Saturday, January 26, 2013

0 Increasing the Number of Quality Schools in Boston: School Climate

Whether we realize it or not, when selecting a school to send our child to, we all assess the climate of each school we examine prior to making our choices regarding the school we would like our child to attend. We have all gone into schools which feel friendly, inviting, and supportive, and others which feel exclusionary, unwelcoming, and even unsafe. These feelings, attitudes, and the reputations which evolve from a school’s environment are referred to as school climate. This is true whether we live in Boston or a suburb.

School climate has been recognized by educators and researchers as one of the key ingredients to whether a school succeeds or fails. Boston Public Schools recognizes the importance of school climate and in fact attempts to measure it through their annual "School Climate Survey" which is sent to every BPS family as well as teachers and students who each receive their own version of the survey. Unfortunately, the rate of response is extremely low as you can see in BPS' school climate reports from 2010 (seems to be the most recent one online):
  • Out of 56,486 surveys sent to families, only 7,598 were returned which equals 13.5%. 
  • Out of 4,401 surveys sent to teachers, 2,258 were returned which equals 53.3% which is better, but still makes me wonder why didn't all the teachers return these? 
  • Out of 41,491 (survey is only given to grades 3-12) surveys given to students, only 23,840 were returned which equals 57.5%. My problem with this one is: this was given in school, via pencil and paper, so how come all of them were not returned? Check out pages 3 and 4 for individual school numbers, quite interesting!
As we are now in the midst of trying to create a new assignment system for Boston schools, there has been quite a bit of conversation regarding "quality" schools. For the purpose of producing the required models requested by the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC), the measurement regarding which "tier" a school falls into regarding their level of "quality" are being based solely on two years of MCAS scores: achievement (2/3) and the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) (1/3). According to Patricia Kinsella, a QUEST member who attended the January 23, 2013 EAC meeting, the people who came up with SGP as a measure said that it should never be used to evaluate schools because there is no way to know what part of growth came from school and what came from non-school factors. Many of us who attended the EAC meetings have additional concerns about the chosen measurement tools as there are issues regarding whether they should be used, how often review of a school's "tier" should occur and more.  

Right now parents can review each school's "Report Card" (BPS Report on Teaching and Learning) on the BPS website, which gives a profile of the school inclusive of racial and socio-economic status, types of students (regular ed - ELL), MCAS and NAEP scores and a brief written description submitted by school personnel. 

The issue with the use of the above tools for measuring a school is that though we arm ourselves with the information, many parents, myself included, have chosen schools for our children despite what the BPS information tells us about a school. I toured schools, asked questions, spoke with teachers and parents and then ranked my choices with the highest weight given to my own feelings about each school and honestly, the test scores really were not as relevant to me. Of course, we should also recognize that what feels perfect to one parent may feel horrible to another parent because we are each individuals. Because of the low response rate regarding school climate, even with the BPS surveys which I do believe ask the right questions, we can not really utilize the climate reports when assessing a school's climate which seems to be one of the top factors parents consider when choosing a school, according to years of conversation on choosing schools with others.

In November I submitted my application to the Citizen Nominating Panel (CNP) for the open Boston School Committee (BSC) seat. The application was made up of twelve questions regarding everything from experience to specific school district priorities. One of the questions specifically asked how I would address school climate. Considering the importance of the ongoing discussions district-wide on how to assess schools and what factors contribute to parents' choice of schools, I am sharing my answer to the climate question with all of you below as I feel it is an important piece that has been left out of how we rank each school for their quality standing. I will also share my suggestions with Dr. Johnson and the BSC at their next meeting. 

Question: Given the diversity of the students in the Boston Public Schools, how would you address the school climate?

My answer:

School climate is influenced by several factors inclusive of:
  • Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
  • All members of each school community being engaged and respected.
  • Students, families and staff working together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • All staff’s modeling and nurturing attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person’s contribution to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.
Each School’s climate is also influenced by unique factors:
  • The physical environment of the school,
  • The characteristics and mix of students, teachers and parents who are members of the school community, 
  • Connections between the school and its surrounding neighborhood, 
  • Social interactions within the school, 
  • The leadership role played by the school principal, 
  • The morale of the teaching staff, 
  • Teaching practices in classrooms, and 
  • The formal school policies.
I believe that addressing school climate begins with ensuring collaboration among the principal, personnel, students and their families. The key to creating effective team-work leading to school success is the principal as she or he generally sets the tone for the entire school. An effective principal is a strong leader who is able to motivate the school staff regarding the importance of performance and focuses on results as well as fostering a safe, supportive, and rigorous climate for everyone. The most successful principals will create an environment where teachers, staff, students and families feel that they are respected and share in the fundamental operations of the school thus providing multiple opportunities for each to develop new ideas and methods, assume leadership roles and contribute to the success of not only these individual groups, but also the school as a whole. In addition, these principals are able to galvanize everyone to work toward higher expectations and achievement for every student by utilizing effective instructional practices that nurture and challenge, take into account the diversity of the school population and are culturally relevant. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and the learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in society. This positive climate will generally lead to higher success rates for all of the students within the school. 

