Grade-banding gains traction in Rome City School District

School district committee members express support for grade-specific buildings

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A Rome City School District parent, an elementary school principal, Superintendent Peter C. Blake, a former president of the Rome Board of Education, the press, and all of the board’s current members, albeit one virtually, were on hand earlier this month when the board’s new ad hoc committee on redistricting gathered for the first time.

Not on hand was the consultant hired by the Rome City School District to guide and inform the fashioning of plans to reimagine their public schools. This was despite Blake making specific note at the board’s final meeting of 2022 that Ross Haber & Associates was requested to participate in at least the first ad hoc committee meeting.

“Ross wants to attend,” said Blake during the discussion of a date and time for the initial ad hoc committee meeting. “Everything he’s shown you is already different.”

When Blake was queried as to whether Haber or members of the Vaysen team working on the district project would be logging into the virtual feed, he replied to say that none of the RH principals could be available that day.

“We started with six options, then reduced down to four,” said Blake of Ross Haber’s work. “After recently meeting with the district architects, I believe they’ve narrowed it to two options that are feasible.” 

But, with the consultants not in attendance — and with board made aware that everything they’d be shown previously was now different — the committee was forced to move forward not knowing what was different or how or which two options were left standing.

Format

Tanya Davis, board vice president and chair of the ad hoc committee, had staged the room with stations designated by flip-chart pages mounted to the walls under categories including Finance, Facilities, Educational Programs and People Operations. Near the middle was a flip-chart on an easel with two column headings atop the page: Goals and Challenges.

Davis would divide the people in the room into break-out groups and direct them to brainstorm at each station, followed by returning to the dias to discuss the input and its implications on next steps. 

Priorities

Davis invited Blake to remind the room of what key points – priorities – Ross Haber had been given to work with in guiding his approach and conclusions — “Balance” and “Class Size.”

For all the challenges that face Rome, as any other public school district, here in the Copper City, there appears to be consensus among constituencies about the outcome they want to see achieved: smaller class sizes and balance among the district’s now six elementary schools with regard to everything from class size to staffing to special activities.

Background

How to achieve that outcome remains at issue and finds itself the subject of debate and division. While, as a result of a message received loud and clear by Haber’s team at a community presentation of options held on November 29, the consultants are in progress on surveying classroom teachers regarding their wants, needs and challenges. Previously, the consultants had only interviewed the building principals.

District parents present as primarily opposed to both the proposal of “grade banding,” (pairing the current elementary schools, where one would house PK – Grade 2 and the other would be home to Grades 3 through 5, or other iterations resulting in a similar split) and the idea of two district middle schools, involving the conversion of Clough to a second middle school and transitioning the district’s pre-kindergarten students to the elementary schools, responding to a broad community voice calling for PK to join their local elementary school communities rather than be isolated as they currently are to a dedicated building. 

The challenges facing the district’s school community are logistically and emotionally heightened by the sudden closure of Staley Elementary School due to flood damage caused by a late August storm, where such closure looms larger as permanent, thus further aggravating the size of elementary classrooms that all agree are just too crowed already.

Prior to the closing of Staley, the redistricting consultants were advised that options should not include new construction of an eighth school building; but, where FEMA and other federal and state funding is likely to now be available, new construction or more broad renovation of current buildings, according to Blake, is now on the table.

Ad hoc approach

Davis divided the gathering into break-out groups, providing each group with a different color sharpie. Those in attendance who were not current board members were equitably assigned to a break-out group. Timers were set to direct the groups from one station to another, where some simple, old-school brainstorming was done. Ideas. Words. Phrases. When there appeared to be no more room on a page, they were scrawled in the corners and the margins. 

Under GOALS, the themes of demographic equity and smaller class sizes continued to repeat. The best grade configuration to achieve optimal instruction made the list. Under CHALLENGES, “Middle School” was identified, not only where a redistricting option proposing a two-middle-school model inspired ire from district parents, but where the transition from elementary to middle, and then middle to high school is consistently noted as most difficult for students. Physical space is a challenge, the need created by Staley for possibly more than one major transition is a challenge and time itself is a challenge that looms large and is considered to be running out.

