The ELPS bond and schools of choice

The issue of Schools of Choice (SOC) students in relation to theEast Lansing elementary school bond is an interesting one. The statement that without SOC students we would have to close one or more additional elementary schools needs to be looked at in reverse: with only resident students, we would only be able to operate three elementary schools. The reason is this, as funding for public education has decreased, it has become imperative to maximize the number of students in each classroom from kindergarten through graduation. A reality some may disagree with, but a reality nonetheless.

In East Lansing, the maximum class size has been set in the contract language agreed to by the teacher’s union and the administration. Teachers going as high as they think is reasonable to still allow them to teach the curriculum, with administration as low as they think possible and still operate the district. This number increases from 22 at Kindergarten to 30 in 5th grade.
Therein lies the problem. If operating the district depends on more students in a class as they move from kindergarten through 5th grade, where are those students going to come from? If we have a building with two sections per grade, two kindergarten classes of 20 can’t grow into two 5th grade classes of 30. The five school, two sections per grade and no SOC students is a fallacy. SOC students must be added along the way from K-5thgrade.
Theoretically, if we start with three sections of K, each with 20 students, we can get from there to two sections of 5th grade,each with 30 students, without adding SOC students. The problem becomes when do we transition from three sections to two? Our teacher contract has a maximum of 24 students at 1st and 2nd, and 28 at 3rd and 4th. Three sections of 20 students in 1stand 2nd means less students than in the teacher contract (ie lost revenue). Two section of 30 in third and fourth means larger class sizes than desirable based on the contract, teacher and parental concerns. Lastly, a building of four sections of kindergarteners can morph a bit more fluidly to three fifth grade classes of 26 to 29 students, but there is still an issue with underfilling/over filling classes. (I’ll let you do the math).

In the past five years or so, we have had entering kindergarten classes of 190 to 230 resident kindergarteners. This means we need a minimum of 11 classrooms dedicated to kindergarten(230/22=10.5). Planning for new buildings without SOC students would require three buildings: one of the three kindergarten section model and two of the four kindergartensection model. Boundaries would have to be drawn very carefully so the numbers fall precisely into each building. The only place in the district we could reasonably conceive of a four-section model, due to space requirements, is Donley. Red Cedar,Pinecrest and Marble would all be very difficult to place a four section (450+ student) building on, but would be able to accommodate a three-section building. While this would significantly decrease, or eliminate our need for SOC, it would also increase transportation costs and these buildings would most likely require additional administration. In other words, if done right, operational cost savings would not be as significant as believed to be.

Another result of any decision to stop welcoming SOC studentsis that the middle school would have significant excess capacity.This plan would work best if we also planned to move our 5thgraders to the middle school and build three K-4 elementary buildings. It’s doubtful that a community that values all neighborhood schools would support the reality of this model. Further, it leaves zero flexibility for increases in population that may be on the horizon (Walnut Hills and FRIB being two big unknowns).

Let me flip this and work backwards: if we now have a middle school that we wish to stay a 6th-8th model and we don’t want unused capacity (most economists would say that is important), we need to have 280-290 5th graders ready to enter 6th grade. Currently, our resident population makes up 78% of that total. Schools of Choice make up the other 22%. Whether we add SOC students at kindergarten or at 5th grade only makes a difference in our SOC percent (see appendix 1), but won’t change how many SOC students enter 6th grade. Furthermore, we know that the earlier a student starts in our district, the less remediation (i.e. extra cost) is necessary.

When we receive SOC applications also plays a role in the decision making. Looking at the data for the last 8 years, we receive approximately 3-5 times more applications for kindergarten than we do for other grades. If our goal is 290 5thgraders, we can work backwards and look at what number of slots we can reasonably fill in each grade to achieve this goal. This exercise confirms the need for a minimum of 11 sections of kindergarten.
Currently, we have 12 sections of K, 1st and 2nd grade, 11 sections of 3rd and 4th and ten of 5th. If Glencairn had another classroom, the two kindergarten classrooms of 25 each would be split into three classrooms. So realistically, we have 13 kindergarten sections right now. Pinecrest and Marble each have 57 resident kindergarteners. The current bond proposal plans for 11 sections of kindergarten to make sure we have enough space for our resident kindergarteners and allow for some SOC students to enter at kindergarten where we receive our largest number of applications. There will still be a need to add SOC students in 1st through 5th grades. Whether those 11 sections are spread out into four buildings, five buildings or six buildings the same number of SOC students would be required to get to 280-290 students in 5th grade.

Thus, the argument becomes one of operational costs: is it cheaper to operate one big building than to operate two small ones? There are many factors and the comparison is not cleancut. If you only plan to have one principal and one secretary in either situation than one big building might be cheaper, but with more students in the building, more of the principal’s time is spent on IEPs, 504s, discipline etc., and less on being the building curriculum director. At risk students’ needs are harder to meet when building populations increase. Transportation costs also increase with fewer buildings. Most other costs are associated with the student, where the student goes, so do the expenses. The reconfiguration lead to significantly more students in one school (Pinecrest) than other schools. With 57 resident kindergartners in this year's class at Pinecrest, three kindergarten classes were required. Pinecrest will shortly be three sections per grade K-5 based primarily on resident enrollment. Pinecrest is second in the district in free and reduced lunch, special education programming and preschool programming. An assistant principal, additional secretarial and other supports are warranted at a building this size and with these needs. Building smaller, more equitable schools is another way to distribute these resources and has been shown to improve the outcomes for at risk students. Thus, non-financial costs become important. One of the biggest is our desire for “walkable” or “neighborhood” schools. Is it worth a few million in capital tax dollars to maintain this concept throughout the district? Given the public outcry at each hearing regarding school closures since the mid 1980’s, it would appear it is.

Two decades ago, our school district embarked on a plan to address our infrastructural needs. Our high school and middle school have been addressed. For almost all that time we have been battling over what to do with our elementary schools. Shortly after the turn of the century, with enrollment declining prior to our welcoming of SOC students, Superintendent Giblin recommended closing Whitehills and Glencairn, making Red Cedar, Marble and Pinecrest 1st-4th grade buildings, Spartan Village an early childhood center and Donley a 5th-6th. This plan was met with great resistance from those attached to the schools threatened with closure and Spartan village was closed instead. When the recession hit and funding cuts were threatened, then Superintendent Chapin, recommended closing Whitehills, making Glencairn a preschool, moving our 6th grade to the middle school and having four K-5 buildings. However, RedCedar was closed instead and we added on to our now 6-8 middle school for a capacity of 990 students. We have made many decisions over the years that do not line up with a position of no SOC students.

Today, our resident enrollment has stabilized. Our finances are stable primarily because, in recent years, we have maximized classroom enrollment in line with the teacher contract. The K-8 facilities committee spent a year looking at all the data and one of its two primary recommendations was six elementary schools. More recently, the community bond committee made a similar recommendation. We must address the significant needs of our elementary buildings. Educationally, we need to focus on our Early Childhood programming. We need more space in our buildings for a more interactive learning environment. We needto heal our community. This plan does all of this and more.

Appendix 1
Example 1
Kindergarten​​210​ ​0​​210

Example 2

In example 1 the SOC percentage is 630/3570=17.6%
In example 2 the SOC percentage is 900/3640=24.7%

This is for example purposes only and these numbers do not reflect actual enrollment numbers. They are used here to demonstrate that if SOC students are enrolled earlier, SOC percentage increase while the same total number of students is achieved in 5th grade. ​


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