Category: Middle Schools

K-8s from a teacher’s perspective

Everyone’s a critic, it’s true. It is easy to point fingers, but try to fix something? This takes more effort than most people can muster.

I have been a witness, for the last four years, to Portland Public Schools’ fiasco known as K-8 schools. I have tried to shed light on the problems created by this policy and had hoped to, as they say, be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The district has a history of not accepting blame when it is due, continuing with programs proven not to work, and trying to spin it all in a positive light. As PPS entrenches itself deeper into this hole it has dug itself, I cannot help but throw in my two cents, both as a K-8 teacher in PPS, and as a parent to two children in a K-8 school.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with K-8s is that the facilities housing them are woefully inadequate. My school this year, as of June 12, is losing its staff room to a classroom and the nurse will be in the hall. We were promised a brand new computer lab, but alas will have to settle for a mobile cart of computers to be wheeled from classroom to classroom. There is no science lab, our library is extremely small, and the counselor has to share a room with several other programs. Already, there is a portable on the playground. It is true that some schools have enough space, but many do not.

Indeed, some schools have scaled back their K-8 plans due to space constrictions. However, this policy is not applied consistently. Several times, in other K-8s I have taught, facilities people have gone on walk-throughs to plan for the upcoming years. Never have I seen staff asked for input. Indeed, I have seen several staff members give input, only to have it ignored. This resulted in configurations that then had to be changed once the school year started.

Even if facilities for K-8s were sufficient, the content taught and the approach to this content is not at all up to the standards of most middle schools. Many middle schools in K-8s are taught using a self-contained model. This means that one teacher teaches almost all subject matter. The problem with this is that the higher the grade level, the more complex the subjects become, and most teachers, no matter how gifted they are, cannot adequately teach every subject.

Most middle school teachers teach one or two subjects. They are experts in those subjects. As a parent, I want my children to learn from experts. Additionally, electives are taught, usually, by those same teachers. So, on top of teaching 4-5 academic subjects, middle school teachers in K-8s are required to teach an additional elective. Hence, lots of knitting, badminton, and study halls are offered. No music, no home economics or languages, as these would require actually hiring additional teachers.

Lastly, in addition to lacking satisfactory facilities and academic support, K-8s have no one steering the boat, so to speak. Most administrators are trained in elementary protocols and procedures, not middle school models. I have called several people in the district who were supposed to be “in charge” or helping those in charge, and have gotten nowhere.

The last phone call I made, on June 12, was to a facilities person. She got irritated with me asking “Why do we not have adequate room for our programs?” She then started asking me what my solutions were. I offered two or three, and she said each one had already been considered and thrown out. But it left me wondering. If you really wanted my opinion, as a teacher in a K-8, why didn’t you ask me four years ago?

Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.

52 Comments

Bailey on K8s

Note: this is Scott Bailey’s response to questions from PPS Equity about his positions on K8s. –Ed.

