November 4, 2013
Re: Elementary Enrollment Configuration
Dear Chairwoman Barth, Dr. Morse, and ORCSD School Board members:
This letter addresses a number of issues about both the decision-making process and the data used to decide how to address elementary enrollment numbers within the district. We are glad to discuss the contents of this letter in greater detail with any of you.
As background, we are Durham residents and parents of a kindergartner and two future students. Michael is also a registered professional engineer and director of manufacturing engineering for a medical device company. His professional responsibilities include capacity planning and managing a $5 million annual capacity-related capital budget. Capacity analysis and capacity planning are day-to-day tasks.
First, the process of making the elementary configuration decision is not explained. We were initially impressed at the thouroughness and thoughtfullness of board member Ann Lane's motion at the August 21, 2013 board meeting, directing a detailed report to the board on one or more options to address elementary enrollment. However, since then there has been little to be optimistic about. At the October 16, 2013 meeting, the board had a little discussion on making a decision sooner. Regretfully, there has been no discussion on how to make a decision. The board is facing big decisions that affect the future of the district this year, with elementary school configuration and high school tuitioning. Taking a more structured approach to making these decisions would be helpful for the community, and likely for the board and administration as well. At minimum, an objective list of the criteria the board will consider in making these decisions should be a requirement. Without this, the decision is nothing more than seat-of-the-pants call by each member. That is certainly not what any of us want. A more rigorous approach would be to employ Howard-type Decision Analysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_analysis) or Kepner-Tregoe comparative analysis.
While we agree the board was not ready to make a decision at the October 16 meeting, there has been no new formal public discourse on the various proposals at the October 23 meeting, and it is not on the calendar for November 6. Please tell us what additional information you are looking for to make an informed decision!
At the October 16 meeting, there was some discussion of the issues related to elementary enrollment configuration amongst board members. At that point, there were only two members, Mr. Rotner and Mr. Howland, who shared candidly their views and concerns. Chairwoman Barth's personal comment was limited to her experience in Kittery. No other members shared any personal insight or gave any indication of what their concerns about the proposals are, or what information would help them make a decision. We trust the board has given this a lot of thought, but those thoughts are not being shared publicly.
While this is discussion, it is not an open community process since the board is soliciting only general comments, not detailed or specific feedback on areas of concern.
Next, there are multiple issues impacting and affected by enrollment that should be considered separately. We should be untangling these issues so we can understand how significant they are. Certainly they do not all really carry the same weight:
ñ Student population with regards to capacity at Moharimet
ñ Discrepancy between Moharimet and Mast Way enrollments
ñ Chaos of lunch at Moharimet
ñ Cost of the modular classrooms
ñ All day Kindergarten
Third, treatment of research regarding grade-span configurations has been dismissive at best. Dr. Morse has made a statement more than once that research is inconclusive on the effect of grade-span changes. If that is true, the extant research should not be simply dismissed with that statement, but a research review provided to the board and public to support that conclusion. The administration and board should not ignore research like this:
ñ Studies have found that K-8 configurations produce students that outperform configurations with separate elementary and middle schools.
◦ This article from the American Association of School Administrators (https://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=10410) includes the comment that “every transition from one narrowly configured school to another seems to disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering achievement and participation for many students.”
◦ This 2002 paper from Wayne State University, distributed by the US Department of Education looked at one or more school transitions, and started the Discussion with “As grade span configuration increases so does achievement. The more levels that a school services, the better the students perform. The more transitions a student makes, the worse the student performs.” (http://amesces.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/effect-of-grade-span-configuration-and-school-to-school-transition-on-achievement-wren-2003.pdf)
Further, when other districts have considered changing their elementary grade-span configurations, they have conducted research reviews.
ñ Portsmouth, NH conducted its own review only last year including several references to research. (http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/school/eefc.htm). This includes documents finding either no educational benefit or educational detriment when grade-span is reduced. It is notable that the Portsmouth Elementary Educational Facility Committee unanimously voted in April 2012 in favor of K-5 configuration.
ñ Vernon Township, New Jersey also looked at this issue in 2012: (http://www.vtsd.com/uploaded/boe/PowerPoint_Presentation_for_Bd_of_Ed_(May_21,_2012).ppt) and included a research review that contains this statement: “There is a measurable negative impact on student academic achievement following each school-to-school transition for students in the Vernon Township School District.” This data review also included concerns about short grade-spans citing research relating to:
◦ Reduced sense of belonging related to excessively large class sizes and short grade-spans.
