The Ugly Side of School Closures & Consolidations

Not that there is really a pretty side to school closures and consolidations, but the ugly side is highlighted in a KUOW interview on their website today:

School Closure Jockeying

When a school is slated for closure, like in other high-stress situations, the people involved show both the worst and the best of themselves. During the first round I was involved with, the Graham Hill community really came together, forging relationships among parents in the regular and Montessori program and addressing existing racial tensions. The school was better and stronger once the closure effort was over.

In the case of Arbor Heights, based on what I hear in the KUOW interview, I think the desire to protect their school from closure at all costs brought out the worst in some of the PTSA Board language and actions.

But when the district and School Board make it absolutely clear to all schools targeted for closure that they should develop and present alternative proposals if they want to keep their schools open, that encourages school communities to name other schools for closure. It's happening all over the district. The closure process design and the messaging from the district and Board encourage it.

And schools with PTSA groups that are highly organized and savvy about communication and working with the Board and the media have an advantage in the process.


Phyllis said…
Beth! Thanks for your post on this. I am interested to hear about similar developments at other schools, and any closure developments that parents, teachers, and students are noticing: Also, KUOW will have a call-in show on school closures Tu 12/16, 9-10AM, 94.9FM. We would love to hear from your readers and bloggers. (800) 289-KUOW or 206.543.KUOW. Thank you!
zb said…


Ugh. And once this perception develops it undermines any belief people might have in the fairness of the process. Fairness being -- a plan that tries to look after the interests of all the children of Seattle, including the ones whose parents don't have the time, ability, or tools to fight for them.
And this is what bothers me about this process for this round of closures; I really don't know what information has been given to the Board and how much of it that they have pored over.

Sorry to keeping referring back to this but on the CAC, we were given a huge amount of info (and asked for and were given more). It took hours to go over every single school, assign it data points, compile those points and then discuss our findings. Plus the school visits, the e-mails, the testimony. All of it went into making decisions.

Did the Board ask for and get information (I hope they are not just going on what is presented at work sessions)?

Because the fine detail (not just one year of 1st choices but several, not one year of WASL scores but several, value-added data and so forth) is what makes for an easier decision.

Value-added data is what protects poorer communities who may be making progress but starting at a lower place. Their progress still may be greater than some other school that is doing fair but making little progress.

What does the Board know? Have they done school visits? It isn't so much parents defending their schools (although parents and school staff know their schools far better than district staff and Board members especially at the elementary level)as Board members knowing the schools in their districts (and there are a couple of people on the Board who I suspect don't know their districts very well).

We should press the Board on these points; what are they using for data in making their decisions?
Johnny Calcagno said…
This “ugly side” is the biggest reason that I have been relatively quiet in this round of closures, even as I attend District meetings and obsessively monitor this blog and others. I am stunned and absolutely nauseated with the situation of one community throwing another under the bus.

It’s one thing to form alliances with other schools, and engage in talks to find creative solutions; it is a completely separate, and in my opinion morally questionable practice to suggest other better candidates for closure. That sort of thing should stop now. Yes, speak up for your school and hopefully others, but please, don’t tear down someone else.

I have some patience with objective observers, i.e. those with no dog in the closure hunt, but unfortunately they sometimes seem to be amongst the least informed about realities on the ground.

This is yet another reason we need to be implementing the assignment plan *at the same time* as school closures. It is the smartest and most compassionate approach we can take in terms of effects on families and in meeting the goal of excellence for all. The possible money saved isn’t nearly worth it if we do it in the wrong way.
Unfortunately the KUOW story contains a number of inaccuracies and did not accurately reflect the subject matter of (AHPTSA president) Suzette Riley's conversation with the reporter. As, West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times have reported earlier, Seattle School Board members (Sundquist and Maier) directed the District to consider Cooper Elementary as a location for Pathfinder at the November 25th School Board meeting when closures were first announced – prior to any
testimony, letters from parents or calls to Board members. Also at
that meeting, Board members questioned Dr. Goodloe-Johnson about why she wasn't proposing to close a high school when the District had excess capacity of 3,000 seats, with 800 more by 2011.

During public testimony at the December 3rd School Board meeting
Arbor Heights parents presented School District data supporting three potential alternatives to closing Arbor Heights. That data was in no way based on poverty. It was based on building capacity, percentage of attendance drawn from reference area and rate of first choice attendance.

