Friday, September 19, 2014

An appeal for free expression

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
- Justice Louis Brandeis, 1927,  writing in Whitney v. California
Generally speaking, I've never been one to give a lot of credence to complaints about people being overly politically correct. Conservatives have a tendency to use the phrase "politically correct" or "PC" as a bludgeon with which they may attack any attempts to suggest or require cultural inclusiveness anywhere in the public sphere (see the annually scheduled Fox News hysteria about the "War on Christmas" for an example). But having attended this college for almost four years now, I have to say I now find the highly politically correct campus environment completely stifles free expression and academic inquiry more broadly.

Let 's start with a poster. Last year, Macalester College's Department of Multicultural Life (DML) designed and sponsored an on-campus campaign called "More Than Words", which is still ongoing. The campaign targeted words like "gay", that are often used in an offensive and anti-LGBTQ context. But it also targeted a number of other words, including "crazy", "lame", "illegal alien" and perhaps most mysteriously, "derp".

An actual MTW poster.
Anytime I step off campus, of course, I hear pretty much all the words targeted by the MTW campaign. Some of the terms are definitely offensive, some are just political (I'm sure many conservatives consider "illegal alien" perfectly acceptable). Some ("crazy") are a part of everyone's everyday vernacular. I thought Anish Krishnan's ('14) March Mac Weekly editorial (it's worth reading all of it) pretty much hit the nail on the head about what was wrong with pursuing the elimination of these words from campus:
Perhaps the greatest flaw in the “More Than Words” campaign lies in the fact that it does not teach our fellow students to be resilient, to understand that they are, in fact, more than these words.... The proposed counterargument is that we cannot transform society if we continuously prepare for others’ lack of progress. But one must be realistic and pragmatic, not just idealistic.
Put simply, the More Than Words campaign seeks to stifle speech ranging from the offensive to the politicized to the silly. It is also symbolic of what I see as a distinct lack of political tolerance (meaning tolerance for a wide variety of political viewpoints) at Macalester.

Campus political intolerance has made me rethink my participation in campus conversations, and on one occasion even resulted in a fellow student actually threatening to harm me. Worse still, it undermines the entire point of the liberal arts - how is anyone supposed to "learn how to think" or "think critically" when opinions that challenge existing ideas are shouted out of the conversation?

Of course as a private college, Mac doesn't have to allow free expression - but the student handbook does promise that we have it:
Macalester College exists for the transmission of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Free inquiry, free expression and responsibly free activity are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.
One might ask why I care when so little speech is actually banned. After all, nobody has ever been expelled for saying something from a More Than Words poster. But I care because when Mac students cannot be exposed to controversial content without complaining about having to hear it and resorting to personal and hurtful insults, free speech is stifled just as surely as it would be if the administration enacted speech codes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Macalester College Continues Expansion Plans, Buys Summit Avenue Church

A reliable source working inside the College confirmed to me the end of this year that Macalester College has agreed to purchase the old Summit Avenue Church located right next to the Summit House. The building is currently used by Highland Park Montessori School. I am told the school will continue to lease the building from the College for five years, after which they may do whatever they want to or with it. It is not 100% clear to me if the College has purchased only the building currently used by the school, or the actual church building itself.

The Summit Avenue Church On The Hill (Google Street View)
This purchase seems to confirm rumors that the College has big expansion plans for the next five or ten years. I have also heard rumors (though unconfirmed) that the College intends to buy and demolish the Cat-Man-Do building on Grand, which would allow them to put in place new dormitory housing or expand GDD to house more upperclassmen.

One student who previously worked in Residential Life told me that the long term goal is for the college to require four years of mandatory on-campus living, something I believe would only aggravate the "Mac bubble" issue on campus.

