Friday, December 31, 2010

Kent Community Survey

I recently had the chance to read the results of the Kent City Schools' survey.  During October, the district conducted a survey of the community to gauge their opinions on such things as the performance of the schools, administration, and possible facility changes.  The survey was done in two parts: the first part was a 400-person survey done over the phone by Kent State University while the other part was a 342-person written survey that was sent home to parents.  One of the days I subbed at Roosevelt I passed out the survey to students in my second period class.  The results of the survey can be found here.  Although I am technically an employee of the district as a substitute teacher, I am blogging here as a community member and an alumnus of the district as my interest in seeing this district do well is far more rooted in my connection and loyalty to Kent than being a sub. 

The first thing that really struck me was the section that had verbatim comments from respondents.  Both surveys had the opportunity for open comments, but only the phone survey comments were published.  I read all of the comments, which were taken for two questions: "Do you have any suggestions for the district to continue saving money?" and "Finally, do you have any questions or comments that we could convey to the Kent administration and board of education?"  Of course there were plenty of the classic "everything's great" and "keep up the good work" comments that inevitably come up.  There were some off-the-wall comments too like "how did you get my number?" and "they should reword the questions".  There were also some that show the respondent didn't pay attention to the survey, like a comment about freezing wages to save money when it was stated earlier that the district had already done so.  This is one of my favorites:
"You have to find a way to communicate with community better. Not everyone reads paper or has a computer, or has kids in the system."  This is especially ironic given a comment earlier that one of the ways to save money would be to "Stop sending junk mail- especially calendars." (each fall the district sends out calendar that has school events and the schedule on it along with other important contact info...I find it VERY useful).  I'm not really sure how much more the district could do.  In the end, they can only do so much to communicate; it's not like they keep the information secret.  The part about "not everyone reads paper" I'm hoping is just either a typo or it was spoken wrong.  How else can we communicate beyond the web and paper?  Does this person want phone calls or a TV show or something?

Most of the comments didn't surprise me.  You always have the people that think we should cut everything but science and math, and even one person said the first thing to go should be music and sports.  There were a few that advocated more of a pay-to-play fee for sports.  While I can understand that stance, I also think that everyone should have an equal chance to play sports or participate in other enrichment activities; not just the ones their family can afford.  Pay-to-play puts huge burdens on families and ultimately keeps a lot of people out of those things I feel make school a lot more real to students than just books and facts.  What bothered me the most as an educator were the focus just on test scores.  I've blogged extensively about the shortcomings of the state proficiency tests and the danger on relying only on their results as a means to compare districts.  Another comment I was troubled by was in regards to getting more part-time teachers so the district could save on healthcare and other costs like salary.  That's it; make teaching even less desirable and that will improve the schools.  Right.  Do people really think that will attract and retain the best and brightest?  As my aunt Jane, who is also a teacher, pointed out at Thanksgiving, teaching is one of those professions that everyone knows how to do your job better than you but won't actually do what is necessary to actually get a job in the field.  If teaching is "so easy" and teachers should be making even less than they do, why aren't all the people saying that lining up to show how easy it is?  Why do so many teachers leave the profession after only a short time?  Why do many who leave cite better pay in their new job as a reason they left teaching if it pays so well? 

The real kicker after reading the many comments (if you have time, the PDF of the phone survey can be found here...comments start on page 13, though the PDF page is one off of the printed page since the cover page is counted as page 1 in the file) was question 21 (printed page 11, PDF page 12): "Do you currently have children enrolled in the Kent Schools?"  The answer was 76.9% no.  So, 76.9% of the comments were from people who don't have kids in the schools right now.  That could range from people who just had their last kid graduate to people who enroll their kids in an alternate private or home school, to people who don't even have kids or had kids graduate many years ago.  In other words, I found it ironic that with all these comments about what is wrong with the schools, the vast majority of them are coming from people who have little to no connection with the district right now, yet they claim to know what's wrong and how to fix it. This survey also rated the superintendent with a "B" rating.  This was in contrast to the take home survey, which was filled out with over 90% of respondents being parents with kids in the district right now.  They gave him him with an "A" rating.  I only wish the written comments they had given were published.  They seemed to have a more positive view of the district.  Why?  Being in the schools lets people see past the state test scores, something I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago.. The real test to evaluating schools is being an active parent and knowing what to look for.  Only then do the test scores have much more of a context and meaning.

