I was contacted some months back by some Laurelhurst Elementary parents who were, at turns, flummoxed, frustrated and frantic. It felt to them as if their school was unraveling and, like Stevens, their principal and the district did not seem to be giving their concerns much credibility or credence.
Like the Stevens parents, they had asked for a meeting to have a whole picture meeting of the minds, with everything put out on the table. (This after an earlier parent meeting that apparently was quite tense and non-productive, leaving both sides feeling unhappy.)
The issue with Laurelhurst is multi-faceted. One, their school is packed to the gills even with portables. They even have some schooling happening in the halls. Two, the Sped EBD services there seem to be serving a larger number of students than the school can help. When there are behavior issues, many times the aide will take a child out to the hallway but there's some kind of teaching there, it just doesn't work. Three, it appears to be more EBD students than they can serve because a couple of those students appear to have such severe issues that one even climbed a fire ladder and threatened to jump.
Just like some of the Stevens parents, the Laurelhurst parents say that some students' behavior is not addressed and it is creating an feeling of an unsafe atmosphere at school. Just like Stevens parents, there seems to be a "lack of clarity about what behavior is and isn't permitted." Parents have also expressed concerns over falling test scores over the last couple of years. Just like Stevens, the parents have expressed concerns over the leadership of their principal.
My understanding is that the school does not have a full-time counselor. Again, when you have issues about foul language or safety for elementary-aged students, it is vital to be able to explain to kids - many of whom may be too young to be developmentally able to understand the issues around other students' behaviors - what is happening. The most recent Laurelhurst climate survey reflects that students feel less safe at their school. For parents who are not at the school and only hear from their students about what is going on because of lack of communication from the school, it makes for a worrisome situation.
As you can imagine, this has created an "us versus them" mentality for both parents and administration.
But, like all parents, there is an investment for them in the school and this meeting was called to find a way forward for the best possible outcomes for all students.
The meeting last week had a professional facilitator. There was this soothing music playing as you came in and I had never seen that tried before. I think it did contribute to a calm, professional meeting. There appeared to be about 75 parents there plus Mike Starosky, Chief of Schools, Kim Whitworth, Executive Director for the region, Special Ed Director Wyeth Jessee, Principal Sarah Talbot and a couple of teachers. As well, Director Jill Geary was there as she is a Laurelhurst parent.
While the music was great, the 25 minutes of reviewing what would happen and introductions was not. I generally have a problem with time being taken with basic details as it leaves less time for discussion.
Mr. Starosky is a new-to-me senior staffer. While he was genial, he seemed to be unaware of much about the situation. Ms. Whitworth seemed to be more up-to-speed.
There was first an overview of the situation. But I particularly liked what came next which were there were four easels at the back of the room, one for each topic - Space, Sped/Gen Ed Integration, Safety and Communications. There was an administrator for each easel and parents were free to wander to each one, putting up concerns/ideas for each topic. It seemed pretty effective to me.
I thought that parents had good suggestions. For Space, they even said to move out the pre-K as well as their LASER program (which is a before-after school activity program.) I think it pained them to say those things but they believe that the K-12 program is suffering too much from lack of space. There were also suggestions to reorient some areas.
There was discussion over whether Bryant or Laurelhurst is the most overcrowded but Laurelhurst is right up there. (I did note to the group that while Laurelhurst does have an old building, that Rogers is by far the worst elementary in their region and that there was probably no hope Laurelhurst would be on the BEX.) Parents did ask if it were possible - if they have to have portables - to have at least one with a bathroom.
There was also some spirited discussion over who (or what program) gets placed where. Mr. Jessee explained that every school had some Special Ed and ELL students. This seemed to come as quite a surprise to some parents but given the OSPI directive last summer about ELL students and providing services to Sped students in neighborhood schools, it is surely true. I think the issue for some parents is the number of specific Sped students in their schools and couldn't that number be spread out more.
