About this site

I am currently a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. I created this site to keep in touch with folks who want to know more about what is happening in the District and what it's like to be a Trustee.

Please note that ANY OPINION EXPRESSED HERE IS PURELY PERSONAL AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT OFFICIAL POSITIONS OR POLICY OF THE SAN CARLOS SCHOOL DISTRICT NOR THE OPINION OF ANY OF MY COLLEAGUES ON THE BOARD.

The blog is intended solely for the purpose of informing and communicating with constituents. It is not intended in any way to participate in discussions with fellow board members.

I encourage everyone to visit the District web site as well as attend School Board meetings.

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.

 

August 2014
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Facilities Master Plan Approved

Last night the Board approved the District’s Facilities Master Plan (FMP) — this is the road map for the building and renovation of our facilities over the next decade. The version posted online was not the final one passed — there were a few minor changes in language and organization of “phases” for certain projects — the revised one will be posted soon on the district web site. This is a major step forward and allows us to start the work on design and construction.

The FMP is not just about Measure H — it’s about our broader facility needs, and as you can see in the plan, we outline projects that cost far in excess of the $72 million authorized under Measure H. However, we identify other potential sources of funding, which include state grants, separately financed projects (such as for sustainability initiatives), and private grants and donations. Although the intent is to do projects at each school site (particularly on technology infrastructure and sustainability), the bulk of the work will happen at the middle school sites and in the building of our new 4-5 schools. In addition, it is a priority to find a new location for the San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CLC) in order to create more space on the Tierra Linda campus.

On a related note, the Board gave direction to the Superintendent to proceed with his proposed Design Team for the new 4th-5th grade schools. This is a team of administrators and teachers who will work over the next 18-30 months to design the curriculum, structure, and personnel model of our new schools. Their role will also be to ensure that the physical design of the schools aligns with the curricular design. This will be the first substantial opportunity to re-think many of the historical elements of public schools and to implement a real 21st century learning environment, both in terms of the physical learning spaces as well as the very design of the curriculum and school day itself. It will be the first instantiation of our overall District Strategic Plan which we will finalize by the end of this school year. I’m looking forward to seeing it develop!

New Sustainability Policy

Last night the board passed the first ever Sustainability Policy adopted by the San Carlos School District. I’m very excited about this!

The policy is of course just a first step toward (and a prerequisite for) real action on this front. The policy is designed to be reasonably holistic and cover a number of areas, including:

  • Integrating environmental education and stewardship into the curriculum
  • Develop programs to monitor consumption and conserve use of natural resources such as energy and water
  • Build capacity for renewable energy generation, e.g. solar power, for all school sites
  • Commit as much as possible to use of green building materials in new construction, including all our upcoming construction related to our Facilities Master Plan and recent bond measure passage.

Of course this is all easier said than done. It will take a lot of work and many years to fully implement the ideals stated in this policy. But this policy will give us a road map for future work and will also potentially allow us to qualify for grants to pursue additional projects in the area of sustainability. In addition to the obvious ideas such as adding solar panels at each school site, we have to think about how do implement programs that both make our infrastructure more energy (or water) efficient but also potentially change behavior to reduce our footprint. So, I predict a lot more to come in this area, but it was certainly a big step last night. I’m proud to live in a community that almost universally has such a commitment.

Click here to read the full policy.

Hold Harmless not so Harmless

Last month I gave a preliminary take on the Governor’s proposed budget, which looks to replace our existing funding system with a new Local Control Funding Formula. Last week the State Department of Finance released it’s district-by-district calculation on the impact of the LCFF. It should probably come as no surprise that San Carlos comes out at the low end of that calculation (it would remain the lowest funded district in San Mateo County) with its relatively high income population and low percentage of English language learners, while at the same time being a Revenue Limit district. Unlike a similar proposal the Governor made last year which would have actually re-distributed existing funding, this proposal has a “hold harmless,” meaning that no district will lose money compared to what it has now. Although I like the concept of this new system, there are issues in the details, particularly as it relates to San Carlos. Unfortunately we may be held to a low funding level for a long time. I re-print my article published yesterday in EdSource today which goes into more explanation:

I want to like the governor’s proposal — I really do. Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is certainly the first sign of real and meaningful education finance reform in decades. As a very active voice decrying our dysfunctional system, I should be jumping for joy right now, shouldn’t I? The governor absolutely needs to be commended for his political courage and vision to change this system, and the notion of directing more money to districts with higher needs is spot on. And folks who are more politically savvy than I in the ways of Sacramento tell me this is the best chance we’ll have to make these changes. So, what’s the problem?

