UPDATE — Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland has asked school board members to delay their vote on proposed changes to the district's Student Assignment Plan. KPLU's original story, originally posted Tuesday morning, follows here:
Already fired up by a teachers strike and a district-wide staffing shake-up, Seattle Public Schools watchdogs are sounding the alarm yet again — this time, over proposed changes to an arcane-sounding policy: the Student Assignment Plan.
But district officials tried to make the case Monday that it was a false alarm ahead of what could be a lively school board meeting later this week.
So, What Exactly Is The Hubbub About?
For parents, the Student Assignment Plan is a fundamental document. It is a roadmap for how the district sorts more than 52,000 students into 97 schools, and more technically, how students’ academic needs and families’ open enrollment applications weigh into that process.
In substance, district officials said they're proposing two relatively-minor changes to that plan — one of which is aimed at preventing Seattle Public Schools from having to repeat that painful staffing shuffle again in the future.
But influential blogger and activist Melissa Westbrook argued in a post this weekend, that in effect, it's a "massive overhaul." She urged the board to vote down the proposed changes saying they are too drastic and cede too much control to district administrators — especially since, she says, families have "no idea it's happening.”
Not so, responded Seattle Public Schools Director of Enrollment Planning Ashley Davies. She said what Westbrook characterized as sweeping changes are actually an effort to "streamline" a lengthy policy that has become so cluttered that it is not only hard for families to read, but actually contradicts itself in places.
But Westbrook said making the policy more general takes powers out of school board members' hands.
"It's impossible for the board to approve such a broad and open plan that has no clarity for parents," Westbrook said in an interview, "and leaves most of the decision-making in the hands of the superintendent and staff.”
Westbrook raised three major points, so let's break them down:
In a post on the blog she authors and moderates, Westbrook notes her primary concern is with a proposal to strike several long paragraphs of instructions detailing the feeder patterns for Seattle Public Schools' tracks for gifted students — the APP and Spectrum programs — and for students in language immersion programs.
The old guidelines map out the attendance pattern for students who are admitted to the APP program at, for example, Thurgood Marshall Elementary — if they remain in the program, Thurgood Marshall students eventually matriculate to Washington Middle School and then eventually to Garfield High School.
The new guidelines, if approved, would include much more general language — partially because more schools offer the programs now. The proposal simply reiterates language found elsewhere that students who need to access special education or gifted programming their attendance area school does not offer will be assigned to another school nearby that does.
Westbrook says this change throws into question a feeder system that has been in place for more than a decade.
But Davies said the district's feeder patterns are not changing. Rather, information about those feeder patterns is simply available elsewhere, in documents that "also need to go through ... review and receive community feedback" if changed.
"Think about the Student Assignment Plan as the Constitution," Davies said, adding, "Our goal is to keep [the Student Assignment Plan] really clear — a document that can withstand time, have information for families.”
"If programs or services are not explicitly identified in this Student Assignment Plan, it does not mean that they no longer exist," a district statement added. "The most up to date information about programs and services can be found within the respective program office.”
Westbrook also takes issue with new language related to "grandfathering," the process of allowing students impacted by a shift in school attendance boundaries to remain in their current school through the highest grade.
The new guidelines, if approved, would say "families may elect to stay at their current school, through a grandfathered assignment, if available.”
Those last two words — "if available" — concern Westbrook. She said this change gives the district too much leeway to simply end the practice wherever it is convenient.
But Davies said those two words simply reflect current district policy.
"The change or kind of streamlining of language doesn't change anything about our policies around grandfathering," Davies said in an interview. "That has always been pending space availability.”
Westbrook also points out the district is proposing to move back the date at which the district ends its waitlists at schools where there are not enough seats to accommodate students attempting to open-enroll. Instead of closing roughly a month into the school year — at the end of September — waitlists would close at the end of May.
On Oct. 21, School Board President Sherry Carr said this change is necessary. Keeping waitlists open through the fall, she said, creates too much uncertainty for district staffers trying to match schools' staffing levels with their enrollment numbers. When the district missed its enrollment projections this fall, seven schools had to give up teachers to other assignments weeks into the school year.
"Don't think for a minute you haven't gotten some public input on this matter because we all got about 800 or 900 emails resulting from staff reallocation. And [the waitlist closing date] is one of the primary root causes," Carr said. "So if you decide to take a pass and wait a year to address it, please be prepared as a result for 800 or 900 emails next September from equally-unhappy families."
'I Don't Think Parents Are On A Hair-Trigger’
Incumbents Sherry Carr, Harium Martin-Morris and Sharon Peaslee are all stepping down from the school board at the beginning of December. A fourth incumbent, Marty McLaren, faces a competitive re-election challenge.
Some parents have suggested it is inappropriate for the board to approve a major change so soon before the new board is seated.
But Davies disputed the assertion these changes came out of left field, noting the district had discussed changes to the assignment plan in public meetings — though Davies acknowledged that the meetings were primarily billed as being about something else.
"It's good feedback for us to know, and if we were to do this again — maybe just adding a different headliner to make sure that people know it was also about Student Assignment Plan updates. It's something we'll be more clear about in the future," Davies said in an interview Monday.
"We would never try to hide information," she added, "especially information that has such a huge impact." But Westbrook said the district needs to do better.
"I don't think it's asking too much to do things in a timely fashion that is clear and transparent. I will never believe that isn't a fair thing to ask for," she said. "I don't think parents are on a hair-trigger. I think they're just confused why a district in a smart city, a wealthy city, cannot run itself."