To address the climate of the schools in Boston, I suggest that we assess all of our schools to find out if they already have a principal like the one described above as well as assessing whether we have highly qualified staff at the school, whether there are facility or safety issues which need to be addressed, the level of family and community engagement taking place, and students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life. I realize we have school climate surveys annually which may help in any assessment, but historically the response rates to those surveys is extremely low, so we should seek other ways to accurately assess each of our schools going forward. 

One way we should consider evaluating our schools’ climates is by creating deliberate sets of focus groups for each school as I have found that staff and families become much more open and solution-focused when in a group discussing the issues that need to be addressed rather than just taking an individual survey. These focus groups, in addition to the SPC and SSC, could then become another tool to increase the engagement of students, staff and families toward the goal of whole school improvement and fostering a more inclusive school climate. 

At both the Mozart, under Al Taylor, and at the Irving with Arthur Unobskey, I have seen exactly the type of principal I described above and I have worked closely with both of them to help turn what were once under-selected schools into schools which are now highly-selected, or on the way to becoming such a school as I truly believe the Irving will become the best middle school in Boston within the next few years. I have also had the honor of working closely with the staff of both schools by forming partnerships that have led to greater family and community involvement and pride in each school as well as allowing us to work as a cohesive team to move the schools forward by improving content-area and elective curricula, methods and practices, obtaining the funding necessary for each school to improve the academic, arts, physical education and extra-curricular offerings and to purchase much needed supplies, computers and other items necessary for the schools to provide every student with a rigorous and relevant educational experience. I also continue to advocate for my children and all of the students of each school by encouraging, and sometimes pushing, the principals and staff toward higher goals for themselves and each student as well as thinking “outside the box” to improve each school. 

If a school does not have a principal like the one described above, we should encourage the Superintendent to either create professional development which can assist the current principal to develop these traits and abilities, or hire principals with these traits and abilities. We should start with the schools which are under-performing first and then move on to the other schools as necessary. As we increase the number of schools within the district which have a positive school climate, the climate of the district as a whole should become more positive which is a goal I believe all of us would like to achieve.

In addition to the answer I gave on my application above, please consider the following when thinking about how school climate affects each school and families' choice:

I picked the Mozart prior to most of the data we now have available being created and despite being told "Oh no! You do not want to send your daughter there, it is a horrible school!" (by a BPS central office administrator fyi!) because of the reputation that person had heard (which was a few years out of date). Unfortunately, poor reputations of our schools persist even years after positive change has occurred which I see all the time with the Irving despite the phenomenal progress we have made! 

I chose the Mozart as my first choice for kindergarten for my daughter because I toured the school, asked questions, spoke with teachers and parents and, lol, because the Principal, then Al Taylor, was the ONLY BPS principal who, upon learning that I was Chair of the BPS SpedPAC at that time, was thrilled by that information (instead of the usual gritted teeth and "polite" smile I usually encountered). The school felt wonderful and everything I learned during my tour and by speaking with families and staff made me sure it was the school I wanted my precious daughter in, so I was thankful when she got her assignment to the Mozart that March. 

Three years later I again chose the Mozart as my first choice for her sister, my other precious daughter, because my feelings about the school had proved correct as my older daughter was receiving a fabulous education and thriving there. My younger daughter also obtained a K1 seat at the Mozart and we were a proud Mozart family for the past ten years! 

As for the Irving school, when choosing it for my oldest daughter, if you read my piece regarding Advanced Work Class under the new proposals, you already know I took a leap of faith during the registration process. What I did not mention in the AWC article is that when looking at middle schools for my son in 1998-99, due to the unwelcoming attitude of the AWC teacher for a child with ADHD as well as my experience as an advocate who attended several meetings at the Irving over the years, I swore that my children would never attend the Irving. Seriously, the climate of the school was so horrendous that it gave off a depressing vibe due to the actions of the prior admistrators.

Thankfully, in June 2009 (prior to my daughter starting sixth grade in September), due to community pressure, Dr. Johnson removed the former principal and appointed Arthur Unobskey as the new Irving Principal. 

