LETTER: Commentary on Student Placement Decision Process

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The Watertown Strong Schools parent group wrote up this summary of the recent School Committee Policy Subcommittee meeting, and added commentary at the end.

Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Policy Subcommittee on 07/06/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by: David Stokes

Committee members: Dr. Guido Guidotti, Chair; Liz Yusem; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent.

Audience members: Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness and Extended Services; John Portz, School Committee Chairperson; Lisa Feltner, Town Councilor; David Stokes, WSS; Stephanie Venizelos, Live Well Watertown and WPS Wellness Committee; Laurie McManus, former School Committee member; Charlie Breitrose, Watertown (MA) News; and one other community member.

Discussion: District Opioid Policy

Four existing policies relevant to this topic were distributed; three of which had proposed changes highlighted. The four policies are as follows:

  • GBEC “Drug-Free Workplace Policy” (no changes)
  • IHAMA “Teaching About Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco”
  • JICH “Alcohol, Drug and Tobacco Use By Students Prohibited” (title change)
  • JLCD “Administering Medications to Students”

After reviewing the policies and the proposed changes with Donna Ruseckas, the Subcommittee elected to recommend the three policies with the proposed changes to the full School Committee for a first reading. During the discussion, Donna also noted that all of the school nurses are scheduled to be trained to administer nasal naloxone (Narcan) in the fall.

Discussion: District Enrollment Policy

Dr. Fitzgerald provided a background to this discussion while the two policies that deal with student enrollment and assignment of students to the schools, listed as follows, were distributed:

  • JC “Attendance Areas”
  • JCA “Assignment of Students to Schools”

She concluded that the existing policies, as they stand now, without changes, provide her with the tools to carry out the School Committee’s mandate to use a centralized registration process (backed up with including a full-time Registrar in the FY17 budget) and determine if any students might need to attend a different school than the one in their “home” assignment area in order to combat the overcrowding in Watertown’s elementary schools in the short term.

John Portz proposed an addition to the end of the JCA policy, as he described it, to provide School Committee accountability for the change to using centralized registration, along with specificity and transparency to the criteria that Central Office will use to assign students to schools.

Dr. Fitzgerald identified the “family preference” criterion as a challenge. In her eyes, she sees “family preference” as “open enrollment”. She stated that WPS has, up to this past academic year, tried to honor every family preference. But, with the overcrowding situation, WPS can no longer provide a family preference, and if that criterion is spelled out in policy, that might bind the Registrar’s hands in how to assign a student.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer commented that she sees a problem with kids not going to their neighborhood schools. She agreed with Jean that the current policy seems to already provide the Superintendent with the required authorization; Eileen wants to avoid the feeling of unfairness, which, in her opinion, then becomes anger. She acknowledged that guidelines from the School Committee might be okay (without needing any policy changes).

There was much discussion about what part of the proposed Portz language, if any, might belong in a policy and where. Several proposals were made and modified (or stricken) along the way.

Ultimately, the Subcommittee made one change to the JC policy, and voted to recommend the policy change to the full School Committee for a first reading.

Discussion: Changing the Athletics Subcommittee to a Student Development Subcommittee

The Subcommittee had expected Candace Miller to be present for this discussion. In her absence, they decided to table it. John Portz commented that he believes there will be other, upcoming opportunities for the Policy Subcommittee to meet, at which the Subcommittee will be able to take up this topic.

The meeting adjourned at 5:10 PM.


David Stokes

As an audience member, it sometimes can be very difficult to sit and watch “the sausage” being made. The discussion about the proposed language from John Portz and the “enrollment” policy was one example of that platitude.

From my vantage point, though, there are 4 specific “informational items” that are needed as part of this new enrollment process, but most likely outside the scope of policy:

1) Guidelines about school assignment criteria that are publicly accessible: I agree with Dr. Fitzgerald that the authorization she needed already seemed to be in the policies. However, I also side with John Portz in that the criteria by which the Central Office would be making the decisions appears to be unnecessarily vague and in need of some definition – although, as Eileen Hsu-Balzer suggested, perhaps not in the policy, but in guidelines from the School Committee. Guidelines are easy to change (unlike a policy), as the situation warrants, and they can define the specific criteria in a public way without removing the Superintendent’s final discretion.

Dr. Fitzgerald acknowledged that today they already use the majority of the criteria that John proposed. Therefore, at the very least, the criteria should be available to WPS staff (only?) as an internal procedure. Making them public, though, can also accomplish two other things that John sought: transparency and accountability. By spelling out the criteria publicly, parents can help to ensure that the criteria are applied equally and fairly. And parents and residents of Watertown will not fear the new registration and school assignment process, as they do now.

Personally, I would certainly like to keep “family preference” as one of those criteria, even if it is at the very bottom of the list. I am sure that it could be included with boundaries that prevent it from becoming “open enrollment”. I don’t believe that any Watertown family wants to feel as though they do not have a say in their own students’ education (even if it is only just a request with very little chance of succeeding).

2) A web page describing the school assignment decision process for prospective students and their families: Taking one of Lisa Feltner’s comments a step further, families new to Watertown or Watertown Schools will want to find out how to register their students. I will argue that the first place they will usually look is the WPS District website. Somewhere there, easy to find from the home page, should be a “how to register your student” page. And, that page should now include a disclaimer which states that their student might be assigned to a school that is outside the Attendance Area in which their home resides (a map of the Attendance Areas should also be available on the web page).

3) An explanation to the student’s family identifying the reason(s) why they were assigned to a school outside their attendance area: I also believe that the Central Office has an obligation to provide an explanation (in their assignment letter) to any Watertown family with a student who is not assigned to the school in their Attendance Area, in accordance with Policy JC, identifying the reason(s) why their student was assigned as they were. Certainly, if my student were to be in that situation come September, I would want to know why the alternative assignment was made. I would also want my assignment letter to include the procedure in #4 that follows.

4) An appeals procedure, in the event that someone disagrees with the school to which their student is assigned: I do not know if there is any sort of appeals process under which this new method of school assignment already falls. Even under the current policy, there is no mention of appeals, only of the Superintendent’s authorization to provide exceptions to the Attendance Area school assignment “…for individual children in the best interests of the student and/or the school.”

However, if there is not already an appeals procedure, then I believe that the School Committee should be creating one with the Superintendent (perhaps as a policy from the Policy Subcommittee?).

It seems quite clear to me that if I don’t like what the Registrar assigns to my student, then I should be able to take it up with the Superintendent directly. And, if she is unable to satisfy my needs, then the School Committee should hear my plea.

But, that is only my take. Can anyone point me to a different procedure for appealing the school assignment decision?

One thought on “LETTER: Commentary on Student Placement Decision Process

  1. Great write up! Yes the central registration needs to be spelled out to all residents in town. Great idea for an Appeals process as that should be standard protocol.
    Thanks David and WSS!

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