The train’s left the station, but they’ll let us help paint it

June 27, 2007 at 10:52 pm | In Denny-Sealth, West Seattle schools, Westwood | 10 Comments

That’s what the current state of things boils down to, regarding the school district’s plan to build a new Denny Middle School on the Chief Sealth High School campus, with some shared facilities — or so it sounded when district reps made their case during a semi-contentious community meeting tonight (called by the Westwood Neighborhood Council). Click for more:

The main bone of contention for neighbors: Very little public input solicited before this declaration that the shared-campus project is moving forward and the community just has to deal with it. Tonight, Sealth principal John Boyd and Denny principal Jeff Clark both faced the crowd and apologized for that — with Sealth’s principal even admitting that prior solicitation of public comment amounted to little more than students running around with flyers.

Much has been made (including this Slog post filed tonight before the meeting) about the concerns of this combined campus leading to much mingling of kids ranging in age from 11 to 19. But that’s not all the Westwood neighbors say they’re worried about.

First, some backstory on this: The $125 million estimated cost was approved by voters in last February’s Seattle Public Schools levy. The ballot language didn’t clearly say, or really even hint at, “new combined campus for both schools” (though advance newspaper coverage talked about it, and we did too). The project is moving quickly, supposedly because of concern over rapidly rising construction costs, and the district says it hopes to start construction right after next school year; some of the recently hired architects were on hand at tonight’s meeting, along with the aforementioned principals and even the late-arriving but spirited outgoing West Seattle school board member Irene Stewart.

As the plan stands now, Sealth students would be moved to temporary digs at Boren as of fall 2008, so major renovations can begin on their school, simultaneous with construction of the new Denny campus on the north side of the Sealth property. Denny students apparently will stay in the old school till the new one’s built; it will face Kenyon Street, according to the district’s preliminary plan, while Sealth will continue to face Thistle.

What happens to the current Denny site after the new one opens is the main portion of the project that, according to district reps, is still up for significant public input. One meeting attendee asked if there was a chance the district would simply sell the land; the district reps said that wouldn’t make sense (without absolutely declaring “no way in hell”). They expect to turn it into more athletic fields, including some for community use; that too is a point of concern for neighbors, who say the current SW Athletic Complex across from Sealth isn’t supposed to be fenced off the way it is now, so they’re leery of district declarations that new facilities on the Denny site would be open.

Also a sore spot: With the new Denny campus taking over space now used for parking at Sealth, will buses and cars spill over into the neighborhoods? The principal pointed out that high-school students soon will be riding Metro buses instead of old-fashioned school buses, so that at least would cut down on the bus traffic. But otherwise, there were vague mentions that a parking/traffic plan would have to be developed, with city help.

Tonight’s meeting included pitches from both principals, who painted flowery pictures of how shared facilities would mean better education for students at both schools, especially in the music programs, which are already cooperating to some degree. Later came the thorny questions from some attendees, including one community activist who said he’d heard a majority of staff members at both schools were opposed to the project (Denny’s principal denied that, Sealth’s principal didn’t), and a Sealth employee who declared that both schools have “discipline problems” now and wondered how in the world they would handle the increased discipline necessary when all sorts of rules kicked in on a shared campus about “this area’s for middle schoolers only/this area’s for high schoolers only.” (When asked how some of those areas would be marked off, one district rep gamely mentioned some “landscaping features.”)

After that same person’s passionate declaration that what’s really needed is an all-new Sealth campus AND an all-new Denny campus, School Board member Stewart unapologetically defended the project as it stands, saying she and her colleagues felt there was no way they could get $200 million past voters for a project of that magnitude; the $125 million for new Denny/renovated Sealth was “pushing it” as it is. It was clear that Stewart is proud of procuring that money for the two secondary schools in south WS, after the secondaries in north WS (Madison MS and West Seattle HS) both underwent major remodels in recent years.

What’s next? The Westwood Neighborhood Council promises to keep close watch and organize more meetings; the school district invited community members to join in the design process. If nothing changes, construction would commence in about a year, and last for about two years.

10 Comments

  1. to get involved in the design process–call Robert Evans at 206-254-7989

    Comment by anon — 1:46 pm June 28, 2007 #

  2. While public input is important and should certainly be encouraged, I fail to see why parents think “they” should get to make the decision and not the school district.