Because of the partnerships formed between Mr. Unobskey and members of the Roslindale Pathway Advisory Group (RPAG) as well as the larger community, we started to see improvements at the Irving within the first year as reported by the Roslindale Transcript in January 2010. The formation of the Roslindale K-8 Pathway in March 2010 added yet another sense of urgency to the staff of the Irving to improve outcomes for every student at the school and the whole school, and as a bonus I observed a complete turn-around to the climate within the Irving. The team-work and shared leadership which developed as a result of the improved climate at the school, as well as expanding our school day, have all contributed to the amazing progress we have seen our Irving students make in  a short amount of time, inclusive of our 6th grade students making a 29% increase in growth on the 2012 Math MCAS!

I would strongly urge Dr. Johnson, BPS, the BSC and EAC members to all consider the lessons we can learn from the Irving and the Roslindale Pathway when attempting to designate which schools are truly "quality schools". In addition to the recommendations I make in my answer, I suggest utilizing what we learned at the Irving and incorporating key elements, such as putting in place an advisory group of parents from each of the schools in the new pathways, as "best practices" for helping the schools which are still struggling. 
And for those of you wondering, I did get get asked to interview with the CNP for the open BSC seat and I am proud that, after the interview with the twelve-member panel, the CNP recommended me as one of the candidates for the Mayor to consider for the open seat, which I see as a great accomplishment. As expected though, Michael O'Neill was re-appointed to the BSC for another four year term and I congratulate him on his re-appointment. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

0 BPS Will Present In-Depth Analysis of New Assignment Models Wednesday

Tuesday afternoon BPS released three new proposals in advance of the External Advisory Committee on School Choice (EAC) meeting scheduled for Wednesday night:

The 10-zone Proposal

Home-Based Proposals A & B

Only elementary schools are highlighted on these maps, but elementary schools will feed into middle schools under BPS' proposed "middle school feeder pattern", much like the Roslindale K-8 pathway does already, if incorporated into whichever proposal is finally selected by the EAC for recommendation to Dr. Johnson.

Also, if incorporated into whichever proposal is finally selected by the EAC, there could be changes to how and possibly where Students with Disabilities (SWD) and English Language Learners (ELL) will attend school per the overlay maps.

Also, please check out the information on the "School Quality" page, specifically the second set of bullet points, as it is extremely important and leads to several questions (I will delve into those tomorrow)!

Many of you are probably wondering where these latest proposals came from and rightfully so because even for those of us who have been attending the meetings and asking questions daily of BPS, the above new proposals were unexpected. What we expected to see Wednesday night was the in-depth analysis of the models selected by the EAC members in October 2012, not completely new models by BPS.

A lot has taken place since BPS presented their original proposals in September, so for those who have not been consumed by this process as I have, or were unable to attend the meetings or maybe are just becoming more aware of what is going on, below is some background to catch you up to where we are now.

The External Advisory Committee on School Choice is a 27-member group of BPS parents, educators, community and business leaders that the Mayor appointed in January 2012 to help BPS develop a student assignment plan that puts a focus on equity, school quality and helps students attend school closer to home. It would be implemented for the 2014-15 school year if approved by the Boston School Committee. 

Please note that the original timeline to accomplish the above, inclusive of presenting a recommended assignment plan to BPS and the Boston School Committee (BSC) voting on it was December 19, 2012. This timeline was extended, yet the implementation timeline has not changed.

After the original March - June 2012 community meetings, the EAC went to work to assess all of the feedback from families and community members regarding what was important to them when it comes to education for their child(ren). Originally BPS and EAC members were focused on the "close to home" emphasis outlined by Mayor Tom Menino during his State of the City 2012 address. After months of reviewing and incorporating the data into draft proposals, finally on September 24, 2012, BPS released their five proposed assignment models along with three "overlay" maps which they hope will be incorporated into whichever model is finally chosen. 

Immediately after the release of the BPS proposals, community members, families and groups started speaking out due to concern regarding the lack of accessibility and equity to the few "quality schools" within BPS and how the proposed models would impact all students. Also, there were formal analyses of the proposed models by a team at Harvard Graduate School of Education and one by the Metropolitan Area Planning Committee as well as more informal analyses by other groups and individuals like myself via blogs, websites and testimony at community and BSC meetings.

As the above was taking place many individuals and groups submitted alternative assignment proposals to BPS for consideration by the EAC. Two of these alternative plans were very popular from their initial submission: the Quality Choice Plan presented by a group of Boston and state politicians and the Family-Centric School Choice Model with Meaningful Choices and Guaranteed Equal Access to Quality aka "Grouped Schools Model" by Peng Shi and Itai Ashlagi of the MIT Operations Research Center.

