That’s one of the slogans half-jokingly suggested toward the end of a small but spirited meeting at Cooper Elementary School tonight in Pigeon Point (map) – its first group meeting since Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson announced at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting that her staff — as requested by board members last week — was looking into possibly moving Pathfinder K-8 to Cooper instead of to Arbor Heights Elementary. The “Save Cooper … Again” refers to previous proposals to close or change the Cooper program, and some of tonight’s participants were veterans of those battles — read on for our report on the talking points Cooper is rushing to prepare as a late entry into the school-closure battle:
That’s J.J. Ball, who led tonight’s meeting in Cooper’s room 107. No cafeteria-packing crowd like Arbor Heights — but the meeting was called on short notice, with some participants suspecting much of the Cooper school community had no idea the school was suddenly facing another survival fight. Ball described herself self-effacingly as a rabblerouser, but it was clear others in the room knew how to rouse rabble too – before the 2-hour-plus meeting broke into small informal clusters of conversation, there had been tears, anger, and even a threat of legal action.
One thing that seemed clear – they were grappling for a way to find out how the process would work, what they were supposed to do, what meetings they needed to attend (starting with Saturday morning’s “community workshop” at the Filipino Community Center, in the same format as the one we covered Thursday night at district HQ).
Unlike Arbor Heights, which has not faced a closure threat before, Cooper is experiencing deja vu, though only a few in the room tonight alluded to experience with the previous closure proposals. The one Cooper fought off most recently (here’s a 2006 letter from then-superintendent Raj Manhas) involved Pathfinder, as is the case now. And it’s that school of which Ball spoke toward the meeting’s start: “I don’t know if the district put them into the position that they did, but no school has the right to push out another school. Even if they are alternative, that doesn’t mean they are better. So the idea that because Pathfinder needs another building, some other school has to sacrifice themselves, to make makes no sense at all. Same for Arbor Heights, as here, or Roxhill, or any place that might be suggested as the place they might go instead.”
However, as the meeting went on, some in the room seemed to settle on the idea that if Pathfinder had to go somewhere, West Seattle Elementary — which was High Point Elementary until it was “merged” with the program from Fairmount Park Elementary after that school’s building was closed last year — might be better. That didn’t emerge immediately, though; one attendee said, “I noticed that some schools brought up to be closed last time weren’t brought up this time … but I don’t want to name those buildings, because it’s like saying, take them, not us … but it seems like (the district’s) criteria is all over the place.”
After a period of voicing concerns and disbelief – they started to focus on specific points. “Busing is one of the things that Cooper has going against us, so I think we need an argument dealing with transportation,” one offered.
That refers to the fact that while Arbor Heights is pointing out to the district that more than half its students are from its “reference area” — the nearby neighborhoods — the percentage for Cooper is lower, 29%. But as they started to examine some of the district numbers, Cooper parents and staffers offered the thought tonight that many Pathfinder students come from the West Seattle Elementary area in High Point, so putting Pathfinder in that area might reduce the need for busing.
“43 students from the Cooper reference area go to Pathfinder,” noted one attendee.
Another voice: “I don’t want to promote the issue of Pathfinder moving in and pushing out some other school, but within six blocks of West Seattle Elementary, there’s EC Hughes, a vacant building that the district owns.” (Hughes was most recently interim home to South Lake High School until the end of last school year.)
Some discussion of that ensued. (Side note: In the online history posted on Pathfinder’s website, a 2006 tour of Hughes is described, including reasons why it’s not considered adequate for Pathfinder.)
It’s mentioned that Pathfinder also rejected a move into Boren, the former junior-high school that is currently housing Chief Sealth. One attendee says, “Pathfinder has openly rejected every other building except this one and High Point; what’s the common thread? (Those buildings) are both 11 years old.”
“We waited at Boren, how long? to get this school,” another says. “We waited so long to get this school, we deserve this school.” (Referring again to the online history of Pathfinder, it actually was co-located with Cooper, at Boren, in its second year, 1993.)
A parent breaks into tears as she says, “It irritates me that they keep trying to take this school. I really like this school. This is the first year my son got to go to this school.” Turns out, she attended Cooper during its years at Boren.
“This is about the haves and the have-nots,” flatly states someone at the back of the room, an assertion which comes up again a few times later. During the meeting, it also is suggested that the burden of school closures and threatened closures is falling more heavily on schools with a larger percentage of students of color, and economically challenged students.
Ball reminds the group that “this time, the district didn’t (originally) choose to push out us, or Roxhill, or High Point (West Seattle Elementary) … they were going after Arbor Heights, which I think, in the South Cluster, has the lowest percentage of free-lunch (low-income) kids. They were picking on the more affluent schools, not the lower-income or minority schools.”
“But they’re picking on us NOW,” comes the interjection. “That’s the point.”
