Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Choosing a School: South & Central Seattle Elementary Schools

If you have knowledge and insight about south and central Seattle elementary schools, share them here with other parents. (including South, Southeast and Central clusters)

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Remember, however, that a school which is great for you and your children might be a nightmare for someone else, and vice versa. So read and learn from others opinions, but definitely explore the schools and reach conclusions on your own. Take part in as many school tours as possible, and visit the Enrollment Services page on the SPS website for enrollment guides and other information.
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Here are a few of my insights about these schools:
  • Kimball, Beacon Hill, Maple and Wing Luke are "open concept" schools, with no walls between classrooms. As a result, these schools have strong team teaching and what goes on in the classroom is not secret.
  • Maple has won awards this year for increased WASL scores.
  • John Muir has an excellent principal and an active group of parents.
  • New School at South Shore is one of the best elementary schools in the district, with additional funding, small class sizes, a focus on social justice, a strong principal and an active group of parents.
  • Graham Hill has an autism program, a Montessori program, a new principal and a very active group of parents.

10 comments:

Melissa Westbrook said...

I can speak about New School. It is one of the schools on the BEX III list (but you wouldn't know it because the district is doing everything it can to keep that name out of it - why? you'd have to ask them that question).

The school itself was started by the New School Foundation, started by Stuart Sloane of QFC fame. The idea is to look at kids' education holistically and try to support them beyond the boundaries of school. That means supporting health care, a longer school year, free pre-school, extra tutoring and more teachers. This is all supported by the Foundation putting in about $1.2M per year above what the district puts in.
They are moving towards becoming a preK-8 school of about 750.

I know it sounds great and they have a wonderful and dedicated principal, Chris Drape. So what's the problem?

One problem is that the New School Foundation has a commitment to fund New School through 2012. (Their Memorandum of Understanding with the district does allow them to leave anytime but I doubt that will happen at this point.) What will happen after that? This is one of the great problems of public/private partnerships that start programs that can't realistically be sustained. Where would the money come from for the free preschool or extra teachers or extra tutoring? You can only get so many grants. The answer is that it will likely not remain the same school that it is under the Foundation. I wish that the district would limit private partnerships to those programs that get something kick-started or that provide expertise and not programs that cannot be sustained.

The other problem with New School is that, from my research on BEX III, the Foundation got itself to the top of the BEX III list. The district is building them a building specific to their program despite claiming they are building a generic K-8/middle school. I have no problem with New School students getting more benefits than most elementary students. But when the Foundation gets to leverage itself to get a new building while other school communities have to wait in older worse off buildings for a longer time, that is wrong.

What will end up happening if New School gets a new building (which, by the way, is one of the first new school buildings built in a long time and it seems very odd to do it in the middle of school closures) is two-fold. It sets the tone for any private entity that comes along after this to say, "You did it for New School, you need to do it for our money to continue coming into the district." The other problem is that if it is built, you will have a brand-new prek-8 (New School)with a brand-new re-entry high school (South Lake)with an elementary school (Dunlap)in their
backyard with a high school (Rainier Beach High School) down the street and another K-8 (African-American Academy, chronically underenrolled with erratic WASL scores) just about a mile away. How does it make sense, from a taxpayer point of view, to have 5 schools in just over a 1 mile area? The district says it has a middle school capacity problem in the SE and that is an absolute untruth and their documents and statistics support that.

So go see New School (the building they are in is not a good building but it is not the worst one in the district). They have a fine program and dedicated teachers. But keep in mind that it may evolve into something else after 2012.

Anonymous said...

Here's something else frustrating about the New School: because they are doing some wonderful things and are able to keep their classes (relatively) small, they are seen as one of the only "good" options for students in the South Seattle area. Perhaps for this reason, unless you are willing to enroll your child at the preschool level (apparently even if you live in the right cluster), forget about getting your kids into this school. They were at this past weekend's Kindergarten Fair, but there don't seem to be any spaces in their Kindergarten class!

Clearly, parents are clamoring for a program like this one - is it too much of a stretch to ask the district to learn from what this school has done well (albeit with private money) and try to do more of the same?

This is a frustrating situation for me - I live in the South Cluster (not South-East), so my choices seem VERY limited.

Beth Bakeman said...

The district should absolutely learn from the success at the New School and try to replicate elements of it. It is not just the extra money that makes the difference at the New School, although of course the funding difference is huge. It is also the educational philosophy/approach, curriculum, active attempts to involve ALL parents, and approach to student learning (mind, body and soul).

My daughters were #1 and #2 on the wait list for preschool at the New School but never got in, and we live within 2 miles of the school, so I understand your frustration.

However, depending on what you are looking for and what your children need, I think you'll find several excellent choices in the South cluster.

