Why Data Matters: A Case Study

Converting Peres, Montalvin, and Verde from K-6 to K-8 Schools

At the Board of Education meeting on December 6, 2017, our district leaders took up the issue of converting three existing district K-6 schools into K-8. At that time, no presentation or data were offered to the Board or public for consideration to ground the discussion. Therefore, our team at GO shared with our network that a score of “0” or “Basic” was given to this proposal; it warranted a strong data presentation to inform the Board’s discussion and decisions moving forward.

At the next meeting on January 3, 2018, District staff followed up by providing to the Board and public a presentation / data set that shared the following information regarding K-8 expansion:

  • Alignment of initiative to the larger district strategic plan
  • Criteria for selecting school sites
  • Background data on the current state and interest in conversion at each proposed site
  • Student outcomes at the two existing district K-8 campuses (Mira Vista, Stewart)
  • Current status of student and staff culture and climate at the proposed sites
  • Potential facilities costs and enrollment impact on current middle school feeders

These data points — which provide critical context about how and why these schools will be converted from K-6 to K-8 — bring up the District’s presentation ratings in our Strategic Use of Data rubric from “Basic” to “Emerging” in several areas.

We are encouraged by the increase and improvement in information sharing and transparency; this is an important first step forward which empowers community members to come to meetings and ask questions and / or lift up comments in an informed manner.

The presentation did not reach the highest rubric ratings (“Strong” or “Exemplary”) because it lacked essential information such as overall fiscal impact, discrete targets aligned to broader goals, necessary elements to ensure a quality educational program, an evaluation plan to monitor progress and impact, and detailed analysis of presented data sets.

Fiscal Impact

Apart from a rough estimate on facilities / classroom space, no other information was provided on fiscal impact for the K-8 conversion. The estimate lacks information about enrollment projections, how facilities will transition from temporary portables to permanent spaces, the necessary addition of furniture, materials, and play spaces appropriate for middle school students, and the increased demand on shared spaces like the cafeteria, playground, and restrooms.

Depth of Data Analysis

Data is shown for current K-8 programs within the District; however, the presentation does not provide a clear comparison between the proposed sites and current K-8 sites (e.g. demographics, enrollment) to assess relevance and site-specific considerations. More framework and analysis is needed when making these significant program shifts that impact countless families in our community:

  • Are the K-6 grade levels at existing and proposed sites tracking similarly in terms of performance? Is a similar student population being served?
  • Will the same programming and schedule be offered? No analysis is provided to explain the outcomes at the existing schools. Are we striving towards 19% of eighth graders on-level in math? If not, why is K-8 a strong model choice?
  • Are there K-8 schools in other comparable districts performing better than our current offerings? If so, what is the same and different about their programming, and what can we learn and replicate? If not, why is K-8 perceived to be a better model than the current system?
Targets Aligned to Goals and Corresponding Evaluation Plan

Three goals are broadly named in the presentation:

  1. Increasing academic outcomes for students
  2. Improving safety, climate, and positive school culture for students
  3. Providing new school options and opportunities for families and allow more continuity in student educational experience

These general goals must have clear and discrete targets attached in order to establish an evaluation plan to track impact. In the area of increased academic outcomes, we need to know how this program will differ from the current middle school models. What is the expected growth rate for improvement? What will happen if that growth is not seen? Is there a trend of student performance decreasing academically during the middle school years that can be linked to the transition to a 7-8 grade school?

In pursuit of an improved school culture, many questions surface. What training and development systems will be put in place to prepare a site for this type of transition? How will spaces be divided and / or integrated to successfully join five year-olds with fourteen year-olds? What additional support staff are needed to serve the unique needs of middle school students? And at what cost? What is an acceptable number of behavioral incidents and when will district staff know if / when additional support, training, and interventions are needed? How will parents be supported to understand the cultural shifts that come with a K-8 campus?

Each of the areas above should be addressed through a proactive plan and key evaluation points. Only with this level of detail can we truly ensure student success and support such significant transitions in our school communities.

Quality Academic Program

The academic demands of a middle school are very different than those of an elementary school environment. Higher-level and differentiated math offerings, lab science, daily physical education, and complex literary analysis are essential for a strong middle school program. K-8 schools are generally staffed with teachers who possess a multiple subject teaching credential. This credential is designed for instructors in the elementary school environment. In traditional middle schools, like in high schools, teachers must have single subject credentials that assess for subject matter mastery. This is intentional and designed to meet the rigorous learning needs of students of this age. How do current K-8s address this challenge? How will the new schools (especially if they are going to be smaller and have fewer teachers on the middle school teaching team) adequately provide this instruction? Are the facilities and site equipment designed to offer these complex courses?

Conclusion

Given our District’s limited resources and very urgent need to improve outcomes for all students, any programmatic change should clearly and publicly address these questions and more. We have the advantage of being able to learn from other districts and providers who have already tried many of these proposed models. We must deeply understand the problem and array of possible solutions. We must make each change with intentionality and commitment to close monitoring. Otherwise, we are preparing to have years pass and resources spent where our young people do not see drastic improvements in school and in life. We cannot simply shuffle the deck of what is already not working and replay it in a different format.

The final responsibility falls on our Board of Education members to demand a complete and thorough reporting before they vote to approve proposals like this one. This demand is not a commentary on the value of the K-8 idea or the people who would like to implement K-8 conversion. It is a demand that we collectively commit to strong governance and decision-making that strives to increase success for our young people, responsibly manage our limited resources, and establish clear pathways for monitoring and evaluating program impact.

Trustee Panas and Trustee Phillips both worked to find clarity on a proposal that lacked it. They showed a commitment to data-driven leadership and public accountability. We applaud their efforts and look forward to future decisions being made with similar discipline.

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