Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Schoolhouse rocked: Parental choices can make waves

Birch Lane student Piper Brandy takes part in a classroom tie-dying project in October. Birch Lane is one of the schools most impacted by non-neighborhood students in attendance. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise file photo

From page A1 | March 31, 2013 | 2 Comments

Parents of elementary school students in the Davis Joint Unified School District have a lot of choices — which makes the schools situation a little complicated to explain.

And why it matters is even more complicated. Fewer students bike to their neighborhood schools, student populations are poorly distributed and federally mandated Program Improvement status throws a wrench into the works. Some have said another unintended consequence of Davis’ liberal policy of school choice is that a higher concentration of students from lower-income families make up the regular neighborhood programs.

As a result of the number of elementary students transferring out of their neighborhood school, two elementaries — Patwin and Montgomery — have fewer than 400 students enrolled. Between 500 and 550 students is regarded as an ideal size; three Davis elementary schools have more than 590 students.

And while almost everyone likes the idea of smaller learning communities for students of that age, the budgetary reality is that the Davis school district has only so much money to go around. Repeated cuts in state funding have left the district with a stubborn structural deficit during the past five years, even as Davis has increased class sizes and trimmed the number of teachers and staff, leaving some parents complaining that classrooms are too crowded, and some teachers saying they don’t have enough time to give each student enough individual attention.

School board president Sheila Allen told The Enterprise “one of the hallmarks of the Davis school district is parent choice. We let the parents, along with their students, decide what the best fit will be for them. That being said, our district is also based on neighborhood schools, and our desire to have students walk or ride their bike to their neighborhood school.

“The bottom line,” Allen said, “is that all our schools are great. I want to make sure that individual children receive the education that is best for them. And often that may not be at their neighborhood school.”

By the numbers
There are seven elementary schools with assigned attendance areas, and those attendance areas vary in terms of the number of students they host.

The school with the most elementary-age students in its attendance area is Korematsu Elementary in Mace Ranch, which has 706 resident students. The school with the fewest is Montgomery Elementary in South Davis, which has 404 resident students.

Here’s a quick rundown of resident students by attendance area for each of the other neighborhood program schools: Birch Lane, 655; Korematsu, 706; Montgomery, 404; North Davis, 674; Patwin, 507; Pioneer, 538; and Willett, 483.

Geographically, the district’s elementary enrollment leans to the north and east. The greatest concentration of youngsters is found in the attendance areas of the three schools serving the north-central and northeast parts of town — North Davis, Birch Lane and Korematsu — with each of these schools averaging more than 600 students in their respective attendance areas.

The other parts of town host proportionately smaller numbers of kids — two South Davis elementaries (Montgomery and Pioneer) and two West Davis elementaries (Willett and Patwin) draw on attendance areas in the 400- to 530-student range. This has ramifications for the district’s three junior high schools as well.

Attendance boundaries are typically drawn up with geography in mind — freeways and major thoroughfares, as well as neighborhood streets that feed together. Sometimes a school with an attendance area that looks small on a map has a high concentration of resident students. Birch Lane has the smallest attendance area in terms of acreage, but has about 150 more resident students than Montgomery, which has a bigger attendance area, acreage-wise.

While school districts try to create attendance areas that are roughly comparable in terms of the number of resident students, the student population in an elementary school’s attendance area changes gradually over time. Kids grow up and move out on their own, parents become empty nesters, older homeowners eventually sell their property and a new family with younger kids moves in, or families with teenagers decide to move into a bigger house.

Further complicating the situation is the prospect that the Davis school district will see a small but steady decline in enrollment over the next decade. The birth rate in Yolo County is at its lowest level in 17 years. New home construction, another factor that can impact school enrollment, is also at a very low level, and there’s not much likelihood of large, new Davis subdivisions in the near future.

One way to equalize the number of students in the various schools’ attendance areas is to move boundaries. But this is easier said than done. Once a neighborhood has come to identify with a particular elementary school, any proposed boundary adjustments tends to produce negative public comment at school board meetings. Indeed, this has been the case several times during the past 15 years in Davis.

Special programs
The other factor driving elementary school attendance is special programs, which parents can select. Davis has several such programs, and they are indisputably popular.

Chávez Elementary, home of the district’s Spanish Immersion program, has the largest enrollment of any Davis elementary — 628 students. And no one is routed to Châvez automatically; the school has no defined attendance area. Instead, parents fill out an application if they want to send their children to that campus.

The Spanish Immersion program typically accepts new students only at the kindergarten or first-grade level. There also is a branch of Spanish Immersion at Montgomery.

Another special program is Gifted and Talented Education. At the elementary level, there are strands of GATE classrooms at four elementary schools (Willett, North Davis, Korematsu, Pioneer), serving grades 4-5-6, for a total of 12 elementary classrooms. Eligibility for GATE is determined by testing — either a district-administered test, which most students take in third grade; private testing; or students coming into the Davis district who have been GATE-identified in another school district.

A third special program is Montessori, which has eight classrooms — all multi-grade, in keeping with the Montessori style of education. All of the district’s Montessori classrooms are at Birch Lane.

Note: Starting this fall, the Spanish Immersion program at Montgomery will begin shifting to a model known as Dual Immersion, which resembles Spanish Immersion in some aspects, but not others. Unlike the Spanish Immersion program at Chávez, which is very much a magnet program that draws students from around town, the Dual Immersion program has been designed primarily to serve the enrollment at Montgomery, which includes the district’s largest concentration of elementary students who are English learners.

