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Learning Curve (School Board member Rob Hardy)
The Education of a Northfield School Board Member
Updated: 41 min 19 sec ago
Option B offered to the school board on Monday night was to lease two portable classrooms at Sibley to house math and reading support programs, ESL programs, and RtI programs.
When I toured Sibley Elementary a few weeks ago, it was immediately apparent to me that space was at a premium—not just for all-day kindergarten, but for other programs currently offered at the school. The ESL program, which has to accommodate eight students at a time, is in a small, windowless room that was converted from a locker room when the building was remodeled in 2009. Reading and math support specialists were likewise crammed into makeshift spaces. Furniture and supplies for the afterschool program were stored in the corner of a hallway.
A portable classroom or two would provide more space for the special programs listed above, while freeing up a classroom for kindergarten and allowing the DCD-Moderate special education program to remain at Sibley.
Portable classrooms are a time-honored solution to space needs. At Monday’s meeting, board member John Fossum remembered portables at Sibley when he was a student there in the 1970s. For many years, Carleton College housed its language lab in a portable classroom. Owatonna is currently considering the use of portables to make space for all-day kindergarten, and thousands of portables are in use in school districts across the country. While traditional portables look like construction trailers, more innovative designs (including energy-efficient “green” designs) are becoming available.
On the downside:
- Traditional portables are prone to mold problems and HVAC issues.
- Portables are expensive to set up (e.g., site preparation, HVAC, etc.) and require a substantial annual lease.
- Making use of portables for pull-out services (like RtI, ESL, and math and reading tutoring) would result in numerous, often disruptive transitions in and out of the main building in all weather.
- It would be difficult to secure portable classrooms. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the district (like districts across the country) has been investing in security upgrades, and when Sibley was remodeled in 2009, the entry was redesigned for secure access. An outlying portable classroom would represent a large hole in this security, bringing 150 to 200 children outside of the secure main building for services throughout the day.* Many school districts (here’s a story about a district in Tennessee) are securing their campuses with security fencing, which is one way of controlling access to a portable. I would not want to put prison fencing up around one of our elementary schools. Security measures would also add to the cost of the portable classrooms.
I suggested that a portable classroom be set up as a computer lab, in order to move a computer lab out of the main building and free up that space for kindergarten or special education. I expect that wiring a portable for computers would be expensive, and the security issues would still remain.
Again, if you have any questions, insights, or suggestions, please let me know.
*Note: One question I don’t have an answer to at the moment is how going out of the building to a portable classroom is more of a security risk than going outside to the playground at recess.
In the spring of 2013, the Minnesota State Legislature authorized funding to allow all school districts in the state to offer tuition-free all-day kindergarten beginning in the fall of 2014. As a result, most school districts across the state are scrambling to find space in already crowded elementary schools for all-day kindergarten. Where before a single classroom could accommodate 20 kindergartners in the morning and a different group of 20 kindergartners in the afternoon, now the same school buildings will have to be able to accommodate all 40 of those children at the same time. In Northfield, this means having the capacity for 4 kindergarten classrooms in each elementary building.
Currently, there is room for 4 kindergarten classrooms at Bridgewater and at Greenvale, with even more space available at Greenvale. There is no extra room at Sibley. In order to make room at Sibley and make use of the additional space available at Greenvale, the administration is recommending that four students in the DCD-Moderate special education program, currently being housed at Sibley, be moved to Greenvale Park in the fall of 2014. (DCD stands for Developmental Cognitive Disability.)
At the school board work session on November 21, this was the only option presented to the board by the administration. At the December 9 school board meeting, five other options were presented, with the understanding that these were not being recommended to the board. Erin O’Neill lays out the other options in her story in the Northfield News, and I’ve made this grid comparing the pros and cons of each option (with the additional option of converting a computer lab at Sibley into a classroom):
The recommended option would have an impact on the smallest number of students, but this is not to minimize the impact it will have on the four students who would have to move from Sibley to Greenvale. I find it especially unfortunate that, even as the district is integrating wireless devices into classrooms in a move that will eventually make computer labs obsolete as instructional tools, we have to preserve a room for computer hardware at Sibley, while sending four special needs students elsewhere. Unfortunately, the state requires mandatory state testing to be done on computers, which means that the computer labs are booked solid during the weeks of testing. And the state department of education does not currently allow testing to be done on the wireless devices that the district now has in such quantities.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment or contact me at the email address on this page.
On Thursday, November 21, the Northfield School Board met in a work session to begin the process of addressing short- and long-term demographic issues and facilities needs within the district. The Board was presented with a packet of data on student achievement and enrollments in the district, and with a recommendation for addressing the need for additional kindergarten classroom space brought about by the introduction of universal free all-day kindergarten in the fall of 2014.
