Thursday, February 28, 2008

KUOW Show On Picking a School - 1 PM Today

Here's the topic for today's KUOW (94.9 FM) show, The Conversation. It airs at 1 p.m. but you can always go to their website ( to listen to it on your computer anytime.

The deadline for the Seattle School District open enrollment is tomorrow. It's a high stress time for many parents. How do you chose a school? If you don't like your neighborhood school, what do you look for? Small class size? Strong test results? When you visit, what are you looking for? Does your kid get a vote? Tell us how you decide on a school. It's particularly tricky when you're choosing kindergarten. You're not yet sure what kind of classroom will work best for your kid. Are you hedging your bets by also applying to private school? Also today, behind the scenes at the 9/11 Commission. New York Times reporter Philip Shenon found the head of the commission tried intimidate the staff from findings that would be harmful to President Bush. We'll speak with him.


Anonymous said...

Well, I can tell you what I'm not looking for......

The two headlines of Nathan Hales most recent student newspaper (Nov 2007) which are:

Elextrosexuality, a new style of music that appeals to the sexually deviant.


Legalizing marijuana

Call me old fashioned, but what teacher let that fly.

Check it's on the Nathan Hale website

Anonymous said...

The oldest of my 3 children is starting kindergarten this fall. For us the biggest issue was what school we can actually get in to that is reasonably close to home and academically acceptable. In theory one has all kinds of choices, but in reality that isn't always the case. In theory you can always go to your reference school, but we live in the Montlake reference area, which has NEVER to my knowledge taken all the kids in the reference area. Since we live at the extreme opposite end of the reference area to the school, we have about a 0% chance of getting in. I put it on the school list as our second choice, but will be completely shocked (in a good way) if our daughter gets assigned there. A big flaw in the reference area assignment process it that it makes NO provisions for kids whose reference school cannot accomodate them - you just get a progressively lower priority as you go further out from home. This is an issue in our neighborhood as we are in the center of a ring of schools that are oversubscribed.

The closest school to us is TOPS, 3blocks away. That is our first choice, but it's an alternative school, so where you live is irrelevant (there is a set-aside for neighborhood kids, but it's about 3 kids per year, so you can't pin your hopes on it). Next closest school is John Stanford - very popular, no chance of getting in from where we live. Next closest school after that Stevens, which also habitually turns away kids from within the reference area, no chance of going there. Next closest school is Lowell, but that is the AP program for the whole district, you have to test in one child at a time, and it doesn't even have a kindergarten

Next closest school is B F Day in Fremont. This is the first school where there is actually a good likelyhood to get in. We visited the school & liked it, so it is now 3rd on our list (after TOPS & Montlake) and is the one primarily expecting our child to be assigned to. My main concern is that although this has historically been a small school, last year both kindergarten classes had 28 kids & a wait list, so if that happens again, we might not get in since we are outside the immediate area. Howver, there is apparantly an addtional kindergarten class being added at West Woodlands, the next school west of B F Day though, so this should hopefully reduce the number of kids assigned to B F Day and leave room for us.

The next school on our list is Greenlake. It is not too far away (although much more convenient to my husband's commute - I am somewhat regretting putting it 4th on the list rather when I consider the driving involved) and we have talked to several parents whose kids are there & they really like it. Last on out list is TT Minor's Montessori program. The school board policy is that if you don't get in to any school on your list, you go to the closest one in you cluster with space, which for us would be TT Minor (about 3 miles from our house). We visited the school and though we were not thrilled with it, is is ok. We could live with it even if there is not room in the montesorri program & she ends up in the regular class. The WASL passing rates are not very good (although much improved from where they were a few years ago), but I think that a child that is intelligent & interested in learning can do alright at any school, particularly at the elementary school level .

We did apply at the catholic school in our parish, and were accepted, but after visiting TT Minor (our worst-case school) decided not to send here there. I prefer the diversity in the public school system, and more to the point, with 3 kids private school gets expensive. I would rather save the money/ pay off the mortgage, and re-eveluate private school when they get to the middle school and high school level, where the potential bad influences are more serious and the academics are more important.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous with 3 kids,

You seemed to have put a lot of intelligent thought into your school choices. But I'm wondering what you didn't like about T.T. Minor?