Mr. Jessee seemed to push back on nearly every parent idea, preferring to bounce the ball back in the parent court by suggesting more community-building situations. He also said he could come back and lend some expertise to Principal Talbot.
It was also mentioned by district staff that there is a shortage of school psychiatrists to fill the needs of the schools.
Interestingly, ALO came up as some parents had no idea what was being provided to students.
Safety loomed large and I heard things like "can teachers check bags for weapons?" and having positive behavior training for parents/staff, "do we need gates?", etc. One parent said their head teacher (name not given) was the one person in the building holding safety of school together and a worry about funding being cut for that position.
As for communications, this was an interesting discussion because Mr. Starosky talked about BLTs (building leadership teams) but seemed unaware that 1)there is actual Board policy on this and 2) much of the interpretation of the policy is in the hands of principals. Apparently, BLT notes/minutes for meetings at Laurelhurst have not been available. (There's a big no-no.) There was also a suggestion that the principal respond more directly to parents in the school newsletter.
Parents expressed concerns about teachers being moved around from grade to grade and that some teachers felt a lot of stress over it.
Both the BLT issue and movement of teachers issue brought up a common theme from both the Stevens and Laurelhurst meetings. Parents want to know the process on decision-making. They want to have clarity on what will be communicated and when.
During the easel discussions, Mr. Starosky talked about having a suggestion box, only to find out Laurelhurst does have one but it is mostly used by kids. Given the situation, that suggests a disconnect to me between the principal and the parents. If the situation has been ever-growing and yet the principal hasn't seen evidence of this in the suggestion box, maybe it means parents don't think their concerns will be listened to.
The school has a taskforce on this issue which seemed to be an ad hoc one that parents created. At the end of the meeting, it was decided that the taskforce would take a first pass at creating the ideas to move forward. The parents also wanted clarity on the role of Sped IAs and what their work looks like (there seemed to be some confusion about why the IAs would have their phones out so much but it was explained that they have to carefully document their time.)
1) Despite his credentials, I was not that impressed with Mr. Starosky. He didn't seem to offer many new ideas.
As well, this is the second school in two regions of this district, where parents are having problems getting their executive directors to listen to concerns. Overseeing the ex directors is one of Mr. Starosky's main functions.
2) Again, principals drive what does or does not happen at the schools. If the principal does not have good communication skills, it almost doesn't matter what else is happening. I heard from several Laurelhurst parents that they like Ms. Talbot and believe her to be a caring person. But they also think she also doesn't have strong leadership skills.
My question then is, why aren't the ex directors - when they hear about these issues - moving to review and shore up those skills?
3) Schools like Laurelhurst and Stevens really shouldn't be schools that are a worry for the district. They are in areas with a history of strong parental engagement and support. They generally get good test scores. But at both schools, I have heard rumblings of parents who say they have tried to be supportive - for years - and are now at their wit's end and may take their child out of that school.
On the one hand, maybe the district administration is so busy trying to figure out where to put all the kids, they just don't care if some parents leave.
But really, it is a mistake to turn away from situations and let them fester because these schools have a long history of parent investment, both in time and support. You don't just let that slip away. As well, we all know how talk gets around - at the supermarket, the soccer field or at the park. Once a school starts getting talked down, many more parents will turn away.
5) The big difference between the Stevens meeting and the Laurelhurst meeting was that the Stevens' principal was not there. This accorded the parents the ability to speak more freely about her performance and for the ex director to talk about her performance (albeit it in vague terms.) I think there was some frustration for Laurelhurst parents that the issue of principal performance was not truly discussed.
5) I am worried that the district is now becoming so worried about lawsuits - from parents, teachers and administrators - that they are allowing that cloud their judgment. The district must act within public education law but they also have to provide a safe and equitable school for all the children who are in it. I know that is a delicate balance and do not mean to suggest it is wand-waving easy to do.
But again, schools that have previously done well should not be undergoing this kind of churn. Even if it costs more money, the district may have to equalize out the number of high-need students at each school in order to maintain stability to all schools. They have to realize the stress being created by the over-crowding.