Macalester has spent more than sixty million dollars on renovation and new buildings over the last ten years, even as need blind admission has been eliminated.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Breaking: Detailed MCSG President Election Results

Total Votes: 1,028 

1st round: 
Rick Beckel -- 226 votes 
Rothin Datta -- 384 
Samuel Doten -- 96 
Richard Raya -- 85 
Sarah Vandelist -- 217 
Write-ins -- 20 

Second round (Write-ins eliminated): 
Rick Beckel -- 228 
Rothin Datta -- 388 
Sam Doten -- 98 
Richard Raya -- 85 
Sarah Vandelist -- 220 

Third round (Raya eliminated): 
Rick Beckel -- 236 
Rothin Datta -- 388
Sam Doten -- 121 
Sarah Vandelist -- 239 

Fourth round (Doten eliminated): 
Rick Beckel -- 267 
Rothin Datta -- 432 
Sarah Vandelist -- 280 

Fifth round (Beckel eliminated): 
Rothin Datta -- 527- 51.26% 
Sarah Vandelist -- 359- 34.9%

Some quick thoughts about my previous analysis (more analysis to come later):
  • I correctly predicted Rothin and Rick as strong candidates, and actually had (barely) picked Rothin as most likely to win.
  • I correctly predicted Raya's poor performance in a high-turnout election.
  • I far overestimated Sam Doten's strength in a high turnout election. I suspect three things may have happened:
    • Underclassmen (who he needed) didn't vote and
    • He split votes with Richard
    • He was unable to move past previous controversies in which he was embroiled. 
  • I far underestimated Sarah Vandelist's strength in a high turnout election.
    • I suspect her "vote for the only woman in the race" appeal may have been a stronger line than I could have known.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

MCSG Electoral Caber Toss 2014: Second Predictions

Since my first round of predictions was released Tuesday morning, I've received a lot of feedback from candidates and campaigns about my predictions, as well as more data on the campaign activities of each candidate. I have subsequently refined my predictions to hopefully reflect likely outcomes in two possible scenarios: a low turnout election and a high turnout election. I am predicting a high turnout election, but at the same time MCSG has not taken any specific actions other than tabling (so far) in an attempt to drive it up.

In this post, I will first outline a brief update of what factors I think have changed for each candidate. I then break down each candidate's use of social media, and explain what I think social media statistics actually mean in terms of electoral outcomes. Finally I make predictions about the outcome of the election under two possible turnout scenarios (if you are interested only in the bottom line you may want to skip to that section).

I now see Rick Beckel and Rothin Datta as the front runners in a high turnout election, with Rothin possibly having a slight edge. In a low turnout election, predictions become a crap shoot, but I believe such a scenario hurts Rick's chances a great deal to the benefit of all other candidates, especially Samuel Doten.

Campaign Updates
The basis of my opinion for these estimates is summarized in detail below. I encourage candidates or campaign managers to contract me with any mistaken data or information you think I am missing.

Sarah Vandelist
After my last post was published, Sarah put together a Facebook event page and has shared it more aggressively than any other candidate - something she had to since she's running while studying away. She's adopted a new political strategy - rolling out a series of endorsements from MCSG members and other upperclassmen and taking a feminist tack as the "only woman in the MCSG old boys club" (a smart move on a campus that is 60% female).

I think these strategies have improved Sarah's chances overall, but probably not enough to fundamentally change her situation. She has a core base of upperclassmen supporters, but I doubt she'll be able to change the minds of upperclassmen committed to other candidates. She lacks connections to underclassmen and (to my knowledge) most student orgs, mostly due to her dedication to MCSG. In a low turnout election her dedicated base may put her over the top, but otherwise I think she is unlikely to win.

Richard Raya
Not much has changed for Richard, whose campaign activities have been limited since he is off campus. He continues to use his social media presence aggressively, and I believe he has a core of dedicated supporters who will definitely vote. I also wonder if his past work as an RA will give him a boost among the class of 2016. I think Richard's best chance is in a low turnout election, where he may receive many second or third choice votes.

