Friday, June 30, 2006

The Root of District Trouble & An Example

Charlie Mas said...
The fundamental problem with Seattle Public Schools, the fault at the root of all of the district's trouble, is the fact that the District is structurally and culturally incapable of responding to the needs of the community it purportedly serves. As a consequence of this fundamental failure people are choosing alternatives when the District does not meet the community's needs.

Anonymous said...
What bothers me as this goes along is that Joanne Bowers, the principal at Viewlands, should have become the new principal at Greenwood (the current principal is retiring). The district is advocating, if Viewlands closes, that Greenwood take a large number of Viewlands students. Who is in the best position to unite these schools? Who knows the most about the autism program and how to make this inclusion program work? Who has started a school previously (ORCA)? The answer to all of those is Joanne Bowers and yet, the district, in yet another bone-headed move, has put Walter Trotter (a demoted ed director) at Greenwood. What has he done? Sent a letter to incoming Viewlands Kindergarten parents telling them to come to Greenwood. A little premature to say the least.

My commentary...
Charlie's words are so powerful for me. The concept that the district is "structurally and culturally incapable of responding to the needs of the community it purportedly serves," immediately gets me thinking about possible changes, reforms and initiatives to change the district's structure and organizational culture. And it sounds like Carla Santorno, the new Chief Academic Officer, may have similar ideas. She apparently made some immediate staffing and organizational structure changes upon her arrival.

The example from Anonymous of the district assigning a demoted Education Director, instead of a talented and well-liked principal from Viewlands, to be the new principal at Greenwood Elementary illustrates Charlie's point powerfully. There is no academic rationale for making that decision. There is no political rationale for making that decision. It truly is horrible from a public relations standpoint and from a customer service perspective, especially when the district needs to make the consolidations and closures look better in the eyes of the public, not worse.

So why make that decision? I buy Charlie's answer --- the district is "structurally and culturally" inept.

A Viewlands Viewpoint

(excerpted from the public testimony of the 6/26 site hearing at Viewlands)

My name is Sandy Culbert. I have been a para-educator at Viewlands since 1991, proudly I say that. Dear friends, people of Seattle and Viewlanders, I come tonight not to bury Viewlands Elementary, but to praise it. Let's look at what is good and worthy of praise at this school. Let's see what happens here in spite of the leaking roof and poor building conditions. In fact, the roof is going to be repaired this summer, maybe even as we speak. It's time to look under the roof and see what is important here at Viewlands.

One, we have been blessed to have a strong diverse student body, 48 percent minority, 52 percent majority. We can be proud of all our students.

Dedicated staff, number two, teachers, principals, secretaries, tutors, parents, in the PTA, outstanding. Great reading scores. Great direct reading assessment scores for the lower grades.

Three, a highly successful inclusion program in the autism spectrum which works actually for all the students at Viewlands, all the adults. We all are learners at Viewlands.

Four, a state of the art occupational and physical therapy room which has come together beautifully due to the teamwork Mari Chin, Nelson Peterson, Barbara Hoffman, Nancy Speaker*, and a variety of parents who have lent their help and energies and materials.

Viewlands, number five, enjoys a unique location at the edge of Carkeek Park, where students are allowed with classes, to go down on walking field trips. And we recently had an all school picnic there, it was wonderful. The fifth graders are extremely busy raising salmon and releasing salmon to Piper's Creek.

Number six, a living values program, which emphasizes teaching not only children, but the adults here patience, responsibility, honesty, respect, all those things that we need for our lives, living values.

Seven, the best PTA in the district. They are always funding activities for their students, all their children.

After school activities, number eight, drama club led by one of our teachers, Ms. Provenza; chess club, led by parents, and science and art classes contracted out to outside groups. So there are many opportunities for that also.

In conclusion, if we look at enrollment numbers, yeah, we're a smaller school, but in reality, we are a big school. When we look at the good and praiseworthy things that we have here where all the students are welcomed, where they are known as individuals, this is an inclusive, naturally diverse, educationally successful Seattle elementary school.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A New School Viewpoint

Excerpted from the June 26 site closure hearing at the South Shore building.

"I'm Brian Street. I'm a teacher at the New School. And I have two children at the school. I also live in the community. I'm also a graduate of South Shore Middle School. I want to talk about the work we have been doing here planning a preK through 8 school and how our vision fits this location and the students who live around it.

First I want to talk about this community. The other day I heard a parent describe Rainier beach as the Plymouth Rock of Seattle. A couple of years ago, the New York times described the south end of Seattle being uniquely suited to make diversity work. Out school population reflects the diversity of this neighborhood.

27 percent of our student are English language learners. I understand that both last year and this year, 100 percent of our incoming preK students came from within one mile of our school. This neighborhood is our base.

Now I would like to talk about our vision. We are focused on reducing the achievement gap. And we have been building our vision around the three Rs, relationships, rigor, and relevant academics. Relationships is about making family connections. And we have been making home visits to every child. Rigor is about having a razor focus on academics. And relevant academics is creating a curriculum that connects with the cultures of interest of our population.

Part of our curriculum is integrated around community service projects. This is no different from other schools. But part of the plan for the New School, it would be a preK-8 grade school serving the south end. The plan is for the upper middle school grades of our program to have a larger population than the elementary grades, so we would be bringing in students from the other schools in the area. Because our focus and vision is so similar in the area, we will be a perfect feeding school.

