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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Every year it happens in San Diego Unified. And every year, parents are just as confused and anxious.

Students and teachers return from the long summer break, settle into classrooms, establish expectations and plan for the school year ahead. Then, weeks into the school year, a call comes down from district headquarters: Some students will have to say goodbye to their teachers because they’ve been reassigned to another school.

Parents usually aren’t too happy about it.

@KPBSnews & @voiceofsandiego: Please look into this. Served on the redistricting committee for UTC Cluster. Would be happy to comment. pic.twitter.com/OcF4fTdTwy

— brie iatarola (@chadweenuh) October 7, 2016

Brie Iatarola, the parent of a third-grader at Doyle Elementary, believes the process is disruptive to students, parents and teachers.

When teachers are notified they have to move, they have three days to pack their stuff and head to a new school. Students must readjust to a new teacher and essentially start the year from scratch – which can be especially difficult for children who struggle with transitions to new people or places.

Here’s how I described it last year:

For the first weeks of the school year, students settle into the schools where they’ll remain. The district doesn’t take a final enrollment tally until the third Friday of the year. After this, it shuffles teachers to match demand and conform to the teacher-to-student ratios it set with the educators’ union.

The process goes largely by seniority – if a school has to lose teachers to another school, it’s those with the least experience who have to move.

It’s very disruptive. When a teacher leaves, a school needs to shuffle other classes to absorb the kids who are now without teachers. Often, larger “combo” classes are created where students in different grades share the same teachers.

Kids need to readjust to a new educator. Teachers need to establish a new set of classroom norms. It can take the district until the end of October to move all teachers into place. In those cases, the first two months of the school year are a wash.

The start-of-the-year-teacher-shuffle may be one of the few topics that parents, school board members and district employees recognize as problematic. In 2015, district staff members led a presentation on why it happens and outlined steps they’re taking to make the process work more smoothly.

But the teacher churn persists. And it affected more than just Doyle Elementary this year. Garfield Elementary lost two teachers. Dingeman students had to say goodbye to an especially popular teacher.

One parent wants to know why.

Question: Why does San Diego Unified excess teachers one month into school year, displacing a teacher to another school, causing major disruption for kids who have to be distributed to other teachers, resulting in higher class sizes for some classes? – Amy Boelzle, Dingeman Elementary parent

The teacher-shuffle might seem like the result of hasty or arbitrary decision-making, but as district staff members explained in 2015, it’s part of a long process that starts in the spring.

Here’s how it works, based on the district’s explanation. (The dates listed in this document don’t align with the current school year, but a district spokesperson confirmed the district currently follows the same process).

The number of teachers at a given school is entirely dependent on student enrollment. So reducing the number of teachers who have to move rests on accurately predicting how many students will come the following year.

In the spring, district staff members look at the past enrollment for every school, at every grade. They see how many students have progressed from one grade to the next over the last four years. Then, staffers use that historical data to predict how many students will likely enroll the following year.

Roy MacPhail, the district’s demographics guru, said this process includes “hundreds of thousands of calculations.”

At this point, MacPhail said, staffers try to anticipate changes that could add or pull kids away from neighborhood schools in the coming year. A new residential development, for example, could mean the district has to save more spots for an influx of neighborhood kids. On the other side, a new charter school in the area may pull kids away from neighborhood schools. Staffers try to factor these changes into their predictions.

Once these projections are finalized, staffers send the data to the district’s budget department, which predicts how many teachers schools will need the following year. They then send this information to individual schools so principals have an idea of how many students and teachers they’ll have next year.

But at this point in the spring, parents may still be making decisions about where to send their kids next year. Schools will have to wait until the fall to know precisely how many kids they’ll have.

When the school year kicks off, students are still moving around. Some don’t show up, and schools wait two weeks to drop them from their rolls. The district waits until the third Friday of the school year before it locks the numbers in place.

At that point, the great teacher shuffle begins. The district then plays matchmaker, taking the least senior teachers from schools that have better student-teacher ratios and moving them to schools in need.

The process the district outlines appears straightforward. But there’s another element to consider: school choice.

Based on enrollment, schools are able to open up a certain number of spots for kids from outside the neighborhood who want to “choice” into their schools. In theory, incoming students could keep a school’s enrollment high and save schools from losing their teachers.

But in some cases schools are turning away choice students, then sending away teachers weeks into the school year due to reportedly lower-than-expected enrollment.

To Iatarola, the Doyle Elementary parent, it doesn’t seem to add up: Why not simply let more students opt into a school and save a lot of heartburn?

Remember that district staff members factor a number of hidden variables into the enrollment projections, like residential developments and nearby schools that are slotted to open. Still other factors come into play. The district might also choose to eliminate portable classrooms at a school, which reduces its capacity, and in turn, the number of choice students it lets in.

All of these may be legit considerations, but parents usually aren’t privy to that inside information.

That’s why Iatarola believes the district needs to find a new system with improved communication and transparency between the central office, school principals and parents. Clearly, she said, the current system isn’t working.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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