Samuel Doten
Sam has been conducting an aggressive on-campus campaign, handing out snacks, coffee, and campaign literature several days this week. His strategy has been to position himself as a serious legislator unafraid to take on controversial issues. He's also hoping his work on the FAC and SOC will endear him to org leaders on campus. I suspect that some of Sam's first choice votes are being stolen by Richard, which could really hurt in him in a low-turnout race.

I think Sam's on-the-ground campaigning (which has reached around 100 voters) may have helped endear him to underclassmen voters, who probably have very little information about other candidates. I think he has a very good chance of winning a low-to-medium turnout election and a decent chance of winning a high turnout election.

Rothin Datta
Rothin's chances of winning have been improved mostly by my improved knowledge about him. I did not include in my last analysis that fact that Rothin is currently working as an RA, which makes him a known quantity to about 60 first-years. Rothin has also secured the endorsement of current SOC Chair Maddie Arbisi. Rothin suffers in a low-turnout election, but thanks to his MCSG connections, probably not as much as Rick.

Rothin has also been taking advantage of being on campus, handing out cookies to students on Bateman Plaza this week. I think this is another excellent move which will help boost his chances among underclassmen, who probably know less about the respective candidates than their upperclassmen peers.  If Rothin and Sam's electoral performances are far off from my predictions, it may be that I am underestimating or overestimating the effect of in-person campaigning.

Rick Beckel
Rick is seeking to capitalize on his widespread name recognition, as I mentioned in my last post. He has the benefit of being the only hard-science major (Biology) in the race, and if a large number of Olin Rice students vote, that could turn out to be a big advantage. Rick's campaign manager has also announced the publication of an op-ed in Friday's Mac Weekly. Rick's overall strategy seems to be aimed primarily at upperclassmen, but I suspect he will face a lot of competition in that category with three rising Seniors in the race.

Social Media Performance
One of the few sources of hard data on an MCSG campaign's performance is social media. I relied more heavily on social media to help form my estimates in the last set of projections, but it's become less useful as social media performance between the campaigns has leveled out. The graph below shows the number of students each candidate has invited to their campaign "Vote for X" event page (left y-axis, blue bars) and the percentage of those invited who have committed to "attending" (or voting) for the candidate (right y-axis, red bars).

Most candidates have now invited between 400-600 individuals to their campaign event page. In general, 30-50 students have publicly committed to vote for the candidate on their event page. The most useful information we can get from this now comes from outliers in the data, which may tell us something more useful.

The graph shows two areas of interest: first, Richard hasn't invited more than 350 students to his campaign event page, but has a larger percentage of them have committed to voting for him than any other candidate. This reflects Richard's underlying situation as a candidate - he has an enthusiastic base of supporters, but not an especially broad reach.

Second, Sam Doten has the lowest percentage of committed voters out of any candidate, despite only inviting about 450 students to his event page. I suspect this reflects the fact that many voters who would otherwise pick Sam as a first-choice on their ballot have chosen Richard instead.

Electoral Scenarios
This chart summarizes my previous projection and my two possible projections for election day, one for a high-turnout scenario and one for a low-turnout scenario.

Estimated % Chance of Victory by Candidate

Low-turnout election (700 voters or less)
In an MCSG election with between 500 and 700 votes, the race becomes something of a tossup. I think Rick Beckel suffers most in this scenario, as does Rothin Datta. This is the scenario in which the three candidates who have a narrow but dedicated core of supporters have the best chance of winning. A huge unpredictability factor also comes in here from the ranked-choice voting system employed by MCSG - the election could well be decided by third or fourth choice votes, which are extremely hard for me to predict.

High-turnout election (700 to 1000 voters or more)
Last year, almost 1000 valid votes were cast in the MCSG executive election. If that many or more students decide to vote in this election, Rick Beckel and Rothin Datta remain the front runners. I've given Rothin a slight edge here based on his work as an RA and in-person campaigning, but the election is currently a toss-up between the two. I also expect Sam Doten to remain a strong force in the race with this many voters, especially if he is able to gain the support of org leaders and underclassmen.

