Seattle’s new elementaries would be among state’s biggest most expensive

This month, Washington state’s two largest school districts are each asking voters for hundreds of millions of dollars to build, repair and upgrade schools.

Measures on Tuesday’s ballot in Seattle and Tacoma would each fund dozens of construction projects over the next decade, with both districts focusing on rebuilding old elementary schools.

But while Tacoma officials are requesting about $30 million for each of the eight elementaries in their proposal, Seattle is seeking about $42 million apiece for the six it wants to build.

The considerable cost differences illustrate how widely school-construction spending varies in Washington — and how Seattle Public Schools spends far more than other school districts in the state.

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A Seattle Times analysis found that the average price tag of the elementary schools in Seattle’s levy proposal is at least 20 percent higher than every similar project approved in the state in recent years.

The reason?

The buildings in Seattle’s proposal would be among the biggest elementary schools ever built in Washington — even though they would hold only slightly more students than average.

Put another way, each student at a new Seattle elementary would get more space — in the classroom, the gym and, according to floor-plan comparisons, especially in the library — than students at other districts.

Seattle’s proposal also includes above-average spending on planning and design.

The proposal comes as lawmakers are once again debating how to better fund the public-school system. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has said school districts should focus less on construction and more on what takes place inside the buildings.

The state does not keep a database of school-construction costs, and most districts don’t compare themselves to others.

Seattle school officials said their proposed buildings would be bigger than average because the district needs to add capacity to address overcrowding.

The officials declined to address comparisons related to per student building sizes, saying they suspected the data from other districts was inaccurate.

They also said their proposals are near national averages for building size and were carefully planned to meet Seattle’s needs.

“Seattle Public Schools has a fast-growing enrollment and levy funding, if approved, will pay for capital and technology projects throughout the region to ensure our students have safe and healthy school buildings,” district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers wrote in an email.

Edward Peters, a parent and construction expert who chairs a committee that advises Seattle school officials on levy projects, said bigger buildings benefit students.

“You do the best you can with the resources you have, and Seattle’s tax base allows it to build big,” said Peters, who lives in Seattle but manages the Edmonds School District construction department. “If kids are learning, that’s the whole point.”

8,000 more seats

In all, Seattle’s six-year, $695 million construction levy would repair or replace 17 aging buildings, upgrade technology districtwide and add nearly 8,000 seats.

It is appearing on the ballot alongside a three-year, $552 million operations levy that would fund a quarter of the district’s annual operating budget.

The construction levy would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $100 more per year than the current rate, which is $285.

Among other projects, it would fund a new elementary on the Thornton Creek campus and total rebuilds of five elementaries: Arbor Heights, Genesee Hill, Olympic Hills, Wilson-Pacific and Wing Luke.

Four of the elementaries would hold 650 students each; Arbor Heights and Wing Luke would be built for 500 students with core facilities to allow for easy expansion to 650.

Seattle estimates the schools would cost between $38.9 million (Genesee Hill) and $43.2 million (Wing Luke).

That would make them Washington’s six most-expensive public-elementary schools in years.

By comparison, rural-school districts over the past three years have been asking for about $20 million for new elementaries, according to election records.

Suburban districts have been requesting about $30 million.

What drives the price?

How can an elementary school cost $42 million?

Local contractors say school-construction costs are driven by five major factors.

The first is building size, which is determined largely by special classrooms, the gym, library and cafeteria.

The four 650-student elementaries in Seattle’s proposal would be 91,000 square feet each.

The size is multiplied by construction cost per square foot: in Seattle’s proposal, $225 per square foot.

Then there are specific site costs, like demolishing the old building, redeveloping the playground and putting in new sidewalks.

In Seattle’s proposal, those add up to between $3 million and $5 million per school.

Inflation adds about 3 percent per year, or about $3.5 million per building for Seattle.

Finally, there are “soft costs,” for planning, design, permitting, taxes and reserves.

Seattle says its soft costs would be 51.75 percent of its construction costs, adding about $14 million.

Ninety-one thousand times $225, plus $4 million, plus $3.5 million, plus $14 million?

Forty-two million dollars.

Seattle school officials defended the accuracy of their calculations, citing detailed planning.

“There’s a lot of due diligence that’s been done here,” said Kirk Robinson, the Puget Sound area’s most experienced cost estimator, whom Seattle hired for the levy.

