Has The Time Finally Come to Shrink DCPS's Outdated Infrastructure?
In the spring of 2006, there are finally indications that DC's public school system may be getting ready to cut back on its vastly over-capacity, over-age school system. The latest school superintendent's new Master Education Plan provides several constructive suggestions, and the School Board has already decreed that up to one million square feet of school capacity should be eliminated this year, and another two million square feet by 2008. The superintendent had proposed a far smaller reduction. However, the new (2006) Master Facilities Plan, scheduled for publication in a few months, does not yet provide any confidence that it will include a comprehensive road map for a very major re- structuring. The longer this action is delayed, and the more open-ended the decisions are, the greater the chance that the resulting turmoil will collapse the system. NARPAC estimates that the current facilities are essentially twice as big as they will ever need to be, and that re-aligning the system is likely to take at least five years. Many of the superintendent's other planned academic and administrative system improvements will be impossible to put in place as long as the physical turbulence of "four-dimensional musical chairs" persists. NARPAC strongly recommends that a thorough and comprehensive plan be prepared, and that "extraordinary measures" be put in place to assure that the plan does not stall in mid-stream.
Of all the ongoing tragicomedies in planning for DC's long-range future, none is more troublesome than the inability of school system authorities, its conflicted parent activists, its deeply entrenched teacher's unions, and its nuisance preservationists to agree to let go of its seriously antiquated, vastly oversized public school infrastructure. Expanded to roughly 195 schools to accommodate the huge post-WWII live birth rates of 20,000+ (90% Black) and a subsequent enrollment reaching 150,000 kids, it still maintains some 144 active school buildings comprising over 14,600,000 sqft of floor space, and almost 566 untaxed acres of scare urban real estate. This would be enough for 91,000 DCPS kids, using the latest space-per-kid standards, even giving 150 sq ft to 10,000 toddlers (K and below) and counting 2500 special ed kids not in DC schools. Current (2005-6) enrollment is down to 58,000-odd students, and still headed down.
This maximum capacity shrinks to 72,800 only if you assume (as DCPS/OFM did in 2003) that 20% of all school space should be set aside for teacher home room space to avoid "nomads".That equates to 600 sqft per teacher, not counting classrooms. Surely that is excessive, and our estimates do not include that factor (cushion?). (DCPS/OFM would not comment.)
enrollment will continue to decline:
The current declining enrollment in DCPS should continue for up to five reasons:
First, the city's live birth rate has been a very good indicator of subsequent school enrollment. That correlation is now made more difficult by the changing split between private and public schools (in turn influenced by the racial composition of the progeny), and now between public schools and charter schools. While the live birth rate has actually stopped declining at least temporarily, the racial mix is still changing (away from black, non-Hispanic kids), and the attraction of charter schools continues. A summary of pertinent data trends is shown on the chart below. Upper left shows similar 10-year declining trends in birth rates, by race, by marriage status, and perhaps most important, by moms under twenty. Bottom shows the 60-year trends in birth rates, clearly showing what sized the DC school system in the 1950's. Uncertainties are shown in lighter green, black/white racial divisions in the years the data were available. Odd blue line shows rapidly declining abortion rates in recent past. Upper right shows "bump" in declining 1st Grade enrollment due to earlier bump in birth rates (below). That "bump" or "wave" will take 12 years to pass thru the school system:
Second, a declining birth rate will generally assure dropping school enrollment for the next 15-18 years. That reflects the "wave' that ripples through those school years. For instance, there are now an unusually high number of kids in middle school due to a "hump" in live births between '88 and '92. Trends in DCPS enrollment are summarized below. Estimated data are in yellow, shrinking high school numbers in light blue. The red line shows the number of active schools (different scale) in the system (assuming the currently planned cuts are made by 2010). The grey line shows the number of schools that would have been needed to keep a constant average number of kids per school (600) since 1960. Clearly, the schools were more crowded than that until the late '70s, and are now well below that average. Reduction in schools has obviously not accompanied drop in enrollment. The right hand chart shows NARPAC's estimate of the surplus floor area in DC schools when they reach an expected maximum enrollment of 50,000 by 2010:
Third, DCPS now has a "second wave" as (generally younger) kids have been transferring away from DCPS enrollment into Charter Schools (not counted in these numbers). In 2003, there were 11,600 kids in Charter Schools, but those schools are still filling, and could accommodate another 6500 kids in the next few years, even if no additional Charter Schools are formed. This equates to a continuing drop in birth rate for entry grades, as well as a higher drop-out rate for the higher grades. This shows on the chart above.
