By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
40 speakers, 3 schools, 2 school board members. Those are the numbers from last night’s school-closure public hearing at the Genesee Hill Elementary building that Pathfinder K-8 has called home for almost 15 years. And numbers were the reason the hearing had to happen at all – a $24 million-$37 million budget shortfall faced by Seattle Public Schools, with $3.6 million a year potentially to be saved by shuttering school buildings including the long-deteriorating Genesee Hill. The district’s been proposing closing it for years — without also closing the Pathfinder “program” — so the issue has been, and remains, where does Pathfinder go?
Three weeks ago, Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson‘s original “preliminary recommendations” for citywide school closures/changes — under the banner “Capacity Management” — tagged Arbor Heights Elementary as the future home of Pathfinder, with AH’s “program” to be “closed.”
What ensued, if you will forgive us the movie reference, seemed a bit reminiscent of the scene in the original “Star Wars” movie where Governor Tarkin is threatening to blow up Princess Leia’s home planet unless she reveals some secret; he says that if she doesn’t want to see her planet vaporized, “then name the system.” In the movie, she was expected to reveal her secret base; in real life here, schools suggested for closure were told “name a better alternative.”
In the case of Arbor Heights, only one alternative was on the district radar.
First, a one-minute recap, which we originally published on November 25, between the unofficial word of the “preliminary recommendation” and the official announcement hours later:
It’s been two years since the previous closure process hit its low point, an ugly ruckus during a board meeting in October 2006. Before that, the most controversial West Seattle aspect of the fall 2006 proposal was a plan for Pathfinder K-8 to move out of the ex-Genesee Hill Elementary and “merge” into the Cooper Elementary building in Pigeon Point; Roxhill Elementary was also proposed for closure; earlier in the process, there had been an even-more controversial proposal to move Pathfinder to Boren (where Chief Sealth is temporarily headquartered now). When all was said and done some weeks later, Pathfinder and Cooper kept their status quos — even though all agree the Genesee Hill building is in sorry shape — and ultimately, the Fairmount Park Elementary building was closed, with that school’s “program” merging into the underenrolled then-High Point Elementary, since renamed West Seattle Elementary.
As subsequently detailed in our “live” updates (look at the 9:51 pm entry) during the School Board work session at which the “preliminary recommendations” were formally announced, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson explained that district staff had arrived at the conclusion that Arbor Heights and Cooper were the only possible West Seattle buildings Pathfinder could be moved into. (Thanks to Mark M for this Google Map of all three.) What ruled out Cooper, she said at the time, was the fact that it’s in the West Seattle North cluster, and if its “program” were discontinued, since other North cluster elementaries were full, its dispersed students wouldn’t be able to stay in their cluster, while no such problem existed in the South cluster, home to Arbor Heights — several other South cluster elementaries had plenty of room. After listening to that, West Seattle school board rep Steve Sundquist and north end rep Peter Maier both questioned whether Cooper should have been ruled out on that basis, since the district was moving toward a focus on neighborhood schools, and Arbor Heights had a larger percentage of its enrollment from its neighborhood.
Fast forward a week to the next regular School Board meeting, Dec. 3. Speakers include six Arbor Heights parents who propose multiple alternatives to closing their programs (as reported here). Later in the meeting, the superintendent presents an update on the school-closure process, including a mention that staff is “evaluating” the possibility of having Cooper be Pathfinder’s new home instead.
At a work session the following Tuesday — December 9 — Dr. Goodloe-Johnson presented a new set of “potential final recommendations,” and it basically swapped Arbor Heights for Cooper.
So in the past week, the Cooper community has found itself doing what the Arbor Heights community did two weeks earlier — strategizing how to save its school “program” from shutdown.
Tonight was its first formal chance to make the pro-Cooper case to the district, at the tightly formatted, state-required Genesee Hill public hearing. 40 people were allowed to speak, mostly based on preregistration by e-mail and phone. They were supposed to limit their comments to issues related to the potential closure of the building — which certainly applied to Cooper, Pathfinder, and even Arbor Heights.
