About this site

I was a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. This site was originally used for the purpose of communicating with school district constituents, however now it is used for surfacing ideas and expressing opinions on various subjects in education, politics, business, or otherwise.

Please note that any opinion express here is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of anyone else or any organization with which I am, or have been, associated.

I will not accept anonymous comments, and all persons who post comments must have a valid e-mail address. Note that I reserve the right to edit, reject, or delete posts based on spelling, grammar, readability, or my judgment of what is appropriate discourse.

 

December 2012
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Solving A Complicated Puzzle

This has been an interesting week. It was dominated by discussions regarding our facilities master plan, and specifically the plan for a 4/5 school at Tierra Linda. (There is little dispute about our plans to build a 4/5 school at Central and remove 4th grade from both White Oaks and Brittan Acres).

Let’s start with the background. Enrollment and capacity have been significant issues since I started on the board, and in fact led to the boundary changes almost three years ago. Those helped rebalance enrollment among the schools, but of course didn’t change the fact that our overall growth continued to climb and all schools (with the exception of Heather) were exceeding their intended capacity. As an Arundel parent, I witnessed first-hand the loss of “quality” space as more rooms had to be converted to classrooms. Among Arundel, Brittan Acres, and White Oaks, that has meant some combination of the loss of science rooms, art rooms, and outdoor facilities, as well as the addition of portable classrooms. Some years back, many (including me) assumed that the solution would be to build a new elementary school, but after researching this idea, we ran into three problems. The first was the lack of available space in San Carlos (and especially in a place that it made sense to create another neighborhood school). Secondly, even if we found a new space, it would require changing the boundaries again and perhaps changing the feeder patterns to the middle school. And lastly, doing this wouldn’t help the growing enrollment and capacity challenges at the two middle schools. With help from the administrative team and a facilities and enrollment committee comprised of representatives from each school, Dr. Baker proposed an interesting solution at our March 8, 2012 board meeting. This solution — creating two 4/5 schools, one each at Central and TL, and removing a grade from the four elementary schools — was elegant in that it both evenly addressed facilities issues while also creating an opportunity for an amazing pedagogical environment in our new 21st Century learning mode (you can read more about the pedagogical rationale here).

Since last March, this has been the assumed plan. Of course we always knew that we had the right to change it and do more research. But as we discussed it more (both among board members and with the larger community), it became apparent that this solution was very exciting because it gave us an opportunity to build these new 4/5 schools in a 21st Century Learning environment while leveraging the assets and programs already at the middle schools, all the while reducing overcrowding and traffic at each of the elementary school sites. For most of 2012, there were dozens of forums where our facilities and enrollment issues — and this proposed plan — were discussed and shared with the community to inform and get feedback into the process. The Superintendent held community forums on the topic, he led multiple meetings at each school site (including with both faculty and parents), the Superintendent presented this plan to the San Carlos city council, we had many public board meetings on the topic, and of course I wrote about it extensively on this blog. There were naturally some open issues, primarily whether CLC would stay on its existing campus or move to Heather school. In any case, Measure H had to pass, which is did by 68%!

Since the election, the administration has hired architects to begin renderings of designs for both Central and TL. Through that process and some additional feedback received, the architects were also asked to look at renderings if we were to have smaller 4/5 schools located each at Arundel and Heather. The architects reviewed each school site and held community meetings at Tierra Linda, Arundel, and Heather. Through those meetings, a number of parents — particularly at Arundel school — expressed some serious concerns about the plan to locate the 4/5 plan at Tierra Linda. A few of those parents were particularly active, and the board members received quite a few e-mails in the last week leading up to last night’s board meetings. I offered to speak to each person that contacted me, and a few took me up on the offer.