Write more about what you want in a school and I'd be happy to make suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Ok, here's what I'm looking for:

1) A positive, welcoming feeling when I (or my child) walks in the door

2) A principal who is committed to the school and its vision, and interested in working with teachers and parents to the greatest extent possible

3) An actual vision - not one of those "everything to everyone" philosophies (which of course, ends up serving almost nobody)

4) A community of parents who support education, mostly at home but also through involvement at the school

5) Options for enrichment and academic challenge

Any thoughts? Am I kidding myself? :)

Beth Bakeman said...

In the South cluster, based on my knowledge of the schools, I would say the following schools meet your criteria:

- John Muir
- Maple

Beacon Hill is also a welcoming school with involved parents, but I'm not sure how much of the "vision thing" the principal or the teachers there have articulated.

Kimball is a desirable school in many ways--welcoming and inclusive community, strong teachers, involved parents. But word of mouth about the new principal (I believe this is her 3rd year) is not good. The teachers there may be strong enough that they just work around that, but because I believe leadership is vital in a school, that concerns me.

And, while technically not a South cluster school (since it is an altenrative school), you should also look at Orca. I know many, many parents with children who attend Orca and love it. In particular, I think the school has done an excellent job at making parents feel welcome and giving them a voice and a place in the school.

Anonymous said...

I understand the good intentions here- but I have to wonder about using this format (and a blog) for this conversation.

If the intention is to be constructive and the intention is to work for the betterment of the public school system, is having a bunch of people post their opinions about this and that prinicpal, school, etc. and whether they are excellent or not contributing to quality dialogue and progress?

Just asking...

Beth Bakeman said...

I think this discussion can contribute to quality progress and dialogue because:

1) Blog readers sharing opinions about quality schools may encourage more people to enter the public school system.

2) Discussions about what is and isn't a quality school can begin to uncover interesting issues about how we define "quality" and how more schools can achieve that definition.

But I'm guessing by the way you raised the question that you don't think this type of discussion is productive. Can you share a little more about why not? I'd like to hear your perspective.

Anonymous said...

This is our second year at Graham Hill in the Montessori preschool program and so far we've been very pleased. We're grateful for our child's fantastic and caring teachers and their ability to connect with and nuture each child allowing them to develop at their own pace and in their own way while ensuring that important milestones are reached.

We've enjoyed getting to know other teachers and staff from both programs and are impressed with the overall level of quality and dedication. The school has a happy vibe.

In addition, we appreciate and enjoy being part of a wonderfully diverse, supportive and very involved community of families, teachers and staff. A great group of people from all over the world, from all backgrounds and with many skills and talents, all committed to these lucky kids.

After many years of shuffling, we finally have a principal who plans to stick around and who is getting rave reviews from teachers, staff and parents. She is sharp, savvy, incredibly dedicated and empowering. I'm confident she'll lead GH on a good path.

Being on the closure list was stressful, yet it galvanized the community, brought important issues to the forefront and I think the school is stronger as a result. Most important is the fact that we're all part of the GH community, not just one program or the other and that everyone in the school benefits from the existence and mutual support of both programs.

The future is bright for Graham Hill.

Jeremy said...

My daughter went to Maple last year (she is at Lowell this year), and my experiences with Maple have been overwhelmingly positive. The teaching staff is engaged, the principal, Ms. Pat Hunter is fantastic, we had no problems with abusive or bullying students.

One note is that Maple under Ms. Hunter has an goal of teaching students to write while in Kindergarten. They stress writing (but not spelling -- the concept is that if they are comfortable with the concept of putting thoughts on paper, they will not be as intimidated when the teachers start focusing on spelling in grade 1.

It is a slightly unorthodox approach, but it seems to work well.

Anonymous said...

Hi there - my daugher has attended the Montessori preschool, kindergarten and is now in first grade at Graham Hill. It's been a great fit. The music program is incredible, with an awesome spring program in which all kids participate. It was fantastic, and not just cute because your kid was in it. The P-E teacher is wonderfully innovative, teaching things like juggling and rollerblading and just great fitness activities. The new principal is just amazing, smart, funny, focused, and the teachers seem to love her. The teaching staff has a lot of depth, high expectations, and are plain nice. Beautiful new library, and the school has one of the finest playgrounds I've seen. Great gardening program. First grade has been full of adventure, with lots of academics and excellent field trips. Great and very active bunch of parents. Really diverse student body. And in kindergarten, the Montessori class had only 14-15 kids for the entire afternoon. In the morning the class was mixed with preschool, which was also great. Really had a master teacher, Maureen McClearly. Anyway, good luck to all the parents looking for an elementary. Have fun, and remember, perfection isn't possible, but a good fit is. Oh, and the school events are fab.