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's Superintendent's report at the December 3rd School Board meeting proposed Cooper as the location for Pathfinder and closure of Rainier Beach. Delivered immediately following public
testimony, the report was clearly prepared in advance. These facts
are easily verifiable through media reports of the meetings and by the Superintendent's Reports on the School District's website. I will post a detailed, sourced response.

Seattle School District has said schools will close. This is nothing to celebrate, and we at Arbor Heights certainly do not celebrate that another West Seattle school will close. Our efforts have always been,
and will continue to be, focused on two things only: making sure that the district stays true to its stated priorities of neighborhood schools and equitable access to quality education for all students. Please contact with any questions or concerns.

The parents at Arbor Heights have put hours and hours into research and have tried to put forth thoughtful and logical questions and comments and it is infuriating to receive attacks on such a personal level. Our school looks much like the rest of the city, both socio-economically and racially. We are you. And we all know better than to believe everything we read.

Proud West Seattlite & Arbor Heights parent, Cori Roed
Roy Smith said…
If SPS publishes criteria that it says are going to be used for determining which schools are to be closed, then how is it a "morally questionable practice to suggest other better candidates for closure" based on studying those criteria and the data at hand?

If the school district is not following its own criteria for how the decision is to be made, pointing out that "school X should be prioritized for closure, based upon these criteria" is not tearing down another community, it is an effort to make SPS abide by its own criteria.

I don't have a problem with those who would criticize the criteria as being flawed (I tend to agree with that point of view), but I also don't have a problem with those that will argue with SPS about whether they are taking their own criteria seriously or applying them consistently. This second approach seems to be the approach that Arbor Heights has used.
Bravo Johnny; thank you for that thoughtful analysis.
Beth Bakeman said…
Cori, thanks for posting. I agree completely that the mention of Cooper for closure and the possible need to close a high school were first mentioned by Board members during questions at the meeting that the Preliminary Recommendations were announced.

What I was responding to, in my post on this thread, was the decision of Arbor Heights PTSA, as reported in the KUOW interview, to go forward with a strategy of suggesting other schools to close as the "safest" strategy for protecting Arbor Heights from closure.

In an earlier post (Working Together Across Schools, Lessons Learned) I wrote:

"Don't throw another school or program or population "under the bus" as part of your solution. It doesn't look good to Board members or other community members, and it's not likely to work.

Do find other schools that you can talk with/work with to collaboratively develop creative possiblities/solutions."

And I still stand by that advice. Despite what the district and Board are saying, coming up with alternative solutions doesn't have to mean pointing out why another school should close.

I honestly think your school's case against closure could have been strongly made just focused on the data of where your students live (walkability and neighborhood school argument) and dispersion (how many different schools your kids would need to be split amongst if AH closed).

I imagine that fear/stress and the Board/district rhetoric around this pushed you to do otherwise, which I think is really unfortunate, both for your school community and for the rest of West Seattle.

As you probably know, on this blog, I've invited anyone from any school involved in the closure and consolidation process to become a temporary contributor. So far, from your school, Mark Ahlness has taken me up on that offer. But if you would like another person from your school to be a temporary contributor to share your side of the story if you think it is being presented unfairly, please let me know.

I've made the same offer to Cooper, via e-mail to the principal and in-person to the people I met at the last "workshop" on closures.
reader said…
As I attend meeting after meeting, and I do attend a lot and not only in our "cluster," the 900 pound gorilla seems to me to be all the schools that DON'T have to get involved and that seem to sit on the sidelines. At the meany meeting last week the only people putting their heads together to address the north-south issues in the "cluster" were ttminor, meany, and montlake. Aren't there more than three elementaries in that cluster? I think the whole thing is terribly imbalanced and there are no fundamentals that everyone can agree on. For me, delivering strong programs to school communities that need the boost is where it should start.
another mom said…
Johnny, thank you for observations,I agree with you, and have communicated my opinion to the Board. The current plan displaces some students for the second time in two years. And it is bound to happen again with the roll out of the new student assignment plan. No plan will be perfect or please everyone, but the most humane and what makes the most sense is what you have suggested.
Phyllis said…
Hello! Thanks, Cori, for your feedback. The focus of the KUOW story was that poverty/affluence are factors in whether a school is targeted for closure, and that parents play a role in that when they have resources like an organized PTSA (which the less-poverty-affected schools tend to have), and avail themselves of opportunities to help save their schools. This was intended to be informational, rather than an attack. In fact, I was under the impression that it was a point of consensus among the people I interviewed. As Beth says, it's happening all over the district. I appreciate Suzette's and Eric's commitment to openly discussing both the discomfort and the benefit of their choices.