In this post, I want to look at some of the data presented at that work session. I have taken some of the raw numbers and presented them in color-coded graphs, which I hope will aid in visualizing the data. I won’t at this time offer any thoughts about possible next steps, or address the short-term issue of making space for all-day kindergarten. Those will be topics for future posts.
Note that each graph or table below can be clicked to enlarge. The original data packed presented to the Board at the November 21 meeting can be found here.
One of the salient facts that emerged from the data is that over the past decade there has been a significant shift in enrollment in the elementary schools. In 2005-2006, Bridgewater had the largest enrollment (613 students) and Sibley had the smallest enrollment (433 students). In 2013-2014, Sibley has the largest enrollment (26 more students than Bridgewater).
This graph (fig. 1) shows the change in enrollments in the three elementary schools, as a percentage of the total elementary enrollment in the district, in 2005-2006 and in 2013-2014. The percentages are listed in the table (fig. 2). The total elementary enrollment in 2005-2006 was 1583 students; in 2013-2014, the total elementary enrollment is 1612 students.
Without taking into consideration the racial and socioeconomic profile of each school, the enrollments would appear more balanced in 2013-2014 than in 2005-2006. In the earlier year, there was an 11.37% difference between the highest and lowest enrollment schools. In 2013-2014, there is only a 6.7% difference.
What accounts for these changes? For one thing, the community as a whole has grown. At the time of the 2000 census, the population of Northfield was 17,000. In 2010, it was 20,000. It would be interesting to know what the population growth has been in each of the three elementary attendance areas in the past decade. It is clear, however, that during this time, the Hispanic/Latino population in Northfield has increased from 5.7% of the total population in 2000 to 8.4% in 2010, and that much of this population is located in the Greenvale Park attendance area.
Between 2000 and 2013, the LINK choice program at Greenvale Park was discontinued; kindergarten classes were shifted from Longfellow Elementary to the neighborhood schools; and the Compañeros Program was shifted from being offered exclusively at Bridgewater, to being offered at both Bridgewater and Greenvale Park, to being offered in all three elementary schools. Meanwhile, Prairie Creek Community School moved from being a private, tuition-based school to a free public charter school in 2002, and expanded its capacity with a new addition in 2009.
All of these factors are sure to have contributed to the shifting enrollments in the three elementary schools.
The Impact on Greenvale Park Elementary
The effects on Greenvale Park Elementary have been the most dramatic. English language learners (ELL) account for 22.9% of the population at Greenvale Park, and 42.2% of Greenvale Park students qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Greenvale Park has far more Latino students with limited English proficiency and a far higher rate of poverty than the rest of the district.
At the same time, Prairie Creek’s conversion from a private to a public school has had a disproportionate impact on Greenvale Park, as can be seen from the graphs below. Figure 3 shows the loss to the three elementary schools through open enrollment and intradistrict transfer (transfer from one elementary school to another within the district), and figure 4 shows the total loss to the district through open enrollment from the elementary schools.
46% of the loss to the district through open enrollment is from Greenvale Park, and 40% of the loss from Greenvale Park is to Prairie Creek. Intradistrict transfer only accounts for the loss of 12 students from Greenvale Park, while 82 students are lost to Prairie Creek from Greenvale Park. (Note that in the two graphs below, Greenvale Park is in blue, Sibley is red, and Bridgewater is green.)
Three High Quality Elementary Schools
It is clear, however, that students who are white and do not fall into one of various subgroups (ELL, Special Education, Free and Reduced Price Lunch) attain the same levels of academic achievement at all three elementary schools. In fact, white, non-subgroup students at Greenvale Park slightly outperformed those students at Sibley on the 2013 MCA reading test (fig. 5). All three elementary schools are near or above the district average and well above the state average.
One question facing the Board is whether something should be done to balance the levels of ELL students and of poverty across the elementary schools, so that Greenvale Park doesn’t continue to have the highest concentration of students in these categories. Can the elementary schools become more integrated, and is greater integration something the district should pursue? How will the district respond to continued population growth and demographic changes?
These are some of the data and some of the questions the Board began to dig into on November 21. The implications of this data for the future direction of the district will be the focus of ongoing discussions.
Amanda Ripley. The Smartest Kids in the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 306 pp. (199 pp. main text). Hardcover. $28.On December 3, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) will release the results of the 2012 PISA test, which ranks countries based on the performance of 15-year olds around the world on assessment of reading, mathematics, and science skills. When the test was last administered in 2009, U.S. students ranked 17th overall, and a below-average 25th in math. At the top of the list were Shanghai, Korea, and Finland.