Robinson attributed the above-average pricetags to three of the five factors:

• Construction is more expensive in Seattle, he said, and the district favors long-lasting buildings that cost more up front.

But cost breakdowns provided by more than a dozen districts in the region show that Seattle’s construction costs aren’t actually above average. Many districts, including Tacoma, use $225 per square foot to estimate costs.

• Robinson also said Seattle faces above-average inflation because its levy would build schools far in the future.

But Tacoma’s construction timeline is very similar to Seattle’s, and several suburban districts aren’t far off.

• Finally, Robinson argued that Seattle’s proposed buildings would encounter unique site challenges, including a $1 million traffic light the district may be required to install outside Thornton Creek.

Unseen costs

High soft costs are also playing a role.

While Seattle’s proposal puts soft costs at 51.75 percent of construction costs, Tacoma and others estimate 45 percent.

Using 45 percent would lower Seattle’s costs by about $2 million per school, but Robinson said it’s not feasible.

“People do it, but I don’t know how,” he said.

He explained the costs in part by pointing to strict permitting requirements in Seattle.

But Ken Snyder, the longtime president of Graham Contracting, called permitting fees “peanuts.”

Snyder, who has built schools in Seattle and elsewhere, attributed Seattle’s high soft costs to a bureaucratic process and reliance on outside consultants.

“They don’t exactly run things lean down there,” he said.

It comes down to size

The biggest factor driving Seattle’s pricey proposal, according to cost breakdowns, is building size.

The 91,000-square-foot schools in the proposal would be the largest elementaries built in Washington since 1990, according to an Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction database.

Most new elementaries are about 65,000 square feet, according to the database.

A more precise and widely used measure, building square feet per student, also shows Seattle as an outlier.

Seattle’s 91,000-square-foot schools would have 140 square feet per student (its other two elementaries would have 166 square feet per student).

Most Washington districts are planning schools with about 115 square feet per student, according to breakdowns provided by more than a dozen districts.

OSPI’s standard is 125.

Portland used 129 in a 2011 bond that failed due to widespread concerns about cost.

Tacoma is planning for 118 — a 22-square-foot-per-student difference from Seattle that translates to nearly $6 million per school.

Seattle school officials noted their square footage per student is only slightly above national norms, and their buildings would include 3,100 square feet of child-care facilities some districts don’t provide.

But the buildings would also have bigger-than-average libraries and gyms, according to floor plans from several districts.

In Seattle’s 91,000-square-foot buildings, for example, the libraries would be 5,300 square feet and the gyms would be 9,100 square feet.

Tacoma’s proposal calls for libraries of 1,800 square feet and gyms of 3,900 square feet.

Magical Transformation to Digital is not Magic

Magical. That was the word that came to mind after a visit last week to Huntsville, Alabama to check in on the amazing transformation from print to digital learning that has occurred there just since the start of school. Today is Digital Learning Day, which highlights success stories in digital learning. Huntsville is one of them. Educators from all over the country have been flocking there since last fall, when word of the district’s 1:1 Learning Initiative began to get out. “We’re the largest school district in the world that is all digital,” Superintendent Casey Wardynski shared with reporters. “The whole world is looking at Huntsville right now.”

Watch a great video on the deployment

And well they should. A year after he was hired the Huntsville school board approved Wardynski’s plan to purchase digital curricula instead of textbooks and laptops, netbooks, and iPads for students and teachers. Computer networks were set up in schools and WiFi installed on school buses and in public areas of the city. Today, after extensive training, teachers can engage their students using interactive texts, videos, animations, and other tools. Digital assessments help identify strengths and weaknesses and personalize lessons for each student. Students can learn anytime, anywhere.

As we toured two campuses and then listened to students, teachers, parents and the president of the school board, I was struck by several themes. First, going from all-print to all-digital so quickly and successfully requires strong leadership. That is exemplified by Wardynski, his leadership team and HCS school principals. Wardynski’s unique background prepared him well for system-wide change. He has a Ph.D. in policy analysis, taught economics at West Point, earned the rank of colonel, and headed up the Army’s office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. He also led the creation of America’s Army, a digital game with 12 million users that revolutionized Army recruitment and human capital management.

When he came to Huntsville, Wardynski wanted students to get more instructional time and one-on-one attention. In going digital, the goal wasn’t to give students and teachers devices. The goal was to improve learning. This is one lesson I’m sure the visiting educators took home with them. Don’t spend millions on devices unless you have a plan for using them to aid teaching and learning.