Fourth, The live birth rate is also influenced by both births denied, and infant mortality. While the latter is not significant, the level of officially tallied "legal abortions" among DC residents substantially exceeded the birth rate until the late '80s and has continued to drop surprisingly since then. (See declining blue line on chart above). While a resurgence of abortions is not anticipated, the advent of new contraception drugs such as XXXXX and Plan B could make a significant difference in the still-high number of "unwanted pregnancies", particularly among DC's young, unwed mothers.
Finally, the inescapable turmoil that will accompany a major school system "downsizing" (see below) will almost certainly result in more DC kids being shifted to less tumultuous surrounds. And the longer that downsizing is delayed or stretched out, the more pull-outs there are likely to be. It was an article of faith in the civil service of the federal government that a 20% "reduction in force" could easily cause 80% of the work force to end up in different jobs, many of them unfamiliar. Both teaching and administrative staffs are likely to suffer the same turmoil, to say nothing of the kids. Is DC's already-struggling school system up to this?
Within ten years, NARPAC's projections suggest that DCPS enrollment will stabilize around 50,000 kids, including many pre-schoolers and many special ed kids. This calls for a total floor space requirement around 7.7M sq.ft., almost exactly half what is available now.
de-accessing school properties
But the problems of which schools to keep, and which to "de-access" is by no means clear. Any number of conflicting criteria must be evaluated:
school too small
This problem is also exacerbated since the existing schools vary enormously in size. Many parents want to keep open "boutique schools" that are inefficiently small. Downtown, the razing of a blighted housing project has one elementary school has only 78 kids this year, according to Janey. Recent pressures to keep low enrollment schools open have already seriously skewed the supposed "weighted school average" dollars per kids to the detriment of the "full-sized" schools.
big is better
The extent of the disruption will clearly depend on which schools are retained. For instance, if a rules is established to close the largest schools first in each category, the projected 50,000 kids could be placed in 110 schools, making 34 schools surplus. However, if the opposite approach is taken, then only the 69 largest schools would be needed, and 75 smaller schools become surplus! That is a full half of all current DCPS schools. This can be illustrated by the two charts below, ranking the schools in each grade category by size (red bars), and acreage (green bars, different scale), with the Janey-suggested "minimums" (blue background). The first one shows the elementary schools in each of three major parts of the city (letters indicate planning area):
The second chart shows the secondary schools in a similar manner:
wrong grade bracket
The choice of schools to close is further complicated by the fact that there is virtually no standard for grades encompassed in one school. Some run pK-6, or pK-8; others run K-4, K-5, K-6, K-8; some run 4-8, 5-8, 6-8, or even 7-8. At the high end they run 6-12, 7-12, and 9-12. School standardization is a noble and desirable goal. The MEP wisely plans to standardize these grade brackets, but it will necessitate moving some 1200 9th graders (and their teachers) up to high schools from junior high schools, and some 3000 6th graders up to the newly standardized middle schools. But if NARPAC's superficial judgments are in the right ball park, DCPS will also be closing down 10 of 16 high schools, 8 of 20 middle/junior high schools, and 50 of 107 elementary schools as part of the same re-alignment.
More uncertainty will inevitably be introduced by the sensible notion of identifying and clustering "feeder" schools, which will prepare kids to go to designated follow-on schools (and make their teachers "vertically accountable"). Consolidating these different packages will involve more re- allocations by both school and grade. And some schools may be too tough to touch. Again, for details, see NARPAC's discussion of the new Master Education Plan the lot's too big
Another seemingly random variable is the amount of property on which each school is located. Even the average density of "(max) kids per acre" varies almost as much between areas of town as between the grade level of the school. And if one singles out those 22 schools designed to have less than one hundred kids per acre, their total acreage of 145+ acres is over 25% of the total. At a going price of about $2M per acre, selling off those parcels could provide a major source of infrastructure renewal funds (over the dead bodies of DC's community green-space advocates). Alternatively, the "extra" acreage on these oversized school sites could be devoted to affordable housing for deserving city employees, many of whom are teachers and other school staff.
too much floor space
To make matters worse, the average school size among the 107 elementary schools (558), 20 middle schools (969) and 17 high schools (1518) is on average more than twice as large as the MEP's suggested "minimum sizes" of 320, 360, and 600-700 respectively. This may turn out to be one of the MEP's biggest mistakes. If the parents turn these notional lower limits into upper limits of acceptability, then DCPS will remain with a great many oversized, and hence inefficient, school buildings. The MEP tries to stress the need to avoid such under-utilized buildings.
just too old
There is a yet another significant dimension because so many of DC's schools were built before the middle of the 20th Century. By 2010, a full 50% of DCPS schools will be more than 60 years old, with roughly a dozen built more than a hundred years ago. This aging problem is further complicated by the fact that some of the younger schools are the least well suited to present day teaching techniques. But no school with less than a 20-year useful remaining life should be kept open.