“The clock is ticking and the buildings are packed,” said Davis. 

The groups worked to distinguish “wants” from “needs.” More space and equity across elementary schools was agreed to be a need. Members diverge on district athletics. Members Craig Ferretti and Joe Mellace don’t see Rome competing as a district on any level without competing on adequate fields of play. Davis and Board Clerk, Dr. Karen Fontana see expansion of athletic facilities as a “want” in the context of the broader challenges the district faces. Parents want as little transition as possible and to keep sibling groups together as long as possible. But they need reliable school transportation, reasonable durations of bus rides, smaller classes and effective instruction.

Parent perspectives

Parent objections also found their way onto the Challenge column. Parents object to grade-banding. Most parents work and grade-banding could see families with students at between two and four schools, making it impossible for working parents to engage with any one school in a meaningful way. Where the district this year appealed to parents to commit to school transportation to alleviate the busing crisis, creating more drop-offs at different times is posed as nothing short of chaotic, if even possible.

The objections to the two middle schools, notwithstanding identifying middle school as a general challenge, surrounded Strough’s size and recent renovation compared to Clough. Where the district articulated the goal of balance and equity among the elementary schools, parents contend that students assigned to a Clough Middle School could not avoid feeling they drew the short straw.

Educational Programs

Ideas scrawled all over the “Education Programs” flip-chart page included: “Look at neighborhood school approach,” “different approach to catchment areas,” “therapy rooms OT / PT,” “maintain PK curriculum to match K curriculum,” “keep PK separate,” and “balance play with direct instruction.”

People Operations

With regard to staffing, where shortages are expected to continue in the near future, ideas populating this flip-chart page included: “Certifications,” “Attrition without replacements,” “facility connections,” and “relationships.”

Facilities

Perhaps the most crowded of all the flip-chart pages, words and phrases in lists and margins and scrawled sideways, included: “lost a building,” “calming rooms,” “security (i.e. metal detectors),” “wants/needs (stadium parking, fields),” “AIS (Academic Intervention Services) needs / teachers,” “future staffing / staff morale – make schools attractive to potential staff,” “lack of space for current technology,” “risk of construction-related problems,” and “enough space to effectively reduce class size.”

Also on the list was the redistricting consultant noting that finding room for PK in the elementary schools would be a challenge.

Finance

The Finance flip-chart page noted: “what’s not covered by SED (State Education Department),” “as little cost as possible to achieve our goals,” “are parents willing to contribute more to achieve smaller classes,” “is the district prepared to exhaust its current reserve cap,” “cost of maintenance,” and “Educational Foundation – would like to get it going.”

The crux of the group conversations at the “Finance” flip page was around a question one could cast as “the elephant in the room” — what are Rome taxpayers willing to invest to get what they say they want from redistricting? The idea of establishing an Educational Foundation – a non-profit corporation separate from the district that establishes specific goals and raises money through grants and tax-deductible donations to meet them – sparked enthusiastic interest and engagement.

Physical space

As Mellace pointed out, “it’s not just a question of space – do we want to take on more? – issues like transportation, sports, all come into the issue of space.” Another unique characteristic of the Rome is its expanse. When one is talking about “neighborhood schools,” and shorter bus rides and balance, one must keep in mind that, geographically Rome has an area of 74-square miles, not including several rural towns that also make up the district’s overall catchment area.

Class size

Blake broke down the challenge around class size to say that, as far as the state is concerned, 27 students to a teacher is an acceptable class size. A district will not receive state funding for projects with the objective to achieve a smaller ratio than that. He reminded that Rome’s class size at the elementary level, where it is most critical, is lower than that already.

“On average, if you took all of our elementary classrooms, an average math class is between 22 and 24 students.”