A Final Note
Because I need to do my homework, this will be my last set of predictions prior to the election. I will (time permitting) go over the election results once they are announced and compare them to my predictions (if someone in MCSG is reading and wants to give me access to all the voter data, that would be nice). Keep an eye out for an article about these predictions in Friday's Mac Weekly. I encourage any candidates or campaigns to contact me with complaints, rebuttals, and factual corrections. Finally, I hope this exercise has helped shed some light on the electoral process for my fellow Mac students, and provoked some thought about how our student body makes decisions.

Edit: The Mac Weekly's election coverage has just been published. Some things of note:
  • An excellent election guide, with some actual in-depth responses from candidates. A vast improvement over previous years' coverage.
  • No endorsement for Raya or anyone else (as expected).
  • A platform from Datta heavily aimed at the athletic community.
  • The editorial from Rick's campaign manager was published.
  • And last, an interview with me about these rankings. Looks like I got a little too excited about methodology and cut Heather off at one point... oops.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MCSG Electoral Caber Toss 2014: First Predictions

The idea behind this blog post is to try and put some of my political science training into action and predict who will win the upcoming MCSG Presidential election in the style of Nate Silver's recent 2014 Senate predictions. Unlike real elections, MCSG elections are conducted under a strange set of rules I have written about before. Combined with the unique electoral environment of Macalester, the standards I use to evaluate each candidate's likelihood of victory are somewhat different from what is often used in other elections.

Unlike FiveThirtyEight, I have no polling or fundraising data on MCSG candidates, because those numbers either don't exist or aren't public. I also don't have the advantage of the candidates being neatly pitted against each other in a two-party system. However, I do have an understanding of how MCSG's elections work and the advantages and disadvantages that system confers on certain candidates. I also have social media data and electoral histories about each candidate, as well as backgrounds on what past candidates have been involved in.

The key factors that I believe determine MCSG victory are social networks, effort, and mobilization. Candidates need a "social network" of friends and acquaintances, which at Macalester are typically developed through meeting fellow majors and campus org involvement. They need to put out the effort to run a visible campaign and persuade the few "swing voters" that have no ties to any of the candidates. And they need to mobilize their supporters to vote - a key factor in notoriously low-turnout MCSG elections.

You will notice ideology and platform are not factored into this analysis, with a slight exception in the Campus Involvement category. All of the candidates and most of the Macalester student body are so ideologically similar that analysis here would reveal little. I also don't believe platform is a compelling part of most students' voting decisions - and even if it was, it's extremely hard to measure the "quality" of a candidate's platform.

These are the factors I used to help determine each candidate's chances of victory in the upcoming election:

Incumbents are not necessarily loved at Macalester, but they do have the advantage of wide name recognition. Incumbents have their names routinely published in Mac Weekly articles about MCSG happenings. They are often well known to student org leaders. Students may remember voting for them in the last election. While the current MCSG president is graduating, three of the five candidates running are currently serving in other roles at MCSG.

Social Media Presence:
Almost all candidates organize Facebook events to encourage people to vote. This factor evaluates the strength of those outreach efforts by measuring the number of students invited to vote for the candidate and the number who have said they will do so.

Campus Involvement:
Different candidates have been involved in different on-campus groups, which may benefit their candidacy as group members and leaders are more likely to help their campaign and vote for them. I say "may" because some campus groups are more controversial than others - say, membership in Mac Young Americans for Liberty. Involvement in a controversial group can hurt a candidate's chances. Finally, some groups are simply larger than others, and so may have more ability to help a candidate reach students.

Physical Presence on Campus:
Some candidates are conducting their campaigns while they are studying away. While physical presence on campus may confer a slight advantage, I didn't weight it heavily. Many candidates who are on campus fail to use their physical presence to their advantage (say, in tabling) and the current MCSG president was actually elected while studying away.