Since the original BPS and community proposals were made to the EAC in September 2012, at the October 27, 2012 EAC meeting, after a presentation of the revised "Grouped School Model" by Peng Shi which had garnered support with the members, the EAC stated that they needed more data on the impact of the proposed models on Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners and that analysis of these groups should be built into the model revisions, including capacity data. The EAC also asked for data on an AWC analysis, and how it would work with various models as well as more information regarding the Middle School Feeder proposal. As this was happening, we also noticed a shift from the "close to home" focus toward "quality schools", which was more in sync with what the community was saying was important to them.

Taking the above into account, the EAC requested the following models undergo an in-depth analysis by the BPS technical team working with MIT & Harvard personnel
  • the 23 zone model with paired zones, factoring in socioeconomic diversity; 
  • the 6 zone model with assignment interventions to maximize equitable access to quality seats; 
  • the no zone model with school pairings; 
  • and the grouped-school model. 
The EAC requested an analysis from BPS similar to the analysis that Mr. Shi presented to the Committee during the October 27, 2012 meeting, which should include: 
  • Equitable access to quality
  • Diversity - socio economic diversity and race/cultural diversity
  • Proximity to home
  • Choice and predictability
  • Transportation savings
  • Racial diversity impact - both with current models and in accountability reporting in future
  • Backwards assessment of impact on current neighborhoods as well as race, culture, and socioeconomic impacts.
  • Analysis on students with disabilities and English Language Learners 
At the November 13, 2012 meeting BPS made some preliminary presentations on the requests by the EAC, but due to questions from the EAC members which highlighted issues with it, the modified 6-zone model was removed until BPS could analyze it in an "apples to apples" sort of way. Also, because MIT has the ability to use their super-computer programs (I do not know the exact name lol), the EAC asked for the models to be run through the software with the requirements above, which was agreed to by the MIT personnel in attendance.

On November 29, 2012, Mayor Menino announced an extension to the original deadline for the EAC which states:
Mayor Thomas M. Menino's External Advisory Committee on School Choice will continue its work through January as it creates an improved student assignment system for the city's children and families. The Mayor's decision supports Superintendent Carol R. Johnson's recommendation that her technical team work with Professor Parag Pathak, director of the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) at MIT, and experts at Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston Together, the team will conduct an in-depth analysis on zone-based and non-zone-based models to simulate how families would choose schools under a new system. The analysis is based on several years of assignment data and used to project choice patterns in the future.
The technical team will present analysis of models to the EAC in mid-January. After the models are presented, the EAC will continue its community process and make a final recommendation on a new school choice system to the Superintendent. 
With the extended timeline given to the EAC the implication was that due to the time it would take to produce the requested data and analysis, the EAC members and community at large would have more time to review the in-depth analysis of the proposals selected which continued to be modified by the EAC, as well as the "overlay" proposals by BPS for Middle School Pathways (MSP)Students with Disabilities (SWD) and English Language Learners (ELL)

I was at the November 29th where the EAC requested further data and an in-depth analysis per above criteria of the assignment proposals utilizing previous enrollment data to predict how parents may choose schools under the selected models. I also attended subsequent meetings where discussion among the EAC members, with regard to a recommendation letter they are drafting, led to several of them agreeing that the in-depth analysis of the models may lead to them deciding NONE of the models they have narrowed the choices down to may work, so effectively they would need to reevaluate all of the proposals again. At least we knew that mid-January we would receive the models of the proposals generated through MIT and the in-depth analysis of same.

Over the past two months all of the models continued to be modified, so maybe these new models by BPS should not be as surprising as they are to us!  

On Monday, January 21, 2013, I received the weekly "BPS This Week" newsletter which included the following announcement:

External Advisory Committee on School Choice to receive 'best of the best' model options this week
After more than 50 community meetings, input from more than 4,000 voices, dozens of External Advisory Committee meetings and proposals from the community, the EAC is ready to examine the "best of the best" ideas for an improved school choice system. The BPS technical team will present updated model options at the EAC meeting Wednesday night.
The models were created in an attempt to emphasize equitable access to quality schools, increase predictability for families and offer great choices closer to home when compared to the current three-zone system, which has been in place for nearly 25 years. You can keep track of our progress and get involved by Also, please join the EAC for a community meeting Monday, February 4 at 6:00pm at Orchard Gardens K-8 School, 906 Albany St., Roxbury.

I and other community members were glad to hear that there would not be another delay in finally seeing the anticipated in-depth analysis and seeing the projection maps of the selected proposals. 