We made a conscious decision to place grades six through eight front and center on Rainier and Henderson. The upper grades will be directly connected to the community. We talked about older students walking and riding the bus to community apprenticeships. This location on the corner of Rainier and Henderson is uniquely suited to our vision, because it is so urban. My point is, this neighborhood is who we are, and keeping us here serves the whole south end."

I am part of the problem

(Posted by a former Seattle parent)

On May 5, I became part of the reason for school closures. That was the day we moved out of Seattle. When people talk about the hidden cost of families leaving the city, it often sounds like a theoretical threat. I am proof that it isn’t.

My husband and I loved living in the city. I liked seeing the mountain while I took the bus to work; he liked walking with my daughter to the grocery store. We loved our Greenwood brick tudor so much that we arranged financing to build a room for our infant son.

Like many parents with children about to enter school, I began touring schools early and read every article I could find about the school district’s plans for the future. I was dismayed by what I saw. The Seattle School District didn’t just not work to keep us, they actively pushed us away.

Of the five schools we toured, not one had a principal who had been there more than two years. We had no idea which schools to apply for because we didn’t know which would be open or what their mandate would be. We had no idea whether we would even be given a choice when our son was ready. And, we had no idea what the vision was for providing an education to our children.

So, rather than expand our home, we moved. We would have been a great family for the school district; I have two bright kids with no apparent special needs, we donate money and time, and, most importantly, we strongly believe in public education and neighborhood schools.

I asked Beth if I could post because I think it is important for my story to be heard. I am not pointing fingers. I don’t pretend that I know the answers to the very difficult problems the school district faces. What I do know is that part of the district’s budget trouble is due to families like mine choosing not to send our kids to its schools. The solutions being offered now are going to exacerbate the problem by forcing more families into the suburbs or private schools.

An Emerson Viewpoint

Excerpted from the 6/26 South Shore site hearing transcript. I assume not everybody will read the transcripts, so I am going to post at least one excerpt from each hearing.

"Good evening. My name is Beatrice Butler. I came here tonight to speak on behalf of the Emerson family and community and its support of a merger with Rainier View and Emerson. We have been looking at all the information that has been presented to us. We have been talking with some of the Rainier View people, their staff, and we have been talking with the community.

One of the things that we're looking at, the issues, is that last year, Rainier View was on the list for closure. We keep feel like we're not getting the full picture of what's happening this year. We feel like Emerson was placed on the closure list for the sole purpose of securing a space for the New School. We appreciate the New School and their support of Emerson, keeping Emerson open. First of all, I would like to say that. And thank you, New School.

Rainier View staff has been so gracious. They came and visited us. We talked with them. They toured our school. We saw a solution to a problem. We don't like coming up and creating new problems. We want a solution. We put our heads together and felt like we solved this problem.

Combining the two communities, we would not disrupt Emerson's family and community, and we would not disrupt Rainier View as a whole community. This is the path of least disruption. The families the communities are very similar. There's a similar support system being put in place. The school will be even better. Emerson will be better for having Rainier View's community joining us. Merging together, we have a strong south end school, a full, strong south end school."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Public Testimony from Site Hearings On-Line

All the school closure site hearings this week have court reporters, and the district has committed to posting the full testimony from the hearings on-line. As of today (Wednesday), transcripts from two site hearings are already posted.

Go to the Investing in Educational Excellence page and scroll to the bottom of the page under the section labeled "Public Hearing Schedule."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Outcome is Not Disproportionate

By Charlie Mas, a Washington Middle School parent.

[Posted with the caveat that this is based on the superintendent's preliminary plan to which changes are likely.]

There has been a lot of talk about the closure plan having disproportionate outcomes for students of color, students living in poverty, English language learners, and special education students. And that is true if you compare the demographics of the set of students in terminating programs with the demographics of the district as a whole. The district as a whole is 41% White, 40% qualified for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, 12% bilingual ed., and 9% special ed.

But we're not going to close a school that is full when we're trying to reduce excess capacity just because it has a lot of White students and that will balance the racial mix. Do we want academics and real financial considerations drive these decisions, or do we want them driven by race-based politics?

Since we're really only talking about terminating programs with excess capacity, we should compare the demographics of the closed schools with the demographics of schools with excess capacity to determine whether the outcomes are disproportionate or not.

One way to look at excess capacity is to find the buildings with the lowest percentage of their seats filled. If you were to identify the neighborhood elementary schools with less than two-thirds of their seats filled, you get this list: High Point, M L King, T T Minor, Leschi, Viewlands, Whitworth, Fairmount Park, Cooper, Emerson, Olympic Hills, and Broadview-Thomson.

These schools have capacity for 4,638 students but only have 2,482 students enrolled, an aggregate fill rate 54%. If we define excess capacity by the raw number of empty seats, and we were to identify each of the neighborhood elementary schools with at least 130 empty seats, we would get the exact same list in a different order: Broadview-Thomson, High Point, Emerson, Leschi, Whitworth, Cooper, T T Minor, Viewlands, M L King, Fairmount Park, and Olympic Hills.

So how do these schools break out as far as race, income, ELL, and special ed?

The enrollment at these schools is just under 20% White. About 68% of the students at these schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. 13.5% of the students are special education of one type or another, and about 20.5% of them are English language learners.

