, you lost ALL of the funding for those students. Under the new budget, they've set up several tiers. Thus, the district would get 100% of the funding if we're under 21 students per class, but we'll still get 70% of the funding if we're under 24 students per class.

Obviously this isn't a simple equation. If you have exactly 42 first grade students at your site, there is no savings to create one class of 24 students and one class of 18. However, we do have several instances where we have "cohort groups" (an entire group at a grade level) that makes this recombination attractive because the numbers work out. If a campus has 72 first grade students, we'd currently be running 4 classes of 18 students each. Under the new plan, we could run 3 classes of 24 each and still qualify for 70% of the State subsidy.

Across the district, it works out such that we can eliminate 10 teacher positions and combine classes into these slightly larger rooms. We'd save something like $600,000 (my est.) in teacher salaries and benefits, but it is offset by a reduced state subsidy. The district has done all the puts-and-takes and determined that we'll net $300,000 in savings. Based on comments from the School Board, I *believe* they are not planning on moving kids to different campuses to achieve this savings.

What to do:
If this were my daughter's class, I'd be very concerned about an increase from 18-20 kids up to 24 kids. It's a big load on a teacher. I would expect that next fall, the K-3 teachers will be looking for more parent volunteer hours to help in the classroom. This particularly makes sense with things like reading groups, where breaking the kids into small groups is desirable. We can all help by planning for more volunteer hours next fall.

Keep in mind, also, that Classroom Size Reduction is the #1 item to be brought back as we find sustainable funding. That means that if the LATA gives something back in their contract, or LAEF finds a spare $300K under the mattress, this is the first program we'll restore. Hopefully this will come to pass and it won't be an issue.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Advanced Math

One of the items on the budget list is a change to Advanced Math. I currently serve on the District Curriculum Council, where we are evaluating new math text books for next year, and I wanted to share a little bit about the new texts and how it might impact the advanced math program.

Please note: I am speaking for myself, not as official position for the DCC.

Much of the current thinking on teaching kids math has changed from when the LASD AdvMath program was created. Our current program labels children as "gifted" in math largely based on computational skills. We test a student, she completes a certain number of equations accurately within a specific time period, so we decide that child is gifted. The "reward" for being so labeled is that you skip an entire year of math concepts and move on to a different track. Our Jr. High math teachers report that this has created some problems in that some of the AdvMath kids have alarming holes in their depth of understanding of specific concepts. Basically, they learn some concepts just enough to get through the material, but they didn't master it the way their peers did. This includes kids who got all "A's" in advanced math.

Newer thinking on this topic is different. Experts now seem to agree that kids may have some areas where they are ahead of their peers, and other areas where they are at peer level- that the idea of "gifted" as being absolute isn't necessarily true. The focus is now on adapting the texts to challenge kids where it is appropriate, and yet make sure they cover all of the material in an appropriate way. The two new texts we are considering cater to this idea.

I had a chance to review both texts currently under evaluation for use within the district. There are a couple of key changes to how they teach:

  • The way material is first presented to kids has changed. At least one of the texts draws on Singapore Math presentation concepts, which tend to be more visual in nature. Feedback from teachers so far has been very positive about the ease with which kids of all levels are learning with this approach.
  • With the advent of better presentation methods, more time is spent on presentation and less time on sheer practice - and we've seen better results in comprehension and retention as a result.
  • Within the exercises the kids do, they are broken out into groups for advanced students, at level students, and students who need more support. This would allow kids within the same class to do different problems based on their abilities.
  • Both texts also emphasize evaluation at the beginning of the chapter as well as the end. This would allow the teacher to see that the student is "above level" in one particular chapter and "at level" in a different chapter-- and then assign exercises for that chapter accordingly.

That last bullet is important. Being able to tailor the curriculum to each child, not only at the "whole year" level, but on a week-by-week basis is a big plus.

One of my daughters was not in advanced math in grade 4, but was in it for grade 5. Grade 4 math was tedious and painful until her principal began pulling her and several of her peers out of math to work with them in a small group setting on math problems that were appropriate for their skills. This is exactly what the new curricula aim to do- tailor the programs to the kids' skills.

The district may still move kids into different groups for math (i.e. one classroom might have students who predominately do the "advanced" exercises), but the flexibility of the materials really helps in that we would be less constrained by building a class of exactly 28 kids who meet the "advanced math" criteria.

