Why Does the District Let Good Schools Go Bad?

As a case study, Laurelhurst Elementary is a good one.

For those of you who don't know, Laurelhurst Elementary, in the past, has had a solid reputation as an elementary school.  Naturally, one reason is the tony neighborhood it sits in.  But the neighborhood has always embraced its elementary school.  They are one of the few Seattle Schools' elementary schools to have a foundation.

Laurelhurst has been feeling unease and discord for more than a year now.  From what I had found out, it started when Sarah Talbot was assigned to it as principal and then around the assignment of a Special Education program for support social and emotional services. It is a self-contained program.  (They also have an Access group - 10 students - and Resource group - 30 students.)  Here's the FAQ at the Laurelhurst Elementary webpage.

Last spring, there was a large meeting,complete with numerous senior management including Chief of Schools, Michael Starosky.  Director Geary, whose child is at that school, was in attendance and so was I.

At that time, there seemed to be two chief issues.  One was space and the other was the number of students (about 20) in this Sped program.  The space issue was big because of the number of incidents where one of these students would be having an episode and the only place to handle it was out in the hallways where, of course, other students might be passing by.  One student had said he/she would jump off the roof and kill him/herself in front of other students.

But the issues now seem to be more about leadership at the school and, now there is a petition for her Ms. Talbot's removal.  There are some startling data points:

  • Failure to maintain the historically high academic performance of the school.  From the District’s School Report Card, academic performance scores have fallen significantly from at or above the 90th percentile, with several scores falling into the 50th percentile
  • Failure to address students' and families' concerns regarding safety in the school.  In many cases, concerns about student safety have escalated to the point where families have simply left the school.  The District’s Spring Climate Survey indicates that the percentage of Laurelhurst students agreeing with the statement “I feel safe at my school” fell from 92% to a District-wide low of 80% since Sarah Talbot joined the school in 2014. Laurelhurst’s student environment and professional environment (for teachers & staff) rankings among NE Seattle schools each fell from 4th to last place under Sarah Talbot’s leadership. Several other climate metrics now place Laurelhurst Elementary among the lowest of all District elementary schools. 

  • Failure to retain the highest performing teachers and staff.  The most prominent example is the loss of Ms. Halperin, recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016. Other notable departures include various longstanding, high performing teachers and staff.  District records also show that the average Laurelhurst teacher/staff attrition rate increased from a rate of one per year prior to Sarah Talbot’s tenure to six per year through 2016.

  • The large number of families choosing not to return their kids to Laurelhurst to complete their elementary school education and moving them to other SPS or private elementary schools. District records show that the average student attrition rate at Laurelhurst increased from 17 students per year before the start of Sarah Talbot’s tenure to 40 students per year through 2016, and the District Staff anticipates the 2016-17 year to conclude with an even higher rate.
There is clearly something wrong.  And clearly, despite that big meeting last year, things are no better.

This is a school that has functioned well for decades.  This should not be a worry school for the district.

It takes leadership to find ways to solve discord at a school.  And yet Mr. Staroksy and Ms. Whitworth - he's her boss and she's one of our Executive Directors - have not found that way.  The parents leaving will tell other parents - regretfully, I'd bet - that despite the school's past history, it seems to be declining. 

It's one more example of the district's inability - despite the oversight of Executive Directors - to help principals find their footing, maintain support from parents and teachers and have successful schoo

Petition  -  Right now over 125 people have signed the petition. It will be sent to Mr. Starksky, Ms.Whitworth, Michael Tolley, the Superintendent and the Board.


Anonymous said…
"despite the oversight of Executive Directors". I'm sorry, what?

Where are the Executive Directors? These people are not supporting the schools in any real way. Mr. Starosky is not supporting the schools in any real way. Schools lucky enough to have a decent principal will do okay without them. Struggling principals will do damage, and the hierarchy above them has shown no capacity for fixing this.

Ready to bail out
Anonymous said…
Equity; that is the favorite word of this district's leadership, no?

So, why do some schools get to have parent participation to select their principal, while others are 'placed'?

