Student Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement: Part I

After learning that Dr. Michael Alves was heavily involved in our implementation of Controlled Choice (codenamed “Schools of Choice” which is extremely confusing to parents) and that he is still involved in our kindergarten lottery, I dug up some more info on him. See my previous post for that timeline. Anyway, here is my first post on my reactions to the research work. Note that these are my mostly unedited, unordered, “as it is” thoughts and thus may be a little hard to read.

Authors suggest that our focus should be not on the disjunction of equity and excellence, but rather on their conjunction, the goal of working towards both diversity and school improvement at the same time.

Choice encourages parents to get more involved. Does this really happen? I see a number of parents pulling out of the school system instead of tackling issues with teachers and principals, instead of getting involved with the School Board.

Two-fold goal: excellent of the individual (exclusionary), equity of the group (inclusive). It almost seems mutually exclusive, but I think the authors are arguing that the better the group (equity), the better chance that low-performing outliers will improve (excellence), which in turn makes the group better. An upward-spiral, if you will.

What exactly is a unitary school system? Why is it sought-after?

Page 12: For Unit 4, how do overchosen schools compare to underchosen? For instance, in terms of dropouts, scores, number of first-choices granted. From the numbers I have seen so far, overchosen schools grant less than 100% of first-choice requests (which is the definition of overchosen, is it not?), but have not seen any other stats for performance metrics.

Page 14: What exact are the institutional arrangements and contemporary individual actions that maintain a residentially segregated society? My observation can be boiled down thusly: the privileged are greedy and do not want to give up what they have. Even if it is mutually beneficial to do so. Moreover, living in a voracious capitalistic society as we do, it is almost ingrained in our upbringing to acquire wealth, and the relative ease with which it can be gotten.

Page 26: In Boston, 90% of the school applicants received their first or second choice. Authors posit that overchosen schools denote a relative“successfulness” (my word, not theirs); however, I disagree. Cannot schools be chosen merely on the basis on convenience? How can such schools be role models based merely on how long the waiting list is? One can twist the numbers perhaps it is saying that most the other schools just plain suck. Maybe they only offer Liberal Arts (yuck! *grin*). Maybe they smell funny. I do concur that the authors employ a kindof try it and see attitude, and are merely offering a suggestion. It is entirely possible that overchosen schools are actually doing something great and deserve their prestigious position.

Page 33: Schools develop and disseminate knowledge and information. Not like the market system whatsoever, where goods are traded for “fair value”. “There are no unworthy seekers of knowledge.” Also came across a paper by a Dr. Harris which uses the Student Diversity work as a source; ironically, his take was that Controlled Choice is supposed to function like a market. His argument is that underchosen schools should feel some competitive pressure to make themselves more attractive. I tend to align myself with Willie, Edwards and Alves on this; rather than each individual school, it is the District’s Administration and School Board that shoulder the responsibility of focusing on “less attractive” schools and finding ways to bring them up.

Page 44: Why is it important to racially balance schools? Think about that for a moment. I agree that diversity and culture in itself is “good” in a generic, nebulous sense. But as far as the main thrust of addressing society problems and issues of equity, is it really the ethnic background that is the pivotal point? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I do not know. However, my observation is thus: the most flagrant grievances occur when the affluent have opportunities, yet the poor are essentially oppressed and their potential squelched. Statistically speaking, there is a high correlation between minorities (specifically African-Americans and Latinos) and the lower-income class. This is not a 100% correlation, however; not all blacks are poor, and not all white are rich. So, how do I as a white, upper-middle class resident, view this? What should my stance be, particularly in terms of race?

Page 46: How much does Unit 4 spend on busing and how much time? Max, min and average. Have we received any incentive for this? One cannot help but to wonder how much interaction Carol Ashley had with Dr. Alves or Dr. Willie. I am very curious about that. What about Dr. Peterkin?

Page 79: Does Unit 4 conduct SQRs (School Quality Reviews)? If not, why not? If yes, where do I find them?

Page 80: What is Unit 4’s “Institutional Strategy”? Whatever happened to “Great Schools Together” and “Great Campus”? Nobody hears about them anymore, and the websites are quite stale. I know Imani is still pushing forward with Great Campus, but I do not hear anything about it. Is the community actually getting involved?

How did Unit 4 justify Barkstall? I can only imagine how that infuriated the Plaintiff class. It seems to go against the principles of Controlled Choice; what does Dr. Alves say about it? Was it built on an economically sound, cost-conscious budget? What about the new school in Savoy?