  1. PPS shifted to a K-8 configuration, but has never had a K-8 education plan.
  2. The reconfiguration was poorly planned, done too quickly, and so was poorly executed. Let me qualify that by saying given the task and the timeline, I would guess that line staff were overwhelmed and did the best they could with not enough resources. The responsibility lies elsewhere.
  3. And yes, there was no, and still is no, education vision for K-8s, it’s just a configuration.
  4. As is obvious, there are substantial problems with enrollment, with some K-8s being overcrowded and some under-enrolled. Those schools that are under-enrolled either have an under-populated catchment area or lose middle grade students to other schools. As a result, they are hard pressed to offer adequate electives, and so the latter are in no position to retain more students. Adding to the imbalance in the Northeast is that Beaumont, after losing one of its feeder schools, has to recruit from other schools in order to remain viable.
  5. K-8s, if properly implemented, do have some advantages over middle schools, in that they can be a more intimate atmosphere, and there is one less transition, which can be important for many kids. If the teaching staff is consistent, there will be teachers who know the kids all the way through 8th grade—potentially important relationships that can be maintained. If parent involvement is done right—and I mean specific programs to welcome all parents into the school community, good school-parent communication, education on what to do at home to help your child succeed, and inclusion of parents in decision-making at the school—then K-8s can be a great community. I think it’s tougher to do that at a middle school, and tougher for parents to work at school improvement, with only a three-year span. Finally, if a K-8 school intentionally links the big kids with the younger kids in positive ways, it’s a real plus.
  6. On the down side, especially if you don’t have the population, you won’t be able to offer the electives. Socially, at any school, there are some kids who don’t mix well due to personality dynamics, and if you only have one class in that grade level, you’re stuck. And there is often less diversity at a K-8 because of the narrower catchment area.
  7. The research seems to say that there isn’t a clear advantage of one over the other. I think it’s much more important to look at how a school is managed, regardless of the configuration.
  8. An important question that you raise, and that was raised in the workshop at the CPPS Parent Leadership Conference, is how do we measure success with this whole experiment—and by extension, at what point would we pull the plug. I think it’s important to remember that many of the middle schools that got dismembered were not working very well. I think the root problems are still with us, however—we don’t have an educational vision for the middle grades, the curriculum is often not challenging enough or engaging enough, the suspension rates for children of color are way out of line, etc. These are issues regardless of the configuration.
  9. So where do we go from here? Building on the last point, we need a clear evaluation of whether students will be getting a better education after full implementation of the K-8s than before. If not, then we need to carefully map out some better options. I think that part of the challenge is to “reinvent” middle grade education—this is a time when students are very active, and so there are great opportunities to involve them in project-oriented learning, and connect them with the greater community. This is also a time when parents may need some guidance shifting from hands-on to a different level of involvement, that focuses on building skills like time-management.
  10. The school choice policy that we have is clearly part of the issue in K-8s as well as high school. I think it’s clear that if we allow unlimited transfers, it can make it very difficult for a school that loses families to recover. Maybe we need to limit neighborhood school-to-neighborhood school transfers, to prevent schools falling below a certain population. On the other hand, that might lead to more families jumping ship to private schools or charters. I think we need to get the issue on the table for discussion, however, because it doesn’t serve anybody when a school’s population slowly drains away.
  11. The optimum solution, of course, is to improve our neighborhood schools. I have worked on and will continue to work on key factors like improving procedures for hiring and evaluating principals. I’m hoping that the current round of negotiations with teachers leads to a joint committee which will work on improving teacher evaluations. I’ve played a major role in laying the groundwork for building system supports for parent involvement. I think there are management systems that can be introduced that will help shift the Central Office to supporting schools as opposed to imposing on them. I was a founding member of the Community Education Partners, which is pushing PPS to address the suspension/expulsion rate for children of color, so far getting very little traction. This is an issue I bring up at every gathering I’m at, as one important priority among the many issues of equity that need to be addressed in PPS. And then there’s the vision thing for middle grades.

Scott Bailey ran for the Portland Public Schools Board of Education zone 5 seat in 2009.

6 Comments

K8 questions for Scott Bailey

Community and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS Portland) held a parent leadership conference on February 28, which included a workshop on K8s. CPPS co-founder Scott Bailey, who is running for Sonja Henning’s zone 5 seat on the school board, sent out a summary of comments and questions from workshop particpants (see below).

Since CPPS has been generally uncritical of Portland Public Schools policies, and Scott Bailey is running as a CPPS candidate — CPPS board members Kathy Couch and Rick Barasch are his campaign manager and treasurer, respectively — I thought it would be informative for Scott to express his own opinions about what many consider to be a botched K8 reconfiguration. Here’s the e-mail I sent him yesterday. I have extended Scott an open invitation to respond in a new post on this Web site, and articulate his own vision for how middle grade education should look in Portland.

It’s pretty clear to me and many parents and teachers I’ve spoken with that, as you allude to, K8s that started as middle schools can do pretty well, but K8s that started as K5s have immense problems — facilities, staffing, etc. — that aren’t going to be solved without spending a lot more money, which is obviously in very short supply these days.