Before I get into the substance of the issue, I did want to note one important matter. Although I would say that about 90% of the folks who contacted me were very constructive in their dialog (and in fact appreciated that regardless of their opinion, they recognized that it was a very complex puzzle and appreciated that the board really did have the best interest of our students in mind). However, there were a select few that took a different approach. It saddened me to see people insulting me on e-mail or being snarky and disrespectful through comments on this blog. Those who know me, know that I call people out on bad behavior, and I remind them if their goal is to influence policy, then insulting the policy makers is generally not a winning approach. Unfortunately, there are a minority of people who imprint their overall view of politics and politicians onto their local school members while not appreciating that we’re a different breed. If you’re interested, you can read a recent article I wrote in EdSource related to this topic. Threats, insults, and childish antics don’t work. Again, this is only a small number of folks doing it, but I hope that these people realize that my colleagues and I volunteer thousands of hours for no purpose other than to do the best thing for students. We have no other agenda — we have no political donors or parties to serve, we have no higher officer to run for, and no political career to protect. Regardless of our agreement or disagreement on any issue, I will always engage with anyone in this community who takes a constructive approach to the dialog.

This brings me to last night’s meeting, which had a reasonably full house in attendance. Other than our annual board re-organization (my term as President ended), most of the meeting was devoted to the Facilities Master Plan, the findings and analysis of the architects and their teams, and discussion among the board on how to proceed. About a half dozen Arundel/Heather parents spoke, largely echoing the concerns sent to us earlier on e-mail.

It would be impossible to do justice to the presentation, as it was two hours long (you can view the slide deck here), but I can’t imagine anyone coming away from the evening not appreciating at least two things: (a) the issue is incredibly complex and involves multiple factors that need to be balanced, and (b) the district has really done it’s homework. The presentation was universally viewed as outstanding.

The board then proceeded with its discussion. Here is my analysis of the issues we discussed.

Although some elementary school parents expressed some safety concerns regarding their child being on a middle school campus, I think most people in the room generally understood that there really shouldn’t be any such concern. Dr. Baker presented a bunch of local school districts where elementary and middle schools are co-located, and of course there are many examples of K-8 schools (such as our own CLC). In fact, we were all reminded that there have been Kindergarten and Pre-School students (from Montessori) on the TL campus for decades!

A second category of concerns from some parents was about the community and cohesiveness of their schools and the fear that some of that would be lost by removing the 4th grade. Having been heavily involved at both the schools and the district for a long time, that is counter to my observation. I believe that community is driven by the people (staff and parents) rather than the grade configuration. We discussed the fact that, for example, the Las Lomitas school district has a K-3 and 4-8 with incredibly strong community involvement. If anything, I believe making these schools smaller — as part of our original intent — actually better promotes the sense of community at an elementary school. There is some perception among Arundel parents that TL is less of a welcoming community, and although parents definitely participate less in the classroom (and I agree there are things we can do to make it easier for more parent participation), it’s largely a moot point as the 4/5 kids would be going to a new school, which by its very design would not only encourage, but likely require, greater parent involvement at a much higher level. That is part of the 21st Century design.

Another issue that emerged was traffic. Clearly there would be additional traffic issues if we were to add a 5th grade to Arundel. The architects talked about some mitigating solutions, but they all had real issues as to whether they would work or what their cost would be (such as adding another entrance from Wellington Drive). Of course, if we were to add the 4/5 school on the TL campus and not move CLC, then we’d increase the traffic problem there. Regardless of the ultimate configuration, the architects suggested some very strong designs to improve traffic flow at TL.

Lastly, we discussed equity — the notion that kids from anywhere in town will get the same education. An important distinguishing characteristic of this school district has been promoting such equity and symmetry of path. I would argue it’s something we do extremely well, and given the relatively small size of the community, its absence would have serious ramifications. Even something like the success of the San Carlos Educational Foundation is an expression of that cohesiveness, equity, and knowing there really is no difference in your schooling path regardless where you live. I would argue this approach to equity strengthens the whole community. We know that even with the existing symmetry, it takes effort to push this equity — the recent discussion about middle school math is a great example. So although a few parents expressed the thought that symmetry was not required for equitable outcomes in the district, I find that in practice it actually is in our community like ours. I can only envision how the school programs will begin to diverge and that if we were not to place the 4/5 school at TL, five years from now we’d have hundreds of parents very upset about the wonderful environment that kids on the other side of town are getting that their kids aren’t.