Much to our surprise, many of us received the news Tuesday morning that BPS would "unveil three revised student-assignment proposals Tuesday that would allow more children to attend schools closer to their homes, as an advisory committee prepares to make a final recommendation in the coming weeks."  

Don't get me wrong, on some level we realized that the projection maps may be a bit different and lead to further tweaking of the selected proposals, but most of us truly did not foresee this amount of difference in what would be presented and what was expected. In effect, though I can see pieces of the proposals the EAC had selected within these latest models, they are really brand new to the general public.

Which leads to the following questions:

Was the EAC aware of this level of change by BPS to their selected proposals?
    I suspect the members were aware on some level.

Will we still receive true in-depth analysis at this Wednesday's meeting of these new proposals utilizing all of the criteria outlined by the EAC?

Will we still receive clear data regarding our most vulnerable populations (SWD and ELL students) and how the assignment changes will impact them?

Did BPS present these models to the EAC members prior to unveiling them for all of us?
   Historically this has not been the case, so I would guess not.

How do the EAC members feel about these new proposals?
    We will find out tomorrow evening for sure!

As the three proposals BPS unveiled Tuesday are basically new to everyone, will the EAC push for more meetings to truly assess the response of more voices in Boston? 
    I hope they do as it may help to quiet the rumblings of the community that they are being pressured to accept one of the proposals and present to the Superintendent within the next month!
    So far there is only one meeting scheduled for community feedback, questions and input - on Monday, February 4, 2013 at 6:00pm at Orchard Gardens K-8 school (back to where it all began!). I did ask one of the EAC members if they have considered also holding a meeting on a Saturday, in the early afternoon, to allow for more feedback and she let me know she had passed on my suggestion and would bring it up at Wednesday's meeting. 

Pursuant to the above, I have to ask: is the EAC being pressured to complete this within the next month or two? 

I admire the amount of time and dedication each of the EAC members have put into this entire process so I am hopeful that they are not being pressured by a political or assignment round deadline (2014-15 registration) in addition to the exhaustion they MUST feel! I also agree that BPS NEEDS a new assignment plan and want to help accomplish this goal. 

We absolutely need deadlines and without them would not be where we are currently, but I believe we may need to allow the EAC, community and the Boston School Committee until April or May to finalize this process.  

Mayor Menino, I have known you since I was 16 when you approached my youth group to help you create a teen center in Hyde Park, since then as a neighbor, working with you as Chair of the BPS SNPAC & as an advocate for public education, so I know that you have always had high standards for our students just as I and other Boston parents have. 

Now Mayor Menino, I am coming to you and my plea to you as my education Mayor is this: 

Even if it means delaying implementation of a new assignment plan by one year, please allow all of us the time to ensure that the proposal which is chosen will truly give our students equitable access to the highest quality education we can provide for them.   

The race for quality has no finish line!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

0 New Boston 'Guaranteed Assignment' Option for Incoming Kindergarten Students

On Monday, January 7, 2013, Boston Public Schools (BPS) published a press release stating that there is a new 'Guaranteed Assignment' option for incoming kindergarten students. As soon as this hit the web, there was much conversation about it on listservs, facebook and twitter. Of course, the way this is worded sounds wonderful to families in Boston hoping to gain a kindergarten seat for their 4 - 5 year old child, for won't a school "close to home" be the one right down the street, or maybe a mile away at most? The real answer? No.
Once you read the release thoroughly, disappointment comes to those whose children would only be turning 4 as they realize that this option will not apply to their child as it is only for Kindergarten 2:
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has announced a new assignment option for parents of in-coming kindergarten (K2) students to consider as they register their children for school this month. Families may now choose to have their in-coming K2 student assigned to the school closest to their home that has an available seat, if the schools they choose are not available. Round one of school registration for the Fall of 2013 began last week and runs through February 1.
However, for parents whose child is 5 or will turn 5 by the cut-off date for kindergarten 2, when you read this, on the surface it sounds fabulous: a guaranteed close to home seat for your child for K2! And for some of you, it will actually be fabulous because statistically speaking, some of you will get a seat at a school very close to your home that is acceptable to you even if it is not one of the schools you listed on your BPS registration form. 
But for those who do not fall into the small group above, you need to be aware that this policy may not be all it seems on the surface. As written, the announcement states that this option goes into effect only if you do not get a seat at one of the schools you listed as your choices during the registration process for BPS. I have asked for clarification of this matter to be sure that my interpretation is correct, as soon as I hear back from Boston Public Schools I will post the answer. Of course, if you get one of the schools you picked, you will be happy and the rest is moot! But, if you do not get a school of your choice, the school BPS sends your child to instead could very well be a school close to your home as promised, but it could be one that you never wanted your child to attend, for whatever reason. 
Another consideration to think about regarding this new policy: we have three assignment zones for Boston Public Schools and the "close to home" school BPS will place your child in will be the school closest to your home, with an available seatwithin your assignment zone (confirmed per my conversation on Twitter with @BostonSchools). When I read this part of the press release my mind automatically made the connection that this could mean your 5 year old may very well end up at a school several miles away from home, well outside any walk-zone possibility and possibly bused for about an hour (in perfect weather and traffic). I admit, this is most likely a worst case scenario, but I have confidence the following example illustrates my point pretty clearly on how the school "close to home with an available seat" may end up being "across the city" as I put it when I inquired about this in my twitter conversation with @BostonSchools:
  • Let's say you are a family living in Allston/Brighton, near the Lyon K-8 school, which you picked along with 9 other schools when registering but did not obtain a K2 seat at any of them. 
  • Because you checked the magic "close to home" school option on the form, BPS has guaranteed your child a K2 seat as close to home as possible
  • Problem is, the school closest to you with an available K2 seat is at the Bradley Elementary School, all the way in East Boston. It is a lovely school, with some wonderful programs and extras, but it is in East Boston which means your child will need to travel by bus through the Callhan tunnel each day which is not your idea of what a close to home school should be. 