We’re already spending a lot more general fund money than we ever expected on these schools, only to put middle graders in portables without access to electives or age- and curriculum-appropriate facilities.

You note the lack of a K-8 option on the west side in #3 (Skyline notwithstanding, I assume), but fail to mention the lack of a middle school option in the Jefferson and Madison clusters (as well as in broad swaths of the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters). If we’re serious about #10 (“District needs to ensure equity in all schools”), this is a glaring inequity. Why do we treat middle schoolers in one part of town differently from those in another part of town?

Or, to be more explicit about what’s going on: Why are poor and minority students disproportionately assigned to K8s for middle grades, while white, middle class students have generally maintained access to comprehensive middle schools in their neighborhoods?

There’s a fiscal responsibility question here, too, since comprehensive middle schools provide vastly more opportunity at lower cost due to the size of student cohorts. For example, a 400-student middle school gets around 17 teachers in the current staffing formula, easily enough to provide all the basics plus a broad array of electives, advanced math and performing arts. A K8 with, say, 100 students in the middle grades, gets a little more than four teachers for those grades. How many electives are they going to provide?

How much more do we have to spend to give these students access to electives, adequate science labs, advanced math, and performing arts? How do we justify this additional expense, when these things are essentially free with the middle school model?

In other words, what are the specific benefits of this model, given its dramatically higher (and still not fully known) costs, and its relative dearth of academic opportunity when compared to the middle school model?

Are these benefits somehow specific to poor and minority students? If not, why not implement this model district-wide? What metrics can we use to determine if these benefits outweigh the cost to the district and students, in terms of higher spending and lost educational opportunities?

More to the point: How are ethnically and socio-economically segregated, self-containted eighth-grade classrooms preparing our at-risk youth to be successful in high school and beyond?

Other than a stated desire to follow through on a decision by a previous administration, Portland Public Schools board members and staff have have failed to articulate an overall vision and rationale for this reconfiguration.

I’ll appreciate your thoughts on this, since you’re aspiring to a policy-making position currently occupied by a director who opposed the K8 reconfiguration.

Participant questions and comments on the CPPS K8 workshop

1. Things have improved at Vernon in terms of course offerings (Spanish, PE, art, algebra) with a full rotation of teachers for students. There is only one sixth-grade class, which is a big concern. The 7th and 8th graders are segregated from the rest of the school in portables, and do not feel welcome in the school. PE equipment is inadequate for the older kids, and the gym is too small for activities for them.

2. Faubion: same issue with lack of integration of 7th and 8th graders. Mentoring programs linking older and younger kids need to be started.

3. No K-8 option is available on the west side.

4. Loss of electives in the switch from middle school to K-8. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where low FTE lowers offerings which makes it hard to keep families at the school.

5. Roseway Heights–lots of positives. 8th graders can get high school credits for algebra. Art and band are offered. Lots of linking of older and younger kids–maybe it helped that it was a middle school growing down rather than an elementary growing up. School is packed, enrollment-wise.

6. District needs better communication (resentment that communication just seemed to stop), and another K-8 meeting with parents.

7. Anger over the Pearl District decision–inconsistent with recent closures of small schools in other areas.

8. Astor: biggest issue is space– no room for library, science lab, etc.

9. Question: how will the K-8 programs be evaluated?

10. District needs to ensure equity in all schools.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

13 Comments

On condos, schools, and social engineering

Monday night’s vote by the Portland Public Schools board of education to lease space in the Pearl condo district for a PK-2 school raises an interesting question: is it responsible public policy to use public schools as a tool to promote real estate development? Or, more cynically, why do we see the need to invest in a new school in anticipation of need, when so many existing neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of poor and minority students, are currently underserved?

PPS administrators and school board members seem to want in on the dreamy social engineering mentality made popular by former city commissioner Eric Sten, in which public investment in the form of roads, parks, streetcars, and now schools, are used to subsidize commercial real estate developers. The brief history of this kind of development in Portland tells us that promises of affordable housing are rarely (if ever) met.

More importantly, if we wanted to use our precious education investment in this way, why get in on it when most of the housing in the Pearl is already built, and it is inadequate for growing families? Even worse, why enter the condo market craps game after the bottom has fallen out?