The other big issue discussed by the Board was the scale of these 4/5 schools (meaning having a sufficient number of kids). I think most of us were in agreement that this was a real asset. Given the nature of the 21st Century Learning environment — including much more self-directed work and more flexibility and choices — scale is needed to make that work in practice. We risk not being able to the provide that level of flexibility and opportunity for the smaller number of kids that would be in the mini-4/5 schools at Arundel and Heather. In addition, the middle schools have real assets — both physical and programmatic assets — that would be leveraged by the 4/5 school to implement such flexible and diverse programs. We can try to imitate that on the elementary school environment, but it would likely be less powerful.

Lastly, the Board discussed the future flexibility gained by any of the possible options and in fact asked the Superintendent to come back with more analysis in this regard. I await that analysis, but I suspect the mini 4/5 option at Arundel — due to the nature of the way the school is wedged in a residential area and up against a hillside — would box us in both physically and from a configuration point of view if enrollment were to grow beyond our projections.

The board needs to make a decision, and it was the original goal to have such a decision by December 20th, with the notion that some groundbreaking would begin next summer. We of course reserve the right to delay that decision and even delay construction. But here is my analysis. Although I recognize and appreciate some of the parents’ concerns (and many of those I would have shared when I was first at Arundel), we need to recognize that the board must take into account all of the pieces of this puzzle knowing that we are making a long-term decision. In effect, we need to see around corners. In my research leading up to this board meeting, I also spoke to many middle school parents, and as one may suspect, they have a different view than many of the elementary parents. Their experience and perspective is of ones who have been through a greater portion of the SCSD experience. I’m quite certain that if the district were to decide to do the mini 4/5 schools at Arundel and Heather, it will rank up there with one of the all-time mistakes we’ve ever done. TL parents already told me that they’d be very upset if their 4th or 5th grader didn’t have this same experience as the new school adjacent to Central. I also know how much we’ve lost at our elementary schools in terms of quality space and what a gift we’d be giving back to Arundel and Heather by reducing that enrollment. It would provide a much better educational experience for those K-3 kids.

I would say the most board members recognized that building the 4/5 school at TL while at the same time moving CLC to a new location was probably the most elegant solution for a number of reasons. It accomplishes the pedagogical goals (while retaining the scale and leverage of the original 4/5 plan) and would reduce crowding and traffic at every school site. The challenge with this plan is that it’s dependent upon an unknown — whether we can obtain a new site for CLC and (perhaps in partnership with others) fund it so that it is not materially be more expensive than other options. So, we all agreed we need a back-up plan in case we can’t do this, as well as a timeframe to attempt to secure such new site. The board was less in agreement last night as to this “back-up plan,” and certainly we will discuss that further at our next meeting on December 20th. Although not perfect, I believe the next best plan is to still have the 4/5 at TL while moving CLC to Heather. Although it would of course impact the Heather campus, traffic could be mitigated by coordinating different start/end times for the two schools. And Heather still has the biggest parcel of land available with the lowest density of students. And regardless of which of the above two paths we take, I am confident that we will make the best-long term decision for all students and accomplish a number of goals:

  • Create 4/5 schools with enough scale in a location that allows for easy leverage of assets and programs while having a tremendously strong parent community
  • Give us the best tools for continuing to promote equity throughout the district
  • Provide the most flexibility going forward in the case enrollment grows even higher
  • Reduce traffic at Arundel
  • Give back quality space back to both Arundel and Heather
  • Allow for a smooth transition for students

And at the end of the day, I believe this will provide the best outcome for kids. I’m sure that all my colleagues and I have no other interest.

21 comments to Solving A Complicated Puzzle

  • Thanks for outlining the options on a very complex set of outcomes. I’m confident that you will help guide the board in doing what’s right for our kids.

  • Janet Hall

    Thanks for your thoughtful summary of the issue.

  • Seth – I wasn’t able to attend the meeting so it is very helpful to have this summary. Thank you for providing such a great summary of these difficult and complex issues.