Most people on this board seem to scoff at WASL scores' importance, so I"m wondering why that swayed you. Other than WASL scores, what else didn't you like about Minor?

Anonymous said...

I was told by the North enrollment office that if you don't get your first choice school, you do not get lower priority at your next choice school. They remix the pool and you have as much chance as everyone else. They continue this until you do get into a school.

My advice to you would be to try for the schools that you really want, even if your chances are low. We lived far out of the Stevens reference area and got in at kindergarten in a bubble year! Our younger son got into TOPS! At middle school, we were told we had no chance of getting into Eckstein because of where we live, and we got in! This doesn't always work out for everyone, but most of the people that I know have been lucky getting into the schools that they wanted.

Double check with the enrollment center and see if you got bad information about going to a lower priority for second and subsequent choices.

Good luck!

Lets be honest said...

To anonymous at 11:23 who asked why the family in question placed TT Minor as their last choice. It could be because the family in question is white. TT Minor is a predominantly low income black school. We can beat around the bush all we want to but it would be awkward and possibly uncomfortable socially (for the child) to attend a predominantly black school. It is the same for the many black families (we are one of them) who choose not to send their kids to predominantly white schools. Some black families even go so far as to decline sending their gifted kids to Lowell as they are worried it is not diverse enough to be a comfortable fit for their child or their family.

People always beat around the bush when it comes to race, but lets face it race does play a significant role in many families (black and white) decisions. It is not racism, in my opinion, just the human need to want to feel and accepted.

Anonymous said...

thanks 11:46. I suspected that might be the reason but wanted to hear the parent articulate it.

I have to say, I smiled as I read your comment, because in a city that is what, 80 percent white, minority children are always being asked to be the only one. Something white kids and their parents never have to think about.

Btw, I think Minor is a wonderful school, particularly their math curriculum and state ranking chess team. And their PTA is pretty active.

nssp said...

Anony @11:17 says they're willing to pick TT Minor over a less diverse (and more expensive) catholic school, so, let's not put words in his/her mouth.

I think this reference area situation is a real problem (as described by Anony 11:17), and allows a variety of interested parties to play games that ignore realities. But, assigning reference areas means some areas are going to be assigned references different from their choice (i.e. TT Minor for the Roanoke area). I think it's not fixed because in fact the school district prefers to pretend that Montlake is the reference area, because the parents complain less about it, and the parents only complain so much, because it's better to be "officially" in the Montlake reference area than be officially assigned to TT Minor (not the least for purely economic/real estate interests). The real estate agents probably like it better, too.

This is going to be an issue with re-districting. But, I'm a strong proponent of assigned schools (i.e. drawing "right-sized" reference areas) for all schools (including high school). Otherwise, we have a system of false choices that drives people out of the system because of its vagaries.

maureen said...

Anon with 3 kids said: "we live in the Montlake reference area, which has NEVER to my knowledge taken all the kids in the reference area"

Do you have data to support that? Somewhere :) I have a report that shows that Montlake moved its waitlist completely four years out of five. (Meaning that everyone who picked it first, regardless of where they lived, got a shot at a kindergarten seat.) The one year they didn't seemed to be related to the echo from the Steven's bubble class (siblings from outside the Stevens reference area displace Capitol Hill kids two to three years after the bubble class and make it harder to get into other N Capitol Hill schools).

I do know that over 50% of the kids at Montlake School live outside the reference area (that data is available on the SPS web site). It seems unlikely that that many people move after kindergarten. Of course, you would have preference at Montlake over anyone outside the reference area even though you chose it 2nd (I think you know that from what you say.)

You also have a very good shot at TOPS. Kids from as far away as 10th and Boston have been assigned there via the "Eastlake neighborhood" set aside. You also have a 20% (or so) chance via the lottery just like everyone else.

