September 6, 2012
Bus breakdown: “We were too aggressive”
In response to an unprecedented series of busing errors affecting thousands of families, the school district’s top leaders apologized repeatedly this week and promised to keep adding new routes until all student transportation problems have been resolved.
“While apologies can sometimes be hollow, I want to say we are going to fix this,” said Don Haydon, the district’s chief facilities and operations officer. “We put a very aggressive focus on efficiency this year – too aggressive.”
“Efficiency can be cold-hearted,” Haydon later told board members as part of a presentation to the board. “We were not focused on customer service.”
The root of the problem, according to Haydon, was a decision to remove 52 buses from the district’s fleet of 933. The district did this to save about $10 million over the next two years to avoid classroom cuts.
Returning many of those buses to the road is an obvious first step in addressing numerous problems of late runs, crowded buses and some stops that were missed entirely, said schools Superintendent Tony Tata.
“We have made progress, but we know we are not through yet and there is much more work to do,” Tata said.
While some school board members were sharper than others in their criticism, members of both parties expressed their concerns about the first week’s problems and sought assurances that bus service would improve.
That has meant expanding the number of bus routes and returning at least 34 buses to the streets. Other changes include bringing in an outside consultant to review routes, looking for better ways to communicate with parents and finding money to put GPS units on all buses to help guide drivers.
Equally important, although not as pressing, is deciding what needs to be done longer-term to keep the problems from happening again. For example, Haydon said, the district must improve the ways it tests future routes, restore driver training to three days instead of one, consider a centralized routing system and determine if too few managers are trying to keep track of too many buses. There are currently three managers for 900 buses.
While many parents assumed a new assignment plan that provides more choice was the problem, school administrators have insisted that choices played only a marginal role in the problems. More important was a decision by the district to adhere to school capacity limits this year, something that was largely ignored in previous assignment plans.
Put simply, when a school was full this year, the students were given choices that were farther down the road. That meant parents who waited until August to register could not get into their closest schools and transportation officials had to keep adding stops that extended the initial runs.
But the heart of the problem was the district’s decision to scrap its previous approach to routing buses in the hope of saving money. That created hundreds of new stops, unfamiliar routes and a reliance on software that failed to incorporate very human behaviors such as traffic jams and slow car pool lanes.
“It comes down to money,” said parent activist Anne Sherron, who has been involved in assignment and busing debates for more than a decade. In comments to school board members, Sherron reminded the group that she spoke about many of the same issues almost 15 years ago. “Isn’t it time we start paying for the school system we say we want?” she asked.
Revealing the core of a new challenge
Trying to determine how Wake County’s students will fare under the new Common Core State Standards Initiative being introduced this year is a bit of guessing game with only one sure answer. Overall test scores will drop.
Some educators are warning that it could be a very big drop, which is something schools throughout the nation are trying to impress upon the public even as they work to avoid the sharp decline.
In his recent State of the Schools address, Superintendent Tony Tata leaned on a chart he recently received from a statewide conference to help explain why that is the case.
The chart lists the percent of students considered proficient using a patchwork of state standards. North Carolina, for example, considered 80 percent of eighth-grade math students to be proficient in 2009. That same year, Massachusetts considered 49 percent of its students to be proficient.
But on the only exam given to a sampling of grade-school students nationwide – a test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the students from Massachusetts scored much higher than the students from North Carolina. To be more specific, they scored 47 points higher on a test that has a range of 0 to 500.
There is only one logical way for Massachusetts to report fewer proficient kids on its statewide exam and a higher national score when compared to North Carolina. The statewide test in Massachusetts is harder than the statewide test in North Carolina.
In general, Wake County scores higher than the North Carolina average. But it does not score that much higher. So how closely does the national exam known as NAEP mirror the new assessments that will be used as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
“We don’t know that yet,’ Tata said during his State of the Schools Address. “But we are told the correlation should be fairly close.”
That is likely to mean North Carolina students have a big drop and a long climb ahead of them.
Explain to me again why we “dial” a phone
Back in 1998, when former President Bill Clinton was young, a small liberal arts institution by the name of Beloit College created the first “Mindset List” to remind faculty how incoming freshmen viewed the world.
While it is still created with college freshmen in mind, read it closely because it also reflects how most of today’s high school kids view the world. Then ask yourself who is teaching whom when it comes to understanding the 21st century.
Here are a few excerpts from the 75 items on the full list:
And we wonder why they sometimes stare back at us with a blank look.
…Wake County parents are invited to the first Parent Academy Back-to-School Kick Off, which will be held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 8, at Millbrook Magnet High School, 2201 Spring Forest Road, Raleigh. Parents will attend a series of workshops while children ages 4 to 13 participate in free educational activities. Free continental breakfast will be provided. The district will provide workshops on topics including kindergarten readiness, elementary literacy, Common Core State Standards, understanding special education, transitioning into middle and high school, and preparing for college. Click here for more information.
… The school board voted Tuesday to add magnet programs at Carroll Middle School, Fox Road Elementary and Green Elementary for the 2013-14 school year. The board also voted to change the magnet themes for Poe Elementary and Moore Square Middle School. The themes for the five schools haven’t been determined yet. They will be announced before the Nov. 3 magnet school fair.… What framework does the public use when judging public schools? One of the better places to get a sense of that is the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of attitudes toward public schools. For starters, the results show that a majority of the public believes children of illegal immigrants should not get a free public education; a lack of financial support for public schools is a bigger problem than discipline and drugs; and people have a range of opinions on whether student test scores should be part of a teacher’s evaluation. Other questions explore opinions about school politics, bullying and higher standards.
Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at email@example.com or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.