Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Correction, and My Handouts From Today’s/Tonight’s Board Meeting

On the last page of the hard copy handouts I gave away at the school board meeting, the current enrollment for Ballentine Elementary should be “668”, not “66”. Sorry about that…

First handout:

Last month I came across the rough copy of a letter I had sent (back in the days of snail mail!) to School Board members almost exactly nine years ago. Members were getting ready to vote back then on whether or not to mandate year-round school attendance. I implored them to please "consider carefully the long-term ramifications" of their decision, which would "affect the unity of our school system for years to come."

In February, 2005, I attended a Wake Education Partnership “roundtable” on mandatory year-round schools. The Administration shared a power point presentation in which they included the following bullet points: “Mandatory year-round has not been successful in other districts” and, “The districts who use year-round as a choice option are the most successful.” In the months and years that followed, I reminded leaders of those findings, and questioned their sudden change of heart. I never received an answer.

A valid, little-publicized petition from the spring of 2006 (almost four years ago!) gathered, in less than a two–month period, over 3,000 signatures (most with comments) from citizens opposed to the massive mandating of year-round schools. Even though this petition was presented multiple times to various school boards then and later on, the voices of these citizens, from all walks of life, were never publicly acknowledged by those school board members. Many of these former members were the very ones who chastised parents a few years later for “speaking up too late”, and who claimed that they were hearing from equal numbers (citing maybe a hundred) of pro and anti MYR parents.

(Just one of many follow-up comments, this one from an email sent 2 years ago
“The warnings that were ignored from months and years ago are being fulfilled even as I write this letter. Our county is slipping, and public school supporters are disillusioned to say the least. For the sake of the families who are barely hanging on, please, please turn away from more mandating of year-round schools.”

(Excerpts from emails sent in the Spring of 2009…)

Gang activity in Wake County is rising. WRAL reported in an August news story, that our school system has seen a 33% increase in gang activity since last year.  That’s in the schools! The same article pointed out that 49% of gang-related incidents last year occurred in middle schools.  Ruth Sheehan wrote an article in the News and Observer referring to a gang-related murder that involved testimony on the part of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Even though it can't be proven, officials in L.A. drew a parallel between an increase in "latch-key" children and implementation of year-round schedules.

To think of mandating more middle schools to a year-round schedule is unconscionable to me in light of this information. In fact, maybe board members should consider cutting back on the current number of year-round middle schools.

Think about it - these “latch-key” children are easy prey. Home alone for weeks at a time during every track-out period. Lots of these families have older students who can watch over their younger siblings when all are on the same schedule, but now siblings have been split between different calendars.

Claims that it is “too late” to convert schools back to a traditional school schedule and/or to drop plans to add MYR schools hold little weight when I consider issues such as the one just mentioned. Is there ever a time when we say “sorry – too late” when it concerns a child’s education, and even, potentially, a child’s very life? It’s a valid assumption to think that there are plenty of latch-key elementary children around as well. Even if skepticism exists over findings like those in L.A., dare we take a chance, especially if a conversion is not necessary? The least that our school board can do is to go back and explore that very question.

Too late they say? The Virginia Beach School Board just voted to convert four year-round schools back to a traditional schedule. They cited a savings of about $792,000, and claimed that, “most of the schools struggled to fill classrooms and [struggled to] show academic gains greater than schools on traditional calendars.”

(Excerpts from recent postings on my blog…)

I resent the implication, or in some instances, outright accusations, that anyone who speaks the words, "I am against the FORCING of year-round school attendance" really means, "Let's return to the days of segregated schools". That is preposterous!

In my opinion, lower income families and/or minorities have been ignored, pushed around, taken advantage of, and treated as if they can't even think for themselves. The strategy of select fact-sharing has resulted in a skewed idea of what the true picture looks like.

Take, for instance, the WRAL/ News and Observer poll in 2006. When asked about year-round schools, 52% of Blacks (that's the wording of the poll) and 52% of Latinos either opposed YR schools altogether or thought that they should be optional only. Fact ignored.

Some newer information (meaning less than 2 years old) – strictly data, no opinions - for those who continue to claim that year-round schools are a money-saving venture:

I asked the WCPSS for, and promptly received, data showing the 2009-2010 20th-day enrollment figures for each individual school in Wake County. Let’s look at a few of the schools that were converted from traditional to mandatory year-round in 2007-08.

Ballentine Elementary: capacity prior to YR conversion, 761

                                    current enrollment, 668

Lockhart Elementary: capacity prior to YR conversion, 885

                                 current enrollment, 728

Wakefield Elementary: capacity prior to YR conversion, 1,009

                                    current enrollment, 831

These are just some of the examples of converted MYR schools in which the current YR enrollment figure is less than the capacity figure when they were traditional. Wake County’s explanation for that has been that they couldn’t fill the YR schools because they had to have parents’ permission to assign students there. But the May 1, 2009 ruling by the state Supreme Court knocked that reasoning out of the picture. Now, even with the authority to assign students to YR schools against parents’ wishes, enrollment is down, and tracks are being dropped left and right (a story in and of itself).