Some of the things I was happy to see were questions about facilities, which I had heard would be one of the primary issues gauged.  In other words, the district is probably considering a bond issue or other increase to fund improvements to facilities and wants to see if it's going to be worth the time and effort of getting it passed.  The facility issues involve adding on to Roosevelt, mainly additional classroom space and a second gym; addressing the parking and traffic nightmare that exists every morning and afternoon at Roosevelt; adding on or replacing Franklin Elementary; and adding on to Holden Elementary.  If I had to rank these facility projects, I'd probably rank them in the order I just listed.  Each one is definitely justified, in my opinion, but obviously now isn't the best time to do a massive building project.  What I found interesting were a few comments in the survey that Franklin should be closed rather than replaced or added onto.  I think it could work, but I'd rather not see an elementary school closed unless the enrollment is very low; right now, Franklin has between 200 and 300 students, which is right around what the other elementary schools have in Kent (there are 5 total).  We also have to look long range.  While enrollment may be down, that doesn't mean it will stay down as families grow up, move out, and new ones move in.  Kent is definitely an aging population and a lot of households do not have kids anymore (empty nesters), but it won't stay like that forever as people age and move on.

One thing that gets missed, in my opinion, is the age of most of the facilities.  As buildings get older, they cost more to maintain.  Outside of Stanton Middle School, which opened in 1999, every other building is near 50 years or older with some having more recent additions.  The vast majority of Kent's schools were built in the late 1960s or before (during the period of Kent's largest growth), with a few having additions in the 1970s.  Roosevelt has a small addition from 1997, but the vast majority of the building was built in various phases between 1958 and 1977.  Franklin dates back to the 1920s and has an addition that was added in the 1960s as far as I know.  Holden opened in 1965 and has largely been untouched since then beyond basic maintenance. 

Roosevelt definitely needs an additional gym.  I have always been perplexed why we only have one gym when most comparable high schools (those of similar enrollments) usually have a main gym and an auxiliary gym.  Even the new Ravenna High School, as I blogged about earlier this year, has two gyms, one that is used mainly for competitions and the other that is used for physical education classes.  As I said in my blog there, I have long wanted Roosevelt to have something similar to what Ravenna ended up building in their high school, which is a small field house.  The current gym has served us well and is in pretty good shape, but people need to remember it was built as part of the original 1958 building.  Since then, the school's enrollment has gone from 550 students in 1959 to around 1,400 today and the building has had numerous additions.  The gym does not even fit the entire student body.  I would love to see a field house type addition with a large space that could be subdivided into multiple courts, as well as a multi-purpose room.  Right now, the auditorium lobby functions as our "multi-purpose room" despite the fact that it is freezing this time of year and is part of the hallway.  We also have quite a bit of teachers who move from room to room each period because we do not have enough classrooms.  I'm all for efficient use of space, but having a few extra rooms would still allow for maximum use while giving teachers a place to "set up shop" as opposed to constantly pushing a cart around the school.

The other issue, the traffic problems at Roosevelt and Stanton, also needs to be addressed.  Maybe it's because I'm at Roosevelt so much now, but the traffic has always been bad.  The reason it gets bad is because of the orientation of the parking lots and roads.  Basically, you have two parking lots and three roads all coming together at one point.  It's further exacerbated by it being the primary route students take to walk to and from the parking lot and it's where people drop their kids off.  So, you have tons of traffic funneled into one area mixing with hundreds of pedestrians.  In the afternoon, all of the buses head over to Stanton together, so it's like a train cutting through it all and bringing everything to a standstill.  Sometimes we have additional buses that are picking up students from other high schools who take vocational classes here as part of the Six District Education Compact.  The main dropoff point doesn't have a turnoff, so it blocks a lane of the road that handles the traffic.  Yes, it is an absolute nightmare every day.  Like the gym, it is a relic of the original 1958 building when there were far less students and even less cars.  Honestly, how many students had their own cars in 1959?  I have my own ideas about how to solve it (move the student parking lot to the north side of Roosevelt Drive adjacent to the building and add a second entrance from Mantua Street), but it definitely can't stay the way it is.

The main reasoning behind additions at Franklin and Holden has to do with mandated all-day kindergarten.  Neither building has much room to add an additional classroom or two to accommodate that and Holden has had a modular building next to it for years.  Replacing Franklin is more to do with its age and the fact that the building is fairly inaccessible to anyone with physical disabilities (if you've never been inside, it has a bizarre layout too).  Since it would likely need an addition and renovations, if replacing it is close to the same cost, in the long run it may be a less expensive option.

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