◦ Student achivement improving when they are well-known by their teachers.
◦ Reduced accountability for student performance.
◦ Lower standardized test scores following each transition, taking several years to recover.
◦ Lack of communication between grade levels.
This is by no means a comprehensive research review nor a comprehensive case study review. These cases are only illustrative that we in the ORCSD have not done adequate homework if we intend to change our elementary grade-level configuration.
If the Administration truly feels there is no real conclusive evidence on grade-span, Dr. Morse should present a critical review of relevant research, rather than simply dismissing it out-of-hand. We assume that the goal is not to experiment with Oyster River elementary students, but to make an informed decision.
Fourth, Enrollment assumptions are changing rapidly. Apparently, the same day the school board many concerns about the K-2 proposal, the Long Range Planning Committee reviewed and updated enrollment projections. We have not seen the data, but understand it amounts to a significant increase – indeed the K-2/3-4 proposal would only reduce Moharimet enrollment to 396 by fall 2015, compared with 409 if no change is made. The administration should rework detailed proposals based on the new enrollment forecasts and show the school board and public detailed analysis that goes through the duration of the LRPC forecast. Additionally, at least two additional scenarios should be analyzed and considered:
ñ A “default” or “no change” scenario must be considered. The school board and public should be informed of the impact of a delayed decision.
ñ K-8 option. This is admittedly an unconventional option for the district, but if we truly want to do what is best for our students academically, the school board should consider this option: Convert Moharimet, Mast Way, and ORMS to K-8. This would require redistricting between the schools, but would result in smaller grade-level sizes at each school, making future redistricting and grandfathering easier to accommodate with smaller shifts. Research appears to indicate that students in this configuration achieve the most academically. Failing to consider the option that research suggests produces the best outcomes is irresponsible.
Reasonable “grandfathering” accommodations should be included for all scenarios.
Fifth, when describing the options available, it is misleading to discuss either full-day-kindergarten or K-5 as realistic options anytime soon the way the options have been presented so far. Even in the K-2/3-4(5) scenario, average grade level size would need to be below 106 in order to accommodate 3-5 at Moharimet. Enrollment does not drop that low even by 2020-2021 school year based on the May 2011 LRPC forecast. Similarly, Mast Way with a functional capacity of 329 (whole-day) students does not accommodate K-2 until class sizes shrink dramatically and there are no more upward enrollment surprises.
Sixth, please give the public the opportunity to comment on the school board's final working proposal. In other words, please make a motion that the school board would carry over its discussion of the board's preferred option from one meeting to the next to give the community the opportunity to offer final input. So far, the board has not taken any formal action, nor tabled any formal proposal. It is very difficult for the community or even the administration to provide input on specific aspects of a proposal if there is no motion for a specific option. The way most board agendas read, public comment is solicited before any other business and then after the conclusion of business, not while the board is actually considering any proposal. Since the board has not offered a detailed proposal for public review, the public can't provide any input on specifics.
Seventh, Dr. Morse has referred more than once to fear of change in the district. This is probably not true and is certainly not constructive. One comment in the October 16 board meeting was specifically directed at teachers. ORCSD teachers have adopted innovative teaching strategies, technology, and curriculum, and successfully deployed them across different grade levels and both elementary schools. The community is one that is highly educated and innovative and historically supportive of well-informed changes in the district. Please do not confuse critical thinking for fear of change.
Now, we would like to also address the specifics of the proposals in a number of areas of concern:
ñ Research – As stated above, the administration has not presented a thorough review of relevant research. Indeed, while some academic papers come to the same conclusion as the administration, we should not ingore evidence that adding unnecessary school transitions hurts academic performance.
ñ Benchmarking other schools/states – Dr. Morse has identified some schools that have switched to a split elementary model. We also need to consider those that have not:
◦ Portsmouth recommended K-5 unanimously.
◦ Cache County School District in Utah, from which Dr. Morse drew many of his bullet points on pros and cons of shorter grade-spans has 14 elementary schools, 10 of which use K-5 spans. The 4 schools that are short-grade-span are paired, and in each pair the schools are only 1.1 miles apart. This district has considered the same evidence Dr. Morse presented and decided to make K-5 its primary grade-span.
