By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“You’re taking something that’s actually working and breaking it.”
That critique of the latest proposed Seattle Public Schools attendance-area maps came from one of the two dozen-plus people who attended School Board rep Steve Sundquist‘s community meeting Saturday afternoon at High Point Library.
Sundquist has this type of meeting monthly, as do other members, with no agenda except Q/A with whomever shows up, but he’s made them more frequent as the board approaches a scheduled vote on the attendance maps (and in fact his next one is just hours before that vote).
Several in the room Saturday afternoon wanted to discuss the concern reported here Friday night – the observation that the newest revision to the West Seattle attendance-areas map seems to draw a sharp line largely following West Seattle’s north-south economic divide, with the feeder-school list for Denny International Middle School and Chief Sealth High School dominated by those with more students from lower-income families, while the feeder-school list for Madison Middle School and West Seattle High School is dominated by those with more students from higher-income families.
And another major concern emerged:
Gatewood Elementary parents protested the decision to add their school as a southern appendage to the north zone, saying Gatewood has been an unofficial “feeder” for Denny and Sealth for several years, with much inter-school involvement in ongoing efforts such as Project Earth Care (here’s a tree planting we covered with all three schools involved).
Here’s another look at the original version of the maps, released in early October, with Gatewood feeding to Denny and Sealth (as well as the non-alignment of Denny/Sealth zones):
Gatewood is now feeding to Madison MS and West Seattle HS, while Sanislo Elementary has switched the other way, feeding to Denny and Sealth instead to to Madison and WSHS – here’s the newest map:
Sundquist indicated one major factor in the change was that the feedback from Sanislo families was “almost universal (that they) identified” with southern West Seattle more than northern West Seattle: “If we’ve got a community that appears to be solid in their identity issues, we should at least consider that.”
The fact the West Seattle maps changed between the October release and the November update was no surprise; at a meeting organized by three PTSAs shortly after the first versions came out, Sundquist revealed (WSB coverage here) that the district had made a mistake by not synching the Denny and Sealth attendance areas, given the fact that the two schools will be sharing a campus within two years. But as one attendee pointed out today, changes to the first round of maps were done by district staff, fixing errors and considering feedback, no vote needed — but now, changes are only going to be made via amendments approved by a majority of board members when they vote on the boundaries at their next meeting November 18th.
One thing that Sundquist made clear in his opening statement at the meeting – there’s no going back; the new School Assignment Plan, including the attendance-area designations, is “in the context of a larger strategic plan” that he insists will “assure that at each of our schools our principals and teachers are being asked to teach all our kids at the same high level … today, that’s not the case.” And, he said, school leaders will be held accountable if new “assessment technologies” do not show that happening. He also said feedback has been “broadly … supportive” regarding switching from choice-based attendance – where families are free to choose any school in the district – to a geographic plan.
Along with the boundaries themselves, the matter of “sibling grandfathering” also came up several times – in other words, what accommodation the district will make for families whose children would be attending different schools because of the switch from choice-based assignment to neighborhood-based assignment. One attendee was on the verge of tears while telling the story of driving her son daily to Lafayette Elementary because it’s a safe place for his severe allergies, so her younger daughter has visited the school almost every day of her life – yet, without sibling grandfathering, because of where they live, she would have to attend some other elementary rather than the school she’s become so familiar with.
If siblings are grandfathered into schools, some wondered how long that would last – if they have a preschooler now, for example, will it last long enough for the younger child to get into the same elementary school her/his older sibling attends? Sundquist said it’s too soon to say: “The judgment call is how long should we stay in a complex world of a geographic system and a choice-based system … every dollar we spend on transportation (for sibling grandfathering that might involve longer-distance busing) is money we can’t spend in the classroom.” No decisions on grandfathering are likely before January, Sundquist said, saying the district has to finalize the attendance maps first, then see how many families will be affected.