Another lesson was the need to work with a specialized partner. The district chose Pearson as its 1:1 Learning partner to provide support for pretty much every aspect of its conversion, with the shared objectives of accelerating student achievement and shifting instructional practice. As the person leading Pearson’s efforts to help districts enter the digital age, I frequently have the opportunity to help with this important work.

Perhaps my favorite part of the visit was listening to an AP English teacher named Stephanie Hyatt talk about how the Pearson digital curriculum resources and other tools had “absolutely changed” her teaching and made it more powerful. As an example, she told the story of how she capitalized on President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. She had students work in groups to identify examples of imagery, diction and other rhetorical elements of the inaugural speech President Kennedy gave in 1960, posting the assignment on the collaboration system called Edmodo. On another day, she had the groups compare that speech with President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Then, after President Obama’s speech, she asked them to compare it with the other two. But, this time, she threw her students something of a curveball. She knew from monitoring their work online that some students weren’t contributing much to their groups. So, she put those who were slacking off together. They could no longer rely on more productive students to carry the burden.

The Huntsville newspaper quoted her saying that “the kids (who hadn’t done the work) had a deep hole to dig themselves out of.” They also learned that Hyatt was paying attention to their work—just as educators across the country are paying attention to what she and her colleagues are doing for kids in Huntsville.

Teacher shortage ‘costing millions in supply staff

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Teachers’ union leaders are warning that teacher shortages are costing schools hundreds of millions of pounds in temporary supply staff.

The National Union of Teachers says schools in England spent £733m last year on supply teacher agencies.

The union says it is wasting money intended for children’s education.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is launching a TV recruitment campaign to attract a “new generation of passionate and gifted teachers”.

Head teachers have been reporting deepening problems with getting enough staff.

The Department for Education has launched a television advertising campaign to encourage more applications, saying that 35,000 trainee teachers need to be recruited every year.

Cash incentives

There are particular problems in finding teachers in subjects such as physics, and the government is offering increasingly generous bursaries.

A physics graduate with a good degree can claim up to £30,000 tax free for entering teaching.

Image copyright DFE

Image caption A TV advert is being launched to attract more people into teaching

“Great teachers are at the heart of our drive to extend opportunity to every single child,” says Mrs Morgan.

“That is why we are focused on attracting more talented people into the profession, to inspire young people, open doors to their future.”

The teachers’ union argues that the difficulty in recruiting teachers means schools are forced to use their budgets on supply staff – and that these temporary staff are not receiving the same pay and benefits as full-time teachers.

“Supply teacher agencies are making millions while supply teachers’ pay continues to plummet,” said NUT leader Christine Blower.

“This is money which should be used for children’s education, not going towards boosting the profits of private companies.”

Short-notice cover

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation rejected the NUT claims as unfair and said schools with vacancies “rely on their recruitment partners to bring in quality teachers, often at very short notice”.

“Agencies charge a daily rate for temporary contracts and the majority of this will go directly to the teacher. It is up to schools, agencies and teachers to negotiate pay rates and this can vary according to location and other factors such as how much experience the teacher has,” said head of policy Kate Shoesmith.

She said agencies “typically take between 15-30% cent of the fee”.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Heads are increasingly forced to rely on supply agencies because they can’t find permanent staff in time.

“This creates real problems with continuity and coherence, particularly important with vulnerable children. It is also expensive at a time of increasing budget pressures.

“If the recruitment pressures continue, more drastic measures are just around the corner, including appointing non-qualified staff, narrowing the curriculum or increasing class size.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said that school budgets are already under pressure, but “head teachers are turning to agencies in desperation to fill the gap”.

“Ministers need to take real action to recruit and retain teachers in sufficient numbers to tackle the crisis in schools which is threatening standards.”

Teachers flip for ‘flipped learning’ class model

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — When Timmy Nguyen comes to his pre-calculus class, he’s already learned the day’s lesson — he watched it on a short online video prepared by his teacher for homework.

So without a lecture to listen to, he and his classmates at Segerstrom Fundamental High School spend class time doing practice problems in small groups, taking quizzes, explaining the concept to other students, reciting equation formulas in a loud chorus, and making their own videos while teacher Crystal Kirch buzzes from desk to desk to help pupils who are having trouble.

