Bad Information Results in Bad Decisions

On September 30 of every year, public schools in Virginia must report their official student enrollment to the state.  This report becomes part of the basis upon which funding for public schools is allocated from the state to local school districts. Funding from the state is provided for every student counted in the September 30 official student enrollment report.  The state doesn’t provide funding for students arriving after September 30.

PWCS’ official student enrollment report for the 2014 – 2015 school year is here.  

From a financial standpoint, this report is invaluable.

From a planning standpoint, however, this report is almost worthless.

The purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide a snap shot of student enrollment at a given point in time, and that’s what it does.  Looking at the report you notice:

  • that PWCS has a lot of trailers – 121 at the elementary level, 22 at the middle school level, and 37 at the high school level, with 20 of those at one school.
  • that almost the same number of elementary schools are above 105% of capacity as are below 90% of capacity.
  • that 521 students are enrollment in pre-school programs in PWC public schools.
  • that Gar-filed high school is 360 students below capacity, and Hylton is 365 above capacity
  • that Potomac high school is 615 students below capacity, and Patriot high school is 769 students above capacity.

If you look closely, you also notice that some elementary schools are below capacity, but have trailers.  Some others are at capacity or only slightly over, but they also have trailers.

For example, Ellis elementary school is currently at 92.5% of capacity, but has a trailer.  Ellis is home to Virginia Pre-school Initiative classrooms, so, while Ellis is below capacity at the K-5 level, when pre-K is added, Ellis is over capacity.  Because some classrooms are smaller than the planning capacity, like some title-1 classrooms, you can end up with a school that’s below planning capacity, but needs trailers because it’s out of classrooms.

There are reasons for that, but you won’t find the answers on any official PWCS publication that’s released to the public, assuming such a report exists.    That’s because the purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide the number of students enrolled on September 30.

From a planning standpoint, citizens, government employees, and public officials need to know about classroom space at each school.  They need to know how many regular ed, special ed, pre-school, ESOL, and resource rooms there are at each school.  They need to know how many of those rooms are being used for instruction, both full and part time, and how many are empty.  They need to know how many trailers are at each school and what those trailers are used for.

Information like that informs all of us about where the needs are.  It lets us know why the 10 room planned addition at one school will only add 125 additional seats at that school instead of 250 (because 5 of the rooms will be used for self-contained SPED classrooms).  It lets us know why schools that appear to be below capacity, may actually be overcapacity.

Unfortunately, PWCS doesn’t have a report that conveys that information.  At least not one that is released and available to the public.  The enrollment reports in the CIP are the official student enrollment with enrollment projected several years into he future.  While that report conveys projected growth, it doesn’t say anything about classrooms availability.

Lack of information about available space in schools is one of the primary challenges our county faces in effectively planning for growth.

Loudoun County figured that out a few years ago, and began providing information about available space in their schools in their CIP (see here, page 15).

I’ve been harping about development and growth for some time on this blog and elsewhere.  I, and many others, have complained that our county keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and doesn’t seem to have learned.

I think we keep repeating the same mistakes because we don’t have the information we need to make good decisions. Good decisions aren’t guaranteed with good information, but bad decisions are almost certain with bad information.

I hope PWCS starts providing information like Loudoun does, so that we can make better decisions in the future.

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3 Responses to “Bad Information Results in Bad Decisions”

  1. Dave Beavers Says:

    Thank you for highlighting this issue. I agree that our current building capacity calculation methodology needs to be updated to improve the way we report our building capacities so they are more reflective of the actual uses of the school facilities. We know there are schools that show available space based on the existing capacity calculation, but which also are home to portable classrooms. Clearly, we need to adjust our capacity calculation to take into account programs and services provided at schools that reduce the available space for regular education classes. The best example I know of is the K-3 Class-Size Reduction grant, which limits the size of classes at elementary schools which receive the grant funding.

    The Office of Facilities Services has been researching this over this past summer, but we have not yet finished our analysis. The Loudoun County CIP information will provide us with a useful example.

    Sincerely,
    Dave Beavers, Supervisor of Planning & Financial Services
    Office of Facilities Services

  2. Sadie Tate Says:

    There are so many needs out there. Where to even start. Reform is such a broad term. I have been reading a great book called Breaking the Silence by Shannon Hernandez. She was a school teacher who know advocates for education reform. Her look into how the students are coping with a system that is failing them is a real eye opener. http://www.myfinal40days.com is her site for her book. She hits on so many points that need addressed all over the country. Good read.


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