The school in this blog post got a 'placed' principal. The fit is obviously abysmal, it has been from the start. The results show that steady downward decline. And, do NOT blame the parents!! It was a happy, successful, and welcoming school. And, pre-NSAP, one of the more diverse schools too; much more diverse than Bryant or View Ridge. But now...

Laurelhurst's situation is similar to what happened at TOPS K8 a few years ago, where a principal who was not a fit for the school meant that what was once a cohesive community began to suffer with multiple issues and generalized friction. There are numerous other examples of this. Salmon Bay K8 also comes to mind. And Washington Middle School has similarly had a 180 degree turn of its school cultural since its new principal was placed there, and I am not talking about the elimination of Spectrum model, I am talking about the disciplinary culture that was unleashed on the students.

Principals can make or break a school. Sandpoint started off with a talented principal, who took a school with a very economically diverse student body and made it a special place to be where students and teachers were successful and felt supported.

How is North Beach doing? They were VERY unhappy about their recent principal placement. They went to the board and protested out loud. They know, as do all parents, that principals set the tone, the expectations, the school culture, and can attract and retain the top teachers who everybody covets.

Look at Ingraham High School, when the former Superintendent tried to fire their principal based on a neophyte ED, the community MASSIVELY rallied and saved him. He was saved. That community has continued to succeed and he works to ensure all Rams succeed. Look at Queen Anne Elementary, when their principal was fired, they too massively rallied, but their (exceedingly and fairly universally unpopular) ED dug in and he got buried.

Principals matter. They can make a good school great. But they can also make a great school fail. Look at Debbie Nelson, she is a rock star and has made Hazel Wolf K8 the *it* school. Schmitz Park/Genesee Hill's principal, who went with Singapore math for years and thus made his school deeply loved. Or, the Mercer math miracle, supported initially by a principal with great math teachers.

So, if this is about education, then, that Laurelhurst principal should be removed, so that Laurelhurst can once again sing. NO school anywhere should have to be driven into the ground before it finally receives relief. When something is not working, when there is discord, when students are suffering, and, their education is declining, why would the district wait to fix it? What exactly is the district waiting for? It is more important to support a principal who is failing, or, students who are failing? Do adults matter more? Is this system for their benefit, or, for the children's benefit?

If the EDs can't or won't fix this, then, why have them?

Shell Game

Anonymous said…
Shell game--
Everything you said regarding Washington Middle School and its principal is spot on. However, it is worse than that. Staff morale there is so low. The teachers there want and need a principal who will lead and inspire instead she pits teachers against teachers. Many teachers still do not know what their teaching assignment will be next year and school is out in 12 days. I think it is time for a petition or vote of no confidence there. Is a parent willing to get this going? Teachers are too scared about retribution to spearhead this.
Thank you to all giving input on other schools. Why, why, why?
Anonymous said…
When they don't allow parent input into the selection process, does the district tend to assign principals with poor track records to high performing schools, and strong, well-regarded principals to low-performing schools? Some of the comments make it seem that may be the case. Maybe it's an effort to reduce disparities--bring up the low schools, bring down the high ones--and/or maybe it's out of a misguided belief that "good schools will be fine" regardless?

Principal Principles
Mixed Record said…
It's often disproportionately easier for the district to mess up a good school than it is for a family to get a child into a better school. Moving is expensive and costly. The option school nearest Laurelhurst has a massive wait list. Good luck getting your kid into View Ridge or Bryant since they're busting at the seems.

There's something sick about paying for your kid's legally mandated free and appropriate public education by buying a freakishly expensive house. But because your kids' education is one of the most important things you will ever buy in your whole life you pay a very different kind of attention to what neighborhood you're going to live in than your friends who don't want to have kids. It's kind of morally gross to buy (with housing choices) an education that's supposed to be free.