To be clear, I have always argued that communities with economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners should get more funding, and if anything the weights in Gov. Brown’s LCFF probably aren’t nearly enough to compensate for the inherent challenges in educating certain populations. However, I have also argued that adding universal preschool would go a long way toward leveling the field for our students, and ironically may even be more powerful—and maybe even cheaper in the long run—than compensating districts in later grades for more challenged populations. Despite the recent attention this issue has been getting (not unrelated to the president’s call for expanded preschool), this issue seems to be mostly absent in this conversation at the state level about education finance reform despite its clear linkage.

The LCFF also presents some very practical challenges for districts such as my own. Ours, like 90 percent of districts in the state, is a Revenue Limit district, meaning that its funding is essentially dictated by the state, but we live in a high cost-of-living area with a middle-upper income population. So, properly, we’re on the low end of this weighted formula, but that hardly accounts for what it really takes to educate our children. For example, the most obvious “weight” missing in the LCFF formula is regional cost of living. Ultimately, it’s not the inputs (e.g., money) that matter but rather the outputs—what you can do with money. We must pay teachers a higher amount than most other places in the state or else they wouldn’t even be able to afford to live within a commuting distance! So, the same dollar does not buy the same teacher (or administrator, or counselor, or librarian, etc.) across the state. I’ve discussed this issue with a number of our state representatives who generally agree that although this is an honest intellectual argument, it’s a dead political one. No one is going to stand up and advocate to give more money to “rich” districts despite the truism that some places get more for their dollar than others. Although this issue is a challenge for my district, it also affects the number of economically disadvantaged communities within our county that still suffer from the same relative high cost-of-living pressures. Although they will gain from the “weights” in the LCFF compared to a district like mine, they will still lose out compared to similar districts in other counties.

One potential political “compromise” here is the lowering of the parcel tax threshold to 55%. SCA 3 would place a measure on the ballot, which if approved by voters would lower the threshold to pass a school parcel tax from the current two-thirds required. Although I am a supporter of doing this in any case (as the 2/3 requirement has been particularly onerous, and lowering it will allow more communities to help fund themselves), its passage would act as a bit of a counterweight to the inherent bias in the current LCFF formula against districts in higher cost-of-living areas—many of these (although not all) have demonstrated an increased capacity to tax themselves to compensate.

The next big issue is the definition of LCFF’s “hold harmless” concept (the promise that no district will lose money versus what it gets today). Of course the LCFF is a major improvement over last year’s Weighted Student Formula, which would have actually taken base money away from districts (including mine), but the hold harmless provision still misses two key points. First, we will still be losing some streams of “categorical” money that we received in the past and which, in our case, won’t be made up by the new LCFF weights. Second, many revenue limit districts are funded at a rate 20 percent below what they were pre-recession. And California wasn’t exactly funding our schools well even at that time. So, the promise to hold us flat at our current lower level is cold comfort. According to our preliminary calculations, our district will crawl back to its pre-recession funding level once the formula is fully implemented (assuming state revenue projections hold up). This is consistent with the governor’s plan to take seven more years to bring districts back to their 2007-08 funding levels, but this means it effectively will have taken over a decade—more than an entire generation of students in our K-8 district—just to return to the modest level of funding we had before. The obvious alternative—as discussed in the interview with Assembly Chair Joan Buchanan in EdSource Today back in November—is to first restore all districts to pre-recession levels before implementing the weighted formula. But of course this would cost a lot more money and would delay relative funding for those districts most in need.

Lastly, we have an expectation-setting problem. Each of our local communities (and our employees) may have greater expectations than reality will bear out. On a statewide level, just like the passage of Proposition 30 last November, LCFF implementation runs the risk that it will give many the erroneous assumption that we have now “fixed” the problem. It’s a major step in righting the ship, and I continue to applaud the efforts. But unless we recognize that it is just a first step, California will continue to systematically underfund public education and shortchange our future…we will have just spread around the misfortune a little more rationally.