Not surprisingly, a number of these schools actually are on the list for closures. The school programs to be closed, consolidated or relocated are: The New School, Emerson, Fairmont Park, Viewlands, Graham Hill, E. C. Hughes, M. L King, Orca at Columbia, Whitworth, and John Marshall. Of those ten, only six programs, Emerson, Fairmont Park, Viewlands, Graham Hill, M L King, and Whitworth, are actually being terminated. The New School is being relocated. They aren’t getting the building that they wanted, but I don’ t see how the district can justify construction of a new building when they are closing schools. E. C. Hughes is just an interim site, so there are no students being directly impacted by that closure. Orca is moving to Whitworth, so that’s a relocation rather than a closure. Like the New School, the program will continue, just at a new location. Same for the various programs at John Marshall; they are being relocated, not terminated. Not to downplay the negative impacts of a relocation, but they aren’t anything like those associated with a program termination.

So what are the demographics of the programs being terminated?
White: 18.15%, FRE: 66.72%, SPED: 11.80%, ELL: 20.73%.

It appears that the demographics of the students being directly impacted by closures closely resembles the demographics of the students in buildings with excess capacity. Consequently, I think we can conclude that the outcome is not disproportionate.

Recent News Articles

Board members, district staff, parents and teachers are busy this week with the 9 site closure hearings happening Monday through Wednesday. I attended the Graham Hill site closure meeting tonight, at which 40 parents, staff, and community members presented a compelling case for keeping Graham Hill open.

Below are two recent articles on the school closure process:

Parents stand firm for school

School closure suggestions to be announced July 5

I am confused by the mention in the "Parents stand firm for school" article that some Emerson teachers are against the proposed merger of Rainier View into the Emerson building. I thought I heard at previous School Board meeting and public hearings that the idea was suggested by Raininer View and Emerson staff as an outcome preferable to having Emerson close and the kids dispersed.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Defining "Academic Excellence for All"

The tag line for this blog is, "Joining together across Seattle to fight for public schools that deliver academic excellence for all."

But, imagine we are successful. What would that look like?

I would fight strongly any effort to define academic excellence by WASL scores alone, but I recognize and acknowledge the need to measure outcomes (what students can do), and know how difficult and time-consuming that can be to do well in a way that honors individual learning styles and differences.

I think academic excellence can be described, in part, by the range of school offerings or programs. For example, for Seattle schools to be academically excellent, I believe there need to be strong AP offerings, six periods of real classes a day at high school (not credit for helping the gym teacher sort equipment, which is what I have read is currently happening in some schools), rigorous and inspiring music and art classes, challenging hands-on science classes, and more.

Describing academic excellence in terms of what schools offer creates one problem and raises one question. The problem is that, with this kind of definition, a school could offer excellent academic offerings that don't meet the needs of their students. What one student may need to excel academically may not be the same as what another student needs. The question this raises is, should every school try to offer the same types of programs and offerings? Or, given that we are a district that (at least for now) offers school choice, should we be encouraging schools to specialize more?

These are my initial, unpolished thoughts on academic excellence. I would love to hear what others think. We need to know what "academic excellence for all" will look like in order to be able to achieve that goal.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Second Round" of School Closures

At last week's Board work session, Raj repeated his statement that the district is hoping to identify one school out of four in the Central cluster (T.T. Minor, Leschi, Thurgood Marshall or Bailey Gatzert), and one school in the Northeast to close by Fall 2007, on the same timetable as the other schools identified through the current school closure process.

First of all, how does the district put a school (T.T. Minor) that is going through a merger this coming year with M.L. King on the list of possible schools to close? Can you imagine telling the MLK kids they need to change schools again after 1 year?

And secondly, if there is not currently enough capacity in the Northeast to close Sacajawea, then how will enough capacity be found to make it possible to close an additional school in the Northeast?

Also, I just don't get the rush to make additional closures happen. Even COO, Mark Green, commented that this timeline is "ambitious."

When questioned by Irene Stewart about when student assignment plan and transportation changes were going to happen, staff said major changes to either couldn't happen until final decisions were made about which buildings were closed. Assignment and transportation plan changes would then be implemented in the following year, Fall 2008.

Obviously, alterations to both policies could result in significant changes in student enrollment. Why not wait to see where students end up in Fall 2008 before making further closure decisions?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Math Curriculum Adoption

From what I heard at this week's Board meeting, the math curriculum adoption decision for middle schools is incredibly upsetting to many people.

Today's article in the PI, Schools move toward uniform math lesson, has some details.

Can anyone who has been involved in this issue either post comments here or send me some information to post?

Positive Change Likely in Closure Plan

At yesterday's Board work session, I heard three likely changes to the closure plan, all of which I consider positive:
  1. Graham Hill to remain open. The main issue seemed to have been how many different schools the students would have been dispersed to, along with the point that Raj made that the students live south of Graham Hill, but most available space would be north of Graham Hill.
  2. Emerson to remain open with Rainier View merging into that building. According to district staff, both school principals and staff support this idea, which is consistent with what I heard from Emerson staff at the last Board meeting. I also heard the New School was supportive of that idea, not wanting to displace a school program to get its promised space.
  3. Pathfinder will not move to Boren building. I even heard a Board member say that suggestion never made any sense. The problem, of course, is what will happen to the Pathfinder program. The current Genesee building is in horrible shape and the middle school students have been in portables for years.

None of this is definite, of course, but all of it is positive. For more details, read today's Seattle Times article, Hint of changes in plan for Seattle school closures.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Passing on Building Debt

By Viewlands parents Julie Howe Gwinn, Doug Lidz, Lynn Miller, Ron Wang, and Kathryn Wenke.

Passing on the Seattle Schools building debt to our kids is another painful lesson from the District. Let’s review a couple of interesting points about that $50 million Seattle Schools
headquarters building.
  • Original cost: $30 million.
  • Final cost: $54.5 million.
  • Actual cost: $104 million.

