Educational Opportunities and Class Size Equity: A Proposal
for the
Iowa City Community School District Board
Nicholas Johnson
March 25, 2001 [1700]




Political Viability

What the proposal is designed to address

Summary of proposal's modules


Boundaries and zones

Building utilization

Boundary flexibility

New construction

Kindergarten assignments

New arrivals with upper class assignments

Additional modules
Cluster governance

Cluster-based control

Central Administration control

Permanent substitute teachers

Needs-adjusted class size

Results-based adjustments

Demographic balance

Middle schools and alternative schools


Note: This does not even represent a proposal from the school board, let alone action. It is a discussion document that has yet to be discussed. It is not on the agenda for the board’s March 27 meeting.

Introduction. In past policy discussions we seem to have found it most productive to work from a written proposal. Our ability to edit and modify gives us total freedom of choice as to ultimate outcome. But at any given point in our discussion there is an integrated written product evolving before us. It not only provides focus for our own thinking but offers others a sense of our emerging consensus.

Over the past year we have approached the issues surrounding educational opportunities (boundaries), overcrowded schools and classrooms, and the need for a long range plan on a number of occasions – most recently at our work session March 20. Those have been interesting discussions, including the input from the Superintendent and his committee. We have a lot of options on the table.

What I have failed to do, however, is to pull from all these discussions and options enough pieces of the puzzle to create a picture of how some of them might fit together. As a result of this failure on my part, our discussion March 20, however interesting, did not move us much closer to a specific proposal, or board direction for the Superintendent, than our discussions a year ago.

What follows is designed as such a picture: a discussion document to help us move over the next two months from a range of options to a proposal.

It contemplates the continued input from the Superintendent’s committee, the Superintendent, other board members, and any stakeholder who cares to participate.

Political viability. Based on our past discussions and lists of options, on these and other issues from Carver to reading “ends policies,” it’s fair to say this board and Superintendent are open to innovation.

On the other hand, we are all also solidly grounded in the realities of the politically possible. Our stakeholders – parents, teachers, students – are not only not clamoring for change they seem committed to opposing it – and are very adept at doing so.

So the proposal reflects the reality that there is no organized support in this community for any improvements in our district that will cause anyone now involved with the schools the slightest inconvenience.

How can a proposal for no changes move us from where we are to something new and better?

By phasing in the elements of the proposal over a period of seven years.

In short, it would have no impact whatsoever on parents whose children are currently enrolled in a given elementary school and who finish sixth grade at that school. They, and perhaps their siblings as well, would have a vested right to attend the school where they are now enrolled.

The centerpiece of the proposal are the 700-800 new students entering our kindergartens each year. (Some accommodation would be made for new kindergarten students who have older siblings in the system.)

There are also a significant number of students who leave a school each year for reasons other than graduation. Some leave the district. Others transfer within it. The proposal contemplates that the vacancies created by those departures would be an additional part of the pool of spaces available to carry out the proposal.

Many variations are possible. For example, parents of currently enrolled students could continue to have the same rights regarding transfers that they now have. At a minimum, they might continue to have “preferences” that would be honored when possible, rather than “rights.” In short, if thought to be politically necessary the proposal could apply only prospectively to families moving into the district for the first time, or moving a child who entered kindergarten after the proposal took effect.

Over the next seven years the proposal would impact one additional grade each year until every student in the district would be covered.

Seven years may seem like a long time. But if we’d started this when Matt and I joined the board we would be halfway there already. And besides, if that’s all we can do politically anyway what’s our option?

What the proposal is designed to address. The proposal is intended to (a) optimize the utilization of present buildings (thereby forestalling an immediate need for new construction, or at least as much new construction as would otherwise be required), (b) eliminate the present inequity in disparate class sizes across the district, (c) provide both increased administrative discretion and increased site-based control, (d) increase professional development and instructional leadership, and (e) create an infinitely-expandable long range plan for the district. Moreover, it accomplishes this in a way that is least likely to create political opposition. Most of the proposal’s components can be thought of as modules, many of which can be used, or not, in other configurations.