Past Election Victories:
If a candidate has won previous elections, MCSG records can give me a good idea of what their base of support looks like.

Get Out The Vote Efforts:
Turnout is a chronic problem for all MCSG elections. Physical get-out-the-vote campaigns run by candidates are extremely rare. If candidates develop innovative ways to get out the vote and mobilize supporters, they could end up with an advantage come election day. While I have yet to see anything especially new, points are also awarded in this category for a campaign's "effort" in general.

Summarized below are my views on the status of the race and my current view of the likelihood of each candidate winning the election were it to be held today (April 1st). I currently view Rick Beckel as the strongest candidate in the race, although I don't think it would be impossible for Samuel Doten or Rothin Datta to beat him. Detailed explanations are found below for each candidate, explaining why I gave them those odds.

With luck, I'll be able to revisit each of these predictions prior to the election this coming weekend. I encourage candidates or their campaign managers to email me any information you think I may have ignored or left out so that I may include it in my revised predictions.

Sarah Vandelist '15
Sarah is a long-time MCSG insider whose track record is relatively uncontroversial. She has been elected to the LB three times by the Class of 2015 (although only her first election was actually seriously contested), typically landing about 80-90 votes despite low turnout rates. This group of 80-90 rising Juniors, along with some MCSG insiders, constitutes her base of support.

Sarah has probably the strongest incumbent advantage of any candidate (as the only insider running from the class of 2015), but suffers when it comes to campus involvement thanks to several off campus commitments (including her own small business). She benefits from her work in the political science department - one of the college's largest departments.

Sarah's GOTV efforts suffer from the fact that she is currently studying away. She has also poured most of her social media outreach work thus far into constructing a very well-made Tumblr page, while all other candidates have set up Facebook event pages. Her initial announcement on Facebook has only 86 likes and three shares - I consider it a risky move, and doubt either that post or the Tumblr will be as effective in reaching students as a Facebook event page would be. Sarah needs broad support in order to win the MCSG presidency, and I don't think she'll be able to get it unless something changes.

Chances of winning: 10%

Rick Beckel '15
Rick is one of two "outsiders" running in this race, hoping to upset the MCSG establishment, but I believe he is the candidate to beat. Rick is an activist and org-leader, with strong ties to Mac Dems and last year's fossil fuel divestment campaign. He's also a Biology major (a large department) giving many opportunities to meet new people over his last three years at Mac. The strength of all these ties, combined with general apathy toward the MCSG establishment, may boost Rick significantly. The unanswered question is whether the lack of incumbency hurts his name recognition, or if his ties to large and popular on-campus groups overcome that problem.

Rick is currently off-campus, and will not even have internet access until almost right before the election. But it appears a strong campaign is being run on his behalf, with several friends organizing what it currently the most popular Facebook event page of any candidate - 544 students have been invited and 40 have already committed to voting for him. This, along with the fact that at least three different friends (one of whom is a key MCSG insider) are helping manage his campaign, makes me think he is in a strong position to win the race.

Chances of winning: 35%

Richard Raya '15
Richard is the other "outsider" in the race, and has no MCSG track record. What he does have is a position on the editorial board of the Mac Weekly, where he's been writing op-eds since his first year at Macalester. This probably eliminates any name recognition disadvantage.

A key drawback for Richard's campus campus involvement score comes from the fact that the the Mac Weekly is unlikely to openly support him, and in fact does not issue endorsements in MCSG elections. Most of the orgs Richard is involved in are small - the Mac Weekly staff, Mac Martial Arts, and Bad Comedy all having no more than a few dozen members each. Richard majors in American Studies - again, a small department.

Richard is also studying abroad, but his social media presence is interesting - his event page has 31 committed voters, but only 218 people invited so far. While it remains to be seen if that number will grow, I suspect the small social networks Richard is involved in put him at a disadvantage compared to Rick. Unlike Rick, Richard is online and will be actively campaigning from Facebook.