Each of those 40 people — 9 of whom didn’t show, clearing room for wait-listed speakers — had up to 3 minutes, and their remarks constituted the entirety of the meeting, aside from scripted opening remarks by Sundquist, outlining the rules. (One such rule, for the audience to keep quiet and avoid demonstrations of support or opposition, was repeatedly ignored; almost every speaker drew spirited applause.) He was one of two School Board members at the hearing, along with Sherry Carr, who like him was elected a year ago and therefore hadn’t gone through the previous school-closing process (they are in the center of this photo):
If you had arrived at last night’s hearing without knowledge of the backstory, you might think Pathfinder was proposed for shutdown, rather than — or in addition to — its building. Those who spoke on behalf of Pathfinder – parents, teachers, even students – outnumbered everyone else, almost 3 to 1. That of course is the luck of the draw – who called or e-mailed first; only one Arbor Heights parent spoke, but they had more spots on the list – they had signed up back when their school was facing the ax.
Their audience, in addition to Sundquist and Carr, included several district officials, one of whom was identified as a district lawyer. Two district communications managers were on hand as well.
Pathfinder PTSA president Jennifer Giomi was up first, setting the stage by saying, “I hope you will discover who we are.”
“Who (Pathfinder is)” unfolded in many descriptions over the subsequent two hours; the teacher who spoke after Giomi described it as a “remarkable school” and noted its 9 percent American Indian student population, while also describing its economic diversity — two children in one class living in shelters, for example: “Children (here) can talk about their lives, when it’s easy, when it’s hard.”
Only one person from Arbor Heights spoke, parent Dana Varon. She spoke of the value of her school, the value of Arbor Heights, the value of Pathfinder. “If the West Seattle community values Pathfinder – and I think everyone does – then why do they have to move into somebody else’s building? Give them their own building … I think we have to come together as West Seattle and say, this is not OK. I don’t know what the answer is … but this is not the answer.”
Back to a parade of Pathfinder advocates: Parent Lashanna Williams, who listed a nearly infinite lineup of activities with which the school is involved. Parent Terry Simpson, discussing what “experiential education” — a Pathfinder specialty — meant for his atypical son. “Whatever clever ideas come up in the 11th hour of this process, I beg you to make this your first thought — run it by professional educators at the affected school and see what they have to say about its impact.”
Pathfinder parent Leslie Harris, who spoke of her middle-school daughter, said there is no room at West Seattle’s other public middle schools for the 150 who are attending Pathfinder.
Pathfinder parent Sarah Kelly tried to clarify the sometimes-derided label “alternative,” and again mentioned the school’s Native American focus: “It is a matter of import that we circle back to native culture in this school because native culture is still relevant.”
Next, a passionate defender of Cooper, Charita Dumas, who has spoken out at both of the Cooper meetings we attended – here is her entire 3-minute speech on video:
The second Pathfinder supporter to speak after Dumas, Heidi Jindrich, offered a lament that Pathfinder had turned up in the closure process, in one form or another, so many times in recent years: “I think of how much time we have spent making these no-brainer arguments (to support the school), and I think what a tragedy we couldn’t spend our time volunteering, being teacher’s aides, helping our children do their homework, instead of sitting in meetings for six years … Just please make a decision so Seattle Public Schools can start building our program by focusing on what matters, teaching and learning, not on facilities.”
She was followed by a ubiquitous presence at all district-related hearings, West Seattle resident Chris Jackins, who does not support closing any schools, and frequently files, or advocates, legal challenges to school sales and other proceedings. He said, “Genesee Hill is a good site in a nice neighborhood … The district should support Pathfinder in making improvements to the site.” He also noted that the district has been losing students after closing schools, so ending closures, he posited, could increase enrollment.
Two Pathfinder students spoke, including 8th grader Alyssa Kaplan, who said the program “teaches you how to learn … and how to be a person.” Pathfinder parent Jean Hamilton offered empathy: “It’s a difficult night for all of us in the room; there are no good guys, there are no bad guys, all of us want the best for our children’s education, in a difficult economic situation.”