Of note regarding this new policy:
  1. If you do not want your child at the school which BPS assigned them to as the closest to home with an available K2 seat, you WILL need to go through the normal process of re-applying at a Family Resource Center via the 2nd and 3rd round of lottery dates.
  2. This policy will remain in effect after any change is made to the assignment model/policy no matter what the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC) recommends for a new assignment model for Boston. Confirmed by @BostonSchools via twitter. 

I find #2 above perplexing as there has been no proposal made to the Boston School Committee (BSC) by Superintendent Johnson or any vote taken by the BSC regarding the new policy, which is how most policies, especially regarding assignment, have been put in place. It is the BSC's job to set district policies. Of course, as with last month's announcement regarding grandfathering of siblings, BPS could ask the EAC to incorporate this policy into their recommendations, which would then, presumably, be voted on as part of the total assignment proposal presented to the BSC for a vote. 
I honestly feel that we as parents always need to remember the adage "Buyer beware" no matter what the issue/item may be and feel this is especially true when it comes to our children and their education. Hopefully my analysis of this new policy that BPS is putting in place will help clarify what "close to home" may actually mean so that other parents understand that what it sounds like they are getting and what they may actually end up with could be two very different things!

Monday, January 7, 2013

0 Parent activist from Roslindale pushes for change in Boston schools

Parent activist from Roslindale pushes for change in Boston schools

Karen Kast-McBride has always fought for the things she loves. She grew up in Boston, on a street full of boys, who taught her what a real physical fight was – no hair pulling involved. She defended others with words and fists. Following in the footsteps of her Navy veteran father, Kast-McBride joined the Army after high school, serving as a combat field medic in the Gulf War.

But the Roslindale resident’s biggest fight has been as a parent.

“I never realized when I went over to Kuwait and was on the front line and saw stuff that I never even imagined that the hardest fight I would ever have was to get my kid the education that he needed,” said the 42-year-old mother of three.

Kast-McBride has made a name for herself by speaking out during a number of School Committee meetings about improving school choice. She is not subtle about her determination to keep the school system on its toes. Her twitter handle:@bpsnightmare.

“Take my name in vain,” she tells other parents. “Call up and say ‘I’m Karen Kast-McBride’s client’…it works. And that’s horrible.”

Hoping to make a bigger impact, Kast-McBride is applying for a potential opening on the School Committee. Vice-Chairperson Michael O’Neill’s term expires in January. O’Neill could choose to reapply, but Mayor Thomas Menino is accepting applications for the position.

Kast-McBride works full-time as a manager of a psychologist’s practice in Wellesley, but says she devotes more hours to her unpaid positions: mother, advocate, and consultant.

She began her education advocacy when she fought to get special education services for her fourth-grade son, who had a learning disability. It took two and a half years to get the services her son needed, she says. Her son is now 23, and she has two younger daughters in middle and high school.

“She’s relentless,” said Arthur Unobskey, the principal at Washington Irving Middle School, where Kast-McBride’s youngest daughter attends. “She will not give it up. People know that.”

McBride has led efforts to improve the school as a member of the Roslindale Pathway Advisory Group, the Irving School Site Council, and co-chair of the Irving Parent Council.