Summary of proposal’s modules. Some elements of the proposal are central to its concept. Others are discretionary. Recall that all would be of future effect only, with no impact on presently enrolled students. The elements, or modules, include:

The following discussion defines and illustrates these concepts and modules.

Clusters. The concept of “clusters” is a central module, as will be explained later. By way of definition at this point, however, a cluster is a grouping of elementary school buildings into single “schools” with multiple “campuses.” Normally this would be a grouping of schools that are geographically contiguous.

Within our district there are, of course, a number of ways the present schools could be grouped. The groupings could be of two, three, four, or more schools. To make the concept tangible an example of a six-cluster allocation follows:

(1) Coralville Central, Kirkwood, Penn and Wickham

(2) Horn, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Weber

(3) Hoover, Lemme and Longfellow

(4) Mann and Shimeck

(5) Lucas, Twain and Wood

(6) Hills (separate because of its distance from the others)

Other ways of assigning buildings to clusters might put relatively more weight on the total population within a cluster, including large schools with small schools, or now-crowded schools with relatively under-utilized schools. Hills could be included within a cluster notwithstanding its relative geographical isolation. There are many other possibilities.

Boundaries and zones. Another central element of the proposal is a substantial reduction in the geographical area related to a given building or cluster. (As with all the elements of the proposal this one also would have no impact on those currently enrolled at a given school.)

The boundary lines would be drawn tightly enough that no more than, say,  one-half of a building’s optimal occupancy would live within its zone. Thus, those closest to the building would not be bused elsewhere. They would have a preference, or possibly even a “right,” to attend the building in question. (Like anyone else they could also put in a request to attend any other building within their cluster.)

The boundary around a cluster would be drawn tightly enough that no more than, say, 75 percent of the cluster’s optimal occupancy would live within its zone.

Those living within the zone of a cluster would have a preference (or “right”) to be assigned to one of the buildings (campuses) within that cluster. They would not, however, have their choice of buildings (although they could, of course, make a request).

Once assigned to a building a student would have the right to remain there through sixth grade (as well as, of course, the opportunity to request transfers elsewhere). (His or her younger siblings would thereby obtain either a right or preference to attend that school as well.)

Those students living outside the boundaries of all clusters could be administratively assigned to any cluster – normally the one closest to their home.

Building utilization. One of our early parameters was to optimize the utilization of present buildings. Otherwise put, to minimize the need for new construction and the associated bond elections (and construction costs).

Although much of the proposal addresses equity of class size, it also offers the related advantage of more optimum use of present buildings. The concept of clusters, and the “no zone” students, will permit a distribution of students from the more crowded buildings to those with more space.

This advantage is further enhanced with the possibilities of boundary flexibility.

Boundary flexibility. There is the possibility of even greater flexibility and administrative control than that made possible by the tightened zones around buildings and clusters.

What makes the proposal a long-term plan rather than a one-time fix is that even these boundaries can be changed over time.

Every child entering the system under the proposal would have a right to finish sixth grade in the building to which s/he was originally assigned. Their siblings would also have a right (or preference) to attend that school.

But families moving into the district in later years would have no “right” to even the limited boundaries/zones of earlier years. It might be desirable to give developers and realtors a one or two-year advance notice of changes. But, subject to that limitation, boundaries could be altered over time to keep them consistent with the percentage-of-population formulas.

Given the percentages, and the availability of population projections, providing potential stakeholders with a one or two-year lead time ought to create no problems for the district.

Had such a proposal been in place it would have provided a politically acceptable solution for the kinds of situations we confronted with Wickham-Penn-Golfview and Wood-Twain.

New construction. Although the proposal is designed to minimize the need for new construction, it offers the possibility of including construction in a long-term plan.

If population projections warrant we might, for example, include an announcement of our intention to have a new school in the northern corridor for the school year beginning, say, five years from now. Given the available flexibility in boundary lines we could accompany that announcement with a projection of how cluster and building zones might change at that time. The proposal permits this kind of flexibility.

Kindergarten assignments. The assignment of kindergarten students to clusters (and buildings) is a major key to the proposal. This is the element that eliminates the problems (both political and pedagogical) that result from the inequity in class sizes throughout the district.

