Open Letter to BOE Re. High School Redesign

Dear BOE,
Hi, everyone. We are writing to share a few thoughts about Monday night’s Special Meeting on the High School Redesign and SLC grant. We are writing to you and copying the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent — rather than writing to them and copying you — in order to underscore our belief that you, the School Board, are in charge of this process.
It seems clear to us that the SLC grant requirements and application process will be driving the District’s high school re-evaluation and redesign. (So much for the “blank slate” we were promised by the Superintendent last fall. With the SLC grant determining many of the important features of the redesign, obviously some redesign possibilities are already off the table — whether or not we are awarded the grant, we might add.)
Given that cold, hard fact, it seems to us essential — ESSENTIAL — that we understand how our local SLC initiatives have fared before we move forward. That is why Laurie asked on Monday night how the community can access the before-and-after SLC data for Memorial and West.
Memorial and West are, in effect, our “pilot projects.” It seems to us that we need to be thoroughly familiar with the results of our pilot projects in order to write the strongest follow-up grant proposal possible. It further seems to us that we need to know if the SLC restructuring programs we have implemented in two of our high schools are achieving their objectives (or not) before we expand the approach to our other high schools (and before we commit to continuing the approach, unchanged, at the first two schools). Let’s not forget that our highest priority is to educate and support our students (not to get grant money). In order to do that as well as we possibly can, we need to know what’s working for us and what’s not working for us. (We imagine the Department of Education will also want to know how our pilot programs have fared before deciding whether or not to give us additional funding.)
The Superintendent said on Monday night that the High School Redesign Committee had “gathered all of the relevant data from each of the four high schools” as part of their early work. And yet, it did not sound like before-and-after SLC restructuring data was part of that effort. We found that very confusing because what data from Memorial and West could possibly be more relevant to the present moment than whether and how their SLC restructuring programs have worked?
With all that as background, we’d like to ask you, the BOE, to:

  1. compile the before-and-after SLC data for both Memorial and West, as well as all progress and final reports that Memorial and West have been required to submit to their granting agency (presumably the DOE);
  2. make those data and reports widely available to the community;
  3. convene two study sessions — a private one for yourselves and a public one for the community — where the background and empirical results for the Memorial and West SLC initiatives are thoroughly reviewed and discussed.
    Based on our reading of the SLC literature, as well as our direct knowledge of the West grant proposal and daily life at West, we think there are a couple of other things we need to know.

  4. We need to know and understand the extent to which the Memorial and West initiatives are consistent with the recommended “best practices” in the SLC literature. Example: the literature recommends a maximum SLC size of 400 students and that students select into their (ideally, content or theme-based) SLC. In contrast to those recommendations, West students are assigned to their (generic, unthemed) SLC based on the first letter of their last name … and there are 500 or more students in each SLC.
  5. We need to know and understand the extent to which Memorial and West are actually doing what they told the DOE they would do in their grants. In general, there is a lot that is promised in the West grant that has never happened. (We are in the process of compiling a detailed list.) Example: a huge and important piece of any successful SLC initiative is communication with and outreach to parents, with the clear goal of increasing parental involvement with the school. At West, responsive communication from the school is so far from the norm, the PTSO leadership had to talk with the principal about the complaints they were receiving. In addition, there has been very little targeted outreach to parents aimed at enhancing involvement. What little there has been (PTSO meetings and other events held off-site, in West attendance area neighborhoods) have had dismal attendance, with no follow-up from the school. Interestingly, we don’t even have PTSO officers for next year!

A final word about Monday night’s meeting —
We found the meeting to be way too structured, to the extent that it prevented open and free-flowing dialogue. Most of what community members were allowed to say had to be in response to things the administration asked, which means the administration controlled the evening’s conversation. There was neither time nor support for audience members to ask what they wanted to ask, or to share their full reactions, concerns and recommendations. Ultimately, it felt like a somewhat shallow gesture of interest in community input, not a genuine desire for real, substantive, collaborative dialogue.
We hope you will make sure that we all have the opportunity to educate ourselves about the details of the Memorial and West SLC initiatives, as well as a chance to have real conversation about the future of our high schools.
As always, thank you.
In partnership,
Laurie Frost and Jeff Henriques
West High School Parents