Is PPS Hiding the Truth About Inequity?

by Peter Campbell, January 17th, 2008

Like many PPS parents, I’d like to know which school would be best-suited for my children. How do I determine this? Ideally, I’d be able to look at a single document that lists all of the schools in PPS on the left and the offerings (art, music, etc.) at the top. In addition, there should be a column next to each of the offerings that lists the amount of time devoted to each offering, e.g., “3 times per week for 45 minutes.” This should be all programs in all schools, not just the FTE levels for the various offerings.

Finally, there should be a column that lists information about recess and the amount of time devoted to it at each school.

Cynthia Gilliam (Director, Office of Schools) sent me a document (21 KB PDF) several weeks ago, outlining the various FTE allocations in the district for PE, music, art, technology, dance, drama, second language, library services, and counseling services.

The information in the document is useful, but it’s not complete. It’s also misleading. While I may be able to surmise what the offerings are at each of the schools based on the information provided in this document, I have no idea how often they are offered. Nor do I have any information about recess. Moreover, the document does not include programs that are funded beyond the district, e.g., through school foundations and other private means of funding.

In other words, if you took this document at face value, you’d assume that Chapman — for example — had no arts program because it has zero FTE allotted to art. Yet Chapman students benefit from an artist-in-residence program. You might also assume that, because Chapman has no FTE allotted to drama, that no drama instruction exists at the school. Wrong. K-2 students at Chapman are currently working on a musical production of Cinderella. Chapman has these programs because a large percentage of Chapman parents are wealthy enough to contribute to the school’s foundation. Yet, according to the district data, these programs don’t even exist.

Cynthia Gilliam, Sarah Ames (the district’s Senior Strategic Communications Officer) and Nancy Hauth (a district Resource Specialist affiliated with the enrollment and transfer office) all said the district could not provide this information. Ms. Gilliam said there are lots of elements that parents want to know about, including the ones I’m interested in. She used this as a way to justify the argument that since there are so many things that different parents want to know, there’s no way to satisfy everyone. Ergo, the information is not compiled and not released publicly.

But surely Ms. Gilliam’s response provides an even greater justification for making all of these elements publicly available and easily readable. In other words, why not create a single, comprehensive source of information that includes things like level of teacher experience, the square footage of the classroom, the curriculum materials, class size, diversity, achievement scores, discipline data and school climate, as well as information about enrichment offerings — art, music, etc. — and recess?

Here’s the thing: all of these pieces of information exist. Ms. Ames acknowledged that the information is available, but it’s all stored inside each principal’s head. She said that the district asks a lot of the principals in terms of reporting, and she woudn’t want to burden them with an additional task.

Her solution to the problem? I contact each of the 60 or so principals myself.

While it’s certainly conceivable to visit and/or call the 60 principals, it’s not terribly practical. But if I felt like my requests would get responses, I’d be glad to do this (even though the district could do this much more efficiently and, presumably, would be part of a district employee’s job description). But let’s face it: it’s extremely unlikely that a principal of a school that my daughter does not even attend will bother responding to my request. Why should they? Principals have lots more important things to do.

There are, admittedly, a large number of things that parents need to know about each school. I understand that the information changes year by year and often differs from grade to grade within a school. The information is also, admittedly, complex. But the district underestimates the capacity of concerned parents to make sense of the information, essentially deciding for them that they would not be able to understand it. This is, at the very least, a gross assumption and, at worst, offensive and patronizing.

Ultimately, it’s simply a matter of putting all the pieces together in one place.

So why doesn’t PPS take the time and make the effort? Why does the district tell parents like me (and presumably other parents) to do this work, either by calling each of the 60 principals themselves or by going to the Celebrate PPS event and visiting each of the 60 booths? I’m going to the Celebrate! event, and I’ll bring my spreadsheet to collect data. But I doubt I’ll be able to cover all 60 by myself in the time allotted. And I also doubt rather seriously that I’ll get straight answers in the context of this event, which is essentially a giant sales and promotion event for each school. But I’m still going. Just not expecting much.

If the PPS administration would like to perform a valuable service to the community and offer information upon which parents can make informed choices for their children, then I strongly suggest they make the information I requested available. If the district is committed to “choice,” then information needs to be made available so that parents can make informed choices. An informed choice cannot be made without information.

But if the district continues to keep this information from the public, then the public is justified in assuming that the district has something to hide. If there are inequities in the offerings at the schools, the public needs to know what they are so they can do something about it. Keeping them hidden virtually guarantees that nothing will be done.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.