Responses (February 2021)

I asked the school board questions about niche.com school rankings and school board work sessions in an email. I received a response on behalf of the school board from Alan Karpick. I then responded with a follow-up question on work sessions and Karen Springer responded.

High School Rankings:

I have been surprised at how often our school’s niche.com rankings have been used to try to downplay concerns about our school district. Niche is not a particularly reputable ranking site (facebook scandal, company renaming/rebranding, pushing schools to pay for a “premium profile”) as compared to Newsweek and U.S. News and World Reports. Alan Karpick replied to my question by saying that our school district paid niche.com $9,900 in 2020 to promote our school rankings. I think paying niche.com just puts questions into people’s minds about what the school board is trying to distract people from noticing.

However, I agree that school rankings matter. I looked at measures of school quality, including school rankings, when we moved here to help us decide where we wanted to buy a home. School rankings from sites like newsweek.com and usnews.com primarily use school-specific measures of student outcomes from the Indiana Department of Education and the College Board. Each ranking site uses a different weighting scheme, but the same set of factors are frequently used to rank schools: ISTEP math and reading, AP exams, SAT scores, and graduation rate. West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School has outstanding student outcomes in all these categories:

It’s clear that West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School has some of the best student outcomes in the state. Why are students so successful here? It’s primarily because of the people who live here. Our community attracts families that value education. Education research finds that “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context” (Coleman Report, 1966) or as Hanushek (2016) explains, “family background factors (education, family structure, and so forth) powerfully affect student achievement.” Teachers matter, though not nearly as much as families (Chetty et al., 2011). WLCSC has historically attracted an above average number of excellent teachers, though recent school board decisions have pushed some excellent teachers to move to other school districts or to retire early.

School rankings are primarily a measure of the community, not of school buildings, school administrators, or the school board. I have been surprised at how often our school district leaders try to use rankings to shield themselves when concerns about our schools are raised. I have seen it in response to email questions when rather than providing an answer, I’m just told that our schools are highly ranked. I have seen it on the school district website and in popup web advertisements they make me click to dismiss. I have seen it on the electronic signs in front of our schools and in parent council newsletters (those run by school board member Amy Austin). I’ve certainly seen it at school board meetings.

Until the pandemic, our school district enrollment numbers have steadily increased (see figure below). Why do we now need to pay some company to promote our rankings? We have an amazing community and this is why we choose to live here. Asking questions about school finances and policies and pointing out some issues where our school board is failing us is not the same as being negative about our schools. I live here because I love our community. When members of the community ask questions of our school leaders and “rankings” is the response, I feel very disappointed. We need our school board to listen to the concerns and to stop denying that there are areas that need improvement.

School Board Work Sessions:

There is very little discussion at WLCSC school board meetings with few questions and little information shared. I had assumed that the school board members went to work sessions where they discussed important issues with administrators and had their questions answered. It turns out that work sessions are not frequently held. School board members usually vote to approve each item on the agenda without ever discussing the topic.

I’ve been told that there are a few work sessions each school year, though I’ve never been to one. I only recently learned that they are open to the public. The school board calendar lists a work session in each month, but with the qualifier “as needed” so it isn’t clear which work session will actually be held (they usually are not). I really appreciate that since being elected to the school board Yue Yin has posted the date, time, and location of school board meetings along with the agenda to facebook and hopefully will also post work session notices as well. Amy Austin recently started advertising school board meetings in the two parent council newsletters that she runs. These are both great ways to inform the public and I hope this will continue. However, not all interested members of the community are on facebook or receive parent council newsletters. I wish the school board would do something more to inform those who are interested, for example, they could set up an email list that anyone could sign up for to receive advanced notice about upcoming school board meetings, work sessions, bond hearings… I know the community would like to attend these meetings but we haven’t been able to attend them in the past because we didn’t know about them.

I recently learned that our school district usually has a work session in August for the budget. I would have liked to have attended these work sessions but wasn’t aware that they were happening and wasn’t aware that the public could attend work sessions. There was a lot of confusion about the work session that was scheduled on February 17th because unlike all the other work sessions, it was listed on the school board calendar with a subject: “RDP Project Update (tentative meeting).” However, when community members individually reached out to find out if it was going to happen, we were told that it was not going to be held. The school board needs a better way to communicate when they will hold work sessions. 

I appreciated Alan Karpick’s statement that they will start video streaming work sessions similar to how they are now streaming school board meetings. The live stream has not worked consistently so it would be good to also post an audio recording. My view is that school board meetings and work sessions should be inviting and that the school board should encourage the community to attend. I hope that the school board will consider changing school board meetings back to a different night rather than being at the same time as city council meetings. I know several community members have made the request but have been told that the first Monday of the month is the best night for school board meetings. I don’t know all the logistics of school activities, school board member schedules, and all the other details that go into scheduling, but there are at least 3 other Mondays each month. Even if the first Monday of the month is the best, I suspect that one of the other Mondays would be a close second and changing the night would be worth it to allow interested community members to attend both school board and city council meetings.

Apologies:

I apologize to those I may have offended when I commented in my February school board meeting summary about Rocky Killion whispering. Alan Karpick mentioned in the January school board meeting that Killion was not able to speak above a whisper. Nothing was said in the February meeting, but I assumed that this was still a medical issue. I didn’t mean to imply that he was whispering intentionally. I just wanted people to know why he was not presenting the agenda items as he usually does. I should have made it clear that him not presenting and his whispering were for a medical reason.

I also apologize for not mentioning the town hall meeting on anti-racism and diversity that took place a few days before the February school board meeting. I was disappointed that the school board did not mention it and I should have stated this at the end of my summary rather than just comment on the agenda items from that meeting. The anti-racism town hall was an impressive event with school board members and administrators in attendance to listen to community member concerns. There were some heartbreaking stories of discrimination that have taken place in our schools as well as some great suggestions for change. I think that WL Care did an amazing job at moderating the event as well as making it public for everyone to review. They posted a Town Hall video, transcript, and chat log publicly. This event inspired some great conversations with my children about how we can do better. I love living in this great community and I’m looking forward to some positive change!

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