Do Unit 4 principals have mentors? Who?

Page 85: Teacher retention; chicken and egg? Good teachers go to good schools, but good schools depend on good teachers. Barkstall was able to attract a lot of good teachers – in fact, I heard a rumor that they somehow had the pick of the crop from within Unit 4. If this rumor is true, does it not raise a huge red flag?

If Controlled Choice is supposed to allow community members equal access to all school services, how come Barkstall, named after Vernon Barkstall, a well-educated, intelligent, compassionate and community-conscious black man, how come the school named after this man was built in a predominantly wealthy neighborhood at a time when tensions over the Consent Decree were relatively strong? Our schools do not appear to be equal at all.

Is Controlled Choice a socialist idea? It seems to have socialistic leanings in the sense that all peoples are supposed to be equalized and leveled so that all basic needs are met. We obviously have real life examples of socialism gone wrong, but I think (and I could be wrong) that the core tenets are socialism are geared towards mutual benefit. Wikipedia tells me that Socialism refers to various theories of economic organization advocating public or direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources, and a society characterized by equal access to resources for all individuals with a method of compensation based on the amount of labor expended.[1][2][3]. says a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole. There definitely seems to be some overlap. The biggest problem with this theory of socialism, IMO, is pure human greed; enough is never enough. Especially here in America.

How does Unit 4 recruit and retain teachers? Are their active scouts/programs/binders with the University of Illinois and Parkland?

Chapter 7: The relationship between equity and excellence is very interesting. It seems that schools with a high percentage of low-income students perform worse than affluent-weighted schools, sometimes despite racial balances. If Carrie Busey moves to Savoy, it would seem that the SES balance would shift a bit. I believe (need to confirm) that Carrie Busey is 49% free and reduced lunch; what will happen to those students that no longer have Carrie Busey as a Proximity A choice?

More research opportunities

Met with Margie today and had a very enligthening conversation with her. I was impressed with her passion for the children. I was also touched by her firm belief in the good work that Mr. Arthur Culver and Ms. Dorland Norris have done with Unit 4. One of the biggest issues she identified, IMO, is that the Administration has not yet set a standard of listening to the parents of Unit 4. From what I gathered from Margie, Mr. Culver initially observed that he had to choose between getting buy-in from community members or push forward with the mandates of the Consent Decree; he was encouraged and advised to do the latter, with the “promise” that the former would happen on its own. It did not. And I believe we are still suffering because of that. Note that I am not blaming Culver or his staff, especially if this was the decision that he was directed to take. Regardless whether this story has any truth in it (no offense to Margie, but I consider everything I hear second-hand to be a rumor until verified by the source), we are, to this day, faced with trust issues between the Unit 4 Administrators/BOE and the parents whom they are supposed to be serving. We need to work on that, as a community.

I also dug up an old email I had sent to Professor Mark Aber, who worked with the University of Illinois School Climate Research Team in 1999. Actually, the email was directed towards a Mr. Sascha Meinrath, who was (and still is) hosting the only information I could find on the Champaign School Climate Survey on his blog. But he copied Prof. Mark Aber, whom I have yet to hear back from. Mr. Meinrath’s thesis paper is quite interesting, and gives a very candid picture what Unit 4 was like from the point of view of the parents. I wonder how, if at all, things have changed. Note that I have do not yet have permission to post a link to his thesis, but you can find it on your own.

questions, questions, questions

I am actually enjoying the pursuit of questions at the moment. Sound odd? Should I not be pursuing answers? As Pattsi Petrie has reminded me, I do not even know what kind of questions I should be asking at the moment.

So here are some of them:

  • Why exactly did the Supreme Court declare the previous racially-based kindergarten lottery unconstitutional?
  • What exactly are the institutional arrangements and contemporary individual actions that maintain a residentially segregated society (from Dr. Alves book)?
  • Are all magnet programs (and magnet schools) open to the Controlled Choice program? What are the details?
  • Why are schools like Barkstall and Bottenfield drastically chosen more often than Garden Hills and Washington?
  • What is being done to make underchosen schools more attractive?
  • Where can I locate a fuller set of statistics; for instance, broken down by ethnicity, determining factors like siblings, proximity, etc?
  • How many 2nd and 3rd Choice Applicant were there (2009)?
  • Where did the Unassigned students go?
  • What happens to unallocated seats? (Garden Hills has a whopping 42 + 4!)

