Dayton Public Schools reconfiguration challenges

When I grew up in Cleveland Heights, we had elementary schools from k-6, junior high for 7-9 and high school from 10-12. To me, that was the way it was. It was a little odd that 9th grade counted as high school but you weren’t at the high school, but that’s the way it was. As I was finishing elementary school in a building from the twenties, they were building a new elementary school in the parking lot next door and were closing off the street the school was named for to have enough room to build the new modern “open” building. From the day it was built, teachers have struggled with noise from the open plan, where classrooms didn’t have walls to the ceilings or a door. Progress.

Luckily, Dayton Public Schools didn’t fall for the open floor plan in their 28 new buildings, but they did structure the buildings originally for PK-8 and 9-12. Of course, it wasn’t totally consistent, with Stivers being a 7-12 building, but close enough (note it’s the only school that we kept the old building and just added new wings).

Since the de-seg order, almost all DPS kids were bused, so “load balancing” of kids to the school was relatively simple- just drive the kids to the right building, no need for placing schools where the school age population is. As we’ve learned in the attempt to switch back to “neighborhood schools” shifting populations makes for difficult allocation of kids to schools- add in a steadily fluctuating enrollment in charter schools and things get very complex.

To make matters worse, thanks to annexations and strange map-drawing skills, Dayton looks more like an octopus than what most cities look like. Throw in bold geographical and man made dividers like rivers and interstates, it makes getting kids to schools a major undertaking- never mind what you have to do with kids once you get them into the buildings.

Wright Brothers Elementary School with construction sign

A few old parts were saved, like Wright Brothers Auditorium

When the state offered the 2/3 financing of new buildings and voters passed the levy for the new buildings (a bonanza for the construction industry) money was allocated based on enrollments at the very beginning of the charter movement when virtually anybody could open up a school and start getting $5k per kid, per year, while teaching in a building that didn’t have to meet any of the same standards required for the public schools. When many of these failed, their students bounced back to DPS causing a new crunch on space. Unfortunately, to keep the demolition companies happy (also major donors to politicians) we agreed to demolish all of our old buildings. I’ve been watching the very slow progress as Patterson-Kennedy is destroyed- a building built better than any of the new buildings. These could have served as over-flow and load balancers in some cases, but it’s too late for that.

Despite the fact that Harvard is able to teach in 250 –old buildings and Cambridge in 600 year-old buildings, taxpayers were told that public school education couldn’t be done in our existing old buildings- while charters managed to do just fine in the same old buildings (Emerson Academy is at the end of my street and seems to be performing above DPS averages in a building from the 1920s and Richard Allen Academies are also doing well in the old United Way building on Salem). Even UD has managed to sell a high-dollar educational experience in old buildings, imaging that.

It now seems that educators in Dayton are having second thoughts about not having middle schools. Unfortunately, we don’t have buildings to spare or necessarily in the right places, so we’re considering expanding the high achools to 7-12 with Belmont coming online now, others may follow. There is no chance of building anything new- and of course, we were in a huge rush to tear down the former Julienne which might have served well as a central junior high, albeit a large one.

None of this is easy logistically. Unfortunately, the best solution might be to work collaboratively with some of the charters that have extra space in their buildings, however that’s almost like asking for a Hatfield/McCoy marriage.

As a neighborhood-focused community activist, what I find most disconcerting about the whole gerrymandering of kids and schools by market forces is that our neighborhood children have an incredibly hard time getting to know each other well- with most neighborhoods having kids in 5-10 different schools. East End Community Services has worked incredibly hard at connecting their neighborhood with Ruskin School (a rare instance of a charter coming back into the DPS system) and creating a true “community school.” To me, this is the major downfall of deseg. busing and our public/charter school configuration: kids don’t know their neighbors.

Cleveland Heights had true neighborhood schools. Of my friends from high school (with a graduating class of about 850) the people I’m still most connected to as I turn 50 are the ones who went to elementary school with me. We had between 80 and 100 kids in my grade and so I’m extrapolating that there were 8 elementary schools in the district (they’d actually closed a few due to declining population when I was in grade school). Kids in Dayton aren’t getting that shared experience that I had- and that’s a shame. Somehow, we need to figure out how to reconfigure our neighborhoods so that despite kids going to so many different schools, we can at least give them a stable connected community to build their long-term relationships that have meant so much to me.

As I drove past the former Boys and Girls Club at Keowee and the U.S.-35 off ramp (the strangest place to put a kids’ facility I think I’ve ever seen) I noticed that the building was for sale and it looked like the charter school had left. I then drove down Hickory Street past the old YWCA which was given to the neighborhood by Virginia Kettering in 1971 and stopped being a Y or a neighborhood facility sometime before 1986 when I moved into South Park. The city also just closed and sold off the Bomberger Teen Center and has cut the number of neighborhood Recreation centers down. How are we supposed to give our kids what we took for granted? How can we compete with the seemingly stable districts in our suburbs like Kettering, Oakwood or Beavercreek?

I have a vision for bringing  our neighborhoods back to being neighborhoods, the problem is I’m finding mostly deaf ears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Full disclosure: My company, The Next Wave has done some work for DPS, this post doesn’t contain any proprietary knowledge or information and wasn’t written on behalf of the district or with its permission or oversight.

The rest of the DPS busing outsourcing story

In today’s Dayton Daily News the story about DPS possibly outsourcing the busing of charter and private school students was missing one major piece of information: The bus drivers union voted resoundingly 2 weeks ago to reject the latest contract.

What we have is an attempt at hardball union negotiating by DPS:

Dayton Public Schools is looking at possibly outsourcing the busing of charter and private school students as a way to trim the district’s $16 million transportation budget.

By law, Dayton Public is required to transport charter and private school students from kindergarten through eighth grade who live in the district.