But there's something even sicker about hiring unqualified principals. Sure, maybe it is a ha-ha on the suckers that bought the million dollar houses. But it's still messing up children's educational lives by hiring incompetent principals. And that is not really funny at all (plus it sucks for people who bought expensive houses and didn't get the educational bang for the buck they expected based on really good due diligence). So many of Seattle's principals are so extremely good. Even some of EDs are actually great. What's the deal with the incompetent ones who are no good? And Goodloe-Johnson. There are some very good hiring choices going on in this city and some very bad ones. What gives?
Anonymous said…
Both Melissa and "Shell game" -
Your posts are right on the money. They underscore perfectly our experiences over the last 10 years. We have seen shockingly horrible principals and great ones. The horrible ones really destroy PTA and parent cohesiveness because parents have to scramble fast to do damage control for the sake of their kids (such as changing schools). It is a desperate situation that the district capitalizes on to keep poor principals around and avoid termination. Also, I think the district favors poor principals because they do not make "trouble" by advocating for their schools. That is my guess from what I have seen as a parent.

An easy fix would be parent/PTA input on principal selection. But that would mean the district would have no where to place "klunkers".

Lynn said…
Speaking of previously excellent schools, Garfield's PTSA is still looking for volunteers to fill the following positions next year:

Co-chairs (2)
1st Day Packet (2)
Gala Chairs (2)
Senior Grad Party organizers (2)
Senior Reps (2)
Junior Reps (2)
9th Grade Reps (2)
Teacher Appreciation (1)

This is a PTSA that plans to provide $236,000 in support for students and staff next year. None of that will happen without parent volunteers.

What causes parents to give up on a school? Who suffers when this kind of support is no longer available? How important were the AmeriCorps assistants to the success of Honors for All this year?
Anonymous said…
"plus it sucks for people who bought expensive houses and didn't get the educational bang for the buck they expected based on really good due diligence"

Do parents without the funds to buy "expensive houses" use "really good due
diligence"? Or are they just not as surprised when their local school in the "expensive rental" isn't very good? Your honesty was refreshing but the message

Sadly, the district has more than a few bad principals. Sadly, when they are in less affluent areas, they can usually hide better.

NESeattleMom said…
I am dismayed to hear about the downturn in morale at Laurelhurst after assuring a mom whose child is assigned there for kindergarten that it is a good school. I hope it is. The assignment area for Laurelhurst includes people who do not live in expensive homes too, and people of diverse backgrounds who don't have options to go private. They depend on before and after school care, etc.
Anonymous said…
In the parents have had to rise up category don't forget the Stevens and Graham Hill situations over the past couple years.

As a blog old-timer I know one reason some schools get more input on principals than others is in the Board Policy for option schools. Parents get to have a say in selection of leadership. It's one thing that makes them alternative and good for the Board for sticking to that policy. Parents should push for a policy that lets all schools have parents on a hiring committee and any 'displaced' principals forced into a school have to be under a mandatory 2 year review period: 1 year to get their footing, one year to make course corrections under upper management guidance if there is such a thing as effective guidance at the Ed Director level which I seriously question. After that, it's out of there if the faculty and parents and school data says the fit isn't working.

Anonymous said…
I'm not happy to have you calling out students:

"One student had said he/she would jump off the roof and kill him/herself in front of other students."

Like kids don't have outbursts and threaten not just themselves but teachers, parent volunteers and other students at other schools?

If parents don't want their children to be educated with other kids of all types, go private or get into the HCC!

Domino, that incident is a widely-known one at Laurelhurst.

And yes, I'm sure students do this at other schools but probably not at the elementary level. All students do need to be served but there also needs to be consideration to the overall school climate and what handling high-pressure outbursts in a crowded hallway will mean to all students.

Again, no one at Laurelhurst has said they don't want these students, nor am I. But yes, the district needs to support the entire school.

As for your crack about HCC, again, another wrong idea about HCC students. Research has shown that gifted students have a higher rate of suicide than other teens. And if you think, as apparently some teachers at Garfield do, that an HCC class are all the well-behaved kids, you'd be wrong.

District-Watcher, I missed this:

"Parents should push for a policy that lets all schools have parents on a hiring committee and any 'displaced' principals forced into a school have to be under a mandatory 2 year review period: 1 year to get their footing, one year to make course corrections under upper management guidance..."

And I support this idea.