Returning to talking points in favor of saving Cooper, Ball notes it has two “special” programs for which it’s known – the Earth Project (find out more here) and its autism-inclusion program (later described as “our best-kept secret right now,” with a mention of a $10,000 grant recently received for a “buddy program to pair general-education students” with autism-program students). Others point out that Cooper’s test scores are higher than other schools with comparable demographics. And its technology program is mentioned later.
But the talk quickly veers back into why Cooper would be in the crosshairs again, and what could be done: “They want this particular school,” insists one woman, who adds she’s already started speaking with lawyers “about what we can do to push back.”
Having covered several other meetings on the issue in recent days, we hear similar themes from the Cooper community members, as from the Arbor Heights community members: “I don’t think they have provided enough legitimate reasons why this school (would/should) close.”
Then, back to the talking points. Many believe that Cooper is unfairly singled out for circumstances over which it has no control – a low percentage of neighborhood kids because there aren’t enough kids in the neighborhood, perhaps — “the reference area was drawn to include Harbor Island and the golf course,” says one person incredulously; a low percentage of families making Cooper their “first choice” at enrollment time because the school has been threatened with closures or mergers repeatedly in recent years: “Four years in a row, they tried to move us out.”
And Cooper just isn’t well-known, yet another attendee offers. “If I had a penny for every time I hear, ‘Cooper? Where’s THAT?’ … they don’t know where we are. There’s nothing on Delridge that gives you any indication there’s anything up here. Nobody comes up this hill unless you’re going to Cooper or going to home.”
“Enrollment could increase if the word was out there in the community,” is one suggestion, quickly followed with a claim that the district had once promised to market Cooper, but never did.
“Despite that,” says one, “we HAVE grown.”
Another voice cautions that they don’t want to spend all their time complaining when they address the School Board or other decisionmakers. And it’s acknowledged that the school does have room for more students: “We have five classrooms that aren’t used. If you’re the district, you have to look at that.”
“We came close to having another class full this year,” it’s pointed out.
“But people were being sent here because other West Seattle schools were full, not because this was their first choice,” came the retort.
“There are kindergarteners here who were on waiting lists for other schools. Let’s ask them now, are you happy you’re here?”
Back to crafting an action plan — “So what are we going to do now?” is the question.
They start talking about who will attend tomorrow morning’s district hearing, and tomorrow afternoon’s gathering with School Board rep Steve Sundquist (both in the WSB Events calendar). “Two opportunities to make noise,” as Ball puts it.
Noise about the talking points they are just now starting to gather: “Why aren’t they looking at the possibility of filling the school with Pathfinder students instead of telling us we have to leave?” is one question. Someone else brings up one of the proposals from a previous school-closure round: “They wanted to combine the two schools before, and neither of us had any interest.”
“I think it’s a good idea, myself,” counters a man across the room. “Our teachers do a great job of teaching solid, basic skills. They (Pathfinder) do a great job of experiential education. If you do the basics K-2 and then go experiential, you have a very solid school.”
“From previous experience,” is the retort, “Pathfinder wants a new building, bottom line.”
“Well, and we can tell them they’re going to have a fight, trying to get ours.”
“If our kids are dispersed, the most likely schools are West Seattle and Roxhill, where scores are half of what ours are – so if the district is interested in academics, then our school should remain and receive new students instead of going to a program that is worse academically.”
The talking points gel; next, trying to figure out how to rustle up enough bodies for a show of force at key meetings. “I remember going down with our signs and our T-shirts last time,” is one memory. “We have support … I know our bilingual parents will support us … they don’t have to speak, they just have to be there.”
They talk about plotting strategy concurrent with another parents’ meeting that already is planned for next Thursday, while kids who accompany parents to the school watch the movie “Kung Fu Panda.”
That leads to the joke, “Kung Fu Cooper!”
The last major group topic of the meeting is how to get the “Save Cooper School” — “Save Cooper Again,” one person half-jokes — message out; websites and flyers are discussed. Much praise is murmured for Arbor Heights’ tightly organized “Save Arbor Heights” campaign, which had its own website even before district staff officially announced the recommendations 10 nights ago — “I think we can learn a lot from what Arbor Heights has done for the past few weeks,” is one comment. “(We need to) just get out there and say something. We’re people, not a building.”
And as the meeting ebbed to an end, that seemed to echo a statement from its beginning: “We are a school, a community, and we have as much right as any other to continue to exist.”
After tomorrow’s meetings, there are three meetings of West Seattle note coming up on Tuesday: At 4 pm, the school board begins a “work session” at district headquarters, to review community comments from the two “workshops,” to look at new data, and possibly to start evaluating “possible final recommendations,” according to the superintendent’s suggested agenda for the event. Then at 6 pm, there is a district-organized meeting at Arbor Heights for the latest on the closure proposals; at 6:45 that night, Pathfinder plans its own meeting, one week before the formal 12/16 district public hearing in its building. All are on the WSB Events calendar.