The $54.5 million new school headquarters in SoDo actually cost $104.5 million, the District confirms. Officials just prefer not to mention the $50 million in loan interest that taxpayers will be paying over 25 years. We don’t need a calculator. $54.5M + $50M = $104.5M.

That’s why the monorail folks thought they had a sure thing going. They learned from Seattle Schools District.

Originally, the building was to be paid for by the savings and income from consolidating operations. Now it won't be. The rosiest projections leave the district $33 million short, and Steve Nielsen (2003 Finance Director School District) candidly admits that such estimates are "non-scientific". Conservatively, the loss will eat up more than $1 million annually the district had promised would go to classrooms. The new, wider District financial crisis, requiring even more cost-cutting and savings, now guarantees the headquarters will become the biggest single wretched excess on school books.

From Seattle Weekly articles:
”Soon thereafter they (Seattle Public Schools) came to us and said they needed $338 million and $178 million in two levies, one for educational services, and one for school improvements. We approved it. Now they have another debt, and our children will be paying for it.”

The money trail...look at that $33 million figure...isn't that something like what they're after right now?

Never mind selling half the building. Sell the whole building and rent one floor from Starbucks, or just call Tully’s across the way. Whoever offers the most affordable rent for the largest amount of space gets Seattle Schools as a tenant.

And both landlords make good coffee.

Reforming Seattle Public Schools

Although most of my posts from now until July 3rd will focus on the pressing issue of school closure, today I want to address a broader issue: How can we successfully work to reform Seattle public schools?

Some of my friends have told me that working to reform public schools is like hitting your head against a brick wall. Many, many people have tried for years, and little has changed.

In a report entitled, "Put Learning First: A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools", Paul Hill writes:

"The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.

He identifies the following items which have constraints placed upon them, thereby making changing difficult:

  • Instruction: "State curriculum rules typically require coverage of a wide range of subjects. State testing programs also provide strong incentives to emphasize some skills over others."
  • Use of funds: "Although overall spending within a school might amount to several million dollars, school-level leaders typically only control budgets of perhaps $10,000 to $50,000...Also, state laws and labor contracts largely govern teacher salaries and benefits, which account for about 80 percent of spending at the school level."
  • Human resources: "School principals have little control over the hiring and assignment of teachers, who typically work in schools according to the terms of collective bargaining agreements. In general, teacher seniority trumps other factors in determining who gets to fill a particular vacancy."
  • Teacher and principal licensing: "States establish licensing requirements for teachers and principals. Schools of education generally define these standards, thereby ensuring demand for their courses and degrees. The requirements set minimum, yet not very effective, standards for teacher and principal quality: More than one-half of new urban principals and teachers report being poorly prepared for their jobs."
  • Investments: "...while individual teachers and principals are constantly coming up with new ideas about teaching and learning—and every city has a school or two that beats the odds with poor and disadvantaged students—other educators have few, if any, incentives to investigate what is working best and imitate it."

So working toward change in Seattle could require:

  1. Changing union contracts for teachers;
  2. Changing teacher and principal certification rules and education programs;
  3. Giving principals more control over their budgets. (Although Seattle principals currently have more control over budgets than most principals, at last night's Board meeting, I think Raj referred to taking back some of that budgetary authority from principals. Did I hear that right?)
  4. Resisting imposition of district-level curriculum decisions. (Last night's math curriculum discussions seem relevant here.)
  5. Creating incentives for duplication of programs that work.

#1 and #2, while vitally important, feel overwhelming.

#3, #4, and #5 seem like items we could tackle as parents and community members across the city.

What do others think? What should we know about efforts already doing on in these areas and/or barriers to success we could fight to remove?

And of course, making these changes would not in any way guarantee better schools in Seattle. It would just remove some of the structural barriers that make positive change so difficult.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

WASL Scores and Income

Every study I have read shows an extremely strong correlation between family income level and standardized test scores.

In 2005, the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog examined the relationship specifically between WASL scores in Puget Sound schools and the number of children who quality for free or reduced-price lunch. The result was that "between half and two-thirds of the variation in school performance on the WASL could be explained based solely on the share of students whose families need help buying them lunch."

So while, as an advocate for Graham Hill Elementary, I will play the WASL score comparison game to keep the school from being closed, I strongly object to the fact that parents and schools are put into the position during this closure process of comparing their schools quality based on WASL scores.

Appreciating School Board Members

I spent about 2 hours talking with Brita Butler-Wall last night at her regularly-scheduled district community meeting. She was gracious, a good listener, and shared her opinions and perspective in an (understandably) guarded and cautious way.

That encounter reminded me of what Andrew Kwatinetz and other long-time education advocates have been saying through this process, which is that our School Board members are volunteers, with no paid staff, who are doing their very best in a difficult situation.

During the school closure process, the superintendent and district staff have been hard to reach --- literally, because they are so overwhelmed with work, and figuratively, because they seem disconnected from the reality of the public schools and the families who send their children there.

By contrast, the School Board members have been quite approachable. I wish all School Board members held regularly scheduled district meetings like Brita Butler-Wall and Sally Soriano do. And yes, all their voice mailboxes have been full for weeks, which is frustrating.

But all Board members have been approachable at breaks during Board meetings. Some have responded directly with personal notes to e-mail. And when I do connect with School Board members, they seem to have a real understanding of the emotions and real-life issues involved when discussing closing children's schools.

