Friday, May 11, 2018

Neighborhood Schools

Recently, 300 community members of the Richardson school district wrapped up months of meetings, making 27 recommendations that were accepted by the school board to comprise the RISD's Strategic Plan 2017. One recommendation in particular caught my eye.
Adopt a neighborhood school policy and create a formal definition of neighborhood school to provide clarity on future decisions regarding school construction, boundary lines, and transfer policies.
Source: RISD.

To me, that sounds like a recommendation with hidden subtext. The definition of a neighborhood school is pretty straightforward: it's a school that is geographically central to where students live. So what's behind the recommendation? I suspect someone or ones on the working group believe the RISD pays lip service to neighborhood schools while not honoring them in practice. Obviously, neighborhood schools are a value, but just as obviously a value that the district needs to balance against other values that the community also shares. Sounds simple, but in practice, all too often it's an impossible situation.

There's no doubt that the concept of neighborhood schools polls well. Who is against children going to schools in their own neighborhood, learning and playing with kids in their own neighborhood, being chaperoned and coached by parents in their own neighborhood?

But do you know what else polls well? Choice. Parents want the ability to send their children to the school of their choice—whether that's because the classes and/or staff offered in another school are more attractive (e.g., magnet schools); or because the racial or socioeconomic diversity is more attractive in another school (e.g., white flight); or for any good or bad reason at all. Choice is good. Choice is American.

A third factor to consider is diversity. On that, polling is all over the board. How important is it to parents that their children attend schools where other children look and think like they do? Or where their children will be exposed to children who are different from them? Different parents place different values on that measure, sometimes subconsciously, making talk about the interplay of neighborhood schools, choice, and diversity fiendishly difficult.

Trying to balance all these sometimes contradictory values leads a school district into a minefield. Offer magnet schools and some will see that as undermining neighborhood schools. Boost neighborhood schools by making it difficult to transfer out of neighborhood schools and some parents will transfer out of the public school system altogether, valuing choice above all.

The RISD already has policies dealing with school attendance zones, enrollment, transfers, overflow, magnet schools, special needs programs, ESL programs, etc. Writing a "formal definition of neighborhood school" can't address all the complex, underlying conflicts. Creating a "neighborhood school policy" is likely to add just another conflicting guideline without providing the desired "clarity on future decisions regarding school construction, boundary lines, and transfer policies."

What are the measures we'd use to determine when all of the different careabouts are out of balance? What prioritization would be used to restore a desired balance? I have little confidence that these things can be written into an algorithm. Call my attitude despair, but I fear that anything that comes out of an effort to "adopt a neighborhood school policy and create a formal definition of neighborhood school" will fall apart the first time it meets the real world. In the end, all parents want what's best for their own child, as defined by the parents themselves, in each specific instance, and any previously agreed policies be damned.

A more useful approach would be to make an institutional change in how such decisions are made. Rather than try to create a policy that anticipates all the different angles of future needs, instead create permanent standing bodies made up of a wide variety of stakeholders in the community, each focused on a different strategic issue. Give those standing bodies the independence and authority to deliberate regarding district planning and strategy. The RISD superintendent and board of trustees would retain final legal authority, but they'd always have the considered voice of the community to guide them. We already have the working groups defined as part of "Strategic Plan 2017." The RISD should formally make them permanent so they are in place and ready to offer guidance when the need arises.

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