Middle School Math Changes – Update

Last night the administrative team came back with the proposal for middle school math based on the board discussion we had in November. The plan is a very rational approach — developed by the teaching and administrative staffs at the middle schools and the district office — that aligns the approach between the schools and gives more students an opportunity to take higher level math classes.

As I wrote about then, this has been a long-standing issue in our district that has unfortunately been ignored (including by the Board). Historically, our two middle schools have approached math differently, both in terms of the criteria of which (and how many) students get into Algebra and Geometry and how they teach Geometry (Central has a teacher, TL kids go to Carlmont to take the class). In addition, the district has been very conservative compared to comparable neighboring districts in terms of the percentage of students who are placed in higher math classes (e.g., we place about half as many kids in 8th grade Geometry as do Belmont or Menlo Park, and in those two districts, 100% of their kids still score proficient or advanced — so clearly they are not stretching by any means).

Although the full effects of the changes will take two years to implement, the schools will begin applying the new criteria for placement for next school year. And we will use the same methodology at both Central and Tierra Linda. The criteria will include a number of factors, including multiple test data points, course grades, and teacher judgment. We also discussed last night how we can create a system to get both student and parent feedback into the decision process. The staff will develop the specific criteria over the next couple of months. Also, TL will join Central in having it’s own Geometry teacher, ending the practice of sending kids across the street to Carlmont to take that class. The chart below outlines the general pathways that students will have through middle school math.

Math Paths

Clearly the major decision points will happen between school years, but this system will also be designed so that there is some fluidity with students moving up or down as appropriate during a school year, most likely at the end of trimesters. Although those adjustments should be rare, we certainly want to give the opportunity for students to be re-assigned if the original placement wasn’t appropriate. We must also recognize that some of the specifics may change as we migrate to the Common Core Standards. Lastly, we all agreed that this remains a work in progress — we should monitor the outcomes of the system at the end of each year and adjust as necessary.

This is one of those “it’s about time” moments, and I appreciate all of the hard work by the district office and the teachers to finally make this a reality.

Responsibility Shirked

Four and half years ago, the then San Mateo County Treasurer (Lee Buffington, now deceased) lost tens of millions of dollars from public agencies across the county because he held almost 6% of the county portfolio (in which all public agencies are required to invest their cash) in bonds of Lehman Brothers. SCSD lost around $600,000. Although I won’t recount all of the details (I first wrote about the loss in October 2008), the level of incompetency was incredible (both to miss the warning signs about Lehman which were common knowledge as well as the practice of putting that high of a percentage of a portfolio in any single issuer), but perhaps even more incredible was the lack of responsibility taken by the Treasurer.

Two years later, I reported that our district had joined many others in a lawsuit against the Treasurer (with a subsequent update in January 2011). In the meantime, the then Deputy Treasurer, Sandie Arnott, won election as the new Treasurer in November 2010, and Mr. Buffington passed away in December 2011.

The wheels of justice turned very slowly, and unfortunately not in our favor. In November of 2011, the court gave a tentative ruling denying the plaintiffs’ claims. And just this week, a three judge panel of the State Appellate Court affirmed the earlier court’s ruling. Although I imagine we could appeal again, I suspect this is the end of the line.

The court essentially ruled that the Treasurer and his office have immunity from these sorts of civil suit. As I am no attorney or expert on government law, I can’t comment on that specific legal issue. However, I will say that a wrong was certainly not righted. Maybe the Treasurer does have legal immunity, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the loss to our public schools due to the incredible incompetence and negligence of that office. We all deserved better.

Cautious Optimism

The education community is positively giddy about Governor Brown’s budget proposal announced yesterday. All the details will not be released for a few weeks, but the major points appear to be the following:

  • Overall increase in education spending by 5%
  • Beginning to pay off the “deferrals” to schools (those payments made in the following fiscal year)
  • The phase in of a new Local Control Funding Formula
  • Removal of most “categorical” programs and increase of flexibility and control to local districts
  • An overall state budget that is balanced and perhaps may even see a surplus

Clearly, some of the Governor’s flexibility is due to the passage of Proposition 30 (and 39), but presumably some of it must be based on more optimistic overall economic projections. This may be justified, but I remain cautious. For the last few years, we’ve been witness to budgets that have been pure fiction, requiring downward revision in the middle of the year. I believe Gov. Brown is genuine in his attempt to have a rational and balanced budget, and I take him at his word that education is a priority. However, after five years of bad news, the education community is chomping at the bit for a glimmer of hope, so let’s come down from the cloud and set our expectations appropriately.