So, thank you, School Board members, for all that you are doing. I will continue to question your decisions and criticize your work, but today, I just want to tell you I appreciate your volunteer service on behalf of Seattle's children.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Consider All Options

The most recent message from the district is that the school closure plan is focused on creating better schools. If this is true, then it is time to consider all the possible options. That means considering closing schools that weren’t included in the CAC’s preliminary recommendations, considering changing the configuration of some K-5 schools to K-8, and, in general, expanding the pool of possible solutions by moving outside of the narrowly focused parameters placed on the CAC's work.

For example, in West Seattle, two schools (High Point and Fairmount Park) were slated for closure. When they chose to merge, that reduced the number of schools being closed in the Southwest cluster. With the earlier recommendation of moving Pathfinder to High Point no longer possible, instead of considering another school to close, the CAC came up with the bizarre recommendation of putting Pathfinder in the Boren building. If the CAC had considered all options, I have no doubt they could have come up with a better solution.

And in the Northwest quadrant, the CAC could have suggested changing Viewlands to a K-8, as has been discussed in the past. But because the closure process did not include looking at middle school capacity and issues as part of the discussion, the city could lose a successful elementary program in a unique location, tearing apart an Aspergers/Autism inclusion program as children are placed in various schools around the quadrant.

At last week’s Board work session, one School Board member commented that community members are coming up with more creative solutions than the Board or district staff. I completely understand the need to follow through respectfully on a process that has already taken months of hard work by community volunteers and district staff. And I can empathize with the feelings of some Board members that expanding the number of options just makes decision-making harder. But we should not rush to conclude the closure process, sticking with proposed solutions just to make it easier.

In his preliminary recommendations, the Superintendent called for “renewed clarity in our educational vision and the bold leadership necessary to make change.” This is a moment for both the Superintendent and the School Board to live up to these words, considering all options before making final school closure recommendations, measuring the choices always by the yardstick of academic excellence for all.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fix Viewlands, Don't Close It

By Kate Martin, a Greenwood planner, designer and activist

The "close the schools to save money plan" is very short sighted. It is very unlikely to save money in the long run, and it unfairly burdens schools with lower income families and ones with ethnically diverse and challenging populations.

As soon as this theoretical merger happened, we'd have little to no capacity available in the northwest area of the city, while projects are being built constantly. Enter transportation costs to bus the kids from the densest area to single family neighborhoods or far off schools and the savings zero out almost immediately.

Viewlands is doing a great job and has created a very nurturing and humane environment in which to learn. Within the school, faculty and families are satisfied, which is something not every Seattle school can boast. And their academic results are notable.

Greenwood Elementary's problem is essentially a wad of entrenched, ineffective faculty and a revolving door of principals. This has led to its decline in ability to attract neighborhood students in spite of its brand spanking new digs.

It simply is not just to make it the responsibility of Viewlands to "save" Greenwood Elementary with some kind of instant, full capacity injection. Insult to injury is that one of the pawns is a great Asperger/Autism inclusion program that also is working extremely well at Viewlands.

Viewlands needs some external physical building and landscape improvements and Greenwood needs some internal administrative and staffing improvements. The "merging" of those schools is not the answer.

We need those schools in our neighborhood, we need them both repaired in their individual ways and we need to support them both.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A New Tag Line

Tonight, I changed the tag line for this blog.

It was, "We need to come together across Seattle to stop the overly ambitious and flawed school closure plan.

Now, it is, "Joining together across Seattle to fight for public schools that deliver academic excellence for all."

I still believe the school closure plan is flawed and overly ambitious. On the positive side, it seems we have already helped many School Board members realize that the proposed plan closes too many schools at once. A scaled back closure plan will leave many more options on the table for positive change district-wide, which is definitely a good thing.

But when the closure debate is over, Seattle Public Schools will still be woefully far from realizing a vision of academic excellence for all. Parents and community members need to continue to fight for significant changes in how the district is run. I feel like a sleeping bear that has been prodded into action by the poorly planned and executed school closure process. Now that I'm awake, I don't plan on going back into hibernation any time soon.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Inviting Guest Bloggers

The last two days have brought a lively exchange of ideas in comments on the posts by Graham Hill and Pathfinder parents.

I'd like to extend an offer to any of the people who posted comments (or to anyone else who has been reading but has yet to comment) to be a guest blogger on this blog sometime in the next week or so.

The rules: 300 word limit, no profanity

The guidelines: content should further debate on school closure plan, helping people understand more about the issues involved

If you are interested, just send a message to bethbakeman@comcast.net and I will send you a link for posting.

Pathfinder Says "No" to Boren Building

From a letter by Pathfinder parent, Tracy Burrows at http://www.seattleschools.org/schools/pathfinder/letters.html.

The Boren Site is Not Appropriate for the Pathfinder Program
The Boren site was designed as a large middle school -- it has never been a successful permanent site for a program that includes K-5 grades. Its bathroom facilities are not appropriate for younger elementary student, it has no playground, it is located on a very busy street, and it is not a secure site. The School District's own report states that the facility has not aged well and needs a complete upgrade of systems and finishes. This proposed move does not address our need for an adequate facility, rather it moves us from a small facility needing some repair to a LARGE outdated facility needing many more repairs.

Move to Boren Doesn't Meet District's Principles For Closures
It does nothing to "Improve or Sustain Academic Effectiveness" - The stress of this transition will have a negative impact on Pathfinder’s academic effectiveness for years to come. The School District cannot demonstrate the benefits of this change to Pathfinder students and families.