I also support teachers and parents being part of the process of principal selection.
Anonymous said…
It is not the incident per se, it is how the school handles the incident. Certainly, we had incidents at our school. However, the teachers and principal notified parents by email and let us know what they were doing to resolve the situation. I do not know how Laurelhurst handled the situation but clearly it was not to the satisfaction of parents and staff.

Disrespecting the HCC kids isn't calling out students? Your comments and your disrespectful attack on other students tells everyone where you are coming from, Domino. Troll Town.

Anonymous said…
"Look at Queen Anne Elementary, when their principal was fired, they too massively rallied, but their (exceedingly and fairly universally unpopular) ED dug in and he got buried."

That ED is Sarah Pritchett. She was principal at McClure middle school when McClure went from a successful and admired neighborhood school to the troubled spot it is now. Up to eleven +/- staff leaving this year alone. And Sarah is the ED supervising McClure. Nothing succeeds like Peter Principle promotions in the District. Sad.

Rachel said…
Parents at a school which suddenly starts tanking in quality because of something SPS does have several options. Most of them don't really help. No one family can untank a school being driven into the ground by an inept principal. Once you get churn in the student population because families start fleeing to get into option schools or other neighboring geozone schools that might have space or private schools (I've heard great things about the catholic school by Laurelhurst by the way), it is very hard for a school to recover.

And parents who are connected enough to see the churn of a tanking school coming and manage to get their child into another public school are by definition parents who are on top of things and engaged enough to fill out a school choice form during the brief open enrollment window. Which means they've done the footwork of touring some other school(s) to see what would be a better choice and know how and when to fill out a choice form. The parents who are able to navigate that sluice system are an inequitable subset of all parents. They tend not to be ELL families or recent immigrants unfamiliar with how SPS works. They tend not to be single parent/guardian households. They tend to be wealthier families who are comfortable navigating bureaucracies. And families who have strong enough ties with other local families who are savvy about the latest news about the quality of the school (not how it was 8 years ago, not how it was 3 years ago--you need to know people on the ground who can tell you what's going on now).

Some families can also afford to go private. These tend to be the richer families with well behaved children.

The other families get sucked down the raging river of school tankage and fall over the waterfall. These families who go down with the ship are a very inequitable subset of families assigned to the tanking school who either don't know it's not very good anymore or don't care that it's not very good anymore or don't have any other viable options. These families often have less money and time to contribute to the PTSA and to volunteering at school and then the school continues to slip as the PTSA can't backfill what the state and the district are failing to provide in the way of funding and staffing and basic educational things. So it perpetuates the struggles of the school.

So, when SPS assigns lackluster principals to schools, it has an inequitable impact on the students in that geozone. The quality of the principal matters far more to students whose families have less money or clout or options or connections.

Happily, equity is SPS's main thing now, so I'm sure they will just start hiring really great principals for all the schools. For equity!
Helen said…
Principals are really the luck of the draw. Our school had an excellent district appointed one and then one where parents interviewed who was a failure. The truth is that some people interview really well but it doesn't mean they will be good leaders. It's hard for parents or staff to really know if someone will be effective. However, when there are problems, it would be nice if the Executive Directors were a little more responsive. Their function seems to back of Principals, good or bad.

Anonymous said…
Isn't this just the triennial disability bash hiding under the covers? All the bad, bad " problem principals" are at schools with disability programs. Let's all sign up to hate on xyz principal because she brought shameful disability to our lauded, high performing school. And OMG!!! There are kids with honest to God behavioral disorders in elementary school?!?!?! Normal kids should never see a tantrum, or hear a rant! Their parents paid good money to live in Laurelhurst where there are 0 tantrums and 0 behavioral disorders. The disability haters need to find another school where the sped kids should be dumped. Where would that be? My guess is they will suggest SE Seattle. If people really cared about keeping great schools great, people would take a greater interest in making special education great instead of a checkbox at a faraway school. It's too crowded to escape.

seattle citizen said…
District-Watcher is correct:
"one reason some schools get more input on principals than others is in the Board Policy for option schools. Parents get to have a say in selection of leadership. It's one thing that makes them alternative and good for the Board for sticking to that policy."
I was on the Alternative Committee that formulated the structure for Alt Policy C54.00 and that element, the school community having a say in leadership selection, is a critical element that applies to all schools, alt or not. EACH school is its own, unique community and needs to have a say in who leads it.