Richard might be able to put himself over the top anyway, but I think he is likely to lose many first-choice votes to Rick and Sam Doten. Sam and Richard are both part of the same social groups, which I think will divide their potential base of support. Rick and Richard are the only two "outsider" candidates in the race, meaning that students who are voting based on opposition to the MCSG establishment will end up splitting between the two. He could pull it off, but it's gonna be an uphill battle.

Chances of Winning: 10%

Samuel Doten '16
Sam is interesting - he's managed to carve out an "outsider" image while still being an MCSG insider. In his own words, he has been to "hell and back" with MCSG. He's been elected twice to MCSG, suspended for his participation in the controversial KWOC Weyerhauser blockade, and returned after his suspension was complete. Along the way, he's pushed hard for gender neutral bathrooms, diversity in faculty hiring, and the removal of administration restrictions on MCSG eligibility.

Sam writes on occasion for the Mac Weekly, and is regularly written about in the context of MCSG debates, legislation and controversies. I don't doubt Sam has very high-name recognition. But given his controversial history with KWOC, that could hurt him as much as it helps. Perhaps the biggest edge for Sam is in his work on the FAC, where he was worked hard to cultivate good relations with student org leaders. Sam's strength can be gauged in part by his performance in last year's SOC Chair elections. He lost, but just barely - receiving 352 first-choice votes and actually winning in the second round before losing out once third-choice votes were included.

Sam got a bit of a late start on social media front, but so far has 10 committed voters and has managed to invite 334 people to his campaign page. A key test will be to see if the proportion of committed voters to invitees improves over the next two days.

Sam has strong ties to large activist groups on campus, including Mac Dems and Queer Union. He also retains his ties to many of KWOC's organizers, although the extent of those connections are unclear to me. I believe he does have a strong network of activists willing to support him - the $221 question is: can he mobilize them and get them all out to vote? If he can, I suspect he could edge out Rick, especially if Rick cannot effectively turn out the vote.

Chances of winning: 20%

Rothin Datta '16
Rothin is an MCSG insider, which I believe is likely his key strength. He has served as MCSG Vice President for a full year, and was elected after running unopposed last spring. He has served on MCSG since Freshman year, and my impression is that he has a good reputation among MCSG members. Rothin also has key ties to Mac's Athletes - both on the frisbee and football teams. Maddie Arbisi was elected SOC chair with the strong support of the athlete vote last year - the question is whether or not Rothin can replicate that success.

Rothin's VP position has afforded him a lot of visibility and little controversy. He did end up on the losing side of the "Orgs-versus-PB" budget vote in the LB last year, but I doubt that will have a serious impact unless org leaders actively mobilize to oppose him. He's also currently on campus, which gives him an advantage over the three rising juniors in the race.

Rothin's past election victories don't tell us much - he was elected VP with more than 900 votes last year but ran unopposed. The most the votes from that election tell us is that he has avoided making enemies. Rothin also has a strong presence on Facebook right now - 25 committed voters and 370 invited to attend on his page. One caveat has to be attached to that number - Rothin is running a joint social media campaign with Konnor Flemming. That could impact those numbers in ways I can't predict.

Rothin probably has the broadest potential base of support of any of the "establishment" candidates currently in the race - the question in my mind is if he can mobilize it. I have put Rothin up five percent on Sam, but this is probably the closest call in the race. The key will be who votes.

Chances of Winning: 25%

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In rural Oregon, an education crisis slowly strangles Baker County

I graduated from Baker High School, located in Baker City in Baker County, Oregon. I've written in the past about what it was like to come from that educational background to the high standards of Macalester College. The short answer is: it was hard. I felt (and still feel) robbed of key opportunities most of my classmates had.