It does not "Minimize Disruption to Students, Families, and Staff" - This move maximizes disruption to the Pathfinder Community!!

It does not "Promote Program Quality" - This move does not improve the quality of any programs. This move is likely to have a negative impact on Pathfinder's quality, as many current Pathfinder families will look elsewhere for a school in a more suitable location.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Graham Hill School Closure Quiz

During the next week or so, I will post writing by parents at each of the schools directly affected by the closure plan. The first one is from Graham Hill. (see www.grahamhillelementary.org for more data and details)
Which school on the closure list has the largest student population?
  • Graham Hill Elementary – 353 students
  • The two schools with the next largest enrollments are also in the southeast quadrant (Emerson – 278, Whitworth – 233)

Which school on the list has the highest capacity rate?

  • Graham Hill Elementary – 83% without preschool, 90% with preschool
  • The runner up is also in the Southeast cluster: Emerson – 58%

Which school on the list ranked highest for Kindergarten first choice?

  • Graham Hill Elementary – 53 students in 2005, including those matriculating through pre-K
  • Higher than every other school in the SE cluster, and than many other schools where the District would otherwise reassign Graham Hill students

Why is Graham Hill Elementary on the closure list?

  • ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Academic Goals Should Drive Facilities Decisions

Imagine if academic goals were driving the decisions about what facilities to close and which school programs to merge!

Citywide, we could be discussing whether APP students should be in one building together, or whether having APP programs in each cluster would improve the quality of neighborhood schools. We could talk about whether more K-8 programs would help with the issues facing middle school students. We could share ideas about the role of alternative schools in the Seattle school district and talk about the creation of more schools with language immersion programs. We could debate how to address the growing segregation across the district, both racial and economic, and discuss how the proposed changes to transportation and choice may create further divisions.

Instead, we are discussing which buildings to close --- who wins and who loses, and what budgetary factors (capital costs, hope for state funding) are pushing those decisions.

I want the closure plan to be scaled back. I want the district to use better data and a better process for decision-making. But today, what I want most is to get beyond this closure process and start working on some of the big picture topics, with the goal of academic excellence for all continually in our sights.

I just hope the closure decisions don't cripple the district's ability to make necessary changes to reach that goal.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Demographic Predictions, Not Facts

The Superintendent's plan closes too many schools, relying on demographic predictions as if they were facts. School Board members should remember that:

#1) Demographic forecasts are uncertain.
The inherent uncertainty in demographic forecasts means that best practice requires looking at several demographic projections, using different methods or different assumptions, to see the consequences of uncertainty on the data. A school enrollment consultant for California schools provides “a range of enrollment forecasts (such as Low, Medium, and High forecasts) to indicate the level of uncertainty in the forecast and the range within which future enrollments are likely to fall.”

The Seattle School District demographic forecasts, by contrast, present one number, not a range of numbers, and do not explain what level of uncertainty is inherent in the forecast.

#2) The smaller the population, the larger the chance of error in demographic forecasting. Because of this, important policy decisions with long-term consequences should not be based on neighborhood-level forecasts. Recent district forecasting proves this point. (See "Shifting demographics drive school-closure list.")

The School Board should not accept a school closure plan that relies so heavily on demographic predictions, both for determining the number of schools closed in each cluster, and even for deciding which school in the cluster to close, when the district’s own demographer states that long-range projections for small areas can not be predicted with any accuracy.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Momentum for Change

Tonight's Public Hearing on school closures was very positive. Based on conversations with School Board members and community members, I feel we are gaining momentum for the position of rejecting some of the school closure plan, questioning the data, and asking for the process to slow down so it can be done right.

If you were at the Public Hearing tonight, please post your views on what you heard.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

If Demographic Predictions are Wrong

If the district’s demographic predictions are even a little bit off, what will happen in Fall 2007? As mentioned in my previous post, we will see overcrowded schools with larger class sizes, or students from the Southeast quadrant being bused to Northeast quadrant schools.

The district will not be able to quickly increase capacity to respond to the new reality. The BOC will be in the Graham Hill building, the ORCA property will be sold, and the confidence of parents in the Seattle public schools will be diminished further.

In addition, having schools at 100% or more capacity in the Southeast means:

  • The promise of smaller class sizes in the early grades, as described in the CACIEE report and promoted in the Seattle teachers’ union initiative will not be able to be a reality in Southeast quadrant schools since there will be no room for additional classrooms in schools already at capacity.
  • The district’s vision of better schools for all, drawing parents back into the public schools, and decreasing the number of south end parents who send their kids to north end schools, will not be possible because there will be no room in the Southeast for that to happen.
  • Changes in school reassignment plans designed to decrease the transportation costs and bring more children back to neighborhood schools will not be able to be implemented in the Southeast schools because their will be no room.

There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by moving so quickly to close so many schools. Fewer schools should be closed, especially in the Southeast cluster.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Uncertainty in Demographic Predictions

The current closure plan does not “right-size” the district, as the Superintendent claims. It cuts capacity to the bone, especially in the Southeast quadrant. If the enrollment in the Southeast quadrant grows by less than 1% between now and Fall 2007, we will either see overcrowded schools with larger class sizes, or we will see students from the Southeast quadrant being bused to Northeast quadrant schools.

The district is projecting enrollment in the Southeast quadrant will decrease, so we are told not to worry. But what if the district’s demographic projections are wrong? The enormous changes in recent projections do not inspire confidence.