It’s a technology-driven teaching method known as “flipped learning” because it flips the time-honored model of classroom lecture and exercises for homework — the lecture becomes homework and class time is for practice.

“It was hard to get used to,” said Nguyen, an 11th-grader. “I was like ‘why do I have to watch these videos, this is so dumb.’ But then I stopped complaining and I learned the material quicker. My grade went from a D to an A.”

Flipped learning apparently is catching on in schools across the nation as a younger, more tech-savvy generation of teachers is moving into classrooms. Although the number of “flipped” teachers is hard to ascertain, the online community Flipped Learning Network now has 10,000 members, up from 2,500 a year ago, and training workshops are being held all over the country, said executive director Kari Afstrom.

Under the model, teachers make eight- to 10-minute videos of their lessons using laptops, often simply filming the whiteboard as the teacher makes notations and recording their voice as they explain the concept. The videos are uploaded onto a teacher or school website, or even YouTube, where they can be accessed by students on computers or smartphones as homework.

For pupils lacking easy access to the Internet, teachers copy videos onto DVDs or flash drives. Kids with no home device watch the video on school computers.

Class time is then devoted to practical applications of the lesson — often more creative exercises designed to engage students and deepen their understanding. On a recent afternoon, Kirch’s students stood in pairs with one student forming a cone shape with her hands and the other angling an arm so the “cone” was cut into different sections.

“It’s a huge transformation,” said Kirch, who has been taking this approach for two years. “It’s a student-focused classroom where the responsibility for learning has flipped from me to the students.”

The concept emerged five years ago when a pair of Colorado high school teachers started videotaping their chemistry classes for absent students.

“We found it was really valuable and pushed us to ask what the students needed us for,” said one of the teachers, Aaron Sams, now a consultant who is developing on online education program in Pittsburgh. “They didn’t need us for content dissemination, they needed us to dig deeper.”

He and colleague Jonathan Bergmann began condensing classroom lectures to short videos and assigning them as homework.

“The first year, I was able to double the number of labs my students were doing,” Sams said. “That’s every science teacher’s dream.”

In the Detroit suburb of Clinton Township, Clintondale High School Principal Greg Green converted the whole school to flipped learning in the fall of 2011 after years of frustration with high failure rates and discipline problems. Three-quarters of the school’s enrollment of 600 is low-income, minority students.

Flipping yielded dramatic results after just a year, including a 33% drop in the freshman failure rate and a 66% drop in the number of disciplinary incidents from the year before, Green said. Graduation, attendance and test scores all went up. Parent complaints dropped from 200 to seven.

Green attributed the improvements to an approach that engages students more in their classes.

“Kids want to take an active part in the learning process,” he said. “Now teachers are actually working with kids.”

Although the method has been more popular in high schools, it’s now catching on in elementary schools, said Afstrom of the Flipped Learning Network.

Fifth-grade teacher Lisa Highfill in the Pleasanton Unified School District said for a lesson about adding decimals, she made a five-minute, how-to video kids watched at home and in class, then she distributed play money and menus and had kids “ordering” food and tallying the bill and change.

A colleague who teaches kindergarten reads a storybook on video. The video contains a pop-up box that requires kids to write something that shows they understood the story.

The concept has its downside. Teachers note that making the videos and coming up with project activities to fill class time is a lot of extra work up front, while some detractors believe it smacks of teachers abandoning their primary responsibility of instructing.

“They’re expecting kids to do the learning outside the classroom. There’s not a lot of evidence this works,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based parent advocacy group. “What works is reasonably sized classes with a lot of debate, interaction and discussion.”

Others question whether flipped learning would work as well with low achieving students, who may not be as motivated to watch lessons on their own, but said it was overall a positive model.

“It’s forcing the notion of guided practice,” said Cynthia Desrochers, director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at California State University-Northridge. “Students can get the easy stuff on their own, but the hard stuff should be under the watchful eye of a teacher.”

At Michigan’s Clintondale High School, some teachers show the video at the beginning of class to ensure all kids watch it and that home access is not an issue.

In Kirch’s pre-calculus class, students said they liked the concept.

“You’re not falling asleep in class, “said senior Monica Resendiz said. “You’re constantly working.”

Explaining to adults that homework was watching videos was a little harder, though.

“My grandma thought I was using it as an excuse to mess around on the Internet,” Nguyen said.