Pathfinder parent Amy Daly-Donovan recapped the school’s history of closure proceedings and facilities searches. “We all know this building is one of the worst (in the district), but we have worked very hard to make the best of what we have. … So here we are again. There is no ideal answer at this point … I’m not sure what the best answer is. I do think it’s important those making decisions know the background.”
Then an intense speaker on behalf of Cooper — Raymond Williams, who said he had two children at Cooper and one at Pathfinder:
Another Cooper parent followed, Shelley Williams (“no relation”), who mentioned deep ties with the school, including having attended there herself. She alleged racism is the reason Arbor Heights was taken off the list: “I don’t know why Arbor Heights was the original recommendation, but it’s clear why they are not now: Race and money. Parents with money can pull their kids out of the district. And they vote. Cooper – those ‘poor people’ don’t vote. We were added only after a white school with money hatched plans.”
Pathfinder parent Audrey Kaplan worried that the district’s commitment to alternative education was waning; Kari Nyland, parent of a special-needs student at Cooper, said, “I’m pretty baffled by this whole process … I did not have a choice about where my son would go.”
Beth Bakeman, a Pathfinder parent who founded the respected saveseattleschools.blogspot.com site during the 2006 closure process, said, “I don’t want to see any children forced to leave schools where they are thriving academically and socially.”
Several Cooper supporters followed, including J.J. Ball, who led the two recent meetings we covered at the school as parents and teachers started to organize what has become the “Cooper School Works” campaign. And from Pathfinder, teacher Andy Darring, who opened by saying, “This is an incredibly painful conversation”:
Subsequent speakers talked about a Pathfinder middle-school program taking students to China to work in an orphanage, and the Blazing Trails onsite child-care program at the school. Parent Heather Hisatomi praised its teaching style and referred to it as “deep learning.”
Later, Pathfinder parent Jason Kirk spoke against the concept of closing schools, offering to yield his time to anyone who could address “the transfer of longheld public assets to private ownership.” Andrea Lister finally jumped up, and cited the sale of the former Cooper School — now Youngstown Arts Center — “for less than its value, which leads to part of the deficit of the Seattle public school system, which is why we are here, why these schools are being pitted against each other.”
Perhaps the most vivid line of the night came from Maria Aliza, a Pathfinder parent with a special-needs child; she said, “I think it’s absolutely inappropriate that Pathfinder is put on the head of the hammer that would come down and shatter and scatter another community, since (Pathfinder) is about inclusion, diversity, respect. … (But) it’s an uncomfortable building and something needs to be done. If we don’t want to shatter another community, an appropriate building needs to be made available, or we need to make this one appropriate.”
Defense of both schools continued; no one overtly mentioned another way for the district to save what it says it needs to save. The second-to-last speaker, Mary Lane, said, “How sorry I am that we are all here … It’s my first year in the public schools. I don’t think I understood before what all the fuss was about school closures. I am sorry for all of us to be here.”
The final person to speak was the only one to use a translator, Sara Cabrera Aparicio, advocating for Cooper to stay open because her autistic son is thriving there.
The meeting ended on a tense note, with the crowd chanting TRANSLATE! TRANSLATE! as a man stepped forward in hopes of becoming the 41st speaker, having just heard that translation was available. Sundquist repeated several times that the man was welcome to speak with him and Carr afterward, but that the 40-speaker limit could not be exceeded. Some heckling ensued; he ended the meeting, and the crowd settled into a low roar as attendees prepared to venture back out into the subfreezing night.
WHAT’S NEXT: The School Board is scheduled to hear an update on the closure/change process from the superintendent at its meeting tonight, 6 pm at district HQ in Sodo (weather permitting). The superintendent is scheduled to present “final recommendations in early January,” with a final School Board vote at the end of the month. The full transcript of last night’s hearing could be on the district’s Capacity Management site later today (a Monday transcript from another hearing made it to the site Tuesday). If you have something to say about the process and proposals, the district has reiterated that your opinion is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org