A 2002 analysis predicted that the Emerson area would see a 67 percent increase over the next ten years. Two years later, the prediction was for a 27 percent decrease. Likewise, the 2002 prediction for Graham Hill was a 12.4 percent increase. Two years later, the prediction was for a 12.4 percent decrease.

The Board should not accept a school closure plan that cuts capacity so drastically. The uncertainty inherent in demographic predictions, and the costly consequences if predictions are wrong, require a reasonable cushion for error be built into the plan. Fewer schools should be closed.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Stories Behind the Story

Why was Rainier View Elementary, a school with low enrollment and low WASL scores, in a building in poor condition, on the closure list last year but not on the closure list this year?

The answer is one of the stories behind the story that are uncovered when you start asking questions about apparently nonsensical recommendations.

Emerson Elementary, which is on the closure list this year, is in a building that has been recently renovated. So why doesn't the district close Rainier View Elementary and move those students into Emerson? Because the district desperately needs to cut money from the Capital budget.

The New School has been promised a new building. By closing Emerson and moving those students into Rainier View and other southeast cluster schools, the district can then offer the Emerson building to the New School, thereby saving 55 million dollars from the Capital budget.

Of course, this also keeps the New School from being a K-8 school as promised. The New School has been extremely popular with south Seattle parents, and so has the idea of K-8 schools.

So why does Raj support this recommendation to move the New School to the Emerson building which keeps the New School from becoming a K-8? It’s all about the money, specifically the Capital dollars that will be saved.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Make Monday's Public Hearing Last Until Midnight

Spend some time this weekend inviting friends and neighbors to join you at the Public Hearing on the Superintendent's Preliminary Recommendation for school closures, which is scheduled for Monday, June 12th from 6 pm to 8 pm at the John Stanford Center at 2445 3rd Avenue South.

Anybody can sign up to speak for 3 minutes by calling (206) 252-0040 or sending an e-mail message to pjoakes@seattleschools.org. The recorded message says there will be no limit to the number of speakers that night. Let's make the meeting last until midnight!

Everyone who cares about education in Seattle should come to this public hearing. You can't get a real picture of the potential impacts of this closure plan without listening to people from the affected schools speak.

My Daughters Share Their Thoughts

Claire writes...

I think you should not close Graham Hill because if you close the school some of my friends will not know where to go, and all the other schools will be packed. Plus, it would make everyone unhappy. Please change your decision.

Emma writes...

Please don't close Graham Hill because I love that school. And even though I'm going to a new school next year, I still care about my teachers and Graham Hill. It would make me very sad if you closed that school. All my friends and their parents love Graham Hill. Please change your decision.

Audrey writes...

You should not close Graham Hill because it’s mean to do and all my friends would be unhappy and not know where to go to school. And they must find a place to go school. It is bad to close schools. And we don’t want you to close any school.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

School Board Discussed Unfair Impact

What I heard at the School Board work session today was encouraging. All the School Board members, except Cheryl Chow who represents southeast Seattle, voiced concern about the unfair impact of the closure plan on south Seattle and children of color.

Michael DeBell raised the issue of different criteria being applied to different schools, mentioning the example (from Graham Hill) of using one year's data for one topic on the WASL to judge the school poorly on academic progress.

Mary Bass expressed concern over the constraints that the CAC worked under. She also asked where south Seattle schools will be housed during building remodels since the only 2 temporary sites south of the ship canal (Hughes and Boren) would no longer be available if the Superintendent's recommendations are implemented.

Please add comments to this message and others! Since my three small children were with me, I wasn't able to stay for the entire work session. And I wasn't at the Board meeting that followed at all. I'd love to hear reactions to what Board members said today.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Myth of the Unaffected School

Several people I've talked with about the school closure plan have told me they are not involved because "it doesn't affect my school."

Maybe it doesn't affect your school directly, but every school in this district will be affected by the school closure plan, and the effects I can predict are not positive.

Possible effects include:
  • Higher class sizes
  • More difficulty getting your child into a school you want because there is little (or no) excess capacity
  • Newer teachers bumped out by teachers in closed schools with more seniority
  • Spaces currently used for parent resource rooms, after school clubs, childcare or other "non-academic" functions converted into classrooms to maximize capacity numbers

And this doesn't even touch on the likely changes in student assignment plans.

Everyone needs to get involved! Learn about what is being proposed and make your voice heard. Check out the School Board calendar for upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Pathfinder Does Not Belong in the Boren Building

Pathfinder, a wonderful alternative K-8 program in West Seattle, is one of the latest victims of the flawed and overly aggressive school closure plan.

The original closure plan would have moved Pathfinder to the High Point building, which is an appropriate size and in good condition. However, with the agreement to merge High Point and Fairmount Park instead of closing both schools (which I support; consolidation rather than closure wherever possible), the district now suggests moving Pathfinder to the Boren building.

Pathfinder would move from its current building, which is in horrible shape and too small, to a building that is way too large (over 1000 seats of a capacity for a program with approximately 400 students) and in even worse shape. Why? I guess to reach the magic number of closed buildings.

If the district can't find a suitable building for Pathfinder, close the Boren building instead and leave Pathfinder alone. No one benefits from this proposed move. See No to CAC Proposed Move to Boren for more details.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

No Room in the South in 2007?

Sacajawea was removed from the closure list this week because of district policy prohibiting mandatory placement in alternative schools. Because of that policy, two schools in the South and Southeast clusters, Orca and the African American Academy, cannot absorb students from closed schools unless parents request it.