On my journey to find more questions and even some answers, I have kicked into high gear:

  • Submitted an FOIA for the numbers from the 2009 kindergarten lottery
  • Received said numbers, which spawned a few more questions and a phone call into Ms. Sandra Duckworth
  • Submitted a request for a 2002 publication entitled “Student Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement” by Dr. Charles Willie, Ralph Edwards and Dr. Michael Alves (requested from I-Share)
  • Received said book a couple days later, started reading, taking notes, asking more questions (see 2nd bullet in first list)
  • Reached out to the local Family Information Center, spoke with Michelle and Ms. Hattie Paulk, both of which were very helpful and encouraging
  • Submitted questions to the Unit 4 Administration and School Board; questions about what steps are being taken to improve under-chosen schools and the make-up of the Education Equity Excellence (EEE) Committee, of which I have some serious concerns. Questions are still outstanding.
  • Came to the realization that as a middle-upper class white American, I am quite privileged, and that I am quite selfish and find it hard to grapple with giving up privilege so that others may be enriched. Have been challenged by Dr. Willie and Dr. Alves in this regard, that their purpose is to enhance the community as a whole, via both equity and excellence, not at the exclusion of one or the other.
  • Propagating this idea on IlliniPundit and within my church; how are we in Champaign-Urbana going to deal with this?
  • Came across a few links that talk about why and how Seattle overturned race as a deciding factor in Controlled Choice (1, 2, 3)
  • Found an article that analyzes Controlled Choice; within, I also found a point that does not agree with the work of Dr. Willie and Dr. Alves, even though the author quotes them in his work.  The point I highlight is that Dr. Harris relates schools to the market, whereas Dr. Willie et al clearly make the distinction that schools are not like the market at all. My favorite quote so far is “In the economic system, there may be unworthy buyers who are unwilling to pay the asking price. But in education, there are no unworthy seekers of knowledge.”
  • Contacted Mr. Phillip Van Ness and Margie Skirvin about the history of the Consent Decree; set up a meeting to chat with Margie on Friday at 10:am
  • Also contacted Susan Zola about more history on the Consent Decree and Champaign’s relationship with Dr. Alves
  • Had a wonderful talk with Ms. Sandra Duckworth; she was extremely wonderful and a delight to talk with, being very pragmatic artfully combined with a listening ear and a desire to place herself in my shoes. She explained many things about Unit 4’s relationship with Dr. Alves, explained the numbers from the kindergarten lottery a bit. I am hoping she is able to forward a request on my behalf to Dr. Alves for a meeting. Ms. Duckworth and Beth Shepperd are also looking into the possibility of getting those numbers made public so one does not have to file an FOIA.
  • Ran across Chip Bruce’s blog while looking for wordpress sites about Champaign Consent Decree.

In my last post, I failed to mention not only the date for the “Special Community Meeting”, but also the source for that reference. I found it at the Family Information Center (linky), and the full announcement is:

Special Community Meeting
– Jan 13, 7 p.m., Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St., Champaign. Special Community Meeting with Michael Alves, the District’s consultant on the Schools of Choice process.

Ahh… now I am exhausted. =)

Dialogue with Crystal Ligon

Crystal and I were discussing my Dec 1st post, and I wanted to post my responses to her questions in the off-chance that others might appreciate the extra information.

Q:About how many people came to the meeting? Was it a different crowd from the last time?
A:8 people total, including the host (Sky Sanborn) and myself. Very different crowd. As I mentioned in the blog, no one had a child in Unit 4, and I feel that had a direct influence on the discussion.

Q:This seems to be a popular issue Savoy residents have. Do you mind telling me who are the Johnsons are? Do you have contact information for them? I will have to check up and see how much Unit 4 spends on busing. I think that was one of your questions as well.
A:The Johnsons live nearby both of us, and were represented at the first meeting. In fact, that is where I learned about the hour-long bus rides. I will ask if I can share their contact information.

Q:I’m not sure if I understand…isn’t Prairie Meadows the subdivision on the other side of Church Street? Do you mean an additional sales tax hike? Do you have names or contact information of people who seemed to be in favor or not in favor of this?
A:Doh, I am an idiot. What is the subdivision that would be on West Tomaras? In regards to the Sales Tax, no I meant the one that will most likely be on the spring ballot – the same one we just voted on in November. I will ask if folks mind giving out the names in terms of favoring the tax. I myself am still undecided, despite how I voted in November. *grin*

Q:Did you guys come up with any answers for some of these questions? Was there leaning either which way?
A:No specific answers yet, but definitely some leanings. There was a strong desire to get a school in Prairie Fields (do to the land being donated and sitting idle) the quickest way possible. Those particular questions were along the lines of brainstorming – how to get a school ASAP? If the law can be changed, that opens up the door to other possibilities. As a side note, my personal feeling remains that the fastest and most cost-effective path to a Prairie Fields school is to pass the Sales Tax, whenever the next opportunity arises.