There would be caps on kindergarten class size. This could be either a single number, such as 17, or a range, such as 16-18. (Of course, the number/range could also be 12, or 25; 17 is selected only because that seems to be roughly what we’re aiming for at the present time.) The central feature here is not the precise number of kindergarten students, teachers or classrooms, but rather the equity. Whatever the numbers are determined to be they would be applicable to all kindergarten classes throughout the district.

By limiting parents’ “right” (or preference) to choose a building (or cluster) for their children to 50 or 75 percent of those ultimately assigned there, administrators would be dealing with both much larger numbers and much more discretion.

The reason this is a key element of the proposal is that once the kindergartens’ class size is roughly equalized the succeeding years for those classes will be also.

There will, of course, be some students in an entering kindergarten class who will leave their school before graduating from sixth grade. In some schools this will be a very substantial number. But the proposal also contemplates much greater administrative discretion in assigning students who are new to the district (or a cluster) but entering in first grade or above. They would go to the buildings with the most vacancies in the relevant class.

Obviously, this will require some administrative foresight involving future space requirements and classroom availability. For example, if a building currently has three kindergarten classes of 20 students each, but not enough classrooms to have three classes of first through sixth graders in future years, the administration might want to put that extra kindergarten class in some other building in the cluster.

Bottom line, this proposal would eliminate, or at least substantially minimize, the disparities in class size that now exist.

There is another advantage of the proposal.

Consider, for example, the cluster earlier identified as Coralville Central, Kirkwood, Penn and Wickham. The proposal offers flexibility in alleviating overcrowding in those schools as well as classrooms.

Because most kindergarten students have no “right” to attend a given building (i.e., they live outside its zone), and the boundaries can be changed anyway, kindergarten students who would normally be sent to the schools in this cluster could be sent elsewhere. This could free up enough classrooms in those crowded schools, formerly used for kindergarten classes, to relieve the crowding in first through sixth grade.

Such kindergarten students could be kept together (for social and “neighborhood” reasons), and then transferred into the northern corridor cluster once they were ready for first grade.

New arrivals with upper class assignments. As mentioned above, new arrivals to the district (or cluster) for first through sixth grade would be assigned in much the same manner as new kindergarten students. The building (or cluster) zone (or “no zone”) where they live would affect where they would be assigned. Those assignments would be made (within the district, and within the cluster) with the goal of maintaining relatively equal class sizes across the district.

Additional Modules

The elements of the proposal discussed above are central to its purposes. What follow are additional modules that could be incorporated, or not.

Cluster governance. The proposal would work with building governance identical to what we now have, i.e., a “building manager” principal and relative building autonomy.

But it also offers the opportunity to modify that pattern. There currently seems to be a national interest, and growing research literature, regarding the advantages of substituting instructional leadership (i.e., a “lead teacher”) for building management by principals.

A cluster would be ripe for this approach. That is, each building could have an instructional leader, focused on staff development, mentoring and curricular development. Where this has been tried the lead teacher also usually continues to teach part-time.

Because this would usually be someone formerly working as a teacher, the pay, while increased, could be somewhat less than that now paid “principals,” thus offering the possibility of some savings.

The administrative tasks, now the responsibility of building principals, would be assigned to a single administrator for the cluster.

As with the phasing in of the proposal’s approach to kindergarten assignments and zones, this module could await resignations and current principals’ choices (i.e., to continue as principal, or lead teacher, or cluster administrator – without a loss of pay) rather than being externally imposed on anyone.

There are reasons why parents, teachers and students would probably continue to identify primarily with buildings rather than clusters.

But other options would include the possibility of creating a form of cluster-wide faculties and PTOs. This might simply take the form of regularly scheduled joint meetings from time to time. They might help everyone become more familiar with the cluster zone, individual buildings’ facilities, teachers and families.

But if a cluster’s teachers wished to cooperate, the proposal would also offer them the possibility of either all-cluster in-service programs, or covering each others’ classes (with the help of the permanent substitutes, described below) during times that a single building’s teachers, or all of the cluster’s teachers in a given discipline, wanted to meet.

