Tuesday, May 17, 2011

One of hundreds

In 2009 I navigated my way through a complex system of student enrollment in the Seattle Public Schools.  I toured, I ranked, I rated, I researched, I applied and as a result I was given our 6th choice school for Big Dog's kindergarten placement.  I figured we'd give it one year and see how it went.  Over time we grew to like our school.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a pretty good fit and we've settled in.  At the time I was pretty pissed off, I thought it would be hard for the system to be more time consuming or less sensitive to the families involved. The only redeeming part of the so-called "Open Choice" plan was that parents only had to go through the rigors of the process once.  Once your child was admitted to a school, siblings were guaranteed a place at that school if you requested it. Unfortunately in thinking it couldn't be any worse, I temped the fates to prove me wrong.

That same year the Seattle Public School District devised a new plan for assigning students to schools to be put in place the following year.  The fundamental assertions of the plan were that students should attend schools close to their homes and that ALL Seattle schools are excellent schools.  The first assertion may well be right, as long as the neighborhood you live in is full of involved and concerned parents and isn't too economically deprived and the second assertion well, it was just plain bullshit. But they district pushed on, and after much discussion the school district adopted the plan they cleverly named the "New Student Assignment Plan".  Under this plan, students would be assigned to their neighborhood school as a default.  If a parent wanted to apply to an option school for a special program (Montessori, Advanced Learning) or because they already had a child at another school,  they could, but most students would just go to the school closest to their house. What they also did, despite the numerous public meetings where this was decried as number one concern, is ditch sibling priority.  Sure, they said they'd try to accommodate families with sibling placements, but it couldn't stay an official policy.  Parents were outraged. There were protests.  There were petitions. There were coordinated calls to the school board and the district office.  But in the end there were just a bunch of loud and pissed off parents left to figure out just how fucked over they were by the vague promises the district was willing to provide.

The first year of the new plan was moderately successful.  All but 3% of siblings were able to be placed at in the same school their brother or sister was attending. Most students just went to their neighborhood schools.  And the district moved quietly into the second year of the plan.

This year, Little Dog is supposed to be applying to kindergarten, and I just kind of hoped the district would keep their promise to try to assist with sibling placements whenever possible.  My nerves had been a little bit on end just because I tend to attract bad luck and long-shot circumstances, but wasn't until I read this article that I started to really spiral downward.
According to the article, about 600 families are requesting sibling placements for their child entering kindergarten in the fall.  The district says they will no longer be able to help and that in most cases the schools have little ability to accommodate siblings.  In other words, feel free to apply, but don't hold your breath.

And holding our breath would be a doubly bad idea given the extended process this year.  Instead of getting placement letters in late April to early May the new target date for assignment letters to be mailed is May 31st.  That's a long time to sit and panic.  Trust me, I know. 
The extended process is partly due to the district breaking another promise families to provide continued transportation services to students grandfathered in at schools that were not their neighborhood schools, but that's another story.  After delivering this bad news, the district decided to extend the "Choice" placement to give those families time to make other plans if the transportation bait and switch was a big problem for them.

Up until I read that article, I had calmed myself in the knowledge that Big Dog's school was not a popular choice school.  There were few people who ever listed it as their first choice back in the "Open Choice" days.  In fact, the year that Big Dog was enrolled it was one of the two schools in our area that had students mandatorily assigned.  What that means is that kids were assigned to our school if their parents' choices were all full, because this school had extra space and not much demand.  I also assured myself that Big Dog's recent placement into the gifted program would help tether us to schools that offered that track and the other "Spectrum" schools in our area were far more popular and likely to be oversubscribed.   What I learned later was that I was wrong.

Since the district was not willing to share any information about placement, I decided to call the school and see if they had any information that might help me calm my nerves.  They did not.  What they were able to tell me was that they had three kindergarten classes budgeted and the current, attendance area default enrollment was 25 students in each class.  (The school had no idea how many siblings were requesting placement at the school.) This number may change as students are accepted to other option school choices or as people realize they are no longer offered transportation (the office staff felt sure that many of the families served by our school were unaware the bus service for a specialized language program was going to stop next year and were convinced that those families would be forced to make other plans in the fall) but even at that, the current numbers show three fairly full classrooms and very little wiggle room.

Feeling particularly shaken, I decided to try to get even a vague sense of the demand by calling enrollment services.  I called and spoke with a very nice, but not terribly helpful man who was unable to give me any information other than I should expect my letter in the beginning of June.  Not good enough.  I asked to speak to someone who may have more information.  He referred me to the enrollment specialist for students with last names beginning with A.  She called me this morning and offered even less information.  No, she couldn't access the information. Yes, the system is kind of broken.  No, she didn't know anything about the enrollment numbers.  Yes, it does seem very late to give parents information about where their child will be attending school in the fall.  Then she started to complain to me about how unfair the system is to her.  That the district office is greatly understaffed and that she has to do this job that was once done by many more people.  At that point I asked to speak to her supervisor.