Speaking with the School Committee, city councilors, and parents, she helped the Irving create a K-8 feeder system, which makes it the landing spot for students from the six Roslindale elementary schools. She also led an effort to obtain funds for an expanded learning-time program, which allows Washington Irving to have longer school hours and more enrichment activities.

Kast-McBride is not shy about making her presence known. When she arrived at Washington Irving for a recent meeting of the School Site Council, she rang the buzzer to be let in and did not pause before ringing it another five times. She was the first to crack a joke when the meeting begins.

“You know I’m a pain in the butt,” she said as she made a point to the other parents and teachers about her ability to get things done.

Kast-McBride suggested getting special pencil grips for the students. “Some kids didn’t learn to write correctly…like me.”

“Do you think I can get this donated?” asked Kast-McBride about school supplies– a rhetorical question. “You know I can,” she added with a laugh.

Her willingness to be frank and forceful makes Kast-McBride successful as an advocate, others say.

“There’s no quit in Karen.” said District 5 City Councilor Rob Consalvo. “But she’s not looking for glory or fame. She does it because she cares about the kids.”

Said Kim Masterson, another Irving Middle School parent: “Almost everyone in BPS knows Karen.”

According to Kast-McBride, the former superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Thomas Payzant, would turn purple at the mere mention of her name.

Payzant, who retired more than six years ago, was diplomatic when asked about her.
“She was always passionate about children and made her point in a firm yet respectful manner,” said Payzant via e-mail.

Masterson has high hopes that Kast-McBride will eventually get a School Committee position.

“She’s going to be very vocal,” she said. “I think it would be a nice change. I know some of the members on the Committee may find issue with it – with her. But they’ll just have to get over it. Other members on the Committee are just going to absolutely love having her.”

The article is being published under an agreement between The Boston Globe and Boston University.

3 Advanced Work Class Seats Under New Boston Public School Proposals

When looking at Advanced Work Class (AWC) 6th grade options for my daughter back in 2009, I was told by a Boston Public School enrollment administrator to not even bother applying for the Ohrenberger, King or Curley schools AWC 6th grades as "those seats are already taken by the students at those K-8 schools - there will be no openings for students from other schools" which I knew, but it was great to get confirmation by a BPS official. I chose the Irving and am now happy for it, but at that time it was a roll-of-the-dice move on my part as a parent, and my child's education was what was at stake. 

Thankfully, through community pressure, Superintendent Johnson removed the prior principal, put Arthur Unobskey in as new Principal in June 2009, and that, in conjunction with the Roslindale Pathway Advisory Group (RPAG - formerly Irving Advisory Group (IAG)) working together with BPS and city officials has made the Irving a school I love having my girls attend. But in reality, what choice did I really have? None, because in reality, given the statement above, there was no other place I could send her at that time which would have seats for the AWC. 

Now that we are looking at revamping our current school assignment model, parents are asking about AWC and the following answer has been posted on the FAQ page:
Q: What about AWC (Advanced Work Class) programs? What if my new zone doesn’t have a school with such a program?A: The BPS Advanced Work Class program offers an accelerated academic curriculum to students in grades 4, 5 and 6. Student participation is by invitation only and is based on a student’s scores on an eligibility test. Only certain schools offer an AWC program, so BPS allows students to change schools to access the program if they are eligible. Under the proposed models, BPS would do two things to ensure any qualified student can continue to access an AWC program. First, BPS would work to place more AWC programs in schools and zones that already have students who are eligible for the program; and second, BPS would allow students to transfer schools so they could access an AWC program even if that school is outside a student’s home zone. For example, if a student lives in a zone with no AWC programming but qualifies for the program, then that student could transfer to a school outside his or her zone and BPS would provide transportation.
First I have to ask: Has anyone clued Jerry Burrel, Director of BPS Enrollment Planning in about this potential change to current policy?  I have worked with many AWC parents over the years who come to me with questions. This is especially true when they hear that most AWC seats in a school will be filled by children already assigned to that school (whether in AWC or Reg Ed). The most common question is: Will BPS open more classes in highly-demanded schools or zones? The response has consistently been the same from Jerry Burell (via emails I have his permission to share): 
From: Burrell, Jerry
To: Karen Kast-McBride
Jan 24, 2012 
Hi Karen,  
If I find that demand exceeds supply in any assignment zone and in any AWC grade, we will arrange to open an additional class to meet the demand.  There have been one or two instances in the 14 years that I have been responsible for student assignment where I have added another AWC class.  
Jerry Burrell