Ruth Adkins, in remarks at the school board meeting and in an e-mail to the “Get involved with Jefferson Schools” e-mail list, justifies the move: “We are trying to plan for and help shape future growth…” she writes. She also claims that this move will not distract the district from its other work.

But those of us following the K8 debacle know that PPS has a proven inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. There has been no public progress on the K8 transition for nearly a year, and, other than a mention from Ruth Adkins from time to time, there has been no serious talk of restoring a middle school option to the broad swath of Portland that lost it in the rushed and ill-conceived K8 transition.

More than anything, this move shows that PPS is inept at perception management. Even if the district were able to follow through on its other commitments, to approve a five-year, $1.5 million speculative gamble at a time when we’re seriously talking about cutting the school year for lack of money looks really, really insensitive.

It also sends an inconsistent message regarding small schools, as Martin Gonzalez pointed out in his dissenting comments Monday night. Sonja Henning also opposed the move, and gave a withering critique of the “exponential track” this project was put on. Henning remarked that connected people can “pick up the phone” and get this kind of project done, while other citizens have waited “10 or 15 years” and gotten nothing (a replacement for the razed Whittaker school comes to mind).

PPS Chief Operating Office Cathy Mincberg appeared shaken by Henning’s remarks, and jumped in to insist that the idea originated among district and city staff, an assertion contradicted by the fact that wealthy white Pearl residents have been advocating for a school for at least a year.

In an annual budget of half a billion dollars, a quarter million really isn’t much money. But given the fact that the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters — serving the poorest, least white parts of Portland — have had comprehensive secondary education virtually eliminated in recent years, spending any money trying to “shape future growth” in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy indicates a serious problem with priorities.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

39 Comments

The numbers paint a picture

2008-2009 PPS student migration

 

Percentage of enrollment gained (or lost) due to student migration (compared to cluster population)

Student population vs. enrollment

Availability of comprehensive secondary schools correlated with race and poverty

cluster # comp. high schools # comp. middle schools % non-white by residences % free/reduced meals by residence
Jefferson 0 0 67.48% 61.39%
Roosevelt 0 1 67.6% 72.30%
Madison 0 0 61.95% 61.77%
Marshall 0 1 57.96% 72.79%
Wilson 1 2 24.57% 20.80%
Lincoln 1 1 21.60% 9.30%
Franklin 1 1 35.05% 38.52%
Grant 1 2 32.85% 23.17%
Cleveland 2 2 27.16% 30.15%

Note: teacher experience and student discipline rates also correlate highly to race and poverty; that is, average teacher experience is lower and discipline referral rates higher in schools serving high poverty, high minority populations. Data for the current school year are not yet available for these factors.

Data source: Portland Public Schools.

This report is available in PDF format (240KB).

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

15 Comments

Budget bright side: time for a reset

For two years I have argued that Portland Public Schools needs to balance enrollment in order to pay for programmatic, geographic equity in our schools. With poor schools already cut to the bone, the budget crisis may force the issue.

Carole Smith has now acknowledged to the school board, in a roundabout way, that we may no longer be able to afford the “smallness” we’ve designed into our schools: K8′s and small high school academies.

“In recent years, we’ve … supported small high schools with additional staff, and added assistant principals, algebra teachers and counselors for most K-8 schools. Can we afford to continue those initiatives?”

What she didn’t say is that even with this extra funding, students in small high schools and K8s have dramatically less opportunity than students in comprehensive high schools and middle schools.

As implemented in PPS, “smallness” is massively inefficient and more expensive than comprehensive schools, where cohort sizes in the hundreds afford significantly more opportunity for less money.

These failed experiments have contributed to the ill-effects of another failed experiment: the free market student transfer policy. This policy entered a death spiral years ago; now comprehensive secondary education has been virtually eliminated from the poorest half of the district, while transfer slots into comprehensive schools have all but dried up.

Students left in these schools suffer a general and wide-spread dearth of electives, instrumental music, college prep classes, civics, after school activities, and even science, math and literature.