It sounds like you have really done your research and developed a good strategy. Good luck!

Melissa Westbrook said...

It's interesting that the editorial board at the Times decided to devote a whole editorial about QA/Magnolia not having a high school (which is true). I think that it is much worse for one neighborhood (Eastlake) not to have a reference elementary school. My opinion is that if there isn't a reference school for them, then 1/3 or so seats at TOPS should be for them.

I believe the district will make every attempt to "right size" every school and have a school for everyone. But with the challenges of geography that we have and different sizes of school capacity (Montlake and McGilvra are small schools although McGilvra could be rebuilt to be bigger if they ever got on a BEX list.)

Also, to the Montlake parent, good for you for doing all that work and keeping an open mind on all your school choices. I would agree; save your money for middle or high school (or here's a thought: college!). Most elementaries are pretty good here.

One correction; Lowell is the APP school, not AP. They are two different things.

Charlie Mas said...

Here's some data on the enrollment at Montlake:

Of the 214 SPS elementary students living in the Montlake reference area, 117 of them (55%) were enrolled at Montlake in November 2006. 27 were at TOPS, 19 at Lowell, 15 at Stevens, 9 at McGilvra, 7 at John Stanford, 5 at Madrona, and 4 at Green Lake. There were another 3 at other alternative schools and another 8 at other neighborhood schools.

That year, the enrollment at Montlake was 236. Of those students, 20 are special education and 0 are bilingual.

Presuming that the data from 2006 is representative, we can draw three conclusions.

First, that Montlake has room for all of the Seattle public school elementary students in the Montlake reference area - there are 214 of them and the school has an enrollment of 236.

Second, the enrollment at Montlake includes 117 students from within the reference area and 119 students from outside the reference area.

Third, no more than 20 of those students from outside the reference area could be assigned there for Special Education - I'm not saying that they all are; I'm saying that 20 if the statistical maximum - and none of them are assigned there for bilingual services. So at least 89 students from outside the reference area are getting in through choice. Unless all 89 of those students are siblings - a steep improbability - we can conclude that any family in the Montlake reference area that chooses Montlake has a very high probability of getting that assignment.

Surprising - isn't it?

Anonymous said...

"My opinion is that if there isn't a reference school for them, then 1/3 or so seats at TOPS should be for them."

I just don't agree with this at all. You can't assume that families in the Eastlake area want an alternative school or a K-8 (I don't), but it is also counter productive to the alternative culture of the school to take families that don't really "buy in" to the philosophy, and only choose the school because they have no other alternative.

The only way to solve the problem of lack of capacity in QA and Eastlake is to add capacity. Not squeeze these kids into a program that is not meant as a neighborhood, assignment school.

maureen said...

Thank you for your numbers Charlie. I have been looking for data that supports the theory that Eastlake families don't have access to a reference school. From what I can see, Montlake admits about 37 kindergarteners a year (1 and 1/2 classes? that seems odd--shouldn't they admit 50? They seem to have two K teachers). The CAC report shows that from 2001-2005 the # of 1st choice CENTRAL CLUSTER (not ref area) requests for Montlake were: 47, 63, 35, 45, 40. So in 2002 there was a big spike in demand. I think that was the year this (dare I say?) myth got started.

TOPS has about 325 K-5 regular ed kids. Melissa, filling 1/3 of those seats would potentially take all of the reference area kids out of Montlake. The current walk zone around TOPS (given traffic patterns)is two square blocks so all of those kids would have to be bused in.

The Montlake reference area is right sized now. TOPS is perfectly placed as a multi cluster draw because kids need to be bused there anyway and it is right on I-5. I also agree with the last poster about the importance of people buying in to the culture of an alternative school.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I'm not saying everyone would want to get in because of it being alternative/K-8 (however, it's one of the least alternative of our alternative schools). And what schools in that area can add capacity?

