Sunday, January 31, 2010

BCS Appeal of Lawsuit

Yesterday after the Charter School Summit, I was chatting with a neighbor about the BCS appeal of the Nov ruling from Judge Kleinberg. You'll recall that the Judge ruled in favor of the district on all but one count. In a 28 page ruling, the Judge took pains to point out that "to the extent that some of the [BCS] supporters cannot reconcile themselves to the policy decisions made by elected bodies such as a school district board their energies might be better directed at the ballot box than the courthouse."

Despite this unambiguous direction, the Charter School has chosen to appeal the ruling. I find this disappointing. It will force the District to spend yet more money to defend what the courts have already ruled on -- that the district has complied with our legal obligation to provide "reasonably equivalent facilities" to BCS.

I have mentioned that I've reached out to BCS Board members. I have been polite but firm with my own personal thoughts on this matter. That is, since the courts have already ruled (4 times!) that the district is in compliance with Prop 39, litigating this further is a waste of taxpayer money. To the extent that they'd like to get something better than facilities that the courts have already ruled are "reasonably equivalent", litigating with us isn't the way to reach that goal.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Charter School Summit

Today I attended the Charter School Summit at the County office of education. This summit was created by the county's Charter School Task Force to "Increase collaboration among school districts, the County Office of Education, and charter schools" I'd like to share a few thoughts on this summit because I think it's an important dialogue.

Many forces in education at the County, State, and national levels strongly support charter schools. Legislation is passed with an explicit goal of increasing charter schools. Personally, I support the idea of charter schools for a couple of reasons.

Competition is good in business because it forces innovation. You have to be different from the competition to stand out and attract new customers. This forces companies to try new things. Strong ideas should flourish, and less effective ways should fall by the wayside. There is no reason to believe this doesn’t apply to education. One need only look at a small liberal arts college and a large public university to realize that in education, as in life, one size doesn’t fit all.
Data Integrity (hopefully)
One unique aspect of charter schools is that it creates competition while controlling some of the variables. For example, LASD does not try to compare our test scores to Los Angeles Unified. Our student populations are so different, the comparisons are meaningless. If a charter school within a district does something that is truly different, we have a better chance to compare the student s from the charter back to the traditional school and see if there’s a meaningful difference in the results.
If schools have truly unique offerings, we can actually compare those ideas and find the best way to reach kids. One of the common complaints from career educators is that their hands are tied by the regulations. You must teach “x” minutes of math, “y” minutes of reading, and here are the text books you can use. If charter schools truly seize their mandate, they’ll try doing things that are very different from their local schools. Then if they produce a better result, the local school will know that they can learn from it.

Charter schools, like real businesses, don’t always live up to their mandate. There are good charters and bad ones. One speaker from the US Dept. of Education today highlighted a charter school in another part of the country that was nearly all white in a largely minority neighborhood. There are also charter schools that have done wonderful things in finding new ways to engage kids from underserved communities where they would otherwise be lost in “the system”.

Overal the summit was good, but it's also fair to point out the shortfalls. It was organized by the county's Charter School Task Force with the goal of helping to "increase cooperation", but there seemed to be little in the way of serious debate about the points of disagreement. Cooperation is a two-way street. I don’t teach my kids to get along by telling them that the youngest one is always right and the older one needs to defer to her. Meaningful debate in this context means not loading up the panels with charter proponents. While lip service was paid to holding charters accountable, the reality is that there are two sets of rules- one for charters and one for districts. Who is favored by those two sets depends on whom you ask. Overall I came away with a sense of having been invited to a political rally as much as an educational summit, which is unfortunate.

Still it was worthwhile, if for nothing else than a chance to chat with several members of the board from BCS as well as some of their teachers. I’ve been trying to “reach across the aisle” over the past several months. I attended three BCS recruiting events to better understand their program. I’ve initiated private meetings with members of their board to discuss issues away from the charged political atmosphere. I have toured their campus during the school day to better understand what they do. I will continue to reach out and hopefully build some bridges. Time will tell as to whether that is an effort well spent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Emotional Reasons for FDK

What is a "Cohort group"? The first time I heard this term used at a school board meeting, I had to think about what was being described. In common terms, we're talking about a group of children who move through the school year together- typically a "grade level" at a school.