The Local Control Funding Formula (which is effectively a rename and a tweak of the last year’s proposed weighted student formula), makes a lot of sense. It made sense last year, although then it was based upon a zero-sum game, where some districts would get money redistributed from others. The reason that WSF didn’t go anywhere last year was the strong objection from suburban districts — including ours — that would have been severe losers in such formula. Yes, Ravenswood needs more resources than San Carlos, but even San Carlos is far below where it needs to be, which is why any new formula requires more money in the system. And like last time, the formula doesn’t appear to take into account one of the biggest drivers of costs — regional cost of living. I appreciate the political difficulty in getting folks to agree to that, but perhaps the simultaneous approach by the state to place a measure on the ballot to lower the parcel tax threshold to 55% would somewhat mitigate this problem.

We probably won’t know for a few weeks how the new formula will affect each district — it’s implicit in the Governor’s statements that perhaps by raising the overall base funding for all districts (and/or having a “hold harmless” or phase-in), there won’t be districts that will lose money based on this approach. But we need to wait and see. The San Mateo County School Boards Association is having an event with state representatives Rich Gordon, Kevin Mullin, and Joan Buchanan (chair of the Assembly Education Committee) and by that time we should get more details, and I’ll report back.

Looking at the big picture, we have to recognize that most districts have had their budgets cut by 20% or more over the last five years (and even five years ago it was hard to argue that education wasn’t underfunded), so it seems like just having a stable state budget — albeit good news — is only a first step in starting to reinvest in education. We should expect that it will still likely take many years to get to where we should be.

Moving Onward on Facilities

Last night we wrapped up our discussion about grade configurations for our Facilities Master Plan. The bottom line is that the board agreed to proceed with the plan to include the 4/5 schools on both the Central and Tierra Linda campuses and to plan for CLC moving to a new location. Not knowing how long it would take to find a suitable site, it was well understood that we would leave CLC where it is in the meantime and thus could have an interim state where the new school, TL, and CLC remain on that campus until CLC is moved. Although the traffic was the number one concern in this scenario (regardless of how temporary or permanent it is), there would be significant mitigation efforts done as part of the construction, and we have known for sometime that we have to look at other solutions for TL (such as transportation, entrance from Alameda, etc.) even if we did nothing. Also, this approach gives us future option value to move CLC at any point in time — to either a new location or one we own. In any case, it was clear that from a financial standpoint, the goal was to ensure that the cost of moving CLC would effectively be funded by other sources, which could be state money allocated specifically for charter schools, a capital campaign by CLC itself, or funding from partners. Therefore, the total cost to the district wouldn’t be any greater than just leaving CLC (and renovating it) in its current location.

The first part of last night’s discussion included information brought back by Dr. Baker and his team at the request of some of the board members from previous meetings, including discussion of the operating cost differences among the plans proposed and some of the pros and cons related to implementing our new 4/5 configuration in different scenarios. We also reviewed our original criteria for making this decision and discussed scenarios that we had (some time ago) taken off the table. Lastly, we saw a review of some of the design elements — both the physical and the curricular — of our new 4/5 21st Century Learning environments as envisioned. But as Dr. Baker reminded us, it will take a good 12-18 months of work to build the specific curriculum, which can only start once we’ve decided on our overall configuration plan and phasing for actual implementation at each site.

Without recounting the entire discussion, it was clear that the consensus of the board was the the 4/5 configuration on the middle school was the best solution from an educational perspective, and that trumped all other concerns. I earlier wrote why I think that is so — particularly the issues of equity, scale, leveraging existing assets on the MS campuses, and a smoother transition for kids. One of the teachers that spoke described this outcome as a “dream come true” for kids and for the district.

Although this was a long process — having been discussing facilities planning and grade configuration for almost two years now — and a bit difficult in the last month or so as more members of the community have weighed in and expressed angst with the plan — it is hard not to be excited at the innovative journey we are about to take. And you can also see that excitement in the SCSD team that spoke about our approach to 21st Century Learning. The possibilities to make real strides in implementing our strategic plan and remaking education in the modern era can happen now because of the intersection of our pedagogical vision and our facility needs.