A substantial number of the schools, regardless of their age, are way overdue for normal maintenance. Roofs, plumbing, heating, (no air conditioning!), floors, windows, bathrooms, even drinking fountains are in unacceptable condition. In the commercial world, many of these old buildings would be razed, not rebuilt.
Keeping schools where the kids are
In addition, there is certainly a requirement to "balance" the remaining open schools across the areas of town where most of the kids are. This is particularly true of elementary schools of which somewhere between 20% and 50% are likely to become surplus. But it also true that ratio of elementary kids to high school kids is substantially different in the three distinct parts of town. As noted in the separate discussion of the MEP Plan, the ratio of youngsters to high schoolers varies from 6.3:1 East of the Anacostia, to 2.3:1 in Northern DC. These three divisions (Northwest, Central, and Southeast) are shown below, along with the very modest estimates of surplus space noted in the 2003 Facilities Plan:
Like it or not, there are still substantial demographic divisions within the city, which generally equate race and skin color with educational achievement. In NARPAC's view, it is the latter that is more important to the school system. Household education level is lowest East of the Anacostia, and highest in the northern wards on each side of the Great Rock Creek Divide. This shows itself in household income, parental preoccupations, and ultimately in the kids receptivity to learning. It would not be unreasonable to adjust the school curriculum, and many other characteristics, to reflect today's facts of life. There is a big difference between leaving no kid behind, and trying to prepare every kid to be a lawyer or a rocket scientist. The chart to the left shows 6th Grade reading scores by race, in the four standard categories. (The three divisions used here by the DCPS are not the same as used by NARPAC in the diagram above). The difference in both the magnitude and the shape of the problem is perhaps too abundantly clear. There are almost 1500 6th Grade black kids reading at "basic", and another 500 "below basic". While the Hispanic problem appears similar, it is, to date, on a much smaller scale.
good alternate community uses
Among the smaller school sites, most of them are still substantially larger than would be required to set up a community "urgent care center", and might find additional uses in providing community social services, such as local police outposts, detox units, group homes, or even homeless shelters. Such combined civic uses might also make them more "acceptable" and less threatening to many neighborhoods.
biting the big bullet, all at once
Added together, there is no way that DCPS can re-invent itself for the future without disrupting the entire school system, and at least 80% of its fragile kids, its recalcitrant staff, and its hyper- active parents for at least five years. The only thing worse than planning it all at once would be to try to do it piecemeal with a disconnected set of decisions by a different set of players over an indefinite period of time. It would be like amputating a gangrenous limb a few inches at a time using different doctors. Or according to the joke that Russian fatalists find so amusing, like changing national vehicular traffic from driving on the left side of the road to the right side, by shifting the cars the first year, busses the following year, and trucks the third year.
one possible outcome
Modesty is not one of NARPAC analysts' strong suits. Nevertheless, we doubt we could pull off this dramatic but essential re-alignment at all. However, we are not too shy to conjure up one possible illustrative outcome, based on some exposure to the underlying numbers, a healthy disregard for special interests, a tin ear for political expedience, and a considerable background in offering up broad-brush solutions. (In fact, we first suggested closing 10 schools per year for 10 years back in 1999.) Here is the progression of our thought process:
o pick a realistic planning number for 2012 enrollment in the "mainline" DCPS school system
NARPAC believes this should be no more than a total of 50,000 kids, divided approximately as 33,000 in elementary schools, 9000 in middle schools, and 8000 in high schools.
o pick a nominal school size in each category
We see no reason to go below 500 kids per elementary school, 700 in each middle school, and 1200 in each high school. These values are much higher and much closer to national and "Great City" norms than the lower, albeit minimum numbers quoted in the MEP. o collect the city school system's eight planning areas into three manageable divisions:
As shown on an earlier chart above, we prefer combining ABC as the "Southeast Division (SED)" (East of the Anacostia), DEF as the "Central Division (CD)", primarily impacted by higher density "downtown" living; and GH as the "Northwest Division (NWD)". The three divisions currently have distinctive demographic characteristics, wrong though that may be in the long-term. The SED is very poor and very black. The CD is better off, and the racially the most diverse, with a growing Hispanic content. And the NWD will be, for the foreseeable future, the most likely to send its kids on to college and beyond.
