Over the last 10 days, I've been unable to do much more than report on what I hear and to try to help other parents/staff/students have the information and platform they need to organize and make their voices heard.
It's taken me that long to begin to deal with my emotions and to listen to what others are saying (on this blog and elsewhere) to become better informed. I feel sad, concerned, and stressed, as I'm sure share do many other parents, staff and community members around Seattle who are impacted by the Preliminary Recommendations.
Alternative Schools and Programs
Beyond the obvious concern about what will happen to individual children, staff, and families, one overriding concern has emerged for me: the preliminary recommendations disproportionately affect alternative schools and programs by a large margin. I'm concerned that our district is making these recommendations without adequate understanding of how the alternative schools differ, what they offer, and what the impact could be to our district of closing, moving and changing so many of these schools and programs.
And speaking more broadly, using the umbrella definition of "alternative" to mean any school or program that doesn't fit the traditional neighborhood school model, the impact of these preliminary recommendations is even more disproportionately felt by alternative rather than traditional schools and programs. The SBOC, the African American Academy, The New School, Lowell....all these schools are not technically classified as "alternative" by the district, but they certainly do differ from traditional programs and schools.
Don't get me wrong, I think strong traditional neighborhood schools and high-quality traditional programs are wonderful. But even if every traditional neighborhood school in Seattle were excellent (which is not the current situation), there would be some children who would not be well-served by those schools. Children are different, their learning needs are different, their social/emotional needs are different.
My children attended two high-quality neighborhood schools; one that we were able to walk to from our house. But neither school worked for our family, so now we drive to West Seattle every day to send our children to Pathfinder K-8, an incredibly wonderful alternative school that is well-matched to my children's needs. (And before anyone yells at me about the impact on the environment, we're planning on moving to West Seattle as soon as we're able to find a new house and sell our current house.)
I hear the strong feelings I have about Pathfinder echoed in the words of other parents about their schools, programs and communities. When a school or program meets our children's needs, parents feel incredibly grateful and will go to great lengths to defend it when it is threatened. This is true whether it is traditional or alternative. But when your child's learning, social or emotional needs don't fit the norm, when you believe (rightly or wrongly) that no other school or program will meet your child's needs, your emotions and your defense are likely to get even more intense.
On this blog I have read the comments of parents of children in the APP program, parents of children with autism and other special education needs, and parents of children in alternative programs like AS#1 and Summit K-12, and I believe they have much in common.
I believe all these parents could work together and talk together in an effort to create and sustain a school system that meets all children's needs. But the current situation makes that difficult. The recommendations affect so many people, and the decisions are being made on such a short timeline, that we are pushed towards retreat and defense of our schools and programs, fighting for individual survival, not collaborating for a greater good.
When AS#1 parents dismiss the concerns of APP parents, when Lowell parents advocate mostly about the APP program and much less about the special education program at their school, when alternative programs not affected or less negatively affected by the current proposal stay silent, we weaken our power and influence in this process, and risk a result that is less positive overall.
Superintendent, Board and Community
On the positive side, I am encouraged by some of the differences between this round of closures/consolidations and the previous recent ones. Our current Superintendent is clearly very intelligent, thoughtful, knowledgeable about education, and in control of the whole process. The School Board members are behaving respectfully, towards each other, the Superintendent and district staff. And many parents, having learned lessons from previous rounds, are also choosing their language and arguments carefully, being passionate advocates for their schools/programs while avoiding, for the most part, hurtful and hateful language.
The communication about what is happening and the opportunities for community involvement, while far from ideal, are much improved from the previous round. I believe the Director of Public Affairs, Bridgett Chandler, is responsible for much of this improvement and is to be commended.
In addition, the serious financial condition of the district and the current excess capacity (or underenrollment depending upon your perspective) have convinced many people, including me, that closing some schools now makes sense. So there is less of an effort among parents and community members to stop the whole process, and more of an effort to make sure that the decisions that are made are not done so hastily that we regret them next year or the year after.
But which school buildings are the "right ones" to close? which programs should be closed or moved? and how does all of this fit (or not fit) with the upcoming decisions on assignment policy and transportation and BEX? How can we move towards a more excellent, equitable system of education in our district while still protecting the alternative schools and programs that meet the needs of children not met elsewhere?
I'm glad I don't have to make these decisions. But I want to have input into them. And I want all parents/staff/students to have their ideas and suggestions listened to and considered as well. So I believe the best we can do is think creatively, analyze data, and communicate passionately, ideally working across schools and programs, and then trust in district staff and our School Board members to make the best decisions they can at this point in time. I know, I know...I can hear many of you commenting on my unfounded optimism and naivety. But this is what I truly believe. I don't see a better alternative.