  • JB

    Fascinating, thanks! I think the 4/5 concept is an amazing idea and I am sad that my kids will be too old for it by the time it is implemented.

    Very sorry you have to put up with a minority of destructive feedback as well. Thanks for all your time and effort.

  • Sarah Stiefel

    As a Heather parent, I am very concerned with the “back-up” plan that would potentially relocate an existing K-8 school to our campus. Seems like such a plan would thwart the stated goal of giving back quality space to Heather and would certainly result in a traffic increase at Heather. I notice that Mr. Rosenblatt is an Arundel parent and that much of his post focuses on the impact this decision will have on Arundel. I worry that the concerns of Heather parents are not being adequately acknowledged in these discussions.

  • Seth

    Sarah — I appreciate that as a Heather parent, all things being equal, you would rather have the campus to yourself. Of course anyone would. But when we look at the available space in the district, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Heather has the most surplus place compared to any other site. And the increase in quality space I’m referring to is largely the indoor space that will now be freed up by the removal of a grade — and of course we’ll be planning other improvements like the renovation of the MU room. The addition of CLC would not affect Heather quality space at all as it would be located on a different area of the campus, which is certainly large enough (if anything, the greater risk is the loss of field space used by city sports leagues). With respect to traffic, this could be largely mitigated as CLC would have a different bell schedule, whereas if you added 5th grade back to Heather, that would certainly would increase traffic. Lastly, we have to compare this against the alternative, such as keeping CLC on the TL campus. You will be a TL parent soon, and when you do I suspect you’ll likely be even more concerned about the traffic there. So, to be clear, there is no one right answer, it’s a question of tradeoffs. But I will say to your other point, I’m sure that if you asked long-time Heather parents (or the principal), they would tell you have a very strong track record of supporting Heather school. Feel free to e-mail me directly at seth@rosenblatt.org if you want to set up a time to chat.

  • Paula Miller

    As a Heather parent and neighborhood resident, it will be disappointing if Heather students are to lose the ability to walk to school starting at 4th grade. It seems that the schools feeding into Central could likely continue to walk to their 4/5 campus. All other things being equal then it doesn’t seem fair and equitable that Heather students will drive to TL. Walking adds to quality of life for all students and hopefully the walking option for Heather students doesn’t go away any sooner than necessary.

  • Seth

    Paula — you’re absolutely right, that would be one of the downsides of that plan. And any decision will have some negative effects on any subgroup of folks — the trick is to try to balance those priorities as much as possible. For example, there are other families who will gain the ability to walk to school in 4th grade, and ultimately we have strike balance and do what’s best for the whole community. And given that Heather is unfortunately one of least-walkable schools to begin with (the nature of being in the hills), it feel like the cumulative impact of losing that option wouldn’t affect that many folks (even though I appreciate it may affect you) relative to the incredible benefit we give all of the Heather students by having the opportunity to attend this great new 4/5 school with its 21st Century Learning focus and the ability to maintain equity in the district.

  • Dina

    What is the timeline for the decisions and when changes would be implemented? Thanks.

  • Seth

    Dina — the plan was for the board to make a decision on December 20 as the grade configurations in the facility master plan. We have a board meeting both this Thursday, 12/13 at 3pm as well as our regular meeting on 12/20 at 7pm. But to be clear, this is to agree on the big picture configuration issue. The district would still need to do quite a bit of architectural and planning work to hone specific building and site plans and narrow the budget for the projects, all of which would also have to be approved by the board.

  • Steph

    Seth, We think San Carlos schools are great; we know they will improve in many different ways over the coming years, whether or not this 21st Century Learning focus becomes a reality, but we just think 4th grade is too soon to remove children from the elementary school environment and have not seen the data to support such a move.