◦ One of the school districts cited in two of the Portsmouth data review articles is Prospect Heights, Illinois. One article (http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/school/centraloffice/eefc/4e.pdf) is extremely critical of short-grade-span configurations. This district has short grade-spans, but the entire district is only 5 square miles and the schools are very close together.
◦ Statewide in California in 2011-2012, 173 schools served K-3 or shorter span, while 5,255 served K-4 or longer span. The trend is not for shorter grade spans. (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sd/cb/cefenrollgradetype.asp)
ñ Cost – the cost impact of a change to K-2/3-4 is unclear. We know that additional busses would be purchased at cost to the district. It is not clear if any positions would be eliminated in this configuration that would not be eliminated otherwise. This should be part of the detailed simulation based on LRPC data.
ñ Transportation time – While it is important that the longest bus ride not be increased beyond 40 minutes, what is the impact to the average bus ride, or the total number of student-hours spent on buses each day? Since the K-2/3-4 proposal would mean that every elementary student in the district would spend 2 or 3 years at the elementary school farthest from home, it seems likely that virtually every student will spend more time on the bus in this scenario. It should be a goal to reduce, not increase bus time. Redistricting shifts students from one route to another, but neighborhoods proposed for redistricting are approximately equidistant from Moharimet and Mast Way, so the impact is minimal.
ñ Impact on families – while redistricting undoubtedly causes upheaval for families in the redistricted neighborhoods, changing to K-2/3-4 impacts every elementary student in the district. It should never be the objective to single out certain students to be affected, but it is also inappropriate to change the entire district when redistricting a few dozen families can accomplish the same goals. If necessary to achieve school balance and allow grandfathering, a larger area could be included in redistricting without negatively impacting the entire district.
ñ Impact on school culture – We heard most speakers on October 16 identify strong and beneficial cultures at both elementary schools. We should expect that both schools will be damaged by a K-2/3-4 configuration. All families will spend less time with kids at each school, and families with kids at both schools will be split in commitment to fundraising support and time. Active PTOs that support teachers and students will be weakened.
ñ Untangling the issues – overcrowding, cost of modulars, size balance between schools, safety, and cafeteria chaos have been identified as reasons for changing to K-2/3-4. But these issues must not all carry the same weight and we should consider them separately:
◦ Overcrowding is mitigated with either proposal, or the “do nothing” option. Since grandfathering, even as proposed by Dr. Morse, does not enable Moharimet to remove modulars for several years, this does not favor one option over another.
◦ Cost of modulars is notable, but at under $14,000 per year, it is half as expensive to lease the modulars for even 5 more years that it would be to buy two additional $80,000 busses to move to K-2/3-4. Since the modulars have been at Moharimet for so long, could they be purchased instead of leased, or the lease renegotiated based on age? Based on cost alone, keeping the modulars and not buying unnecessary new buses is more cost effective.
◦ Size balance between schools – The administration has not explained clearly how having one school larger than the other created education iniquity once both schools are within capacity. Moharimet has dealt very well with enrollment by balancing both classroom and special-needs teachers in a way that benefits, not harms students. It is not clear that there is any significant benefit to balancing the size of Moharimet and Mast Way.
◦ Safety – is without question important. If the district truly believes there is a safety problem at Moharimet, we should be taking action now to install additional fire protection or security. Given that this has not been done in the many years of modular usage at Moharimet, it does not seem that conditions at Moharimet are truly unsafe enough to warrant changing the entire structure of the elementary schools.
◦ Cafeteria chaos at Moharimet is a function of school design, not enrollment. Indeed, moving more full-day students to Moharimet will make the situation worse, not better. The proposal to build a separate gymnasium and cafeteria at Moharimet is even more important if the schools are reconfigured.
None of these issues present problems that should be solved by making ORCSD a K-2/3-4 district.
In conclusion, the data presented by Dr. Morse, and the additional considerations and analysis noted here strongly favor a “redistrict” or “do nothing” approach over grade-span reconfiguration. Redistricting is the best opportunity to rapidly reduce Moharimet enrollment without incurring unnecessary capital cost, adding unnecessary school transitions, or damaging PTOs. A district policy to redistrict on a regular schedule (such as every 4 or 5 years) including a policy for grandfathering will further ease future enrollment challenges. We strongly oppose the K-2/3-4 configuration for many reasons and encourage the school board to refine elementary school boundaries.
Laura and Michael Williams