    As you point out, this wouldn’t be a surprise if folks actually paid attention to the news and what they vote on…

    Comment by Mickymse — 4:49 pm June 28, 2007 #

  3. Thank you Mickymse. I was curious myself about the usual level of public input in such matters. Doesn’t the passed levy address that? Since this was a Westwood Neighborhood Council meeting, were there more parents or neighbors in attendance? I can only speak to one of the schools, but I haven’t heard any of the negative staff rumblings mentioned. And I do think that there are many positive programmatic elements to the (limited) shared space. I can’t figure out why (as SLOG says) parents would be “freaking out” about this…I’ll give it to them if they’ve been voicing concern all along, but this cannot be coming as a surprise to parents. It’s been talked about for months.

    Comment by GenHillOne — 6:50 pm June 28, 2007 #

  4. I grew up in West Seattle, walked to school at Denny and Sealth, and am now honored to be teaching at Denny and a participant in the building design committee that recently voted for this project to go forward. Over the past several months, this committee has wrestled with some of the same issues that were touched upon at Wednesday’s community meeting and on this blog.

    I want to begin by expressing my disappointment with the news coverage of the community meeting. All of the pertinent details of the project that were presented by the administrators seemed to be omitted with the focus instead going to negativity and divisiveness. In fact the camera was not even there for the district’s presentation, waiting until the end for the questions and answers only.

    I teach at Denny Middle School and I know for a fact that a majority of the staff members at our school are upbeat and excited about the potential for this project. To suggest that a majority of the Denny staff is against this is a flat out lie. The Denny staff members share a set of core values that put students first and we look at this project through the lens of “Is this best for kids?”

    I personally believe that the proposed project reflects what is best for kids. It provides state of the art facilities to both the middle and high school students. It provides a strong pathway from middle to high school that will help keep them on track, as they make what is a very difficult transition for a great many kids. A strong pathway will help reduce drop out and truancy rates. Building the middle school on the high school campus will provide for greater collaboration between the middle and high school teachers and sharing of special programs. It will provide for curriculum alignment so that there is not so great a discrepancy between what the middle school teachers teach, and what the high school teachers say the students need to know coming in. Also, it will provide for greater educational opportunities as schools pool resources and talents in music, world languages, technology, visual arts, and pre-engineering. Students participating in these special programs from grades 6-12 will come out of high school significantly more advanced than their peers at other schools who did not have the same sort of sequentially aligned curriculum in these areas.

    Yes, we recognize that a great deal of attention will have to be paid to safety. But let’s be real. Denny and Sealth are currently only two blocks apart as it is. The students come to school on the same school busses, walk the same streets to and from school, and hang out together in the community center and Westwood Village Shopping Center. The feared mixing of middle and high school students is already taking place. Building these schools on one one large campus will only force the staff members to recognize what is already happening, and give them greater tools to guide it and control it.

    As a fairly young teacher I look back to the experience I had as a student at Denny Middle and Chief Sealth High School. At each school I was able to surround myself with positive adult figures that nurtured me and helped me educationally and socially to make it out of high school and on to college. Although I was lucky to have that, I have also observed that many students do not ever make thoseorts of important connections and they often are ignored and fall through the cracks. This project provides a real opportunity for us to build one large nest around these students. It will create an environment where the teachers, community resources, parents, and children at these schools will be able to communicate and work together as a family with the goal of ensuring success for every child. Are there potential pitfalls along the way? Yes! But we are already experiencing the pitfalls that come from maintaining the staus quo.

    There is nothing to be gained by bickering about what should have happened before this point. There is a lot to be gained if we come together with the idea that we have a $125 million dollar opportunity to design something phenomenal not only for the next generation of Denny and Sealth students. This is our chance to provide our students with the very best. It is a chance for us to design a middle school to high school pathway that can be a model for school systems nationwide. Let’s rise above the divisiveness and do something great.

    Comment by Pimpleton — 2:37 pm June 29, 2007 #

  5. It sounds like its the community, and not necessarily parents, that are concerned with the proposed plan. As someone who has worked at a middle school adjacent to a high school, I will say its not ideal.

    The fact of the matter is that these schools are getting the shaft, because they don’t have the tax base to support two new buildings. Which is what they should have.