  • Seth

    Steph – Dr. Baker reports that all of the research shows that there is absolutely no correlation between grade configuration and student achievement or wellness. In fact, there are so many different models just in the Bay Area, many of which he and his team visited in doing research for our own plan. (For example note that the Las Lomitas school district is a K-3 and 4-8, and of course we’re not even suggesting doing that specially). And in any case, I don’t think of the plan as “removing” kids from elementary school, but rather creating a very specific new environment in our 4/5 schools specifically designed for the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of students of that age. You can actually read more of Dr. Baker’s analysis of why the 4/5 configuration will work for SCSD here: https://sancarlos.csbaagendaonline.net/cgi-bin/WebObjects/sancarlos-eAgenda.woa/files/MTM1NTM2MDU3MTY5Mi9zYW5jYXJsb3NlQWdlbmRhLzExMzAvNTA3Ni9GaWxlcw==/fourthfifthrationale.pdf

  • Julianna

    Seth – I do appreciate how much work has been put into this journey. Thank you. I don’t know anyone who doubts your dedication and effort.
    I do have to comment on the fact that we keep referring to Las Lomitas school district but there are plenty of other places that feel the need to keep little kids together until they are older. I am sure they have their reasons behind it. Of course, there are positives and negatives to every side. 99% of Heather parents would like to see their little ones stay here through 5th grade. We believe this is an ideal option. I do understand about the space and growth challenges but to all of us, it makes no sense by bringing a whole community of CLC families to share the space when they deserve to have their own.
    I would also like to add, if there is any doubt in yours or the rest of the board minds, I implore that you delay your decision until you find a perfect solution instead of settling on one that doesn’t satisfy all the needs. I am sure, I speak for lots of parents – I would rather see a portable until all the challenges have been resolved.
    Thanks.

  • Seth

    Julianna — I appreciate your comments. With respect to referencing Las Lomitas, I use that not to say we should emulate them, but rather to provide a very local proof point that there really isn’t any standard for school configurations anymore and that all of the research shows it doesn’t matter. Schools can use many tools available to them to make almost any configuration work to their advantage. And we know from our own district that although people may have concerns about mixing younger and older kids, our experience says it’s not an issue. CLC, like other K-8 schools, use that configuration to their advantage, and we’ve had kindergartners (from CLC) and pre-schoolers (from Montessori) on the CLC campus for literally decades. I suspect this is why there seems to be a fairly bright line between the views of the Arundel/Heather parents and the TL parents, because the latter (including me) used to hold the same concerns which were then removed once we saw the wonderful environment our kids moved to and the incredible possibilities of having new electives and new opportunities at a younger age. This is why I think the 4/5 configuration at TL gives us the best of both worlds — an intimate school specifically designed for that age group with the ability to leverage off the greater set of programs and assets at a middle school site. As for delaying the decision, I don’t think there will ever be a perfect solution — if I’ve learned anything from my five years on the board, it is that. Based on the comments at the last board meeting, I do think most of the board member’s first choice would be to find a new location for CLC. And I’m sure Dr. Baker and his team would work very hard to make that happen if that were indeed the decision. But as a board we would need to adopt a back-up choice because, despite those best efforts, a suitable location may not be found (or found at any reasonable cost). Certainly the board could decide that leaving CLC on the TL campus (and having three schools there) would be the backup plan. That would of course take away the need to move CLC to Heather, but would cause other issues on the TL campus in terms of crowding and space use. So, that’s why it’s always a series of tradeoffs.

  • Steph

    Seth, Thank you for your remarks and the link. I can’t imagine a world in which 4th graders on the TL site aren’t 100% aware of what is happening socially in grades 4-8, no matter how large the sports field separating them or how staggered the bells. The oldest students will be the most influential, and the youngest will be the most impressionable. I’m not knocking the behavior of 7th & 8th graders, lord knows I wasn’t an angel, but once again, 8 & 9 year olds are too young for that exposure. (I realize this is a purely social argument, but it’s the reality.)

  • Seth

    Steph — I appreciate that I won’t convince you of this, but I believe your fears are unfounded. If anything, most educators that I speak to argue exactly the opposite…that the presence of younger children has a positive influence on the older kids, and vice versa. (If they didn’t believe it, then I can’t imagine the TL faculty would be so in favor of this plan). And we don’t need to imagine it, as it all around us. CLC is a perfect example of that in our community, so I invite you to ask those parents what their experience is like. And as I mentioned before, there are schools all over the bay area and the country doing very similar things.