But again, Eastlake has NO reference school. That seems pretty serious for little children (as compared to high school kids). How would you feel being the only neighborhood with no reference school? I guess I would have to ask those families how they feel but many have come to Board meetings about this issue. TOPS is their closest school and that's why I said they should probably have a bigger in.

What would be your suggestion as to what school should add capacity for Eastlake so that when the boundaries are drawn for the new assignment plan they have a school?

Anonymous said...

Eastlake does have a reference school. It is called Montlake.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not saying everyone would want to get in because of it being alternative/K-8 (however, it's one of the least alternative of our alternative schools)."

If 1/3 of the school were neighborhood families, not alternative philosophy families, the least alternative of our alternative schools would be so watered down, it would not even resemble an alternative program anymore. Is that fair to TOPS? Tops is a very successful program that deserves to continue and possibly be replicated, not watered down into a traditional neighborhood school (as that is what those families will demand and they will be a strong voice at 1/3)

Melissa Westbrook said...

This is an interesting topic that the assignment plan will have to address. When Latona became John Stanford, it remained a reference school for that neighborhood. And yet, I think most people would consider JS alternative. It think it's confusing why one school would remain a reference school and another wouldn't. I'm not arguing but just saying it's one more piece of the puzzle.

I think you'd get an argument from some that Montlake is Eastlake's reference school.

Anonymous said...

It continues to baffle me when I hear people say that TOPS is the least alternative of the alternative schools??????? What data do you have to back that up???? When I looked at TOPS they outlined what made them alternative, and I felt they were very very different from traditional schools in many ways.

I understand that some traditional schools are using some of the best practices that alternative schools have pioneered and I have heard that argument used against TOPS, one example is this quote that I heard.... "many traditional schools have mixed age classes too" . Just because traditional schools pick up some best practices that alternative schools pioneer, does not make alternative schools less alternative. The only difference that I see at TOPS is that they have a stronger code of conduct, and more rules than some of our other alternative schools. Does that make them less alternative??? If you base alternative on a philosophy, pedagogy and curriculum, then the answer is no.

All alternative schools don't have to house goth kids, red hair, and piercings to prove their alternative nature.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I don't want people to think I have anything against TOPS or alternative schools. Indeed, I got a good education on the closure and consolidation committee. There are some alternatives that I think are vital to this district. And, the fact that most of them sprung from the hopes and dreams and hard work of parents plus what another post mentioned about ideas used in alternative ed making their way into regular ed are also important facts.

But there is a spectrum of how different these schools are. (Indeed, I think that Dr. G-J got a bit schooled in her perceptions of what alternative is because Seattle is so different from Charleston in that area.) And, what is going to likely happen, during the process of figuring out the new assignment plan, is what the district can do to sustain them while cutting back on transportation costs.

I can't emphasize enough how much money it costs, really big money, to transport kids to alternative schools whether they are all-city or regional. Whether any of us believe it is necessary to expend those funds, I think the tide of thinking at the district headquarters is turning against such expenditures. Or rather, curtailing them. (Of course the district is to blame for much of this. They allowed an uneven distribution of alternative schools and placed some former/current all-city draws like African-American Academy and Summit in the extreme north or south ends of the city.)

The reason I mention TOPS is because when we did a school visit the principal could not clearly explain what made them alternative despite our repeated questions to her about it. The parents in the room just nodded. She said they were alternative because they were K-8 and had an arts focus. Well, I knew that there were other K-8s that weren't alternative (the district tags them as "non-traditional"). Also, at that time, their website didn't talk about their arts focus at all. It left us confused.

Also, as someone pointed out, TOPS has a good structure to it in terms of being a larger K-8 that is very well run. That doesn't make it alternative; that makes them smart.

Anonymous said...

Transportation to alternative schools needs to change. All city draw busing is truly a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, and takes much needed funds away from our classrooms. I speak as the parent of two children who attended alternative schools for 6 years each. Busing within your cluster should be allowed, as is busing to all traditional schools in your cluster. But outside of your cluster you really should be on your own as far as transportation goes. Some schools limit transportation already. They call themselves multi-cluster schools. AEII/Thornton Creek is one of them. They draw from the North and NE clusters. When our children started attending this school we lived in the Central cluster and we had to provide our own transportation (and did so knowingly and happily).