    Comment by Jen — 4:13 pm June 29, 2007 #

  6. Thanks for joining us Mr. P. – nicely said.

    Comment by GenHillOne — 8:38 pm June 29, 2007 #

  7. We are parents of three boys, all of whom go to school in the W. Seattle area. Our oldest son just graduated from Chief Sealth, our middle son is going into 9th grade at Sealth in the fall, and our youngest will be an 8th grader at Denny. I am currently working at Denny in the Teen Health Center, and am a member of the West Seattle Community- we live within a 1/2 mile of the two schools.
    I am shocked, and surprised, at the uproar the combining of the two schools has caused. As a parent, I want equipment and technology which is new, exciting and up to date. I want a facility that encourages pride amongst our kids. I want a skilled staff who will work with my kids from 6th grade through 12th.
    Combining the two schools allows for all of that. Should Denny be improved as a stand alone option, our kids will still be faced with an unimproved Sealth. I also feel that the opportunity of combining the two schools would facilitate the co-ordination of curricula through the grades, and this has been an issue in the past, particularily
    in math. I think the issue of kids safety is a red herring- most problems of bullying happen between kids of the same grade, or kids close in age. I think there is room for improvement in enforcing standards of public behavior, but this is not really an issue relating to the combining of the schools, but is more an issue of all staff in expecting and demanding certain standards of behavior (no yelling in the halls, treating other students and staff with respect, etc.).
    Combining the schools also would allow for continuity where our children’s health is concerned. The providers in the Teen Health Centers would be allowed to follow their patients health concerns from 6th grade through the 12th, with collaboration between the providers occuring on site. This would be a huge improvement to our children’s healthcare.
    I’ve heard people complain that parking would be an issue should the schools be on the same lot. Right now, Denny has no parking. Of what I understand, Chief Sealth would add another parking lot to their site to accomodate Denny parents, visitors and staff. This is more then what is available now, therefore, it shouldn’t be an issue.
    The music program at Denny, headed by Mr. Pimpleton, currently includes students at both Denny and Sealth, and seems to be a wonderful collaboration of the two entities. I haven’t heard of any bullying amongst those kids, nor have I heard of anything other then positive experiences for all of the kids involved.
    As a parent, a worker at Denny, and a community member, I strongly hope that we can begin thinking of our children, and begin to leave unfounded fears behind. Lets work together to see that the combining of the schools is all that it should be- an innovated way of getting the most out of available funds, with all of our kids coming out as winners. And, lets give the kids what they deserve- two schools that they can be proud of.
    K. Lehman

    Comment by Karen Lehman — 6:33 pm July 2, 2007 #

  8. Just to be fair, Sealth is not “unimproved”. From the District’s Facilties page on BEX II, Chief Sealth:

    “Modernization of the facility to support the school’s transformation plan. Scope of work includes creation of a new student commons and building entry, renovating the library, upgrading 9th grade classroom for collaborative teaching, creating a multiple use science lab, and remodeling the metal shop area to become the math academy. Project area is 37,000 square feet, $3.8M”

    No, of course, not a total remodel but don’t say nothing has been done. Wasn’t the football field redone in 2000-2001 as well?

    Comment by SPS parent — 12:55 pm July 5, 2007 #

  9. Fair enough- guess it was a poor choice of wording. My comment wasn’t meant to belittle Sealth- I had one son graduate this past June from Sealth, another is going there in the fall, and a third will go there in another year. I feel that Chief Sealth is a wonderful school with a supportive, caring staff and a lot to offer all kids.
    However, since the improvements were made at Sealth, the kids seem to have a lot more pride in their school. I have no doubt that if the two schools “combine”, that level of pride will continue to climb.

    Comment by Karen Lehman — 2:58 pm July 11, 2007 #

  10. It’s great to hear from those who are supportive of the Denny/ Sealth proposal. Please don’t interpret critical thinking as opposition to the project.

    * Yes, the levy said that Denny would be built on the site of Sealth, but it offered no details. It has been extremely difficult to find information about the proposal. Perhaps you are lucky enough to be on the design committee. Many of us in the committee have actively sought information, to no avail.

    * District: please don’t try to pretend that the performing arts center or the “atrium” will be a neighborhood amenity. Schools are not able to function as community centers. They are not open to the public with few exceptions. The baseball fields were sold the neighborhood as an “amenity”. Today we stand outside the wire fences and look in.

    * I personally am concerned about plans for the Denny site. I am concerned about the possibility of more inaccessible play fields, more lighting, more fences, no natural environment, more people driving through the neighborhood.

    * If the district were serious about getting neighborhood input, they would set-up a project web site and provide phone numbers and email addresses. As it is, nobody returns emails or calls.

    Comment by westwood — 4:16 pm July 12, 2007 #

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