A Statewide Problem

Despite being an allegedly progressive place, Oregon is one of the worst states in the union when it comes to school performance. We have the second shortest school year in the country, averaging at a mere 170 days. The year after I graduated, my high school moved to a four-day system, meaning students attend school only Monday through Thursday, despite evidence that this hurts kids.

As a state, Oregon has the second lowest high-school graduation rate in the nation, at 69%. In Baker School District the number sits at 60%. The latest Oregonian report on Oregon's lack of progress in improving graduation rates notes that many of the schools seeing a decline in graduation rates are rural, even as inner-city schools made gains:
Large stretches of rural Oregon, however, experienced stagnation or drops in their graduation rates. Some of that was due to increased enrollment in alternative schools, which rarely graduate students within four years.
I find myself writing in frustration about this issue again after reading this report in the Oregonian recently. After a massive investigation, the Oregonian uncovered that many high schools in Oregon have astoundingly high rates of absenteeism. Oregon has more absentee students (those who miss 10% or more of school days per year) than any other state that has conducted such a survey.

Ten percent doesn't sound like much. But it it turns out that missing that much school makes a huge difference on the likelihood that kid will graduate from high school:
A study of 21,000 students in Illinois found that absenteeism, not standardized test scores, could be used to pinpoint which students would fail multiple classes in freshman year — and which would earn a diploma. Once freshmen missed 10 percent of school days, their odds of graduating dropped below 40 percent.
Baker County Loses Ground

The Oregonian report revealed several disturbing facts about Baker County's schools:
  • Baker High School has a chronic absenteeism rate of 35.5%.
  • Among low-income students (47% of the student body) that rate jumps to 40.8%
  • Baker Middle School is the worst middle school in Eastern Oregon when it comes to absenteeism: 30.5 percent of students are chronically absent:
Credit: (click to enlarge)
Baker School District's Web Academy is the worst school in the district by far: An atrocious 73% (almost three fourths!) of students are chronically absent. I'm not sure how a digital school (one that will happily waive any physical interaction with students at all!) even counts attendance. But horrific issues are suggested by the school's appalling graduation rates: only 19% of Web Academy students graduate. I'll repeat that for emphasis: four out of five students there will not graduate from high school.
It's no surprise that so much chronic absenteeism is impacting district's broader graduation rates and college preparedness: overall, only 60% of 5J students graduate high school. 

A disturbing number of Baker 5J students are not prepared for college at all: Last year, only 27% of graduating students took the SAT for college admissions, compared to 35% in similar Oregon school districts. That means that out of all 299 students in Baker 5J's class of 2013 graduating cohort, only about 16% were on track to possibly get any kind of four year college degree. Given that only about 30% of students enrolling in public Oregon 4-year schools ever graduate, maybe 5% of the graduating cohort of 2013 will ever achieve a 4-year degree.

For comparison, according to Census data, about 14% of Baker County residents currently have a 4-year degree or better. Even if we assume that every Baker 5J student who graduated from college returned to the county (and many don't), we're still not getting any closer to the goal of a productive, well trained labor force in the county - we're getting farther away. And we're nowhere close to achieving Governor Kitzhaber's ambitious goal of having 40% of the population have a four year degree

Excuses and Excuses

When confronted about the huge issues at the Web Academy and in the district at large, the response of Baker 5J officials is to offer a lot of complaints about the state's statistics. They offered this bit of wisdom to the Baker City Herald in 2012:
Superintendent Walt Wegener turns to a quote attributed to Mark Twain — “There are liars, damned liars and statisticians” — to express his opinion about the state Department of Education’s rating system for Oregon schools.
and this brilliance in 2013:
Superintendent Walt Wegener says the year-to-year comparison makes no sense. 
“These scores all stand by themselves,” he said. “It’s unfair to look at 11-12 and see what we did in 12-13.
For all the complaints about the state's rankings system, those rankings are apparently good enough to use when they can be twisted into something that sounds good about the district. This quote comes from Walt Wegner's message in the district's 2012-2013 ODE report card:
In the 2012-2013 school year, Baker 5J had three schools with Level 5 rating, [two of them model schools], three Level 4 schools, two Level 3 and one Level 2 school. Overall our students are exhibiting very strong comparative results.
Gee, I thought those ratings systems were so unfair?