But now the hard work actually begins. To be clear, the board didn’t approve any specific project or budget — it agreed upon the major configurations of our Facilities Master Plan. The next steps include the following:

  • Complete the Facilities Master Plan (perhaps sometime in the late winter)
  • The board review a specific set of plans — and budget — consistent with that plan
  • Start the process (”get in line”) to be eligible for state matching funds for construction
  • Develop a full “phasing” plan for construction projects
  • Identify potential sites for CLC and determine feasibility and funding

It’s still unclear when actual construction will begin. Although the original plan had some work — likely at the Central site — begin as early as Summer 2013 and finish some work for the 2014-2015 school year, it’s possible that is too aggressive and work would start later in the year or the following summer. This is all to be determined. The Board would of course have to approve all final construction plans, phasing, and of course budget. We were also reminded that in all scenarios, our desires exceed the money raised by Measure H, and that the district would continue to find other sources of funding (including potential state grants). We will have to carefully consider the phasing of projects so that we can prudently build within our means but at the same time plan for a longer time frame. Note that the Facilities Master Plan would look beyond Measure H in terms of time and scope.

I would like to commend my colleagues for putting in the massive amount of time and effort to study the issue from all angles, speaking with so many community members to get input, and for finally making a difficult decision that they believed was in the best long-term interest of our students and our community.

One Step Closer

Yesterday the school board had a special meeting to continue the discussion from last week regarding the Facilities Master Plan, and specifically the grade configurations related to TL, Heather, and Arundel. It was a thorough discussion lasting 3 1/2 hours. The first part of the meeting was devoted to delivering more information that the board requested last week, including issues related to CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), operational costs for the district in different scenarios, as well as issues of future flexibility.

The board then discussed the scenarios presented in the prior meeting. Firstly, almost all board members acknowledged the overwhelming feedback they had received from the community and remarked that there was quite the diversity in opinion. One of my colleagues remarked that she wished everyone who had written could have been able to see the letters from everyone else who had written! Personally, I have made an effort to respond to everyone, and I appreciate the conversations (via e-mail, this blog, and the phone) that I’ve had with so many folks.

It didn’t take long for the Board to come to consensus on its number one preference — what we called Option 2 last week — building the 4/5 school at Tierra Linda and moving CLC to a new site. We discussed that option for a while recognizing that it could take a year or two to identify a suitable site, but Dr. Baker was optimistic that finding one was a distinct possibility. Although there were no formal decisions made at this meeting, the board agreed that it wanted to go forward on this plan (a) given a reasonable timeframe to find such a suitable site, and (b) the overall cost of this option wouldn’t materially exceed the next best option. There was some optimism that the costs involved (including potentially purchasing a new site) would be reduced through partnerships with other entities, including perhaps the city, the CLC community, and other organizations. But we also acknowledge that there were forces outside our control that could prevent this plan from happening, so the board agreed that it needed a back-up plan in the case we were unsuccessful in moving CLC to a new location. It’s difficult to predict the likelihood of our being successful, but most certainly we would need to plan for — and budget for — such a back-up plan.

On this issue there was not universal agreement. However, the board quickly agreed to remove Option 5 — moving CLC to Arundel — off the table. In addition, most board members did not like the idea of moving CLC to Heather, but some were OK with leaving it in its current location. Although I thought that moving CLC to Heather is a better idea purely from a land use perspective, leaving CLC on its current campus could be a significantly cheaper scenario and thus would give us more resources for all schools as well as for traffic mitigation measures, for example. So, I did not have a strong opinion between those two back-up plans. Two board members appeared to favor the mini 4/5 schools — Option 3 — as their back-up plan, but at the end of the discussion it appeared a majority would adopt Option 1 — CLC staying where it was — while we looked for a new site for the school.

The goal would be to finalize this decision at our next meeting December 20th. To be clear, next week’s decision is around the configurations and land use in our Facilities Master Plan. It’s not an agreement to break ground, but rather the plan would guide future planning and potential proposals for outside grants. Based on this decision, the team would then have to come back with a more detailed budget and timing plan for all sites. The board would then need to consider and approve those budgets and specific construction plans. Also at that time, the district would be in a position to apply for potential state matching grants or other sources of funds. Note that this will be a very long process. Specific construction decisions will be likely be made over the next couple of years and some projects — given the way it will likely be phased — will take years beyond that to be completed. Obviously all of this detail is still to come.

