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Neighborhood schools: Safe!

Submitted by on 1, August 19, 2009 – 6:00 amOne Comment

11-150x150School board trustees offered their take on the direction Alameda Unified should go in the third and final public workshop of their master plan development process Tuesday night. (Hint: your neighborhood elementary school is not going to close … though some trustees said they’d consider turning Washington or Paden into a magnet.)

School Board President Mike McMahon and Vice President Ron Mooney said they don’t want to close neighborhood schools (though they’d consider turning Washington or Paden, both schools that have been less-than-full, into magnets). Trustee Tracy Jensen also said she also favors neighborhood schools.

McMahon and Mooney also said Alameda schools should be willing to fill empty seats with students transferring from other districts. Many locals oppose that idea, though McMahon said bringing students in to fill seats could help the district pay its bills.

Their comments came during a workshop to outline educational priorities for the schools and how to pay for them in the face of continuing state budget cuts. More than three-quarters of the money to cover the district’s $80 million budget comes from the state, and Alameda Unified is facing $5 million in state cuts this year.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital said that parents here want neighborhood schools, small class sizes, transparency and accountability, specialized programs, flexible spaces for different learning activities (instead of, say, cafeterias that double as after-school care) and priority consideration for local students’ educational needs.

She said the district could help pay for that by restructuring the district office and by asking voters for a new parcel tax to help cover the costs of programs we feel are essential. The district has two temporary parcel taxes that are due to sunset in 2012; a settlement agreement with one of the litigants in the Measure H cases would have a committee working toward putting a new tax to supersede both the existing ones on the ballot as soon as June 2010.

Still, Vital said the district – which is facing the ongoing loss of up to $14 million a year after the parcel taxes lapse – will also need to cut costs in order to deal with the loss of state funds. She said district staff is working on a detailed rundown of how the district’s money is spent that the school board could see at the end of September.

Another option Vital mentioned was creating charter or magnet programs. Chipman Middle School could become a charter next year as part of a restructuring effort mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law (the school hasn’t met all its testing goals for a few years running). And Phil Dauber, chair of Alameda High School’s science department, suggested the district go after federal dollars to fund a magnet focused on science, technology and/or math.

McMahon said one of the cuts the board could be forced to consider is class size reduction, something other districts have already done. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it doesn’t sound like he is a huge fan of charter schools.)

Trustee Nielsen Tam said the factors that make a school successful go beyond the policies the school board will make. “It all depends on how staff and administrators build the community,” Tam said. “A school is only as good as its teachers and administrators and the support of its community.”

Trustee Trish Spencer missed the meeting due to a long-scheduled family vacation.

Many of the six dozen or so parents, teachers and district staff who attended the workshop had questions about charter schools. Others said the district needs to do a better job of letting parents know what they have to offer.

State funding and charters were the topics of two earlier workshops. District officials determined that trying to survive on state money alone would cause a steep decline in educational quality and that making all the district’s schools charters wouldn’t work out.

The district is planning an outreach campaign over the next few months to talk to parents and others about their planning efforts. In fact, they’re looking for volunteers to host house parties and other events (if they talked about how to volunteer I missed it, but the district office number is 337-7060).

They’re hoping to have a complete draft of the master plan by November 3 and a final vote on December 8.

Vital’s presentation is on the district’s website (click the Scenario #3 link) and also on McMahon’s site.

One Comment »

  • Dave Kirwin says:

    Thanks for the report Michele.

    I’ve been pondering some thoughts before I respond to the “Blue Survey”

    Too bad the district did not publish this survey on the agenda. Do you think it was an oversight? The reason for accurate agendas is that it enales those who attend to be prepared. Doen’t the district want a prepared audience? Is the answer transparent?

    I differed in my understanding of one point made by Superintendant Vital. I thought she was saying ‘we’ value flexible spaces such as Multipurpose rooms (cafeteria / auditorium which most schools, have) that these could also be used for before school and after school childcare, that teacher conference rooms could double as ESL rooms, that schools keep less old stuff, so as to free up more space. This is so we don’t have to sacrifice classrooms to non-classroom use. Also there was the suggestion that we really don’t need “computer labs” since we have computer carts that hold dozens of wireless notebook computers. (The carts plug in to outlets and charge the computers when they are not in use, and the carts can go to any classroom instead of the whole class moving to a different ‘lab’ room. Considering the rising cost of textbooks, and the declining price of small computers, it seems to me students should be issued e-books or software to load on home computers and school computers (and any who need a machine can borrow them from the district.) All of our schools are wired for wifi thanks to Measure C, but capacity will have to be upgraded, and district network backbone must change with the demise of AP&T’s “T”. Also if you’ve ever seen the weight middle school kid’s carry on their backs you will understand there is also a physical side to the benefits of the digital age. ASTI or some AP group could also be re-constructing donated computers to lend to students / families who don’t have a reliable machine.