What IS the current policy for principal placement in a school, besides Alt/Option schools? I thought schools were supposed to have a say to some degree.....
chrismealy said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
Have the demographics of the Laurelhurst student population changed? I see that the school now is 23% FRL. If attendance patterns have changed so that the school serves a poorer population, test scores would probably drop in that same time period. This would be independent of who the principal is.

I've seen too many principals claim credit for "improving" their schools when what really happened was that the student population became more affluent. This might be a case of just the opposite happening. Can anyone shed a little light on this?

Need Data
SpedWatcher, your rant is unwarranted. What you are suggesting is not the case (and I have a son who was in Sped). You either aren't reading or believing but what they asked for is supports to help those kids.

Cap hill said…
Great topic. Let's assume that for the sake of argument, a good school is defined as: helps students grow and maximize their potential, parents are highly satisfied, attracts and retains high quality staff, and is making progress on gap/equity. Probably not a perfect definition and by definition incomplete (it has limits and will not capture things like having a great arts program etc). Agreed that test scores are not a great indicator as demographics and shifts in demographics can obscure school impact. I believe the district does have student growth data (it is in the District Operations and Data Dashboard) but for some reason it does not share with families.

Ideally you have a system where you would a) be measuring and setting goals for each of these items, b) schools would work with families and PTSA to put a specific and detailed action plan against those items (which does happen at some BLT) c) principals, ED's and other district staff would be evaluated based on their performance against these plans and d) there would be a transparent system where families can see the goals, scores, plans and evaluation results and hear and ask questions about school plans. Finally, you'd have some agreed upon indicators that a school's performance was deteriorating or poor, and the ED or district could engage in an open conversation including the community on how to fix it.

Contrast that to where we are today. Open one of the school reports: First (and I am not kidding), the section entitled "Accountability and School Performance" is all n/a. Ponder that for a moment.

There is no data on student growth, some data on family satisfaction (although I would like to see opt out rate measured and become a goal), a single metric on staff, and you'd need to do the math yourself to figure out the equity piece.

(Note that I am using Garfield here as my kids go there). There is a single school goal "Garfield High School 10th grade students will increase their proficiency in Math, Science, Reading and Writing by 10% on the state exams. We will also develop interventions for all ethnic groups and programs who are not meeting standard."

There is no tracking for progress against prior year goals.

The scores for each metric are color coded, but not according to progress, absolute score (hi/med/low) or whether they are exceeding a goal. The plans articulated in the plans section don't really track to the indicators, and the CSIP doesn't track either. The CSIP also seems unrelated to what the school is actually doing - for example, "detracking" 9th grade honors classes is not mentioned in the Garfield CSIP, nor is the lack of diversity in honors or AP classes. There are no specific goals in the CSIP, just a set of statements.

The school does not review either the school report or the CSIP with parents. It is unclear whether either the principal or the ED are evaluated based on the school report.

These things are not perfect when you think about what is a good school and whether schools are improving. Kids will have different experiences in the same school. But it is helpful to step back and think about performance and accountability as it exists today. If we are going to do it, let's do it well.
Anonymous said…
Why was SPED watcher's comment called a "rant"?

What does your child have to do with the discussion?

Baffled, the punctuation and tone of SPED Watcher's comment made it a rant to me.

I only noted my child being in Sped as a way of saying I do understand some of the Sped issues involved.
Anonymous said…
It seemed to me that SpedWatcher was trying to show a pattern since a similar pattern occurred at Stevens and BF Day.

Being an advocate for students who are usually dismissed might make someone have a "tone", especially when the students are referred to as "those kids" and have traditionally been placed in schools in less affluent neighborhoods.

It seemed like you tried to delegitimize the comment by calling it a rant.

Also, excellent point by Need Data.

The campaign speech that followed sounds a bit disconnected from the role of School Board director. Maybe you should apply for a data position at JSCEE instead, Cap Hill.