Q:Do you mean using a sales tax to help build a private school (which probably could not happen in a legal sense) or school district? Or do you mean those two items were separately talked about? How would you like to see a sales tax used to fund Unit 4? Where do you think this angst for Unit 4 came from?
A:It is possible “angst” is too strong a word; I would ask that you not print that. =) I never thought about the Sales Tax outside of Unit 4, so that was not my intent when I wrote that blurb about the sales tax. I agree, I do not see how it would help a private school by any means, and for all practical purposes, the Sales Tax will pass long before Savoy forms its own district (personally, the chances of us forming our own district seem to waver between extremely thing and none). How would I like to see the tax used? My voice carries absolutely no weight on that matter; the school board has already dictated where the money will go. If I had my druthers, I would like to see significantly more cooperation between all entities involved; groups that stood to gain were strongly in favor, groups that would not gain were opposed, and only one group had an even slightly cogent and balanced approach (the Chamber of Commerce). And lastly, where did the “bad feelings” come from? I am the wrong person to ask; I will answer to the best of my ability. Most likely, my perception is that there is a general frustration among parents who bought homes with the elusive carrot being waved by Realtors – “Move to Prairie Fields and watch a school spring up in your midst”. I know my Realtor mentioned that, which is why I have involved myself on this mission to find information. =) But back to the point – I heard a number of folks say that they were told there would be a school. And we have no school. Instead, we have many buses and our children all go to different schools.

Q:Do you mean pass the sales tax in the same sentiment that was talked about in the Nov. 4 election? You remain uncomfortable with the idea, could you elaborate on your own personal concerns? Is what you’re saying that even with a Proximity A choice for Savoy residents, which would mean Savoy residents would have an 80 percent chance of getting into the Prox. A school, you do not like this system? What do you mean by “atmosphere” of the Consent Decree?
A:The same sentiment? My own sentiment? =) Not quite sure what you meant by that. I am quite torn about the Tax because there are many good and bad things. On the good side, I really like how it will offset property taxes for a short time (5, 7 years?); I like how it will be used to pay off bond debt; I like how it will be used improve infrastructure; I like how it cannot be used for salaries and other items outside Capital Improvement; I like that it will eventually be used for a school in Savoy. I both like and dislike the lack of a sunset-clause; I straddle the fence because on the one hand it allows the school district to have more freedom in pursuing costs associated with buildings without havig to depend on referendums, and this community has shown in the past few years that it will vote down any such referendums. On the other hand, I dislike it for the same reason; the community should have some power and ownership over what the school board does. I think one of the issues with our (Champaign) community is that we do not have that sense of ownership, thus there is a lot of divisiveness, finger pointing and general lack of interest. I am starting to think that perhaps the Sales Tax is a lesser evil than no Sales Tax. I just wish that the districts would make it more palatable, perhaps drop it to half a percent instead of the full one percent.
Note that I did not say anything about how I feel about the school system or “schools of controlled choice”. At least, I do not believe I did, even after looking at what I wrote. =) Some of the parents who attended the Dec 1st meeting mentioned that even if we do get a school in Savoy, the Controlled Choice program may require that some of our students go to a different school. I think the clear implication is “That is not fair.” I look forward to learning how Greg Novak’s “Socio-Economic Status” metric is going to work for the Controlled Choice lottery.
The “atmosphere” of the Consent Decree. Basically, my observation is that a lot of people are really fed up with it. I also observe that a lot of these people are white (some I have heard from on IlliniPundit, so I am not sure of their ethnic background, but those folks I do know make up the majority). I have talked to African Americans and they are not fed up with it. Why is that? Why did African American pastors urge their congregations to vote down the 2006 Referendum when the “north school” would have gone to Boulder Ridge? There is a lot of distrust on both sides of the fence. In fact, the Honorable Judge McDade gave both parties a minor wrist slapping for not working better with each other. Imani Bazzel has tried hard to work with Unit 4 (the “Great Campus” initiative), but the idea hit a brick wall with the previous school board. Melodye Rosales has tried to get both sides to see that Hispanics are really loosing out on the current Consent Decree (they are counted as “non African American”, or “Non Afr Am” in the documentation). In my own efforts to learn more about the Plaintiff party, I have been completely unable to make contact with Carol Ashley or her law firm, and there are no local spokespeople; I would have love to have talked to Tracy Parsons, but he is person-non-grata right now. Something is definitely awry.