Blake confirmed that the Rome district goal was elementary class sizes of 18 to 22 students, but Rome is challenged to achieve that goal without state funding outside of what monies will be dedicated to efforts to accommodate the displaced Staley students.

Case for grade-banding

Veteran member, Paul Hagerty, who has given two decades of service to the City of Rome and its schools, crunched some numbers on his own and appealed to his colleagues to understand what – from those two decades of experience – he knew to be true. “I took all the enrollment data from last March and this October and compared two years – plotted all K-1 in one direction – and stacked by school,” said Hagerty, “How they vary is dramatic.”

Hagerty noted that, when you look at averages across the district, which people tend to do, they don’t look bad. But he examined 19 kindergarten sections across the district and found a range in class size between 14 and 24 students. Hagerty then performed the same math on first grade and got a range of 15 to 25 students; for second grade, the range was 14 to 25 students.

“Those are big differences,” said Hagerty, “when you talk about equity, there has to be some correlation between class sizes and equity.”

Hagerty acknowledged that initially Ross Haber proposed grade-banding as a shorter-term solution, but he appealed to fellow members to see it as the best long-term approach. “If we’re going to do something to help our problems next year, the only thing on the horizon is changing grade configuration,” said Hagerty. “If we don’t change grade configuration, you don’t change the capacity of the school.”

Davis pushed back on the additional transitions grade-banding builds in. “How do you weigh that? How do you weigh how many transitions we make, how much shifting of students,” said Davis, “to achieve our desired outcome?”

Davis challenged the members to ask, “are we or are we not willing to move kids again this fall? Is it that we have to because they can’t survive due to crowding? Or is it that we don’t want them to move one more year?”

Ferretti, a veteran principal in a neighboring district, responded in harshly practical terms. “This will be a two-to-three year short-term,” said Ferretti. “We won’t have an answer a year or a year and a half from now.”

Member, Lisa Herbowy also supported the grade-banding option. “We need to follow the plan that checks the most boxes,” said Herbowy. “Our goal is instructional outcomes. With banding, instructional needs are more similar.”

Conclusions

The members sought to summarize the day’s efforts into some palpable goals:

More demographic equity;

More horizontal and vertical equity;

Equitable preparation when students come together in middle school and high school;

Balance fiscal needs with responsibility to the community; and

Make decisions that prevent future Boards from racking their brains over the same problems.

Wish list

Davis then invited members to contribute their “wish” to a wish list:

Ferretti summed the challenge to say the Board needed to confirm a short-term plan to address the integration of Staley and a long-term plan that involved new construction.

Board President John Nash wanted attention to timing and resources. Does the district have the money to build a school or add on significantly to the current buildings?

Davis reminded members to distinguish between “wants” and “needs” and to focus on acute needs, such as new stairs at Strough, new windows, etc.

Member, Anna Megerell offered that each child should have everything they need and it should not be contingent on where in the City of Rome they live. She also hoped to see a therapy room in every school building.

Herbowy hoped to see equity in offering special programs, such as art and music, or science fairs and STEM activities. Member, Elena Cardwell-Reddick agreed.

Next steps

As for moving forward, Blake reminded that much would depend on what the SED would allow and what FEMA agreed to contribute. “It won’t take more than a couple of months,” said Blake regarding getting those answers.

Hagerty challenged that, as a Board, they needed to do something by next September. His colleagues agreed.

Fontana called this first ad hoc meeting a “very good start.”

Davis asked Blake to begin exploring what grade-banding would look like and asked him, “what if grade-banding is not one of the two proposals Ross Haber narrowed to?”

Said Ferretti, “then they need to make it one.”

Next public meetings on redistricting

The Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting tentatively scheduled its next meeting for Wednesday, Feb. 2, at 5 p.m. At the board’s regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 27, the consultants with Ross Haber & Associates are expected to present revised plans to the board based on district input. The consultants also plan to host another community meeting before the Jan. 27 board meeting, but the details of such a meeting are still to be determined and announced.

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