Why does the Baker Web Academy still operate?

The performance of the district is also often blamed entirely on the Web Academy's failure, often coupled with pretending that the Web Academy's performance is not at all related to the district at large. School Board Member Mark Henderson, in a public response to concerns I raised several years ago, wrote the following in the Baker City Herald:
... in regards to the Baker 5J ratings on The Oregonian's website, let me just say that the real story is a little more complicated. The Oregonian's ratings are based on a district-wide average, and this average includes the Baker Web Academy as a Baker 5J-sponsored charter school. While this is an important venue, it is not our typical Baker 5J school (they have their own, independent school board).
Of course, the Web Academy (the district's second largest) has made almost no meaningful improvement over the entire course of the time it has operated. Over the last four years, not a single Web Academy student has ever taken the SAT, according to the school's ODE report card. The school's graduation rate has never been higher than 19%. 

That raises the interesting question of why the Web Academy continue to operate at all? After four years of horrific failure, shouldn't that program be shut down? It's obviously an embarrassing dropout factory, with test scores, attendance, and graduation rates that would humiliate even the poorest of inner-city schools.

My suspicion is that the Web Academy has become a convenient dumping ground for students whose academic or attendance track record is so bad they stand no chance of graduating from Baker High School. I suspect that when students enter BHS and suffer from spotty attendance and/or begin failing classes, they either decide to or are encouraged to try the Web Academy. Unfortunately, the school district does not publish any information about how many students transferred to the Web Academy from Baker High School, so there's no way to investigate this with the information available. There's not even any information available about how many of the students in this program are physically located in Baker County, which would at least offer an estimate of how the school's poor graduation rate impact's the local community.

Now What?

The Oregonian published a number of steps that other school districts have taken to beat back absenteeism and increase graduation rates:
[Clackamas High School leaders] have formed a web designed to catch every student who misses 16 classes, the equivalent of four days of school. They check on red-flagged students every day, telling them how much they care about their success.
They hand out candy and high-fives to students who show. But students who keep skipping may find a parent or grandparent escorting them to class for a day or more. The school even takes families to court, where a judge can impose a $500 fine.
[...] By the end of the school year, Clackamas High’s chronic absenteeism rate stood at 12 percent, fourth-best among big high schools. 
When it comes to college readiness, schools smaller than Baker High have taken radical steps to increase college attendance. Tiny Corbett School District, where the high school graduates just 60 students a year, now requires all students to be accepted at a post-secondary community college, trade institution, or four-year college in order to graduate. The students are aided by a school that demands (and receives) high levels of performance from all students:
All high school students are required to take at least six Advanced Placement courses, and the school pays for all juniors to take the SAT at the school.
I went ahead sent a short email summarizing some of these issues to the Baker 5J school board, asking them to respond (which until May of this year was notoriously dysfunctional). Will they show the same level of innovation leaders in other areas of the state have shown? I'll post their responses here.

I've already received the following response from Kyle Knight:
We will be discussing the four day week and many other subjects later this February. I share your concerns and hope we can address these issues.

Not exactly a detailed roadmap to success. But we'll see what, if anything, other school board officials have to say.

Please: Pressure the 5J Board to act by sharing this article on Twitter and Facebook.

Update (2/9): Richard McKim of the 5-J Board's response can be found here.

Update (2/10): Andrew Bryan also emailed me a response, but it contained a confidentiality notice at the bottom. For liability reasons, I will not be publishing the contents of his email.

Update (2/17): I have subsequently been informed Andrew Bryan's response is the final response to my email - you can find it here.