Just as the free market banking crisis has succeeded in nothing more or less than transferring massive amounts of wealth upwards, the PPS transfer policy continues to transfer thousands of students and tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year.

We can’t fix the transfer policy without a coherent, equitable and balanced system of PK-12 schools. But we can’t afford comprehensive programs without the enrollment to pay for them.

And no matter what we do, the district faces large budget cuts.

So what can we do?

Just as with the global banking system, it’s time for a reset. We need to imagine a system that, no matter how lean, is no leaner in one part of Portland than another.

The budget crisis may force the district to do what I’ve been asking them to do for two years: restore comprehensive high schools at Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt. Re-open closed middle schools in those clusters, too.

More importantly, the district may be forced to balance enrollment — that is, curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers — to pay for programmatic equity in every part of Portland.

It is a budget-neutral way to increase programming — or stave off cuts — for our schools serving our most vulnerable students. We must imagine a system where the poor don’t bear the greatest brunt of budget cuts, as they have in Portland since Measure 5.

The bright side of this budget crisis is that we have the opportunity to design a balanced system of schools, where you cannot tell the wealth of the neighborhood by the number of classes in the high school’s catalog.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

4 Comments

Facilities plan gets a reality check

As reported in The Oregonian today, Portland Public Schools has significantly scaled back their facilities planning, and pushed back the date to float the measure to fall 2010 at the earliest.

Originally discussed as a billion dollar capital bond intended to fix a major maintenance backlog as well as rebuild the high school system, it is now being proposed as a $270 million “something for everyone” plan.

Key among the improvements is basic facilities funding for the K8 transistion begun three years ago with no planning for facilities. (K8 schools, which serve disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students, also continue to struggle with inadequate operational funding.)

It is noteworthy that before the K8 transition began, all middle grade students in PPS had access to age-appropriate facilities.

Since the proposed bond does not fund new middle schools for the areas of the district underserved by them (Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt), it would appear to reinforce the current system of middle schools for white, middle class neighborhoods and K8s for the rest.

While it’s encouraging that the district has stepped back from the brink of allowing the facilities tail to wag the education policy dog on high schools, they continue to let facilities planning reinforce the “accidental” two-tiered middle grade design.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

7 Comments

Stasis

sta·sis \ˈstā-səs, ˈsta-\ noun
1: a slowing or stoppage of the normal flow of a bodily fluid or semifluid: as a: slowing of the current of circulating blood b: reduced motility of the intestines with retention of feces 2 a: a state of static balance or equilibrium : stagnation b: a state or period of stability during which little or no evolutionary change in a lineage occurs

Stakeholders in Portland Public Schools have noticed that not much seems to be getting done (at least publicly) on several critical issues.

  • K-8 The Superintendent’s PK-8 Action Team hasn’t held a public meeting or posted new information since May, at which time the lack of library staff was identified as a critical issue. Five K8 schools continue to operate without library staff, and no status has been reported on adjusting the budget formula to provide more opportunity to the small cohorts of middle graders in K8 schools. The lack of a comprehensive middle school option in two of nine clusters (Jefferson and Madison) continues to be a glaring symbol of the inequity that is being institutionalized by the lack of action on this issue.
  • Libraries Eight schools in PPS have no library staff whatsoever, including five K-8s, one PK-5, one 6-8 and one 6-12. Three high schools lack a certified media specialist. There has been talk of making library staff centrally-funded, as was done in the last budget for counselors, but there is no visible progress on this.
  • High Schools The high school design team hasn’t posted any new information since September, when it posted a high level goal statement (PDF). A community committee to provide input to this group never materialized.
  • Transfer policy Two and a half years ago, county and city auditors found that the district’s transfer policy led to “significantly less socio-economic diversity in schools than would be the case if all students attended their neighborhood school,” contrary to its stated intent to “promote equity, diversity and student achievement.” They also found that “the transfer policy competes with other Board policies such as strong neighborhood schools and investing in poor performing schools.” (Flynn, Suzanne and Blackmer, Gary. “Portland Public Schools Student Transfer System: District objectives not met” (PDF) June, 2006.)