I appreciate that no matter what the ultimate decision is, there will be folks who won’t agree or feel like their voices weren’t heard. I will say, in reflection, that although sometimes the process seems a bit messy at times, this is how it’s supposed to go. I’m quite certain that all of my colleagues have spent an amazing amount of time absorbing feedback, studying the issue, and applying their best judgement to what is an extremely complicated puzzle. And all for no other purpose than what each thinks is in the best interest of all of our students. Regardless of the outcome, I hope folks appreciate that. And I’m confident that we’re going to continue the amazing work in this district and provide some very exciting opportunities for all students!

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.

Finally Some Real Higher Math Changes

In my five years on the school board, the most persistent (and justified) complaint that I have heard about our school district is the way we manage our math program in the middle schools, particularly for higher-level students. Primarily, parents have been puzzled by the lack of consistent approaches between our two middle schools with respect to the criteria for placement into higher math courses and how such courses are taught. In addition, there has also been anecdotal evidence — and a feeling among many parents — that San Carlos does not push its students enough into these higher level math courses relative to neighboring districts. This issue has come up periodically over the last few years, but honestly I can say we did not give it the requisite attention it deserved. And ironically, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve. This year finally it was placed on the front burner for a number of discussions, and at last night’s board meeting I believe we had a breakthrough.

By way of background, Central Middle School and Tierra Linda Middle School have been taking different approaches to higher math courses, meaning Algebra in 7th and 8th grade and Geometry in 8th grade. CMS has historically been more aggressive than TL in the number of kids placed in these higher math courses (with one exception this year). In addition, CMS has more of a “tracking” system, placing kids in 6th grade, for example, in an accelerated class, while TL has a “differentiated” program, where the teacher customizes instruction to multiple levels within the same class. Lastly, CMS has its own Geometry teacher while TL sends 8th graders across the street to Carlmont High School to take the Geometry class. These different approaches were not really by any design, but rather accidents of history and inertia from individual choices made some years ago.

As per the Board’s request from a prior meeting, last night the administration brought data comparing the differences between our schools as well as comparing San Carlos to other districts. The data proved that our hunches were correct — San Carlos is quite conservative in terms of the % of kids it sends to these advanced math courses. For example, on a percentage basis, we send less than half as many kids to 7th grade Algebra than does either Belmont or Menlo Park (ironically, the side effect of being more selective in which kids get accelerated is higher test scores…so this a is a great example where test scores shouldn’t be the goal!). So, it was universally agreed by both administrators and board members that we should not be an outlier and need to be more aggressive in this regard. So there was general agreement on a few things: (a) we should have a goal (the number 20% was discussed) for the number of 7th graders who go into Algebra, (b) we need to employ the same methodology for placement at both CMS and TL, and (c) we start this for next school year, meaning assessments done this Spring will follow a new protocol.

There was a bit more discussion around the other differences between the schools, mainly the “tracking vs. differentiation” issue and the use of Carlmont High School for TL Students. Although many in the room argued that both approaches can work, I pushed back on that assumption. In my opinion, Math is the most “linear” of all subjects, meaning that many concepts have to be grasped in a specific order (unlike History or Science where there are many paths through the curriculum). And as such, it feels counter-intuitive to me, that notwithstanding having great teachers (which we do), we can properly accelerate and prepare advanced students in mathematics using only a “differentiation” approach. Although I said I was open to being convinced otherwise by our educational experts in the districts, I had a strong bias toward taking Central’s approach to use across the district. With regard to using Carlmont for Geometry to TL students, I was equally strong in my convictions — it is time to end that practice. Particularly if we push more kids into higher math, we will certainly have more than enough kids to have our own teacher and our own classroom. The current practice is suboptimal on so many levels, and again, it’s an easy fix. Although I don’t know for certain, I suspect we will all ultimately agree on these two points.

There’s one last piece to this discussion. The district will need to communicate very clearly our new approach so all parents understand, and particularly understand (and embrace) the fact that this approach may likely reduce our math test scores, and that is not only OK, it’s actually a desirable outcome.

The next step is for Dr. Baker and his administrative team to come back with the final proposal in terms of our overall goals as well as the consistent implementation of methodology between the schools. But in any case, I was very excited about the conversation, and frankly I do accept some blame for not pushing this years ago. But we are here now, and it’s about time!