While the Dual Immersion program will accept applications from students outside Montgomery’s attendance area, Montgomery Principal Sally Plicka has stressed that it is not primarily intended as a magnet program.

There also are two smaller special programs — the Davis School for Independent Study, and rural Fairfield Elementary (a two-classroom K-3 school) — that each serve a limited number of elementary students.

These various special programs draw a lot students. Spanish Immersion at Chávez has the largest number of students of any elementary school in the district — 628 students — but it has no defined attendance area. Students come from across town, on a voluntary basis. Birch Lane draws 227 students from outside its attendance area — most coming for the Montessori program at that campus. All told, 38 percent of Birch Lane’s students come from outside the school’s attendance area.

Willett Elementary draws 42 percent of its students from outside its attendance area. This reflects enrollment in GATE classrooms, but also a number of children whose families live outside the school district, with a parent who works in Davis and therefore qualifies for an interdistrict transfer.

Why it matters
The large number of students attending special programs at schools outside of their neighborhood campuses has most likely contributed to the slow but steady decline in the number of local children riding bicycles or walking to school. Studies indicate that in many cases, a child attending an elementary school that is two miles from his home is more likely to get a ride from a parent.

The newest factor affecting elementary school enrollment is Program Improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law. NCLB gives parents the option to transfer their child out of a school that is identified as Program Improvement and into a non-PI school. In Davis, PI-identification is typically based on specific subgroups — such as students who are English learners, or students participating in free or reduced-price meal programs, or special education students — missing the increasingly lofty benchmarks established under NCLB. The law mandates that 100 percent of students be proficient in English and math by 2014, a goal many educators regard as noble but ultimately unachievable.

Last year, four Davis elementary schools — Montgomery, Birch Lane, North Davis and Patwin — were listed in PI status. Paradoxically, the state regards these four schools as “high-achieving” — all four score well above 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, and North Davis scored 910, one of the highest API rankings for an elementary school in the region.

A few of the other elementary schools in Davis had API rankings lower than the 910 at North Davis, but did not go on the Program Improvement list because they do not have enough low-income students to qualify for federal Title I funding. Only schools that receive federal Title I funding can go on the Program Improvement list.

This disconnect between the federal and state systems for measuring school performance is difficult to explain — but when a school gets on the PI list, parents get a letter informing them that they have a right to transfer their child to a non-PI school. And currently, about 41 children have been transferred out of Montgomery and another 23 have been transferred out of Birch Lane under the PI parent option.

Next year, North Davis will come out of PI status — not as a result of test scores, but because the percentage of low-income students at North Davis has dropped below the threshold for federal Title I funding. And since North Davis will no longer qualify for Title I, the school will automatically come out of PI.

It is unclear what will happen with No Child Left Behind — which was signed by President George W. Bush during his first term — when the 2014-15 school year arrives. It had been widely assumed that President Obama would propose his own package of education legislation at some point during his first term, overhauling the Bush administration’s NCLB. However, no such legislation has been advanced, and it is uncertain when it might occur during Obama’s second term. In the meantime, the Davis school district may continue to see some movement between elementary campuses as a result of PI transfers.

No district like Davis
All in all, the number of students transferring between local elementary schools makes for an unusual situation. Scott Torlucci, who works for Davis Demographics Inc., the Southern California-based research firm that prepares enrollment projections for the Davis district, has told the school board he’s never seen a district with a higher percentage of transfers.

At several Davis school board meetings, some speakers have maintained during public comment that the broad involvement of so many students in special programs is negatively impacting the neighborhood program. Some teachers have suggested that special programs tend to draw students from more affluent families, leaving a higher concentration of students from lower-income families in the regular neighborhood program.

This contention has been hotly disputed by teachers and parents connected with special programs; some Montessori teachers spoke recently at a school board meeting, stressing that the Montessori program is open to all.

Parents of students in the GATE program have spoken repeatedly as well, praising the program and urging the school board not to make any changes. (Superintendent Winfred Roberson has indicated that the district wants to evaluate alternatives to the current model of self-contained GATE classrooms as part of this year’s renewal of the GATE program master plan).

Parent Dave Miller wrote in a recent opinion piece for The Enterprise that “the Davis school district had a good idea in creating special programs for a small number of students. However, it has taken that idea too far and the neighborhood schools are paying the price for it.”

All of which will make for plenty of discussion, and perhaps some tough choices regarding facilities and programs, as the next few years unfold in the Davis school district.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at or 530-747-8055.


Discussion | 2 comments

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  • Michael ZiserMarch 30, 2013 - 9:20 am

    This is a great backgrounder on the dynamics produced by NCLB and the abundance of special programs in the DJUSD. It is this more general issue that underlies some of the recent points of contention (over GATE and Montessori, for instance), and I'm hopeful that by broadening the discussion we as a community can identify and remedy the structural problems that have developed over the past several years. There are encouraging signs from the district office and the school board that this is beginning to get on their radar, and this article should help others in the community get up to speed. Thanks, Mr. Hudson and the Enterprise.

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  • Tricia BoscoMarch 31, 2013 - 6:01 pm

    Excellent recap of our current DJUSD configuration and challenges. The fact that it takes so many words to explain it all is telling -- but you've done a great job of it. I'm glad people are paying attention to the impact our choices make and hope the district can refocus itself on creating "real" neighborhood schools that simply provide an excellent education to everyone. As for MME's new two-way immersion program -- I find calling this program anything other than a "magnet" program misleading and misguided.

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