Treasurer Stan Lucas said officials want to see if it might be financially feasible, and the Dayton Board of Education has approved seeking proposals from outside companies.

“We need to be more fiscally responsible because we don’t know what’s coming down the pike from the state,” board President Nancy Nerny said. “Rather than choosing classroom kinds of projects to tighten our belt, we’re choosing operations.”

The district buses 14,125 kids daily, with 4,935 being charter and private school students.

via Dayton schools weigh using private buses.

What we really need to look at is two things:

  • Why is DPS required to bus charter and private school students in the first place? It’s time to tell the charter school lobbyists to make their schools accountable for their own diesel fuel costs.
  • With a move to neighborhood schools- DPS busing needs will be considerably less next year- but we still need to stop providing door-to-door service. It’s time to have neighborhood collection points for students- up to 7/10 of a mile for k-3 and 1 mile for 4-8. This would greatly reduce bus travel through neighborhoods- force kids in a neighborhood to know each other (even if going to different schools) and simplify bus operations.

I would have posted this article this morning- but my kids showed back up at the door- when their bus was 20 minutes late, and I had to take my 2 plus 3 others to Horace Mann before work.

There are ways to cut costs- but union busting isn’t the easiest road to take.

Dayton Public Schools and the state report card

If I ran a dating site and described each member by height, weight, and eye color and nothing else, how many people do you think would be happy about their dates?
The state report card has become the metric for measuring schools of late- leaving out all the nuances that make up a school or a district.
That the Dayton Public Schools have been continuously improving isn’t what makes the local paper- or any big jumps in performance at schools like Thurgood Marshall High School. No, what makes the paper is that:

Eight of the 10 best performing schools in the city of Dayton are now charter schools, according to 2009-10 state Report Card data.

via Eight of city’s top 10 schools are charters.

It’s headlines like these that hurt Dayton Public Schools- but, aren’t brutal because most Dayton Public Schools parents don’t read the paper. What’s brutal is how these stories will get manipulated and spun and then “telephoned” to other parents. The difference being- charter schools are businesses that depend on recruiting students to stay open and get funding (right out of the DPS budget) and Dayton Public Schools, well, they just sit there and take it.

Emerson Academy down the street has had a sign up for months saying “Be a part of a top ten school”- they have a nice big four-color brochure (8 pages, not a little trifold) that sells the school and is mailed to households without kids- just because they know they need to toot their horn to everyone, and they need to recruit the students with parents who care and get involved- because parental involvement is probably the second highest indicator for success in school- right after income level.

Dayton Public Schools on the other hand- takes all comers, including those with special needs. Twenty percent of DPS students fall into that category- making it incredibly hard to pull average report card numbers up- and keep budgets under control. Special needs by the way- besides including those with learning handicaps, also includes students who don’t speak English as a primary language. DPS has a school, Patterson Kennedy, that would give the UN a run for its money on number of languages spoken. And, DPS also includes programs that the state report card doesn’t measure- like music, arts, and athletics (there isn’t a charter school with a basketball team- yet, I keep waiting for a charter prep boys basketball school, that can recruit regionally and screw the OSHSAA)

Because it’s the biggest school district (even after losing so many students to charter schools) it becomes the focal point of the region. Dayton Public Schools aren’t very good is a message that gets broadcast across the state- instead of a message like “Stivers School of the Arts” is one of the top in the country- or, we have four Gates scholars almost every year. This hurts in not only recruiting better students, with higher parental involvement- and higher income- but the whole region as we get lumped in as a loser community. Sure, Dunbar won the state hoops title, but, the scores for the school are low (forget about those special needs students or poverty levels).

These shallow one-sided looks at the district performance hurt our property values, hurt our communities’ ability to recruit new people, and sustain an image problem- that’s been in place since the deseg order of the seventies (which built the suburbs- as those who could afford to move did- causing the economic segregation gap to grow phenomenally).

Charter School Enrollment

Charter school Enrollment

How much is at stake? Because each charter school gets about $5k from DPS for each student, plus DPS has to pay for transportation and other services, it gets expensive. With 27% of the students choosing charters- that’s about 5,200 students, times $5 k each – you are seeing $26 million get drained from DPS coffers. Not exactly chump change- but when you start seeing these students help the charters become 8 of the top 10 schools- you can either draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Dayton Public Schools can’t educate and Charters can.
  2. Charters are siphoning off the best students and filtering out the poorest and special needs students.

Somehow I just don’t buy the first answer. I’m sure there are many who will disagree, but considering how many charters also end up on the bottom of the scale – I think we’re seeing the results of some good marketing and cherry-picking of students.

With Dayton Public Schools finally working their way back to “neighborhood schools” they should be able to boost parental involvement and create true learning communities. This has been the method of the charter that became a conversion school up the street in Twin Towers. Ruskin Elementary, in partnership with East End Community Services is working toward a complete learning community modeled after the work done by Geoffery Canada in Harlem.

Also, the Dayton Public Schools has managed to mismanage their PR for something like the last 11 superintendents. Somehow, the good parts of Dayton Public Schools haven’t come to the forefront of public perception. A lot of this can be blamed on the Dayton Daily News, the newspaper that loathes its host community. Nevermind that DPS has also been more likely to hire PR consultants for their political connections- instead of the quality of their work: Avakian Consulting, Penny Ohlman Neiman and now Burges & Burges of Cleveland on a no-bid contract. If there has been anything done to change the DPS brand- it’s been with the aide of the incompetent. (If you’d like examples- I have them- just not the time to post them all).

There is $26 million at stake in lost revenue. There are perception issues that can continue to make it harder for DPS to recruit and retain students who can perform well on standardized testing. It’s time to see a plan to counter these trends and work to solving this problem that will continue to fester and eventually kill the district if not dealt with properly.