I will review your feedback with my editor. Thanks for allowing me to contribute to this discussion.
Charlie Mas said…
Must I always be the villain?

If you both acknowledge the need to reduce capacity and defend your school, then you are - in essence - saying that there are better choices for closure whether you are overt about it or not.

To say, "Don't close us" is to say "Close someone else". The only other alternative is to say "Close no one" which isn't going to work because there must be closures.

So you can be subtle and coy about it, but it is just like the joke about the two men running away from a pursuing lion.

"This is nuts", says one guy. "We'll never be able to outrun the lion."

"I don't need to outrun the lion", said the other guy, "I just need to outrun you!"
zb said…
""This is nuts", says one guy. "We'll never be able to outrun the lion."

"I don't need to outrun the lion", said the other guy, "I just need to outrun you!""

Yeah, but this is, ultimately, a non-cooperative, zero-sum version of the problem of being lion bate that we need to reject. If we translate your proverb into two children running, and the parents saying, "oh, our kids don't need to out run the lion, mine just has to outrun yours." Oh, and yeah, we give one of those kids a big load of baggage she has to carry.

As parents, we can try to share our common tax resources by figuring out a way for our child to run faster than yours, or we can try to save them all from the lions.

Now, fortunately, closing a school doesn't have to mean feeding the children to the lions, and that's where we have opportunity to not play the zero sum game. It's easier to show that you're doing that though, if you're not saving your school, and targeting another.

That's why it's not really villainous for you, Charlie Mas, to suggest that Arbor Heights be swapped for Cooper.
Johnny Calcagno said…
Charlie –

Perhaps you’re more of a delicate flower than I thought. I for one wasn’t thinking of you with my comments. You throw so many ideas out there (and thanks for them!) that every school has probably been a target at some point. We long ceased to take it personally.

I do think a more apt ending to the lion chase story that best reflects the “ugly side” of current District politics would have one of the men tripping the other. That’s what I’m concerned is happening, or could happen if we are not careful.

I don’t agree that “Don’t close us” means “Close someone else” because I have not heard a compelling argument that schools need to be closed this year. I just perused the State Auditor’s report (which somewhat tellingly is a financial audit, not an educational one), and it says this:

We recommend Seattle initiate a study, and if feasible, implement further school closures.[…] Seattle plans to recalculate its building capacity by using its most current occupancy and space allocation criteria, and develop a new student assignment strategy by the 2010-11 school year. As a consequence, Seattle Public Schools should be able to develop a plan for additional school closures soon thereafter. (emphasis mine)

Again, this closure process is rushed, and should be done in conjunction with the assignment plan changes.
dj said…
I had been under the impression that the impetus for closing schools quickly was partly based on the desire to save money (although as many people have noted, the proposed closures may not make much short-term difference), but also on the desire to demonstrate to the state that Seattle is serious about cutting costs. Given the upcoming state budget costs, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable goal.

Folks who have been here longer than I have -- would the state be equally satisfied with a set of proposed school closures that would be implemented when the new school assignment plan is implemented? The more I read here, the more sense it makes to me to have closures and reassignments implemented simultaneously -- whether that is an argument for getting the software elves on completing the reassignment this year, or delaying everything until next year.
momster said…
"This is yet another reason we need to be implementing the assignment plan *at the same time* as school closures."

The district proposal in 2005 would have closed buildings, redrawn reference areas, changed the assignment plan, and modified transportation - all at the same time - and it met with the same howls of rejection the current proposal has (at least by those whose schools or programs are being closed - same as now).

You can't modify the assignment plan or transportation until you redraw reference areas, and you can't redraw reference areas until you know which buildings will be open.

OK - I'm feeling grouchy - but it all feels like some variation of the bargaining stage of death and dying - "we would support this if only the process/communication/criteria/
public involvement were better; the assignment plan should come first;let's do outreach to the community and have them decide."

And more grouchy - re Phyllis Fletcher - I used to respect her, but I've come to think (at least with respect to school closures) she's yet another vulture needing to fill the airwaves with the alarmist, sensational hooks that "news" providers know people will react to.

Her implications (and statements, actually) that the poor and non-white were targeted during the last round of closures were irresponsible and betrayed a significant lack of understanding of where capacity is and where demand isn't.

