Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Return to Neighborhood Schools

If you've neglected your reading of the EYE this weekend, then you've got some work ahead of you. This is third post in 24 hours on the subject of the new attendance boundaries for each of Middletown's eight elementary schools. If you want to make any sense of this, read Ed's first, and then Izzi's, and then come back here!

Now that we're all on the same page, I wanted to offer some "commentary" as a community representative on the Board of Ed's ad hoc committee on this topic.


Redistricting has always been a dirty word in Middletown.

Politicians avoid it as long as they can. Homeowners worry about property values. Parents don't want their kids to change schools.

So I know it won't be a popular comment when I say this: This redistricting is a very good thing for Middletown -- and it is long overdue. There will undoubtedly be many cases when it would have been better for a particular child to leave well enough alone -- but for the community as a whole, this is the right direction.

"Redistricting" is just eduspeak for the need to shift the streets that attend any particular school. Population patterns are always changing in town. One neighborhood might be stable, where people don't move away after their kids grow up, so eventually there are fewer students in the school. Another neighborhood might see an influx of new condominiums or subdivisions. The Sheff v. O'Neil court case meant that schools have to track the racial balance of the students, and make adjustments if they stray more than 25% up or down from the town average.

I've heard people in the biz say that redistricting should be expected every 10 years or so. But back in the late 1990's when Middletown last needed to face this issue, the Board of Ed and the Superintendent adopted a cowardly policy of "spot redistricting." That meant they didn't have to risk the ire of parents all over town if they just picked up a few streets here and there and moved them to where they needed them. The fact that the children who were moved were typically low-income kids, often with high minority rates, made it easy to avoid political consequences for redistricting.

After a dozen years of continual "spot redistricting," things are a mess: Within three blocks from the corner of Main & Washington, there are kids who attend Moody, Spencer, Farm Hill, and Snow. And of course, some go to Macdonough, which is walking distance to all of them. I think we can all agree that's a ridiculous amount of busing.

The current map of school boundaries looks like a bowl of spaghetti, with little bits of streets going every which way. The irony is that Middletown is still out of compliance with racial balance laws, and all these changes have meant that some schools have more kids than seats, and some have empty classrooms.

Our Board of Ed recently spent something like $130,000 on a study by JCJ Architects to learn about how the sizes and locations of our school buildings matched up with where the kids live. As part of that study, they surveyed what people want from the school system. Believe it or not, "Neighborhood Schools" was the #1 priority.

The new map which will be voted on by the ad hoc (Monday) and then presented to the Board of Ed (Tuesday) was based on JCJ's recommendation to move 19 clusters of streets back to a neighborhood school. The JCJ report was issued last Fall, so it would be hard to argue that Middletown citizens couldn't see this redistricting coming.

The Board gave the ad hoc committee the task of deciding which of JCJ's recommendations were practical, and how to create school boundaries that made sense with regard to race and the capacity of each school. Along the way, the ad hoc committee also looked at the economic balance of each school, and (except for Macdonough) none of the schools are proposed to be more than a few points over the town average for poverty rates. The racial balance of the schools is also distributed so that none of the schools are more than a few points higher than the town average, again except for Macdonough. The proposal should pass muster with the state Dept of Education because the adjustments bring Macdonough just into compliance with the racial balance law. In terms of capacity, with a projected average class size of 20 kids per room, the schools with the lowest poverty ratio have the highest number of filled classrooms, leaving a little extra room in the schools with higher poverty rates to provide space for extra services.

The key to understanding the new redistricting plan is this: every elementary school will now have a single, contiguous attendance zone. In a few cases, that will mean that families don't go to the nearest school, but they do go school with their neighbors. That's a big difference from the way we now do things.

The new map resembles a big patchwork quilt instead of a bowl of spaghetti. It's a return to neighborhood schools and it should have been done a long time ago. Why? For transportation reasons, for a sense of community, for helping parents be involved in their child's education, and for an increased commitment to the quality of education in your neighborhood. It's not that every school will or can be the same. But with the new attendance boundaries, our schools would have a better chance of taking advantage of their natural assets and reaching their potential.

I'm not going to argue that it's perfect - in fact I personally voted against the current proposal at the last committee meeting because I have long been in favor of resolving racial balance by creating a choice or magnet school at Macdonough. But the majority of the committee voted in favor of using attendance boundaries to create racial balance.

So my opening statement was that this redistricting is a "very good thing" for Middletown, and I do believe that. It is not, however "the best thing" for Middletown.

In an ideal world, there would have been enough leadership on the Board of Ed or at Central Office to understand that these recommendations should have been formulated last Fall, so that there would be plenty of time for community input before a vote from the Board. And all that would have been done before the February 1st deadline that the State Dept of Education gave us (and remember - that was after they gave us a generous extension.) Instead, our school district submitted a report that was inadequate, and we'll need the Board to act before the community really understands the proposals. There will inevitably be resistance and a loss of trust that could have been avoided with better planning and communication. Personally, I'm disappointed that the Board of Ed will not get the chance to publicly consider and vote on a choice or magnet school, since the concept has been killed twice "in committee" in the past six months.

But in spite of my reservations about the process, I don't want to lose the chance to fix the long-standing wrongs of "spot redistricting" and what it has done to our community. So I'm hoping that the Board of Ed accepts the ad hoc committee's recommendation. Then we can get back to the business of trying to ensure that every school in town is one that parents would be willing to have their child attend.


Jen Alexander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

So,is the issue whether we are for busing as a way to achieve racial balance, or against? It is nice to walk to school as long as you are not walking to an inherently bad school where all the people look the same.

Anonymous said...

How do people "looking the same" make a school "inherently" bad?

Anonymous said...

Humans basically look the same. Therefore all schools are bad.

Kids will learn if you just let them learn, instead of treating them like fish. Fish are not human. But they do taste good. Many of them, anyway. Especially Sea Bass. On risotto. At Luce. With a martini. Case closed. Thank you for your attention.

Anonymous said...

Diversity, reflects reality. whereas homogeneity reflects ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon @ 8:35,

Do I detect a Weekly Eater?

Absurdly yours,


Anonymous said...

Actually I'm more of a daily eater, or rather, a thrice-daily eater. Not including tea of course. And the occasional apéritif and digestif. And the obligatory shot of espresso in the early a.m. to get things moving.

JAM said...

Jen A. - Thank you for your time and dedication to the cause at hand. You explained the issues well and made it much easier for everyone else to understand. Thank you also for your challenge to the BOE and the Superintendent - I really hope there is a collective effort to find some internal fortitude to get the job done right!

Anonymous said...

After raising 3 sons single-handedly in this great town and having redistricting come up once all I can say is I think diversity is not a bad thing as long as our children are kept safe. Parents, teach your children well and as long as they assert themselves and have the desire to learn they will go places, spoken from someone who works in the school system. Let's just remember learning is not limited to the school system alone. Also, Middletown does have great eats on Main Street...Ciao=)