Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PPSD school profiles: I have my doubts

As part of the information that the district is providing to support public input toward and understanding of the process of closing and reorganizing several schools, it has provided updated school profiles based on assessments made by consulting firm Fanning Howey that demonstrate the space determinations it's working with as it assesses opportunities to reassign students and best utilize existing space.

Making sure that students are in the best school of their choice and making sure the district is using existing space efficiently are goals that at least most of us can support. I am not sure, however, that the recommendations provided in the school profiles provide optimal information for making decisions that ensure continuity and the best conditions for teaching and learning.

To be totally transparent, I don't know much about what the possibilities and limits are in each building. I know only one building well, and that's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, where my kids have been students since 2005. Its profile is on the left. Click here to access all of the school facility profiles.

What I noticed immediately was the building capacity estimate of 700. We currently have 530 or so, and that feels like a whole lot of kids. It's hard to imagine 700 with our current staffing situation, which includes just one administrator and half-time art and music teachers.

The chart that describes the grade structure that would make 700 kids at King possible reveals a range of intriguing and/or disturbing assumptions. The "space type" list states that we have room for four pre-K classes, yet there are only two rooms allocated for pre-K, each of which currently houses a full-day pre-K class. I appreciate the commitment to continuing King's excellent pre-K program, but am not sure how two more pre-K rooms would be possible.

The chart also states that King has room for four kindergarten classes. Currently, we have three kindergarten classes, all housed together in an area of the school that works well for kindergartners. In the past, we have had four kindergarten classes and it doesn't work well. The fourth K class is at a relative disadvantage, without dedicated bathrooms or easy access to a K-only recess area.

I know, cry me a river. Plenty of K classes across the city don't have those amenities. But having four K classes bodes poorly for our kids. As you follow the space chart up through the grades, it indicates that we have room for four first and second grade classrooms, but then the number of classrooms drops to three in third through fifth grades.

So where are those extra 26 kids supposed to go in third grade? This is not a rhetorical question. In recent years, King has tried to support four classrooms of each grade in the early years, only to have to drop to three as the kids go on--the very scenario that's being suggested. It's terrible for the kids who want to stay and are forced out. What's the mechanism supposed to be for deciding who stays and who goes? How is this good for kids or in any way equitable? It's not.

Yes, student attrition due to mobility may take care of some slots, but as the demand for seats grows districtwide and at King in particular (it's a popular choice both in its neighborhood and citywide), it seems inevitable that some kids will be forced to attend other schools. In the past, when this situation has occurred, it has demanded considerable time from our very devoted principals (not that we have two, but that both of the men who have served as principal at King recently have had to deal with this) as families panic and try to figure out what to do.

Is the assumption of the facility profile that we're supposed to institutionalize this terrible process? Are 26 kids every year supposed to expect to pack up and move after second grade? I hope not, but it seems to be the case. Again, I know that compared to some of the situations that educators, families and students face in other buildings, this is a relatively high class problem. But it matters hugely to kids for whom having educational continuity is often an essential part of their success. Let's not intentionally create situations that ensure disruption and damage.

Again, for all I know, King is the only such school for which such misguided recommendations are being made. If anyone reading has thoughts about the implications about the recommendations for schools that they know well, please chime in so that those at PPSD making decisions about facilities will pay attention to the long term implications of the available space that the Fanning Howey recommendations seem to indicate.


  1. A little Facebook chitchat with Kira Greene made me want to add this:

    I think that King serves most kids well and I'd like as many kids as REASONABLY possible get access to that opportunity. It's not the increase per se that feels wrong to me - though I do have concerns. It's the way it's being proposed that worries me, if we are to construe the Fanning Howey assessments as actual recommendations.

  2. Jill;

    These are important issues.

    I had a conversation about this with Carleton Jones, Angela Romans, and Brian Lalli at the MLK forum a few weeks ago. When #'s came out for Vartan previously, they also seemed to be much higher than the building could accommodate. It would appear that you might be able to squeeze the number of children they are suggesting in the building if you eliminate the music and art classrooms as well as the self-contained special education classrooms, and make them all general ed classrooms. Of course, this would gut important programming; in particular, the merging of the special ed and general ed kids in the building make for a very good school environment where all kids are accepted for who they are. And of course, RIDE has mandated that music and art instruction be improved, but how would you do this without dedicated classrooms? It has to be about much more than how many bodies can you squeeze into how many square feet appear to be in the building.

    Mr. Jones seemed to be aware of all these issues, as well as the importance of making sure that if kids were put into a building, they could follow a "strand" and remain in the building as long as kids were supposed to be there.

    I do think it is important as the public meets with the School Department that we all be sure that all of these issues are well thought out and spelled out. A middle school was closed last year with the thought that there were places for all of it's kids. Several classrooms full of kids were "dropped" into middle schools at the last minute at the end of last summer because they were essentially overlooked, and had no where else to go. If the School Department can't guarantee the preservation of important programming and quality space and programming for kids to go to, they shouldn't close those kids' buildings.


  3. Great piece, Jill.
    When Fanning Howey had hearings on their recommendations and findings a year or so ago, I attended and left them with a series of questions. I never heard anything back from them, but I can tell you that I had serious reservations about the competency of their performance on Providence's behalf. I was particularly critical of their use of Educational Adequacy measurements and procedures and their lack of folowing cutting-edge practices in their field. I think I actually looked at their standing (rating) in their field and found it to be considered mediocre at best.