By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
By mid-afternoon tomorrow, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson will announce her “final recommendations” for which school buildings and “programs” to close, in hopes of saving the district millions of dollars. Her announcement won’t be the last word — the proposal will be formally introduced at the following night’s School Board meeting, and then a final round of hearings/meetings (and no doubt protests) will follow, till board members’ scheduled vote on January 29th.
When the process began, the timing was considered difficult at best.
The first recommendations came out just before Thanksgiving; a December schedule stuffed with hearings and meetings ensued. Then, Snowstorm ’08 injected itself into the process, leading to the cancellation of some key events, such as a Cooper Elementary community briefing that had been planned for December 18 (and to this day has not been rescheduled).
We will bring you word of the “final recommendations” the moment they are made public tomorrow. More than a thousand West Seattle families will be watching most closely — those from Cooper Elementary (left), which is on the current list as proposed for “program” closure; those from Pathfinder K-8, whose Genesee Hill building is proposed for closure, with the Pathfinder program to move into Cooper; those from Arbor Heights Elementary, which was on the first version of the list as proposed for “program” closure and Pathfinder building relocation; and the West Seattle families with children in the APP top-level-gifted program, which is housed at one all-city building each for elementary and middle-school levels, but is also proposed for dramatic changes.
Much of our coverage throughout the process has been event-driven — meetings, hearings, protests, creation of websites, etc. As we come out of the holidays and the snow daze, no events have happened in the past few weeks, so we e-mailed a Cooper Elementary parent we had heard from before, JJ Ball, to ask what if anything was going on as the “final recommendations” approached.
As a result of that note, we spent two hours this past weekend talking with JJ, who is parent of a Cooper kindergartener. We met JJ at the two meetings she led at the school — meetings she wound up leading not because she is a PTA official or any other kind of official, but just because she wanted to help. She made it clear in our conversation she was not speaking as any sort of official representative of Cooper parents or school.
We talked at a local coffeehouse, where she had a tote bag in tow – full of folders and notebooks of information she’s amassed during the month since Cooper suddenly materialized on the potential closure list — again. The last round was two years ago, before Cooper’s daughter was even school-aged (side note, she also has two grown children who attended Seattle Public Schools).
One month ago today, J.J. led the first meeting at Cooper (12/5/08 photo above; WSB coverage here). In her conversation with us this weekend, she recalled how that happened almost by accident – Cooper parents had just learned that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson’s latest update on the school-closure process included the announcement that district staff was studying closing the Cooper program instead of the Arbor Heights program, in the search for Pathfinder’s new home. She found herself in a leadership role because, as an analyst by trade (for Boeing), she immediately started seeking data and crunching numbers, and “had it all in (her) head.”
One aspect of that data that she returns to again and again in our conversation, and that has been brought up both at meetings and on the Cooper School Works website, is that Cooper’s results – in the form of WASL achievement-test scores – are overall stronger than the West Seattle’s other two demographically comparable schools (Roxhill and West Seattle Elementaries). You can find the comparison chart halfway down this page on the CSW website.
“What the district is doing is closing the best educational option for the kids that they have to offer,” she says emphatically. ” It’s not stellar, but it’s better than many others, if you look at the WASL … It’s amazing what I have learned through the last month.” She and other Cooper parents are particularly concerned about where students would be reassigned — there’s room at West Seattle and Roxhill, for example, but as that chart shows, those schools’ educational performance is at a lower level.
The other issue that continues to mystify JJ and the Cooper community is how this move will solve the “excess capacity” situation that the district has identified in West Seattle; the bulk of the open seats are in the South Cluster (map) — Cooper is in the North Cluster (map), which has little room, a reason why the School Board would have to make some rule changes before this proposed move could be finalized.
JJ says she and others in the Cooper community are perplexed about why their school is on the list, given those facts, for starters. She says they sought and received a meeting recently with West Seattle’s School Board rep Steve Sundquist, who gave them four reasons, she said, why the move would make sense, though “none made sense” to her (she couldn’t find her notes during our chat, but recalled one involved moving West Seattle’s only alternative school, Pathfinder, to a more central location). “And if I can’t make sense of this,” she said, “how can I combat it?” though she has tried just the same.