  • Ina

    Hi Seth – Thank you for summarizing this discussion. One thing though stood out for me. You say that “I’m quite certain that if the district were to decide to do the mini 4/5 schools at Arundel and Heather, it will rank up there with one of the all-time mistakes we’ve ever done. TL parents already told me that they’d be very upset if their 4th or 5th grader didn’t have this same experience as the new school adjacent to Central. I also know how much we’ve lost at our elementary schools in terms of quality space and what a gift we’d be giving back to Arundel and Heather by reducing that enrollment. It would provide a much better educational experience for those K-3 kids.” Can you address why a 4/5 configuration at Heather and Arundel would not provide the same quality education as a separate 4/5 school at TL? If it’s mostly about electives, I don’t see a reason why this could not be achieved at Heather and Arundel as well. Thanks.

  • Seth

    Ina — I’d be happy to elaborate. But I do want to do say upfront that although this is the current hot button issue, in the grand scheme of things, these are high level problems to have. San Carlos will continue to have great schools no matter what. But I do believe the 4/5 option on the middle school campuses enhances the educational experience for all kids. There are a few reasons. First, it’s a matter of scale. Even though in theory you could provide electives at the elementary school, your ability to provide them is proportional to the number of kids in that environment. In other words, with more kids you can afford more choices because you can essentially fill a classroom with more varied offerings. The mini 4/5 schools at Arundel and Heather wouldn’t have that scale and thus would have limited choices. Secondly, it’s about assets and systems that already exist at the middle school sites. Even if we had enough kids at the elementary schools in 4th and 5th grade to offer instrumental music for example, the elementary schools wouldn’t have the resources that TL and Central have. This both includes the physical resources (the band room, orchestra room, large gym for concerts, places to store instruments, etc.) but also the built in programs and systems, specifically the amazing program that our middle school music teachers have built up, the management of instruments, and lot of other know how that we couldn’t duplicate for any reasonable cost at the elementary schools. Third, it’s about quality space at the elementary schools. As over time we have slowly been using more and more rooms at our elementary schools for regular classrooms to house our growing enrollment, we have lost those quality space rooms that were once used for other purposes, such as art, music, science, etc. Of course we can build more rooms at the elementary schools, but with the exception of Heather, we run out of physical space pretty quickly. Lastly, I believe that the inherent inequity that would exist between the Arundel/Heather/TL students and the White Oaks/Brittan Acres/Central students would quickly damage the cohesiveness in this community that we have worked so hard to build up over the last decade. We know how hard it is to maintain equity now even with symmetric paths (reference the recent discussion on middle school math: http://rosenblatt.org/blog/2012/11/16/finally-some-real-higher-math-changes/), so it’s easy to see how the quality of the educational experience will fairly quickly diverge between these two sets of paths.

  • simona

    Seth,

    Thanks for your summary. However, when I read the goals outlined by you at the end of the post, I don’t see anything that would truly benefit Heather.
    The only thing that mentions Heather is “Give back quality space back to both Arundel and Heather” which I really don’t understand how we can achieve if CLC will move to Heather campus.

  • Seth

    Simona — see my earlier response to Ina about quality space. The existence of CLC would not affect that. And I recognize that no solution is going to benefit everyone on every issue they care about. But to be clear, the benefit is not to “Heather” but to the kids who go to Heather — that’s the important distinction. In this plan, these kids would have an amazing opportunity to attend a new 4/5 school build in the mode of 21st Century Learning with both the scale and assets to offer something they could not get if they stayed on the elementary school campus.

  • Seth

    ALL — PLEASE NOTE THAT I HAVE CLOSED COMMENTS FOR NOW ON THIS POST. I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MONITOR COMMENTS AND/OR REPLY BETWEEN NOW AND TODAY’S BOARD MEETING. AFTER THE BOARD MEETING, I WILL LIKELY WRITE ANOTHER UPDATE AND HAVE COMMENTS OPEN FOR THAT POST.