Exclusive interview: Wellesley Superintendent talks Open Enrollment, grade-freezing & international students

Wellesley Superintendent David LussierOver 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. At some point declining enrollment should provide some relief. But until then, closing grades is an interim measure to hopefully create some equity in terms of class size guidelines.

Previous to this, you might see a class at Upham at 16 students, whereas if you went over to Hardy you might see 24 students. So this has allowed us, in our 113 classes across all the elementary schools, to have I believe only a single section over guideline, and I think that was by one student, which is extraordinary. So it works, and it’s actually affected very few people. And actually about 42% of our classes last year were slightly under guideline. So we’ve done a much better job of balancing.

Open Enrollment is one of the tools we have, separate from grade level closures, because if people voluntarily want to switch schools, it helps us solve space issues. That’s a good thing. So that’s something that we’ve promoted as well.

Swellesley: A comment from one realtor was that “Open Enrollment has resulted in some chaos in the real estate market locally and also in kids being denied entrance to the elementary school in their district.” What is your response to this?

Dr. Lussier: Well the first thing is I think they’re confusing Open Enrollment with grade levels being closed, which are two separate although related facets of how we’re managing the district as a whole at the elementary level. But I get it. I hate closing grade levels and I wish we didn’t have to do it. And yet we’ve exhausted every possible tool. Which is worse, to close grade levels and reassign a few families, or to redistrict and affect entire neighborhoods? If you are one of the new families coming in and you’re reassigned, it doesn’t mean that it feels particularly good, but which is worse? To do that or to be running classes at 25, 26, 27 at the elementary level?

Swellesley: Could it happen that a family switching districts within town could get frozen out? Like if a Sprague family moved to Hunnewell district and Hunnewell says I’m sorry but there’s no room here for your second grader.

Dr. Lussier: That could happen but typically this affects families coming in new. Last year we had six grade level closures and it only affected six families district-wide for the whole year. This year so far it’s a single family. I get that especially for the realtors, I think the challenge is that it creates more uncertainty. So that if you have your house on the market and you’re a prospective buyer, say you’re out of state, when you go to the MLS listing sheet there’s uncertainty. In the past, you knew that if you bought on this particular street , it’s zoned to this particular school, and that’s still largely the case. I think that what’s different now is, again given the reality of the situation, we can’t guarantee that under every circumstance you’re absolutely going to be able to go Fiske or whatever school it might be.

It really depends on the situation as it’s evolving. So I think that’s been the hardest part. It’s created more uncertainty because realtors can’t say with absolute authority that if you buy here, you’re absolutely going to be able to go there. I always counter that, though, unlike in many districts, the luxury Wellesley has is that we don’t have a single bad elementary school. Kids are going to get an amazing education regardless of which school they go to. And the reality is that parents sometimes have their hearts set on a particular school, whether it’s word-of-mouth or their friends live in a particular zone. Most typically though, when they are assigned to a school, let’s say it’s outside of their district, they end up loving it and don’t want to leave after the fact. But I totally appreciate the uncertainty and I hope we get to a point where that’s no longer necessary. But it’s an interim measure prior to coming up with larger facilities .

Swellesley: I’ve spoken to real estate agents who say they have had potential buyers walk away from a house upon hearing a given class in their assigned elementary school was frozen.

Dr. Lussier: A lot of this is so granular because each of our elementary schools is already fairly small. When you think about a particular grade level — and one of the challenges of neighborhood schools is that they are really driven by the composition of the cohort that lives in the neighborhood at that particular time — it can vary widely based on gender based on any number of things.

In fact at Upham right now, one of the challenges we’ve had is this past year there was a single kindergarten class. Next year, when that class moves forward, it will be a single first grade class. One section at any school in one grade level is not a good thing. That’s why in the conversation in the community about small schools, some schools are actually too small. Upham is too small right now. Our preference is not for two-section schools, meaning two sections in each grade level. Because the problem with two-section schools is that although intuitively it feels good to have small learning environments, it can flip to one section pretty quickly depending on the cohort in that neighborhood. When that happens, then you’re down to a single teacher in a grade level, and that teacher then has no peers at that grade level.

If you’re the principal assigning students to a class — and that’s a big thing every year at the elementary level — trying to think about the right composition, some kids you want to keep away from each other for whatever reason. But if you have a single class in a grade, you have no options. And think about those kids. If they’re in a single class for five years and they suddenly come to a 1,200 student middle school, and their universe in their grade level has been 22 students, socially that’s a problem as well.

Our preference, as reflected so far in the HHU work, our sweet spot would be grades of three to four sections per school, like a 3.5 sections school. That’s really our sweet spot Because then you can expand a little bit or even contract and not run out of space or get down to one section of kids. It gives you that nimbleness as a system to move.

It’s an important distinction between small classes and small schools. We still want small class sizes within any one of our schools, and that’s why these grade level closures are critical to maintaining those. Even in the HHU proposal, the class sizes aren’t going to change, it’s just thinking about the overall size of the school.

Swellesley: Does Wellesley have any plans to enroll international students as a source of tuition revenue?

Dr. Lussier: We’ve had a lot of interest in this topic. We certainly participate in a number of exchanges, and what we’re finding is that there is a lot of interest in foreign students coming here, and there’s a whole cottage industry around that idea. I think it is coming, and we are interested. It could be a revenue stream coming in, but I think you want to go in with eyes wide open with who exactly are the kids you’re getting, what additional services will they need, what are their language skills, how sustainable would such a program be, what visas are required? I meant there’s a whole legal aspect with the State Department. So we’re kind of in the middle of  exploring all of those things. I think we’re definitely open to looking about what number of kids we’re talking about, and it must be balanced with what does this mean for space.

Families at the high school, where I know that courses sometimes are locked out, would be concerned about kids coming in who aren’t Wellesley kids per se getting into courses, and what does that mean for impact. So I think there are a lot of things we have to look at, but we’re certainly interested .

Swellesley: But at this point we don’t have any international tuition-paying students?

Dr. Lussier: No, we don’t. Not foreign students.

Swellesley: Is there a big problem with people who do not live in town trying to sneak their students into Wellesley schools?

Dr. Lussier: I think people generally try to do the right thing. We currently have a robust registration process. Frankly, there was some looseness in that process previously, but we do our best to make sure that we have residents that are providing us with the documentation that all families must provide across the board.

Swellesley: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Dr. Lussier: You bet.

You can keep up with the Superintendent on Twitter.

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