This leads me to the cost issue:

Again, using data supplied directly from the WCPSS, I compared energy expenditures for the 20 converted schools. In 18 of those schools, the energy cost per pupil rose during the first year of conversion (2007-2008). That is to be expected, of course, largely due to air-conditioning costs during the hot summer months. What is revealing, however, is the percentage increase in some of these schools. Just looking at the elementary schools listed above:

Ballentine: 21.7% increase in per pupil energy cost

Lockhart: 23.1%increase in per pupil energy cost

Wakefield: 30.7% increase in per pupil energy cost

At Rand Road Elementary, where enrollment has consistently dropped since 2006, the per-pupil energy cost increased 59.2% the year it was converted. Hodge Road Elementary saw a 54.8% per pupil increase that same year.

To anyone who has taken the time to research and study the irrefutable facts surrounding districts across our nation who have tried massively mandating year-round school attendance, one thing is clear – it is NOT a cost-saving measure! The vast majority of these districts ended up converting back to a traditional calendar, with increased cost being one of the main reasons. I could fill pages with examples, but suffice it to say that this has been, and continues to be, the MYR track record for decades. Just this year, Virginia Beach school board members voted to convert 4 year-round elementary schools back to a traditional schedule, citing a savings of $792,000 for the district. According to the Virginia Pilot, an assistant superintendent that helped start the YR program recommended ending it, stating, “It’s the right thing to do…the wonderful things teachers do for the children…will not go away. Year-round is a schedule. Our teachers will still provide for these children.”

Also, the following numbers about transportation expenditures before and after the 2007 conversions should be of great interest to Wake citizens.

A quote from a WCPSS staff member -

“Transportation Department staff compared the monthly cost for July & August 2006 with the same months in 2007 to estimate a difference in cost for transportation of year-round students.  For July & August 2006, the average cost for each of the 2 months was $232,000 and for 2007, $472,000.”

Additionally,

“Ms Lee, my understanding is that the costs were the actual costs for system-wide transportation for the two months.  Thus, the data would show the cost for transportation for the schools in session in July/August 2006 as compared with those in 2007; those months were selected because most of the buses would be for multi-track schools.”

Unless I’m figuring something wrong, the system-wide transportation expenses just during the combined two months of July and August more than doubled during the first year of massive YR conversions, rising from close to half a million dollars ($464,000) in 2006 to close to a million ($944,000) in 2007. By the way, according to data from the US Department of Energy, diesel prices dropped during that interval.

This is truly just a thumbnail sketch of what you will find if you look through this site, Save Our Students, Wake County. Start at the beginning, and just skip over my opinions if you like. But don’t avoid the facts. Totally educate yourself, on both sides of the mandatory year-round issue, so that you can make decisions as an informed citizen of Wake County. There’s too much at stake not to do so.

 

Second handout – excerpts (minus some links) from a letter I sent to County Commissioners in March, 2006 – almost 4 years ago!

I want to begin by thanking you, on behalf of my family, for your dedication to the well-being of Wake County. Your job has got to be tough, and we appreciate your never-ending commitment of time and energy. Please know that you are not taken for granted!


I would like to specifically address the issue of over-crowding in our schools. First of all, it is important to note that I have been involved with discussions on this subject for years, often as a liaison with Wake Education Partnership. I am no stranger to our School Board members, and have had several opportunities to share important studies and other findings with them. I am very much aware of the situation in which we find ourselves, and stay well-informed on all aspects of the issue. I am also on the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council with Bill McNeal and have participated in many discussions with him about student growth.


I do not claim to have the magic solution for housing students now or in the future. I have shared ideas and hope to continue to work with our education leaders as they explore options. I was recently heartened to learn that leasing of existing facilities and other creative suggestions are now being seriously considered – and are being implemented in some cases.


The one option that is being billed as a certainty is, of course, the mandating of year-round schools. This option is especially enticing because it offers the “quick fix” that we need. It also appears to be the only choice on the horizon. The problem is – if put into practice, its potential (and probable) repercussions will more than likely tear our community apart. I beg your patience as I explain.


First of all, I am not speaking out against voluntary year-round schools. Replace the word “voluntary” with “mandatory” however, and a new dimension is added – a frightening dimension in my opinion. I base the factual part of my argument on the tons and tons of school calendar research I have had cause to explore (in depth) over the past two years. The amount of information on this subject is mind-boggling – much too extensive to share in one email.