I know the counter argument is that this will limit diversity and limit access to low income families who can not afford to drive their children to school. I know this is a real and true concern, but we have to be realistic too. Transportation is killing us, gas prices are high, and even worse than the $$$ this costs us is the fact that children are sitting on buses 2+ hours a day!!!!

Anonymous said...


If you're numbers don't include children in the Montlake cluster, rather than children in SPS in the Montlake cluster, they're not an accurate reflection of whether Montlake has sufficient capacity for the children in their reference area. Folks at the edges of reference areas know their situation and explore private schools (and even move, though then, of course, they're not children in the reference area any more).

Of course, many parents whose kids were assigned TT Minor would probably go looking for a private school, too. But, I hate pretending about assignments. I do also think that schools would have to stretch to accommodate students, some years, even if references areas were the right size, but that's a price I'd pay for more stability. (Right now, I'm noticing it with respect to conversations about Roosevelt, and I can guarantee that uncertainty will be a significant factor in my decision making, as it is in others. )

nssp said...

Isn't it true that TOPS, through the Eastlake preference, is the exception to the rule that if you don't get your top choice, your next choice becomes your top choice (i.e. no drawback to putting an unlikely choice at the top of your list, except the drawback that you might not get into any of your top four)? I'd heard, a while ago, that you only got the Eastlake preference to Seward/TOPS, if you put it at the top of your list.

(But, in this rapidly fluctuating surface that is school choice in Seattle, I rely frequently on rumor and innuendo for my information)

Anonymous said...

I was on the board-appointed Alternative Education Committee, charged with coming up with a list of “indicators” of what makes an alt school, among other tasks. Here, in greatly shortened form, from a near-final draft (couldn’t find final draft) are the 12 indicators:
The 12 Key Elements of the Best Practices of Alternative Education
1. Informed Choice
Choice is the fundamental “best practice” of alternative education. Students, staff and
the principal must be at an alternative school voluntarily
2. Open to All
Alternative schools are open to any and all students except when it is not an appropriate choice or placement for the student’s needs, i.e., specialized program unavailability.
3. Continuousness
Students must not only be able to choose to be at an alternative school, but they must have the option to stay.
4. Shared Decision Making
From the inception of alternative schools in the early 1970s, having students and
parents share in the decisions that affect the school was a major characteristic of alternative programs.
5. Alternative Assessment
Various styles of learning demand not only varied teaching styles but also varied forms of assessment
6. Deeply Caring and Respectful School Culture That Creates Community
Alternative schools are likened to families because of the strong sense of belonging that students, families and staff experience.
7. Individualizing Curriculum and Differentiating Instruction
No classroom group of children is so similar that they do their best learning with identical instruction and a single learning activity.
8. There Are Many Ways to Learn
Learning is about constructing relationships in which students connect with teachers
and subjects.
9. Caring and Demanding Teachers
Of all the components involved in an effective alternative school, teachers make the most difference. Teaching in a personalized, child-centered environment requires teachers who are caring, motivating and challenging.
10. Alternative Scheduling and Attendance Policies
In serving the mission of the school, scheduling and attendance policies should be designed to meet the needs of students.
11. Small
Alternative schools should be small by design
12. Clear Mission and Objectives
The mission and objectives of an alternative school go beyond simply academic achievement. An alternative school has a coherent focus, philosophy of education and core values about meeting the intellectual, social, emotional and developmental needs of each child.

maureen said...

nssp: what you say is true about all schools. If you don't get into your first choice (whatever it is), your 2nd choice becomes your first and you are compared to others (who may have listed it first) on the basis of your tie breakers. TOPS is no exception. Eastlake residents still have reference school status at Montlake, so if they live farther from TOPS than the kids that get in under the neighborhood preference, they still have preference at Montlake over any nonsiblings who live outside the Montlake reference area. Montlake is their reference school.