    Also while we should not yet be trying to replace teachers with computers, there is a high degree of on-line learning possible at almost every grade level. And to varying degrees digital availability of lessons can supplement teachers, allowing for different size classes and varied balances of teacher-led groups and on-line lessons. This will be one strong approach to reducing labor costs for educational delivery. It is not a matter of ‘IF’ AUSD gets on board with this teaching technology, but ‘WHEN’. We have already taken steps with programs such as “School Loop” which helps both students and parents stay informed about requirements, daily assignment, day by day grading, as well as school events, newsletters etc.

    I didn’t get a chance to fill in the ‘blue sheet’ survey which was given to everyone, but the district’s guess at what they think is most important is not so relevant, at least not to me. I wonder where they got their info or if this is simpley the list AUSD wants us to focus upon.

    Missing are such values as “quality education’, “high achieving students”, “reduction in ‘achievement gap'”, safe, efficient facilities, etc…

    Those I think are things more parents consider than the flexibility of facilities for various rooms in our facilities. If District offices tell each school what is required of them, (as they should) it becomes the responsibility of the site principle to figure out how to make it happen, or to renegotiate the district expectations.

    Other ways to make west end schools more attractive (to remedy the island-wide enrollment balance) is to offer supervised student care both before and after school for working parents. This would also be an opportunity for HS students to build up their required community service hours both before and after school at their local elementary schools. They could be helping young students with homework, or 1 on 1, or small group tutoring, thus improving the chances for students of working parents to get more at school when they may not get the same degree of helpful attention at home as those students on the East end are perceived to be receiving.

    – An improved educational opportunity is better than the empty promise of a “magnet school” One of the areas where I agreed with Board member Mooney was that with a Charter School, the state gives the school more $ per student, the school has more freedom with the way they use it, and therefore the benefits compound; but families have to be pro-active to get into the lottery for space in a Charter School. Mooney went on to say that with a “Magnet school” the District must fund the improvements to be a ‘magnet’, so how financially sustainable is a true magnet school for this District at this time? If it is an Art or Science Magnet, how can the district afford the funding for such improvements? (Thus the empty promise of magnet schools…)

    So is small Class Sizes as important to parents as proven high-quality education? Or is small class size more important for retaining teachers? With the last few sets of budget cuts AUSD staff & BOE have always listed CSR as ‘on the cutting block’ but in reality most of the costs of Class Size Reduction came from sources other than our general fund, so it only cost AUSD about 20% of actual cost of CSR. I am not sure if those funding sources are stable.

    As for neighborhood schools – what is more important to parents – what’s more important – the closest school or the perception of a “better” public school? If AUSD accepts more Oakland students – should they all go to Washington or Paden, or should an equal number be dispersed to every school for each grade? –Which is more “equitable”? There are so many elementary schools on this little island that perhaps a standard ‘distance range’ is more realistic than the closest building that AUSD owns. Perhaps BOE members should consider that small school costs are administratively and facility –wise more expensive per student, thus not equitably ‘fair’. As a balance perhaps Paden, Franklin and Edison should share administrators. A single principal for two or three smaller schools is not impossible – same number of students that other principals have. All of Berkeley’s preschools share the same principal – and she has a lot more miles to cover than our little island. – Is that more equitable? Would it help balance the unbalanced enrollment issue?

    A big bit of contention within Berkeley Unified is the number of inter-district transfers. Both staff and parents cringe over how many out-of-district students benefit from the extra parcel tax dollars the local residents voted to use for their students. I have been riding the fence on this issue for years. While one BOE member stated we would have the right to refuse students who had conduct or truancy issues, I’m not sure we would have the right to reject students AFTER we learn about their issues. Even though families from Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, or San Leandro would be “self-selecting” to apply to attend AUSD schools that do not mean only caring families seeking the best for their honor students would be filling out paperwork. I know several school secretaries in Berkeley who would love to have the authority to send kids back to Oakland and Richmond schools.

    More on a latter post. thanks for the report

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