    Since this audit report was published, the school board and administration have failed to address the central question (What is the purpose of the school choice system?) or make any modifications to mitigate the damage it causes. Each year we are told it is too late to make changes for the coming transfer cycle.

    Likewise, this year, a citizen committee was to be formed, announced several weeks ago. The committee still has not formed, though applications were taken and applicants were interviewed. With the transfer cycle for 2009-10 set to open January 23, it appears the district has once again stalled long enough to avoid any changes or clarifications for yet another year.

    Meanwhile, schools with high out-transfer rates continue to be punished by a funding formula that drains funding along with enrollment. It is unlikely this will be changed, since the budget cycle is soon upon us as well.
    Update, 12:40 p.m.: The committee has been selected and will hold its first meeting two and a half weeks before next year’s transfer cycle begins.

  • Facilities Efforts to get a billion dollar facilities bond on the ballot came to a screeching halt last winter, and soon after, a high-priced consultant’s scathing e-mail went public. The official reasons for holding off on the bond were reasonable (we need a high school design first, and there was a good chance the double majority law would be overturned, allowing a bond to be passed during a special election). But with no visible progress on high schools or K-8s, this “critical” issue seems to have been reduced to a simmer.
  • Equity As with high schools, a committee of community members had been suggested to advise the superintendent’s equity team. No such committee has been announced, and no information has been posted about the internal team. With equity the “over-arching” goal of Carole Smith and her second budget cycle looming, you’d think this would at least be a public relations priority.

I certainly don’t mean to imply nothing is being done. But given the severity of the problems, the disgrace they bring to our fair city, and the superintendent’s stated priorities, it’s shameful actual change on these issues is evidently being kicked down the road yet another year. Our children aren’t getting any younger.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

2 Comments

“Choice” done right

There is a school district, of similar size and demographics to Portland Public Schools (37,789 students, 42% minority, 33% free and reduced lunch, 16% ELL), with less funding per student than PPS, that manages to maintain strong and equitable neighborhood schools and a vibrant school choice program.

All of its neighborhood K-5 schools have music, P.E. and a library (staffed with a certified media specialist).

Options start in the middle grades (6-8), with every student assigned to a comprehensive middle school. Every neighborhood middle school offers world languages and elective options in the arts such as band or orchestra, choir and art. All middle schools also have after-school activities.

If a family is not happy with their comprehensive middle school assignment, they can choose from one of three K-8 schools, or one of several schools specializing in the arts, health and science, environmental science, an international school, or a school for highly gifted students.

As with the middle grades, every high school student is assigned to a comprehensive high school, each offering a broad and deep selection of advanced placement classes, world languages and electives, including fine arts (instrumental music, theatre, art, etc.), business, technology, etc., and each offering a wide variety of after-school programs.

For students looking for options not available in their assigned high school, choices include continuations of the middle grade arts, international, and health and science schools, as well a high school focused on science and technology and a “small school” focused on individualized instruction, independent learning, and real-world experience. They may also enroll in an International Baccalaureate program.

How do they do it?

  • Their system is grounded in neighborhood-based attendance. Neighborhood schools are strong enough and offer enough of a comprehensive curriculum to be the first choice of the vast majority of families.
  • Choice is limited to option schools; neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers are only allowed in exceptional circumstances. With schools sized according to attendance area, they are able to maintain funding and programming.
  • Schools are considerably larger than schools in PPS (with K-5s around 600 students, middle schools 1000 and high schools 2000), with the trade-off of comprehensive curriculum in every neighborhood school.

And what’s the school district? Beaverton.

It is remarkable how well-planned, consistent, fair and equitable Beaverton is. They actually have a well-designed system of K-12 education, with a well-thought out curriculum guaranteed to every student in every neighborhood school that is as good or better than the best of the best in PPS.

Compare and contrast this to the shameful, utterly disorganized state of Portland Public Schools, where this kind of schooling is only available in the whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

11 Comments

Next Entries »