Suffice it to say that history speaks for itself – the

“track record” for systems who have tried massive mandating of year-round schools is dismal at best. Study after study, account after account, reveal four main themes:
  1. Increased costs
  2. Staffing problems
  3. No proven educational advantage
  4. Community and family fibers are shredded


To fully present existing details on each of these themes would take days, but I have tried to highlight a few key findings.


1) Cost - I’m sure you have already been advised as to the added costs associated with mandatory year-round schools. While it initially saves on construction expenses, when new schools inevitably have to be built, the cost will be much greater. Studies such as the

one done by the Comptroller of the state of Texas show, for example, that air conditioning during hot summer months will cause utility bills to soar. Personnel expenses will increase dramatically, as will costs related to transportation and maintenance. Also, I have been told that during “track-out” time, Wake County funds remediation programs for low-achieving students. This is certainly an admirable practice, but will it be able to continue when the number of participants increases? If so, at what added cost? Even the School Board members have not been able to provide an answer.


2) Staffing problems - I hope you have already seen the report that Toni Patterson (of Central Office) submitted to the Wake County School Board in the late summer [if not, see

here (Adobe Reader required to read this link)]. The title was, “Key Human Resources Year Round School Conversion Issues”, and it detailed major conversion hurdles in categories such as “Budget Issues” and “Recruitment and Employment”. In systems that have tried forcing a year-round calendar, employee burnout has been a major drawback. Since we are currently buried in a crisis situation when it comes to teacher retention and recruitment, I find it hard to believe that we would intentionally dig ourselves into a deeper hole. I taught here in Wake County for 14 years, and still stay in touch with teachers from across the system. The words I’m hearing (which aren’t likely to be openly shared with administrators) reflect a similar sentiment. One veteran teacher of 30 years wrote, “It might just be the year that I retire if year-round becomes mandatory”. And this from a school social worker, “I’d probably leave, losing my 10 years vested in the retirement system and all. Another teacher (younger) pointed out to me that many young teachers still low on the salary scale have to work a summer job to make up for the low pay…with year-round they can’t do this because the time is so broken up….she will have to leave the system as well.” I’m wondering how Wake County plans to deal with the inevitable flight of teachers.


3) No proven educational advantages - Even Wake County’s administration acknowledges the fact that academic advantage cannot be used as a promotional tool for year-round calendars. Information abounds on the issue. In a 2000 Education Brief, entitled, “Year-Round Schools and Achievement in NC”, our own NC Department of Public Instruction came to the following conclusion after conducting an in depth study on the subject. I quote, “The results reported here do not imply any clear advantage or disadvantage to year-round education with respect to student achievement in reading or math.” Since I promised to condense this letter as much as possible, I’ll leave you with just that quote. If you want more research results, I’ll be glad to point the way to others.


4) Community and family - As for the fourth theme, which addresses family and community repercussions – well, I could fill up an entire book on this topic! Besides the obvious, such as loss of family cohesiveness, a decline in parental involvement/support, and the demise of community, other issues need to be given careful consideration. Lower income families (have their opinions even been sought??) know that childcare is typically more expensive in short spurts as opposed to one long break. Scholarships to summer camps, art and music programs, etc. offer opportunities that some of these children would otherwise never experience. Perhaps most importantly – many of these families depend heavily on income that their older students bring home from summer jobs – income that buys food, clothing, and other necessities of life. Also, has Wake County considered the legal quagmire which will develop as parents are forced to try and change court-ordered custody dates? Then there’s an intangible aspect that is especially disturbing, and difficult for some to understand. Most parents possess an intrinsic knowledge about what their particular child needs in order to grow into the type of individual they hope for. Should any school board have the right to force a change in a lifestyle that is vital for some families? For hundreds and hundreds of parents, a traditional school calendar is not just a preference – it is a necessity.


As I close, I want to thank you for seriously considering the points I have mentioned. I would never send an email this long if I didn’t think the information was vital for you to know. Believe it or not, I have only hit the highlights here, but hopefully it will spur a hunger for, and show the need for, a closer look before we “leap”. I have no doubt that we share a common goal to keep Wake County the ideal place to raise a family. I firmly believe that such a goal is attainable through compromise and the implementation of creative options, and by assuring parents that their “say so” in how to best raise their own child(ren) will be respected and protected. I have promised myself never to be part of the “I told you so” crowd. Please help me keep that promise!


Respectfully Yours,


Louise Lee

1 Comments:

At 9:38 AM, December 21, 2009, Blogger Joe said...

Louise,
I wish the new board majority members would spend some time with you. Twice they have shown up unprepared for board meetings and fumbled when trying to pass a resolution ending mandatory year-round assignment.

 

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