These three divisions, incidentally, would benefit from approaching the management of school consolidation from their own distinctive vantage points. In earlier days, NARPAC could easily have suggested establishing three separate autonomous school districts along these lines.
o decide how many high schools (HS) are appropriate for each division:
Based on current experience, and a capacity level of over 1000 kids in each, NARPAC thinks DCPS should end up with two high schools in SED, and three each in the other two.
o decide how many middle schools (MS) should "feed" each high school:
Again based roughly on current enrollment patterns, two MS should feed each HS in both SED and CD, but only one MS school would feed each HS in NWD, where the drop-out is so much lower, and those MS's can be somewhat bigger, if necessary.
o select the number of elementary schools (ES) that should feed each MS:
It looks to NARPAC as though the SED needs 7 ES feeding each MS, but that ratio would drop to 4:1 in CD and NWD. This conclusion assumes that the current "out of area" currently extant will still be felt under the new re-alignment.. o deciding on which schools to dispose of in each division
These local-site decisions should be based on any/all of the criteria listed above from "too small to keep" and "too old to keep", up through "too valuable not to sell" and "better suited to other city services."
o end condition
The DCPS school inventory for 2012 would consist of: a) eight high schools for 8000 kids, with room to spare for relevant city service functions; 13 middle schools for 9000 kids, and 64 elementary schools for 33,000 kids from pre-school thru 5th Grade. Some sixty school properties would be up for sale, along with possibly 250 acres of valuable land worth well over half a billion dollars, not counting the school structures themselves. And NARPAC would study its collective shoes, and wager that over 80% of all school personnel and students would have gone through some kind of stressful change from the current status quo. We would also wager that this turbulence will only grow with every year that the re-alignment is delayed.
getting the job done
It would be virtually impossible to overestimate the difficulty of accomplishing this major re- alignment without missing so much as one school day. The Smithsonian Museum of American History, by comparison, is shutting its doors for two years just to update its exhibits. Furthermore, it should be clearly noted that some minor version of this restructuring is only mentioned in three of the 36 strategies put forward by Superintendent Janey in his comprehensive Master Education Plan. The chances of making a full range of academic and administrative reforms during the turmoil of physically moving a very large share of all DCPS students and staff, seems very slim indeed. This is particularly true if the re-alignment itself requires at least five years of continuous, orchestrated efforts. The practicality of changing horses in mid-stream, or of just changing their riders in mid-stream, is also vanishingly small. How then, can a major project be undertaken that will in all likelihood take longer than the terms of its political and executive instigators?
NARPAC suggests that "extraordinary circumstances deserve extraordinary measures". Once the decision is made to halve the number of DCPS schools, and both the planned means and expected ends have been approved, then the decision-makers need to assure that revisiting the process, or the intended goals, be made very difficult indeed. DC leadership would be wise to consider placing this task into Receivership, or under the management of a Special Master, or even a "Control Board", ugly as that may sound.
summary In the spring of 2006, there are finally indications that DC's public school system may be getting ready to cut back on its vastly over-capacity, over-age school system. The latest school superintendent's new Master Education Plan provides several constructive suggestions, and the School Board has already decreed that up to one million square feet of school capacity should be eliminated this year, and another two million square feet by 2008. The superintendent had proposed a far smaller reduction.
However, the new Master Facilities Plan, scheduled for publication in a few months, does not yet provide any confidence that it will include a comprehensive road map for a very major re- structuring. The longer this action is delayed, and the more open-ended the decisions are, the greater the chance that the resulting turmoil will collapse the system. NARPAC estimates that the current facilities are essentially twice as big as they will ever need to be, and that re-aligning the system is likely to take at least five years. Many of the superintendent's other planned academic and administrative system improvements will be impossible to put in place as long as the physical turbulence of "four-dimensional musical chairs" persists. NARPAC strongly recommends that a thorough and comprehensive plan be prepared, and that "extraordinary measures" be put in place to assure that the plan does not stall, or get de-railed, in mid-stream.
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