Recently we've been engaged in a discussion about offering full-day kindergarten at one or more campuses within LASD. At our recent Board Meeting, I spoke about the importance of having a reasonably sized group of students in a grade level and the impact that has on a school. This year, the district experienced a drop in kindergarten enrollment across the entire system, with Gardner Bullis and Covington being the most dramatically impacted. Both schools had comparable numbers of "no-shows" (students who enrolled, but didn't show up for the first day of school). At Covington, we can absorb that change a bit better because of the comparatively large size of the school, but at Gardner it has more of an impact.

A small class group creates some difficult social challenges for the kids. For example, there are roughly 20 boys and 7 girls in the entire sixth grade at GB. With only 7 girls, when there is a conflict between two of the girls, it tends to impact the entire group. Everyone hangs out together, so the conflict ends up affecting all of the girls. With only 20 boys, the question of "who is toughest?" takes on very real meaning, in ways we don't want in our schools. In a larger school, there are more kids, so if two kids aren't getting along, they can find different groups to play with and the impact is minimized.

We knew when we opened GB that the upper-most grades would be single sections, but the expectation is that over time, we'd have at least two sections of each grade. Last year's kindergarten enrollment was fine, but for a variety of reasons, this year's group is smaller than desired. Allowed to continue, this could have negative consequences for the group (more conflict, difficulty in class, etc.)

In looking for a solution, the obvious answer is to address the reason for the attrition in the kindergarten program. From parent surveys, we have found that the single largest factor was the desire to have their children in a full-day program. Thus, the "missing kids" from this year are off at private schools that offer FDK programs.

I'm very pleased to say that we have several proposals for how to address this so that it should not require any additional funding. The two kindergarten teachers, Ms. Lile and Ms. Goines, have both offered to teach full-day kindergarten sections without a classroom aide. This is a tremendous gesture on their part, and they are to be commended for their flexibility and willingness to be such a big part of the solution. However, it probably won't come to that. We've found other funding sources that are specific to this program & location that could cover the costs completely. (If I get requests for details, I'm happy to write it up here. Otherwise, I try to keep these posts from getting to long and boring.)

While I'm thanking people for their support, special thanks to the parents who attended the meeting. You'd be surprised how much that influences the process. Knowing that people care about an issue is a big inspiration for us as a Board. Your voices have been heard!

The net/net of this is that it looks very good for offering a full-day kindergarten option, at least at Gardner Bullis initially. If we decide to do this, we'll be committed to the program on an ongoing basis, and will also examine our ability to roll this out to other campuses after this year. Stay tuned for more details.

PS: Kindergarten info night are being held across the district on January 28th. I am hoping to attend the GB and perhaps the Almond sessions. If you're there, say hello!

BCS Update

Most folks aren't aware of the interactions that happen between the district and BCS. Just to give some visibility to that process:

By Nov 1, BCS provides a request for facilities

By Dec 1, the district may object to the attendence projections in the request if we desire

By Feb 1, the District must provide a "preliminary offer", which is a first draft of what they might receive. This draft is subject to change.

By March 1, BCS needs to respond to the offer with any concerns, requests, etc.

By April 1, We must provide a "Final Offer of Facilities."

You can think of the facilities offer as a very detailed contract. It calls out the physical location (such as the Egan camp site), and it specifies boundaries (eg: the edge of the soccer field). It also includes all of the other things we provide, such as the classroom buildings, bathrooms, office and "non-instructional space", playground equipment, desks, chairs, etc. It is literally an itemized accounting of what we'll deliver, down to an excruciating level of detail.

As you can tell from the calendar, the District is in the process of defining our preliminary facilities offer. There's a lot of work that goes into this, and we can't just "cut and paste" last year's offer. We look at a number of factors including the type and size of the program they are offering, their long range plans, and what is "reasonably equivalent" for the in-district students.

Histoically there has been too much litigation over this, and I'm hoping to change that going forward. Prop 39 specifics some minimum behaviors, but there's nothing to say we can't do better as a community. For example, we could enter into a multi-year facilities agreement, so that this isn't an annual process. Likewise, we could engage in meetings to discuss the requests, which might facilitate the requests better than sending paperwork back and forth. Time will tell if we're willing to engage in these types of constructive steps to improve this process.

I have spent a fair bit of time with BCS recently. I've attended 3 of their recruiting events to get a better sense of their program. I recently took a tour of the facilities with Wanny Hersey, their principal, and Katia Karamangar, one of their Board members. They were kind enough to take me around and show me not only the physical facilities, but explain how they use it. It was a very constructive discussion. Hopefully we can engage in a meaningful discussion with the BCS board about their facilities request and develop a proposal that is fair to all concerned parties.