She isn't as bad as the TV "news" or Emily Heffter of the Seattle Times, but she's sadly not much better. Jessica Blanchard of the PI is one of the few who writes at all thoughtfully about SPS - and actually listens to people she interviews.

dj said…
Momster, I'd respectfully disagree with you.

I'm not the expert most people are here on the district as a whole, so permit me to continue to look through my central cluster portal. If we're closing Montlake without redrawing the assignment areas, those kids are going to go into a school (Lowell) that they won't be assigned to when the assignment plan changes. The T.T. Minor students will go into Madrona and Leschi even though many of them live in areas that probably will be assigned to Lowell. It doesn't make sense to do it in different years.

But I agree with you that change, no matter what, is going to make people unhappy. I don't think that's so bad -- it's actually kind of heartening to find out how many people really, passionately believe in their own public school programs.
Charlie Mas said…
I, for one, believe that school closures are sometimes appropriate. To hold any other view is to say that school closures are never appropriate, which means that everytime we open a school it is forever. That's not a commitment that I think any person or government entity should have to make. It simply isn't a reasonable position to insist that the District continue to maintain every school that they ever opened regardless of any results or changes in circumstances.

So the question then becomes "When are closures appropriate?" I think the answer is different for traditional neighborhood schools with reference areas than it is for alternative schools with non-geographic communities.

For neighborhood reference schools, it is simply a matter of counting butts and counting seats. If the number of seats exceeds the number of butts by more than a whole school's capacity, then, in the name of efficiency and out of respect for the taxpaying stakeholders, we should determine if we could close a school and still provide access to a nearby school for every student. If we can, we should. This is essentially why the District is closing Meany and T T Minor. They can serve all of the students in the Central Cluster wihtin a reasonable distance from the students' homes without these schools. Anything said in defense of these schools that isn't in denial of overcapacity is essentially an effort to redirect the closure elsewhere. You can't argue this point without suggesting a different target for closure. This is the situation where Arbor Heights found themselves.

For alternative schools the rationale has more to do with the results. Alternative education is, essentially, experimental. Not all experiments are successful. If, given sufficient opportunity, they do not find enough success to justify the District's continued support, then they should be closed. This is why the District is closing the African-American Academy.

There are multiple measures of success. They include academic achievement and popular demand. The real debate around Summit and AS#1 is whether or not the programs are successful. By the District's measures, they are not sufficiently successful to merit continued support. The Summit and AS#1 communities have different metrics for success (or different benchmarks) and they contend that their program are successful - or perhaps that they could be in another setting. This question - and the evidence in support of the opposing views - really should be the focus of the discussion. These discussions can be made without any necessity to re-direct the closures elsewhere. AS#1 and Summit don't have to find a more likely target.

Despite low enrollment, Rainier Beach isn't closing because the butts that the District counts are the ones in the area, not just the ones in the seats. That is the argument that Cooper is trying to make. This argument is also one that can be made without redirecting the closure elsewhere.

All of these arguments are straight up number questions - the number of butts and seats depend on how you count them - do you count all of West Seattle or just West Seattle-North, do you count planning capacity or functional capacity? What are the metrics of school success and what are the benchmarks? What are the school's assessments this year, over the last three years or the last five years.

Summit is also trying to make the argument that, if dispersed, their enrollment would flood the northeast cluster and create a grave failure of capacity management for the District. AS#1, due to their smaller enrollment, cannot make that argument/threat as convincingly.

I think this is how the Board and the staff see these things, so I think these are the approaches you have to take to be persuasive.
Roy Smith said…
AS#1 has the argument (which was made at the hearing last night) that closing the building itself is stupid, given the capacity issues in the area, and thus far SPS has not identified any other program that could use the space, so we should just leave AS#1 there.

If Summit's students are dispersed into the NE cluster, at least neither the total numbers of available seats and of students are unchanged; nothing in the capacity problem has been fixed, but neither has it been made worse.

If Pinehurst is closed and AS#1 students are displaced, though, the number of seats has been decreased while increasing the number of students in the remaining NE cluster schools.

I am cautiously betting that this argument will sway the school board to keep AS#1 for at least a year or two more, but I am also realistic about what it means: it is not a vote of confidence for AS#1, it is a stay of execution. It will result in AS#1's long-term survival only if the school can fill its capacity and prove there is demand for what it has to offer before the district figures out something else to do with the Pinehurst building.
Phyllis said…
I did report that Cooper and RB were targeted, in part, because of issues related to poverty. I did not report on race.