Cluster-based control. While not necessary to the proposal, it would be possible to give a cluster a measure of the autonomy now possessed by our buildings. For example, a cluster might choose to make one of its buildings a magnet school, or one a K-3 building and another a 4-6 building. All buildings might cooperate to take advantage of the best offerings of each: athletic facilities, music rooms, theater/stage space, and so forth.

Central Administration control.  Of course, there would be no necessity to pass additional control to clusters. If the board and central administration wanted to do so they could use the increased flexibility made possible by this proposal to designate buildings as middle schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, K-3 schools and so forth. Such schools would simply be removed from the cluster and used for the designated purpose (or left within the cluster, if appropriate to its mission). Presumably the designations would take effect sufficiently far in the future to minimize or eliminate any adverse impact on present stakeholders.

Permanent substitute teachers. The cluster model also provides additional opportunities with regard to substitute teachers.

One of the present challenges of substitutes is their necessary lack of familiarity with the school, class, faculty, and students they are expected to instruct. Another is the unpredictability of their work and pay. Perhaps the greatest is the dual stress it imposes on the students: the absence of the teacher they are used to, and the adjustment to a stranger.

A cluster could have one or more permanent substitutes. They could be employed on an as-needed basis with relatively less pay and benefits (as now), or they could be employed on a fulltime basis with the pay and benefits of teachers. In any case, they would be assigned to a cluster.

This would give them – as well as the teachers, parents and students within the cluster – an opportunity to become comfortable with their assignments.

On days they were not needed as substitutes they could help out with the classes, or students, most in need of an extra hand.

Needs-adjusted class size. Raw numbers are not the only variable. A small class of 20 unruly and needy students can provide much more disruption to teaching, and challenge to a teacher, than another class of 38 passive yet eager and self-motivated learners. On March 20 we discussed the possibility of a formula that would take some of these differences into account when determining class size. Lane is to get back to us with his ideas.

Another approach would be to keep class sizes relatively equal, but deal with the disparities through the relative allocation of teachers, associates, and other resources. (This might be more politically viable, as parents’ concerns would no longer be focused on easily compared, and obviously deviant, numbers of students alone.)

In any event, the proposal does not turn on the resolution of this issue. It could operate with relatively equal size classes or with class numbers modified in some way to take account of students’ special needs.

Results-based adjustments. As Dale points out, like a good systems analyst, our real goal here is not class size as such. It is delivery of the curriculum and student achievement. Our ends policy already contemplates an administrative effort to evaluate students, identify those falling behind or not performing to ability, and the provision of the appropriate additional assistance they need. There is nothing in this proposal that is inconsistent with those goals – or with their abandonment. Such data could be factored into the kind of needs-based formula discussed above (or the provision of additional resources to equal-sized classes).

Demographic balance. We have discussed from time to time some board members’ interest in smoothing out the great disparities between the demographic distribution among our buildings. This would include such measures as free-and-reduced-lunch, ESL, ELP, and special needs students.

If the board and administration chose to do so, the flexibility in design of clusters’ zones and student allocation could be used to smooth these disparities. But the proposal would work equally well without doing so.

Middle schools and alternative schools. It would never be politically easy to transform one of our elementary schools into a middle school or alternative high school. But it would be relatively easier to do so under this proposal, to the extent that a given cluster really was operating as a single school with multiple campuses.

That is, a cluster with four schools would be selected. The new arrivals who would have been assigned to that cluster could be assigned to other clusters over time. Ultimately the total enrollment within the designated cluster would decline to a population easily accommodated in but three of its four buildings. Ultimately the switch to three buildings would be made, making the fourth available for whatever alternative use was desired.


This document has proposed a plan for assigning students to buildings. It optimizes each building’s space and either eliminates, or substantially minimizes, the disparities in class sizes across the district.

It does this while eliminating, or at least substantially minimizing, political opposition. Changes are phased in over seven years. This virtually eliminates any adverse impact on teachers, parents and students now involved in the district’s schools.

The proposal also offers a number of possible additional benefits – benefits not essential to the proposal’s functioning, but made easier as a result of its elements.