The following school year, 2010-2011, journalist Amanda Ripley, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, set out to discover how Korea and Finland had become educational powerhouses while the United States, despite a decade of educational reform under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, still languished in the middle of the pack. To tell her story, she enlisted three American exchange students bound for Finland, Korea, and Poland, and used their experiences to contrast the educational systems in their host countries and back home in the United States. The story was different in each country, but Ripley came to the conclusion that what each of the educational powerhouses shared was a commitment to academic rigor.
The educational powerhouses have rigorous teacher training programs. All students in these elite countries are required to pass a challenging exam to graduate from secondary school. Students are characterized by an intense drive to succeed. Both teachers and students take learning seriously.
In Finland, where her informant Kim spends a year as an AFS exchange student, Ripley finds much higher standards for teacher training than in the United States, much greater respect for teaching as a profession, and higher compensation for the teachers themselves. In contrast, she offers the example of Kim’s math teacher back home in Oklahoma, who didn’t major in math in college and became a teacher so that he could coach high school football. Ripley concludes that in the United States, the obsession with sports, classroom technology, and the cultivation of self-esteem distract from what should be the core focus on educating students to a high academic standard.
Ripley returns to the subject of high school sports in a recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Case Against High School Sports.” In that article, she focuses on a school district in Texas that was able to boost its academic performance after it eliminated its athletic programs. In a reponse to Ripley’s article, David Cutler takes her to task for “expecting readers to go along with sweeping generalizations based on a single case study.” In The Smartest Kids in the World, the focus on the experience of her three exchange students—Kim from Oklahoma in Finland, Eric from Minnesota in Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania in Poland—gives the book that same feeling of presenting generalizations based on limited case studies.
For example, she talks about “the stoner kid” that Kim encounters in her Finnish school. She reports Kim’s surprise that “stoners” even existed in Finland, and that, unlike “stoners” back home in Oklahoma, this Finnish “stoner” was “a model student.” The lesson that Ripley draws from this is that all students in Finland, even the stoners, were more serious about education than American students. But basing her conclusion on the stereotypical responses of a sixteen-year old exchange student doesn’t exactly make for a convincing argument. She excels at anecdote, but falls short when it comes to analysis.
Ripley has been roundly criticized for relying exclusively on data from the PISA, which doesn’t account for the relative levels of poverty in the countries whose students are being tested. According to a report of a study of PISA scores conducted at Stanford University: “Based on their analysis, the co-authors found that average U.S. scores in reading and math on the PISA are low partly because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students comes from disadvantaged social class groups, whose performance is relatively low in every country.” If the effects of socioeconomic inequality were factored into the data, the United States would join the ranks of educational powerhouses. The Stanford study, co-authored by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, also indicated that the achievement gap is smaller in the United States than in “similar post-industrial countries,” and that the achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students has been rising significantly over time, while it has been falling in countries like Finland and Korea.
According to another analysis of 2009 PISA data, when schools in America with a lower than 10% poverty rate were compared to schools in Finland, the U.S. outranked Finland by 15 percentage points. The problem is that, while the overall rate of child poverty is about 3.5% in Finland and about 10% in South Korea, it’s about 23% in the United States. If we want to be in the same league as Finland and South Korea, we need to reduce poverty. That’s the most significant step we can take in school reform.Child poverty rates in OECD countries. From the Washington Post.
But Ripley largely ignores the issue of poverty, except to say that Poland, with a poverty rate comparable to that of the United States, achieves comparable educational results.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Korea (which doesn’t report its poverty data) outranks the United States is that most of the learning takes place in after-hours for-profit tutoring and test preparation centers called “hagwons.” Such centers, with their high fees, would be out of reach for less affluent students. In South Korea, the culture seems to promote intense, even suicidal stress among students prepping for the high-stakes graduation and college entrance exam—but even Ripley admits that many Korean students burn out once they get to college. The system doesn’t appear to foster a life-long love of learning.
Ripley is an engaging writer who easily carries the reader along with her anecdotes and her unfeigned passion for education, and there’s a lot that she gets right. Yes, it’s important for parents to read to their children. Yes, a good teacher is more important than an interactive whiteboard.
But Ripley, with her love of the simple, defining anecdote, too often seems to fall for a version of the “great man theory,” believing that all it takes is a visionary leader—Andreas Schliecher, who devised the PISA; reformist Polish education minister Miroslaw Handke; reformist Rhode Island education commissioner Deborah Gist; Success Academy charter schools CEO Eva Moskowitz—to push education in the right direction. But I’m more persuaded by the model outlined by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars [see my reviewhere], who argues that it’s not the headline-grabbing reformer, like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, but the steady effort of a team of dedicated educators working together that yields the best results.