It is true that if someone wants to claim the neighborhood preference at TOPS they need to put it first, but even if they don't get in under the set aside, they can still get into TOPS if they draw a good enough lottery number (just like everyone else).

maureen said...

Sorry this is so long, but for those who are interested, this is the language distributed at the TOPS tours. It was written by the administration and parents. Melissa, I have no idea why they didn't just give you a copy of it at your meeting.

What is “Alternative” about TOPS?

TOPS boasts a long history pioneering innovative educational methods, and we continue to create new programs that serve Seattle’s children in ways that extend our alternative educational mission.

An anti-bias, multicultural curriculum. The TOPS curriculum regularly explores the diversity of a community that, through its multi-cluster draw, constitutes a microcosm of the city as a whole. The Committee for Social Justice provides opportunities for students and parents to become actively involved in issues of fairness in our society.

Celebration of individual self-expression and achievement. Expressive arts, including public speaking, writing, theater and visual art, are emphasized at every grade level. Frequent public presentations of student work give all students the chance to shine!

Emphasis on the social climate and the social and emotional development of the students. Physical education at TOPS features non-traditional activities that emphasize individual fitness over competition. Every kindergartner is paired with a 5th grade “buddy,” a relationship enhanced through the next four years through regular shared activities and field trips. In 2005, we instituted a comprehensive K-8 school climate program (C.A.R.E.) to enhance students’ understanding of their relationships with one another and to prevent bullying.

Alignment of curriculum through all grade levels, K-8. Having students from Kindergarten through Middle School allows TOPS to create an aligned curriculum that emphasizes long-term learning achievement. TOPS staff work collaboratively in the ongoing development of a nine-year curriculum continuum that guides our work in reading, writing, math and cultural competency and makes district and state standards relevant to the learning at TOPS.

The legacy of the “City School” tradition. TOPS teachers are empowered to bring the resources of the City into the classroom, and to bring the classroom out into the City when they feel it will enhance the educational experience. The TOPICS program regularly brings parents and others from the community into the classroom to instruct students. Teachers supplement classroom instruction by arranging many field trips that take advantage of our close proximity to downtown, the University of Washington and regional waterways.

Charlie Mas said...

Using the two comment above, one with the criteria used to define alternative education in Seattle and the other describing what is alternative about TOPS, I can't help noticing that there isn't a lot of overlap.

Based on these criteria, it's easy to see why people regard TOPS as less alternative than other alternative schools in Seattle.

maureen said...

The TOPS document wasn't written in response to the Alt School report. Looking over the 12 key elements, I would say that all of them apply very strongly to what goes on at TOPS except possibly #10--attendance (which in practice for K-8 seems to be a District determined thing--unless I misunderstand what it means). I suppose one could argue that #4 used to be stronger at TOPS, but I would argue that there is still more shared governance than at nonalternative schools. As far as #11 is concerned, I'm not sure; we have 530 kids, but they are in K-8, is that small?

Of course, I would hope that some of those elements apply to nonalternative schools as well (caring teachers!).

How do the other alternatives stack up on the 12 key elements? I would love to hear. (I believe that Salmon Bay held meetings on the subject last spring, but I haven't seen the results).

I'm sorry to go on about TOPS, but if people keep posting about it, I'll probably keep responding!

Anonymous said...

Hi,I originally posted 11:17 on 2/29, with the three kids in the Montlake reference area. I just wanted to say that O really appreciated everyone's comments to my overly long & convoltued poast! Also, e got our letter over the weekend, and we are very plaesed that out daughter did get into TOPS.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post with a completely self-interested question, but... our daughter is #6 on the waiting list for TOPS for 1st grade. Does anyone know whether she has any realistic chance of getting a spot? Thanks!

Beth Bakeman said...

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell. It all depends on whether the other kids selected decide to stay, or go to private school, or choose a different public school, of their families move, etc.

As hard as it is, you just have to wait to find out.

I do know that quite a bit of change happens in the first couple weeks of September at many schools.