What that means is, assuming zero change in population from now until 2007, once the 836 students displaced from Graham Hill, Emerson and Whitworth are assigned to other schools, the South and Southeast clusters put together will have 39 slots of excess enrollment capacity spread out over 15 schools.

I know the school district is projecting a decrease in student population for south Seattle, but two years ago they were projecting an increase! With light rail coming to our end of town, I'd bet on an increase. But to be cautious, I'm making these calculations with no enrollment change.

How can the school district be so sure of their demographic projections? If they are wrong, students from the South and Southeast clusters will have to be bused elsewhere. At least one school should be taken off the closure list, and the obvious one, for reasons described in previous posts, is Graham Hill.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Impact on Graham Hill Enormous and Unfair

Yesterday’s recommendations would result in the end of the Graham Hill Montessori program, a highly successful and popular program. The Montessori program would not survive being moved several miles away to the African American Academy, a school with a completely different mission and educational focus.

The superintendent's recommendation to close Graham Hill would also close a successful traditional education program on the basis of one year's WASL scores for one topic only, Reading. Looking at the last two years of WASL scores for Reading, Writing and Math, Graham Hill's traditional program scores higher than 8 other schools in the south and southeast clusters, including ones where it is recommended students from Graham Hill be moved. This is in direct conflict with the district criteria, "Improve and sustain academic effectiveness, including being able to demonstrate benefits of change to students and families."

Yesterday's report also admits there will not be enough room in the southeast cluster for all the Graham Hill traditional program students to attend, so they will get bused to one of five south cluster schools. No other recommendation results in children getting bused out of cluster, or being split between so many different schools. The impact on Graham Hill families is enormous and unfair.

Friday, June 02, 2006

No Logic, No Vision, No Sense

Raj says he's listened to us.

"Specifically we have heard from families who want more access to K-8, dual language, and alternative programs, especially in the South and Southeast areas of the District. We look forward to engaging our communities in conversation about the types and nature of programs that families want, and how those programs fit into our overall vision."

First, I'm thrilled that he is willing to talk about what sorts of programs families want, but don't you think that having that conversation before recommending closing schools and cutting off options would have been a good idea?

Secondly, what vision? The "The Academic Vision of Seattle Public Schools" presented on pages 7 to 10 of the Superintendent's preliminary recommendation doesn't begin to describe a cohesive, coherent vision.

Finally, much of the language in the Superintendent's report makes me want to gag, or maybe just make that hairball sound ("CAC"), but this excerpt wins the prize for tonight: "Additionally, partially-full buildings do not lend themselves to the most appropriate education for students, because teachers do not have enough colleagues to collaborate and because there are not enough students to permit flexible instructional groupings." Give me a break! Maybe that would be true with 2 teachers and 40 students, but does he really believe that is true in any of the Seattle schools?

Tomorrow we regroup for action. Tonight, I scream, cry and go to bed.

Data Does Not Support CAC Recommendations

Repeatedly, schools have pointed out problems with the data used in the closure recommendations. It appears that either the CAC selectively picked data, choosing what best supported their decisions, or they had faulty data, or both.

The Graham Hill closure recommendation is a perfect example. The CAC report states that: "...students in the regular programs at Graham Hill fared less well than students in surrounding regular programs." For supporting data, they used the 2005 Reading WASL scores only.

An analysis of two years of WASL Reading, Writing & Math scores, however, shows a very different picture. The Graham Hill Regular program (with the high-performing Montessori students separated out), ranks 9th out of 17 programs in the south and southeast. Two neighborhood schools (Muir and Wing Luke) with the high-performing Spectrum students included, rank 6th and 7th, just a little higher than the Graham Hill Regular program. And eight programs, including those with the most capacity to accept additional students, rank lower than Graham Hill's Regular program. See www.savegrahamhill.org for details.

Using two years of data for all WASL topics completely undermines the CAC conclusion for Graham Hill. How many other closure recommendations rest on equally faulty data?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Academic Excellence for All Children

I'm tired of reading and hearing that those of us opposing the school closure plan value "bricks and mortar" over children's education. That is a ridiculous and offensive accusation.

I am opposed to the overly ambitious and flawed closure plan put forward by the CAC.

I am opposed to the School Board moving forward quickly on closure when the CACIEE report specifically recommended not doing so until a unifying and clear vision was developed and articulated.

I am opposed to the Seattle School District having such a badly run
administration that money is wasted in countless ways.

I am opposed to living in a city that is willing to settle for having a public school system that almost 40% of parents won't send their children to.

I’d be willing to see some school buildings close. I even supported the idea in the past. But my support for that idea has been destroyed by the flawed CAC closure plan, pursued in isolation, without any clear vision presented by the district of how it fits into an overall framework of academic excellence for all children.

Why the Express Train to School Closure?

After listening to Brita Butler-Wall on KUOW this morning, I have many unanswered questions.

Why is the School Board ignoring the Superintendent's CACIEE's recommendations? Why are they destroying the good will and consensus built during a slow and thoughtful community process led by Trish Millines Dziko and John Warner?

If the school closure issue is so important, why couldn't Brita Butler-Wall or Irene Stewart even show up at a single Town Meeting in the week after preliminary recommendations were issued?

Why can't the School Board be honest about the motivation behind the closure plan? The small amount of money being saved through school closures is not worth the damage being done to the morale of teachers, parents and children around the city, and reputation of Seattle Public Schools. This rapid closure plan seems to be mainly about the School Board wanting to "look good" to the city, the state, and private foundations to get in line for future funding.

The more I learn about how and why Seattle got on this express train towards school closure, the less I like our public school leadership.