One blog post won't change your mind if you're highly intent on having a child in "advanced math" What I will say, though, is that the new curriculum allows greater flexibility for the kids and the instructors. I think this is a good thing all the way around.

For continuity reasons, kids currently in 5th grade will finish out 6th grade in the curriculum they are already using. AdvMath 5th grade students are currently studying 6th grade materials. Their next stop is pre-algebra, which is normally offered to 7th grade students. For logistical reasons, we can save some money by having those kids take math at their respective Jr High Schools. As a parent of a 5th grader, that's not terrible-- but I'm really looking forward to seeing my second grader work in the new math program.

Budget Review

I attended the LASD Board meeting on Monday to get a better understanding of how the CA State budget is going to impact the district.

The good news: projections for the district deficit have ranged from $0 to $3.6m. Assuming the State budget holds, our deficit is actually ~$500K for the 2009-2010 school year. That's a lot better than we thought.

The less-than-good news: If all we do is fix the $500K hole, we're in a worse position next year.

I'm pleased that the district office has decided to take a structural approach to fixing the budget. While it would be tempting to look at the current financial crisis and hope that it will pass, few economists are actually predicting a rapid economic recovery. It only makes sense to fix this problem at a structural level and to start living within our means.

Randy Kenyon led an excellent presentation to explain all of the puts and takes on the budget.
(link to presentation)

The deck splits into three sections:
Section I explains the budget in broad terms, including some one-time sweeps we can make to recoup some money from this year into next year's budget. The key concept here is that we have a long term deficit issue, so we want to figure out how to take ~$2m out of the ongoing expenditures. That would give us break-even cash flow for approximately 5-6 years into the future.

Section II lists "efficiency gains" that the district is making. These are decisions that we should be making just because they are good management decisions. It's the sort of thing a Finance department does all the time, with or without a crisis. It can be summed up as "how to do the same thing for less money."

Section III is the hard part. These are program reductions. Every one of these is painful, and people feel passionate about each one of the cuts. The reality is that we have a serious crisis, so we have to make these tough decisions. I'll do another post on my take on these cuts later. Section III is presented in priority sequence. That is to say, as we find additional funding, we'd bring back those programs in the order in which they appear in the deck. (i.e. Class Size reduction is the first thing to return.)

Prior to the Board meeting, I proposed to the District Office and the Board of Trustees that they make a concerted effort to explain the current program and the impact of each proposed change. I'm pleased that they have tried to do that in most of this presentation.

While none of the cuts are trivial, they are trying to figure out how to deliver as much of the program as possible while still setting ourselves up for a budget that we can live with for more than just this year. Some of these cuts affect my kids, and I'm sure that most of you are affected by one or more of the proposed changes. It's tempting to plead for the specific changes that impact my kids, but unless I can propose where else the money should come from, I'm trying to restrict myself to learning how best to help my kids, and keep my pleas for clemency for my pet programs to a minimum.

More to come...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Introductions are in order. I'm a parent in the LASD, with two daughters currently attending Gardner Bullis. Prior to the 2008-09 school year, we attended Almond Elementary. As a parent, I'm generally pleased with the high quality of the academic instruction and the richness of the program our kids receive. We are very fortunate to have such a robust program and dedicated District employees to deliver that program to our kids.

About a year ago there was a situation at my daughters' elementary school that caused me to get more interested in how the district is run. We've always been involved as best we could -classroom time, volunteer work for various extracurriculars, etc. I've also served on the Almond Site Council and am currently on the District Curriculum Council. However, I felt that the flow of information from the District isn't what it could be. My only goal with this blog is to try to share information.I can't possibly represent all of the good work that is going on within the District. There are PTA's, many different advisory panels and councils, and parents contribute literally tens of thousands of volunteer hours in the classroom. I can't possibly cover all the work that all of these people do. If you're active in some aspect of the district that I don't know about, please feel free to contact me. If you'd like to write your own posting, I welcome your contributions. If you'd like to have me summarize what you're up to, or provide a link to your own material, that's OK too.

The whole point of communication is that it's a bi-directional process. Hopefully I can share something useful to you, and I can learn something from you as well.

Best wishes,