Still Baffled
Anonymous said…
WMS is absolutely correct about the drastic changes at Washington. There is lawlessness in the hallways. Kids are blatantly skipping class. I have seen employees call for security on their radios for a student incident and NO ONE answers. Mrs. Jones would not believe the school that she left such a short time ago. The principal is devious and dishonest and plays favorites. Some staff work crazy hours, evenings and weekends, so those who try to stick to the contract are made out to be slackers in the eyes of admin. Staff have been told to pack up their rooms, but not told what they will teach next year. If their grade level or subject changes, how can they plan over summer with their rooms boxed up? (oh yeah, teachers have summers off...ha!)

open ears
Still Baffled, I did not say "those kids" so you'll need to be more specific. As well, the tone is clear:

"And OMG!!! There are kids with honest to God behavioral disorders in elementary school?!?!?!"

You can disagree but I was not trying to delegitimize the comment but it's hard to have a discussion when it feels like someone is so upset.
Anonymous said…
"If people really cared about keeping great schools great, people would take a greater interest in making special education great"

I'll second that rant.

And yes Melissa, at my outstanding northend elementary,we had many tantrums, threats to self-harm, parent-harm and teacher harm. And guess what? All the kids are the better for it, just like they are better for the middle school inclusion and self-contained SpEd programs we had. I consider my child blessed to be part of such school communities. The caring and commitment SPS staff shows towards these kids with extra needs infects the whole school and brings out the best in all the kids.

Anonymous said…
SpedWatcher, so anyone who complains about their principal is a "disability hater"? Nice.

gerry, I'm not sure I agree that "all the kids are better" for having been exposed to threats, but whatever. I guess you figure it'll make them stronger and more understanding? Not sure my highly anxious, chronic worrier plagued by nightmares would agree, but surely you know best.

Anonymous said…
I'm very sympathetic to your child, messy, but you misinterpret my comment. The real life issues that students have and bring to school, including anxiety, can be used to help children learn empathy and understand that all kids have complex and challenging lives. I don't believe children should be allowed to threaten each other or anyone, but it happens and being in a school where children can see positive and productive help being delivered to those who need it can be very reassuring.

I hope that your school is sympathetic to your child's needs and that other parents are also understanding of the challenges anxiety can bring to the life of a young person.

I am truly sorry that any reader thinks this thread is about seeing Sped students as a problem to be hidden away. It's not. And, in fact, I said that despite the initial issue being about a lack of supports for Sped students, that it had gone beyond that to other leadership issues.

It's a thread about leadership problems. Read into that what you want but not everything is a nail and bad leadership hurts all students.
Anonymous said…
MW: I'm sure students do this at other schools but probably not at the elementary level. All students do need to be served but there also needs to be consideration to the overall school climate...[]...and I have a son who was in Sped

Congratulations on having a child with a disability! Evidently your child wasn't disabled in elementary school and was never labeled EBD like these students are. In any case, this whole thread really is a longstanding disability bash at this school in particular, which has never welcomed families with children with disabilities, never, and at the others listed: Graham Hill, Stevens. It's not at all surprising that this crowd would start a witch hunt to preserve purity in "their" public school.

Are people really just asking for supports? What supports would that be? The school already has a huge special education staff with the highest staffing ratio in the district. What school's resources should be depleted to support Laurelhurst? Instead of asking for supports, why not give supports? How many people who are piling on to the principal for her willingness to serve all students have invited kids in "those programs " to their homes? And isn't it ironic that those who are so quick to blame home environments for test scores (completely correct) would seek to destroy a principal for test scores rooted in students ' home environments?

The question remains, if "those kids" shouldn't be served at Laurelhurst, then where?

Proud Ranter
I'm going to end this thread here as it seems to be a trigger for some.

Being sarcastic about my child doesn't make your point stick but thanks for that.

I attended that meeting and have spoken to parents there and not a single parent said, get those kids out of here. Never. And no one ever said "those kids" to me.

Not one word about test scores being lower because of Sped students.

The thread was about how poor leadership hurts a school and hurts all students.

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