My understanding of reference areas, and circumstances under which they are changed, raises more questions about closures in West Seattle.

I'm not sure what to say about the name-calling.

Thanks for your feedback. I will share it with my editor. And be sure to call Weekday this hour! 543.KUOW,
Roy Smith said…
Momster, it turns out that even reporters happen to also be real people that ought to get at least a basic level of respect when they trouble themselves to comment on this community blog.
momster said…
long past the time when anyone would read a comment, but i know who phyllis fletcher is, having spoken to her and seen her at district meetings - and do actually know that she is a real person. i'm not sure what bearing my opinion on her work has on "respect" - whether she comments on this blog or not.

and phyllis, my comment about your interpretation of the motivation or intentions behind the 2006 closures have to do with comments you made on the air before the district published any recommendations for this round, not regarding what you may have said about cooper or rainier beach since then. in another life, i might have gone back to find the exact words you said that i found ill-informed or intentionally inflammatory, but i don't want to spend the time or energy.

are you really saying that the district "targets" a school for closure because of the poverty of its students or families? that a school full of students and regularly and robustly chosen by families would be closed because its families are poor and by inference can't mount a defense?

sorry if you are offended by my lumping you in with news vultures who feed on the demand for the sensational - it is hard for me to understand why you would accuse the district of "targeting" if it were not for that kind of "news" - or because you don't understand what you're implying or understand the arithmetic of this equation (capacity > demand = closure of building, regardless of free and reduced lunch %)

what these situations need are not fomenting and instigating, but real information and data-based analysis - and i don't feel that you are providing the latter.
momster said…
again, something no one else will probably read as the comment thread is too old, but here
is what phyllis said on air on oct 28:


i went back thinking i'd been unfair to say that she had characterized the district as targeting the "poor and non-white" (my words), but re-reading this, i think was not.

i still think her comments here were inflammatory, unhelpful, and conveys a lack of understanding essential to responsible reporting on the issue.
Beth Bakeman said…
Momster, no comments are ever too old. Thanks for adding more of your thoughts.

Last night at Genesee Hill, Phyllis Fletcher asked me if you were there, and was surprised to learn that I have no idea who you are.

For me, it was an example of what I like about the usernames on our blog. I know you only as "momster" (which is a cool username).
momster said…
thanks, beth - i've always assumed you had access to ip addresses if not email addresses - but i don't know much about blogs.

unfortunately my words were too flippant and/or too strong - people see only that and reject the opportunity for reflection, i.e., "IS this language inflammatory? IS this an accurate characterization?"

good thing you, melissa and charlie (who i still consider the main bloggers) are more conscientious about that than i am.

live and learn. (maybe)
Phyllis said…
I feel a bit at a disadvantage addressing someone publicly who says she has spoken with me, calls me names, and won't identify herself. But I'd like to respond to a few of Momster's points.

- Capacity, demand, and test scores are closure criteria that are influenced by poverty, and by District policy. The Superintendent has acknowledged this. She says the District has not done a good job of educating poor children and, specifically, poor black children. However, as she describes it, while the District is responsible for the current state of affairs, it is in a position now where it simply must close some schools. Several criteria the District has chosen are ones that, by the Superintendent's admission, are results of poverty and District policy.

- I have also reported that the Superintendent has a goal to improve education for children who, by test score measurements, are not well-served by the District. A school with low test scores is a likely target for a closure recommendation. It is also likely to have a high number of children in poverty (see above).

- I stand by my characterization of the 2006 closures.

- My report that prompted Beth's post did not discuss race.

- The word "target" does not, to me, imply wrongdoing. Other media reports have used that word liberally to describe the process of identifying a school for closure. It's not intended as an accusation of impropriety--certainly not in my case.

The Superintendent plans for the closures to be part of a transformation that, among other things, leads to better education of poor students, black students, and any students that have not been educated to her standards--the standards she has for her own child. The board has a huge amount of confidence in the Superintendent and her abilities. The group that seems to still be skeptical are the parents whose schools are recommended for closure.

I think it's fair to report on any of this. I will be eager to report on the improvements that result from closures, changes to the assignment plan, and any other changes the Superintendent has in mind.

I don't expect your opinion of my reporting or my understanding of the issues to change. But, today, having seen your follow-up comments for the first time almost a month after you posted, I wanted to address some of them.

I'll be happy to talk to you about this in person, and surely you know how to contact me at my job. Failing that, though, I'll see you around--but I won't know it!

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