In addition to contacting Sundquist, JJ e-mailed other board members, and expressed disappointment that she heard back from only two, Cheryl Chow and Peter Maier, and that she did not get a response from the superintendent, either. Her correspondence with Maier, she says, was most extensive, although she is incredulous at one term he used, regarding needing to fill up the “fine new (Cooper) building.” Regarding the current Pathfinder-to-Cooper proposal, she said, “I get no feeling they are looking at anything else.”
But rather than simply discussing the closure proposal and why she believes it doesn’t make sense, JJ wanted to talk about Cooper’s strong points — beyond the programs that have been mentioned in closure-opposition talk, such as its autism inclusion program, and The EARTH Project.
“One thing Cooper does phenomenally well is, communicate with parents,” she begins, explaining that her daughter’s teacher has called frequently, to share observations and achievements, so different from many school situations in which you may not hear from teachers or administrators unless there is a problem.
“It’s not just me,” JJ is quick to add, saying other families have voiced appreciation for the same experience, including those for whom communication might be a challenge, such as the Somali families: “The school is proactive in keeping them informed.” She marvels, “I have never seen a school that does this much,” and subsequently laments, “It makes no sense to take apart a program that is working.”
District leadership has said that “school design teams” will be created in hopes of replicating, in new settings, “what worked” at closed programs. Once again, JJ says, she is perplexed: “The best way to learn about something that’s working is to let it keep working – study it while it’s in action – don’t dissect it after it’s gone.”
And, she goes on, what about the kids? Where will they go? Given the research she has done, she is worried that many will be sent to the schools that are not doing as well, which she also feels makes no sense: “If you’re going to cause the trauma of closing a school, at least offer something in return – a better education.”
Some of the odds seem stacked against Cooper, she suggests, again referring back to data: While the district is saying it wants the building to be full, the current “reference area” renders it impossible for that to happen with just neighborhood kids – district statistics show about 270 elementary-age children in that “reference area,” fewer than even Cooper’s current enrollment. That reference area was redrawn several years ago, JJ says, wondering why it couldn’t be changed again to make Cooper the neighborhood school for more children, if the district is already willing to change the rules anyway, as would be required to disperse its current students and make way for Pathfinder to move in.
And she pulls out yet another set of numbers – local schools’ operational costs, per student. If the district wants to save money, she suggests, closing Cooper – whose maintenance costs are at the median level for the area – saves less than the district would get by closing other schools. Her list shows that Roxhill, for example, costs more than twice as much per student to operate; West Seattle Elementary, one and a half times. “The two most expensive schools to operate are the two with the lowest WASL scores,” she points out.
By this time tomorrow, we will know if Cooper is still on the proposed-closure list, in which case its families, teachers, and administrators will have to decide their next steps. JJ rues the time frame in which this has all been playing out, saying that for Cooper’s diverse community in particular, communication has been almost impossible during winter break: “Because of the snow, then the holidays, we haven’t been in school for weeks. It’s been difficult to coordinate. A lot of our families don’t have e-mail.”
One aspect of a potential final-stage anti-closure campaign, a West Seattle-wide vision developed by Cooper and Arbor Heights parents at a recent meeting, may be available soon; JJ said it was still being finalized over the weekend.
In the end, as JJ says – “First and foremost, I’m a parent,” and she says that she will have to make whatever decision makes the most sense for her daughter and her family, if the Cooper program ultimately closes; she already, reluctantly, is mulling the options, just in case.
As you would expect an analyst to do.
The superintendent is expected to discuss her final recommendations with the media after they are made public by mid-afternoon tomorrow; they will be discussed during the School Board meeting at 6 pm Wednesday, which includes a public-comment period, though the signups for that were taken first thing this morning, as is customary each Monday before a board meeting. For archived WSB coverage of the current school-closure process, go here.