Over the summer we got a few questions regarding Wellesley Public schools, mostly about two sometimes hot-button issues — Open Enrollment and grade-freezing at the elementary level. We’ve noticed that there is sometimes confusion between the two terms, so we decided to go to Superintendent David Lussier for answers.
Dr. Lussier has held the town’s top educator job since 2012. Before that, he was executive director for the Office of Educator Quality in the Austin, Texas Independent School District for six years. His move to Massachusetts was a homecoming of sorts: Lussier boasts some serious local chops, having grown up in Dracut. From there he attended UMass-Lowell, Boston University, and Harvard, where he collected various degrees befitting a top-dog educator.
The superintendent took time out of his day earlier this summer to discuss open enrollment, freezing enrollment at elementary schools, and when a small school is too small.
Swellesley: What is Open Enrollment?
Dr. Lussier: Open Enrollment is a voluntary mechanism or choice mechanism that parents can use to attend a school that is not their home school. So each year, for any number of reasons (such as a family’s need for a special education program that the family’s officially districted school does not offer) a student may go to a school that best serves that student’s needs. For example, we have an autism program at Upham. So a family that resides in the Fiske district may send a child to an out-of-home district, so to speak, to attend a specialized program, such as the one offered at Upham.
One scenario may be that a special education student has a rising sibling who does not require special ed services, but the family wants to have both kids in the same school. They could achieve this by requesting, through Open Enrollment, for the rising sibling to attend the school that is outside of their home district. If there’s space, it can happen. That’s the key.
Another example of Open Enrollment at work could be a family that’s moving within Wellesley, say a Sprague family moving to Schofield, but who would prefer that their kids stay at Sprague to finish their elementary school experience. The family could put in an Open Enrollment request, and if there’s space, we try to accommodate those situations. So that’s what the Open Enrollment process is.
Swellesley: What does “freezing” grades mean?
Dr. Lussier: It’s a reality that because of our space and enrollment challenges, and given the way that our elementary attendance zones are currently drawn, that in order to stay within class size guidelines that reflect the learning environment we like to see, in schools and grades we sometimes have to close grade levels.
That means that someone coming in might be assigned to a school nearby where there’s actually space, rather than in their districted school, so that we don’t go over guideline in those particular sections. So this year right now I believe we have eight sections, or grade levels, closed across all seven elementary schools. That means anyone who comes in after the point of classroom guideline, we work with that family very closely to reassign them. As of today, I think that only a single family has actually been reassigned, which also reflects the dynamic nature of it. I think there’s a lot of noise around this, even though it’s actually really affected very few families, and that’s because enrollment is dynamic. Even after we’ve closed a grade level, people move all the time for various reasons. For example, a spouse may get a job offer and be reassigned at the last minute. So we’re talking a school or a grade level that is closed at a certain school, even once it’s closed, if families continue to withdraw for whatever reason, space opens up. When that happens, when someone moves into town to register we would absolutely assign them there.
Swellesley: What about redistricting? Would that solve space problems?
Dr. Lussier: We looked at redistricting almost three years ago, and it wasn’t going to solve the problem. The reality is that we have very small elementary schools, and so even what appear to be very small incremental changes in enrollment, if you only have two classes at that particular grade level, you’re talking about three or four students, you say, wow that doesn’t seem like a lot of students. But if there are only two classes and you want to stay within the guidelines we have, three or four students has a disproportionate impact.
We looked at redistricting as a way to try and affect or improve some of those imbalances. We know that in some schools we tended to have much higher class sizes than others. The reality is that redistricting is a blunt instrument. It really allows you to affect gross changes, and it’s really not a useful tool for some of these more surgical needs, for very small neighborhoods where you might get only incremental change. So what we found when we looked at a number of scenarios was we’d basically be shifting problems from one school and one neighborhood to the next if we went with redistricting.
The reality is that redistricting is a blunt instrument. — Supt. Lussier
The only way redistricting will work is if our space changes, which is really the urgency behind the Hunnewell, Hardy, Upham (HHU) proposal and its solution. Until we have different space configurations at these schools, redistricting with the current inventory of schools doesn’t solve any problems, it only shifts problems from one school to the next. [Read more…]