From: Karen Kast-McBride
Sent: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:16 AM
To: Burrell, Jerry
Subject: Fwd: ConnectED Call to parents affected by registration form glitch
Hi Jerry,
One of the other Irving Advisory Group (IAG) members asked me to forward the below question to you. I happen to know discussions between parents are going on about this very question, so if you can let me know what to share with them I will pass it on to the IAG as well as others. 
Thank you!
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: KC
Date: Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 4:45 PM
Subject: Re: ConnectED Call to parents affected by registration form glitch 
To: Karen Kast-McBride  
Does Jerry's email also mean that should demand for 4th grade AWC seats exceed supply, they are willing to expand that program in the West Zone too?  That would be reassuring to know. Thanks,
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Burrell, Jerry <>
Date: Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 9:10 AM
Subject: RE: ConnectED Call to parents affected by registration form glitch
To: Karen Kast-McBride 
Cc: Snyder, Denise M, Johnson, Carol R, Adario, Evelyn T, Vieira, Maria L 

Hi Karen,

Your latter interpretation is correct: only 55 students met the Roslindale Pathway priority status.  And, yes, I can assure you that all other current grade 5 West Zone students invited to the AWC program have the Irving listed as a grade 6 AWC choice.

I should also note that the BPS is always prepared to increase capacity in any program should demand exceed the supply of available seats.  

Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.

Jerry Burrell
Director Enrollment Planning and Support

Basically, what it all came down to was that if there are available AWC seats in ANY schools in that grade anywhere in the district (other than the school a parent may prefer and even outside that child's zone) then Enrollment Planning would not increase the seats in any given area, zone, etc unless demand exceeds the supply of available seats program-wide (entire district).  

Example: The Irving middle school had 12 children on a 6th grade AWC "wait-list" at the beginning of this year as we had already filled the 50 seats allocated at the Irving. I believe the majority of the students on the list were coming from our Roslindale Pathway elementary schools, so they had priority placement at the Irving for a regular ed non-AWC seat, but because there is no such priority specific to AWC for our Roslindale Pathway due to the limited number of AWC seats in the zone, some of our "K-8 Pathway" AWC students did NOT get an AWC seat at the Irving. So we asked about opening another class for AWC at the Irving, which would have allowed all 12 students to have a seat, plus room for about 13 additional AWC students (or we could have reconfigured the AWC classes into smaller classes or possibly in other ways). The answer was NO because there were empty 6th grade seats at other middle schools so therefor no reason to open a new class. 

Another example: of the Roslindale Pathway elementary schools, only one - the Bates - has AWC for 4th & 5th grades (one class per grade, 25 seats per class). Of course, this means that children assigned to the Bates in 3rd grade who are eligible for an AWC seat get first chance to fill those AWC seats for 4th grade, which leaves very few open to our other Roslindale Pathway & West Zone students who may be eligible and want to go to the Bates. This year I believe there were 7 seats available in the 4th grade AWC class. I am not sure if there were any 5th grade seats available at all since, of course, first priority went to those children either already in the 4th grade AWC class, then to the other 4th graders who qualified at the Bates. I am sure the same was true at the Curley, King and Ohrenberger. This means children within our Roslindale school pathway have to go outside the pathway to access AWC, which defeats the purpose of the pathway for those children.

Second question, given the limited space in our schools, where would "BPS work to place more AWC programs in schools and zones that already have students who are eligible for the program"? 

  • At the Irving, we have the space to expand, but the Bates elementary school does not so they could not add any 4th and 5th grade seats for AWC there. There really are no available classrooms waiting for a class to be assigned to them in many of our BPS schools. As with my points regarding Kindergarten seats promised by different plans, most schools can not remodel and do not have space for modular classrooms - not in Roslindale or other sections of the city which are densely populated. 
  • So, how will this need for additional seats be addressed with the promised additional classrooms opened at current schools and not just the usual SOP of sending children to schools with AWC seats which parents do not want their children to attend?
  • How is this different from the current policy already in place?

The way I see it, the answer on the school choice site is the same policy as always, not anything new, and parents need to be clear that the current policy is as stated above in Mr. Burrell's email to me: "If I find that demand exceeds supply in any assignment zone and in any AWC grade, we will arrange to open an additional class to meet the demand.  There have been one or two instances in the 14 years that I have been responsible for student assignment where I have added another AWC class."   

In reality, with whatever proposal the EAC (External Advisory Committee) on School Assignment makes to Dr. Johnson, these questions remain:

  • Will the current standard operating procedure regarding AWC seats change and allow new seats to be placed in the schools parents WANT their children to attend?
  • If yes, please elaborate on HOW these seats/classes will be added especially in our smaller schools. 
  • Also if yes, can we please have that with details of how it will be accomplished and in writing?


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