Q:Are there any specific current expenses that you think are not worthwhile? Or is this something you are saying needs to be done?
A:I do not have any numbers yet; I have not had the time to dig into this particular avenue. A couple folks at the Dec 1st meeting were contractors and stated that the “prevailing wage” used by local unions is standard across the whole state when dealing with state-funded entities, and they led me to believe that attempting to get the prevailing wage lowered would be impossible. Gene Logas (Unit 4 CFO) has been taking a hard look at the Unit 4 budget and has been working to trim it down; he is a very smart fellow, and I would love to talk more with him about his efforts.

Q:Does this mean developing action on your ideas?

A:Yes. Can I leave it at that? *grin*

Monday's first neighborhood discussion: first thoughts

I was happy to see the range of parents that showed up, from those that have already graduated children through high school, to those of us who have yet to step foot inside kindergarten. And while I was almost fearful that we would have been swamped with information-hungry neighbors, we had an excellent, if modest, turnout that allowed for comfortable discussion. I posted the agenda.

First off, I was overly impressed by all the positive things that folks shared about the schools, especially the teachers; in general, parents that have (or had) children in school had high praises to sing for their teachers. Even in situations where the school was jammed-packed with students or slightly behind the maintenance curve, it sounds like the teachers and students are making lemonade out of lemons. Very encouraging to hear.

There was also some discussion about detachment and annexation, since that was included on our invite. Also, Channel 3 did a horrible job reporting that Savoy parents were planning to annex to Tolono, even before we had our meeting. The fact of the matter is that Savoy parents have not made any decisions at all, as a group. And I did not hear anyone say “I want to annex to Tolono.” Maybe they thought, who knows. However, I do know several parents do not want to detach from Unit 4 – they really love the teachers. Allyson help explain the process of detachment and brought an army of paper documents. I also helped to supplement a little as I received a phone call from Jane Quinlan, the Superintendent of the Regional Board of Schools. If we ever submit a petition to detach and annex, it would end up on her desk. She explained the process to me very briefly, and also indicated that ever since 1983, it has been illegal to simply detach and form your own district; to detach, one must also annex to a contiguous district. Interest little twist there.

It will be interesting to hear what folks from the December 1st meeting will think.

Here is a list of questions that came up, and I hope to follow-up on them with answers:

  • Would “Schools of Choice” ever go away?
  • If the Sales Tax passed, would there be any guarantee that all schools would be equitable, instead of a few that obviously are more attractive than others?
  • Can we look forward to a time when the Consent Decree is not needed (not just in word, but in spirit)?
  • Does the Consent Decree discourage or exacerbate the lack of parent involvement?
  • Why do some schools receive more money than others? Is it only because of PTA, or are there other factors?
  • How much money is Unit 4 spending on busing? Is anything being done to address those specific costs?
  • Why do Franklin students wait outside for 30 minutes before school starts?
  • Can all households have a Proximity A to at least one school? What is stopping Unit 4 from making this a reality?
  • What is the long range plan for the High Schools? We have heard rumors and pipe dreams, but what is actually being done?

Some great questions, and I hope to be answering them soon.

Some other things I made mention of. Both of our representatives (Savoy is divided up between four representatives, but two have the lion’s share of Savoy), Chapin Rose and Shane Cultra, are eager to talk to residents. Chapin is very keen on getting more money for the school district, whether through raising the Sales Tax or getting more funding from the State. He indicated to me that he is working on changing the Sales Tax law to modify the Sunset clause (or lack thereof). Shane Cultra, on the other hand, is very much wanting to look at reducing current operating expenses. I think I would put more money with Cultra on this one. He specifically target the unions, and how they artificially increase rates for projects when there is no real need to do so. And what about those administrator salaries? Why does the Federal Government mandate that we have Special Ed teachers, and then slap us in the face by providing a mere $8000 for a “fully-funded” position?

Jodi Heckel of the News-Gazette will be posting a story about this meeting in the very near future (today, tomorrow?). I am hoping that they can do a longer-term series in an effort to get our community (not only Savoy, but Champaign as well) involved in discussions that leads to mutually beneficial change. I am a bit  tired of Unit 4 residents being divided on issues of race and funding. Maybe I am too Utopian. Or naive. So be it.