Naturally he was unavailable at the time, but he called me back later.  Sadly he was equally unable to help.  He pointed out that the neighborhood school program was better for the district and that I could have my older son assigned to our neighborhood school if my younger son was not able to be assigned to our current school.  Our neighborhood school unfortunately does not have a advanced learning program, so that's kind of off the table for me sine this year Big Dog has completed the 2nd grade curriculum in his 1st grade class and I don't think repeating it at any school is a good educational experience for him.  I also discovered that this assertion was also false.  It looks like Big Dog could request placement at our neighborhood school, but since he's grandfathered in at another school, he would not have top priority to be placed there.  Nice, right?
I questioned the wisdom of not ensuring access to the advanced learning program to students that have qualified and this man told me that the district considers it an option, not a right.  That parents may ask for their child to have access, but since it isn't an educational need, it isn't guaranteed.  Take that clever kids.  You don't have a need to be challenged, you just have to go where we can fit you in.
After musing about suing the schools for this backwards thinking about what constitutes an educational need, I managed to finally speak to the woman who runs the enrollment program. (And no, I'm not generally a litigious type, but they're provoking me!)

Boy was that ever a stone wall.  I started by explaining my situation and how stressful it was, I made my request. All I wanted to know what about how many siblings were requesting placement at our school.  They've had the applications for over a month so I'm sure they've been processed.  She started by sighing heavily and telling me that I was one of hundreds of families in that same situation and I would have to wait.  I was told she didn't have access to that information. I asked who did.  No one.  Really?  No one?  Well the people who did the data entry, but they can't share it with you yet, we're in the middle of things.  This was a theme in her answers.  No one had that information, it was all in the system, but they were in the middle of things.

I pointed out that after school programs were already full at most schools because the started registering before the acceptance letters were out and that this added stress to already worried parents.  Her answer?  Well when the kids who were hoping for sibling placements at that school don't get in, there would be new spaces opened up in after school care!  She even sounded cheerful as though this was a great part of the plan.

I questioned the wisdom in creating a situation where, in order to keep my children at one school, I would potentially be required uproot an older child who had already settled in, made friends and was thriving.  She said it was unfortunate, but that the plan was best for the district and that they were making great efforts to make sure in future the assignments wouldn't ever come this late again because it was pretty terrible timing and they wouldn't want to put more families through this.  And she said this as though I wasn't going through this myself.

Then when I was demoralized, I asked what I thought was a simple question, what is the maximum class size for a kindergarten class.  I was told she couldn't tell me. They were in the middle of things and she could be wrong.  Silly me, I thought this was more or less a fixed number.
When I tried to talk to her about the planning that put them in this situation we were magically disconnected*.  So I'm back to worrying and stressing.  That and bursting into stress-related tears.  I'm getting really good at that too.

After all these rounds of mistreatment by the public schools, I'm starting to feel like there should be more we could do.  Instead of being beaten by the processes of the administration, parents should organize and toss the bastards out (and not just move up the next bastard in line like we did when the Superintendent was fired).  If they offer us another kick in the face as an answer to our demands, we need to grab that kicking foot and knock them on their asses.  Maybe then they'll listen.  Or maybe not.  They might be in the middle of things.

* She did call back and leave a message later asking if I would like to call her back so the disconnection seems to be a real technical difficulty.  At least there's that.


geekymummy said...

every time someone, usually a parent of an only child, complains about the sibling preference in ssignment here in SF I tell them about what you are going through.

Its true that by retaining sibling priority it takes a bit longer for a new policy to filter through, and it is causing some issues here in SF this year; they have gone to a neighbourhood based system too, but siblings still get priority. This means that in some neighbourhoods there are not enough spots for neighbourhood kids as there are so many siblings coming in from out of neighbourhood, since the old policy was pure lottery. But this will only take 2-3 years to filter through, and the alternative is pure hell.

followthatdog said...

The crappiest part of this is that for many of us, when we put our older children in school we had no idea that sibling priority would disappear. In fact, we had no idea what the new student assignment plan would be, it was developed and finalized the year Big Dog started kindergarten. If I knew that I'd likely be uprooting big dog when little dog started kindergarten, I may not have put him in a school other than our neighborhood school (though that school still scares me a bit) or I might have more seriously considered private school (though I am a firm believer in involved parents needing to keep their kids in public schools for the good of the system). What sucks most is that I played by the rules last time and now I'm being beaten up by the rules again this time. There was a proposal to keep sibling priority for a transition period and much public outcry when it was omitted from the policy and transition plan. And I understand that it slows the ease of the process being fully enacted, but it also keeps families from being forced to either uproot one (or more) children to keep their family at one school or make the painful and often untenable decision to straddle both schools, dividing your time, attention and financial support between the two.
All I can say is that the entire process has sucked. I wish I had not been offered the "open choice" when I had it only to have the rules change midstream for us. And if the district had actually compassionately considered what this meant to families and the children involved, maybe they could have come to some better decisions.

At any rate, the last year of open choice (and I'm assuming other years too) there were families who were not able to be sent to their closest school even though that was part of the old policy as well. In fact, many of those from a popular school in our area ended up at our school with a "mandatory placement" They might be able to get into their closest school now, but I wonder how many are willing to pull their child from a school where they are thriving and put them elsewhere after two years.

Laural Out Loud said...

What a hugely frustrating thing to deal with! It just seems logical to allow siblings to go to school with siblings, and let the situation correct itself in a few short years. I would be sorely tempted to homeschool at that point, just so I wouldn't have to deal with the idiots in administration. I hope it all works out for you!

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