Back to the issue of the current boundary map: Sundquist noted that while the citywide plan focuses more on having elementary schools feed to middle schools, West Seattle is the only area where the feeder path will follow the entire trajectory from kindergarten to 12th grade, since the peninsula has two close-proximity middle/high school pairs, with the southern pair – Denny and Sealth – co-locating as of 2011. (Here’s the district info page for that project, if you haven’t been following it.)
As for the rationale behind the proposed line between the Madison/WSHS area and the Denny/Sealth area, Sundquist said a more even north/south geographic split wasn’t feasible, because northern West Seattle has fewer children than southern West Seattle. “Even if you look at this plan,” he noted, “West Seattle High School will eventually drop to 750 students, and Sealth will be at capacity.” He acknowledged the boundary appears to create economic segregation, which “has more implications for parental support and levels of parental inolvement … So what do we do about it?” Without offering an answer, he went on to say that the ethnic diversity would not change significantly, according to the district’s latest breakdowns (by the way, the book of data that he referred to, dated this past Wednesday, IS available online – for those at the meeting who wondered – it’s available as a three-part “data book” from links on this page).
That number is not the only measurement of results of the proposed line, insisted several of the parents there. “People know the success of a school rests on what the parents of students who go to it contribute to it,” said Susan McLain. “The decisions being made right now are going to impact the success of Denny-Sealth. I’m sending my kids to those schools and I’m excited about it. … I would urge you strongly to consider not basing the (West Seattle) boundary line on elementary attendance areas. I think in terms of greater social and educational issues in West Seattle, basing it on those just doesn’t make sense … (it) is a big mistake that’s going to have a big impact on the future.”
Sundquist countered that he’s heard other concerns about “income segregation” and has brought it up with the district’s top leaders, regarding the issue of creating “a school that can deliver a high (level) educational program in a high poverty area … they say … it can be done. … We understand that as school leaders we don’t have a lot of legislative tools to deal with the fact that the income is unequally distributed.”
McLain countered, “There IS a legislative tool to deal with ‘redlining’ – one of those tools is to draw the line right, and not in such a way that exacerbates that.” She suggested community support could be mustered in an attempt to support Sundquist if he chose, as she put it, “to make the stand that I think you know you need to make.”
What’s at stake, others insisted, is a potential decline in parental involvement at Denny and Sealth because, they said, it’s at a low level in most of the proposed feeder schools; one woman who identified herself as a Concord Elementary student’s mother said the PTSA there has only five members, while another said West Seattle Elementary doesn’t even have a PTA/PTSA. Gatewood, they countered, has a “vibrant” level of parental involvement that has among other things raised $175,000 for playground improvements and money that has enabled the school’s staff to have an extra teacher, to help bring down class size.
“I think now as we’re looking toward the future, we need to look at the reality of the next few years, when budgets are down … and schools need parents to step in and (offer help) … and the way the map is drawn now, that all goes north. We’ve been working so hard to get that changed down here, getting Gatewood, Denny and Sealth working together, and (they are) on a feeder path – nobody even KNEW we were on our own little path.” That attendee contended the proposed boundary would take away “everything we have been working for as a parent community the last four years,” if Gatewood was no longer feeding into and working with Denny and Sealth.
Passion about Gatewood’s existing unofficial feeder path also was voiced by Kay Yano, who noted she’s the Gatewood PTA president but stressed she was “only speaking for myself. We’ve participated in a flight probram with Denny and Sealth for many, many years, we’ve shared staff with Sealth; not only did we raise the playground money but also funded an additional teacher for at least the last five years at Gatewood. … Schools need parent energy to thrive. Parent participation in all the groups slated for Denny is not as vibrant in many of the schools. Denny would benefit from having Gatewood parents participate in its future. You have to be in that culture of participating … that would be vital to maintaining (the improved programs at Denny and Sealth) … four years ago I would no way have ever wanted to send my child (to Denny), now I am excited about sending my child there, I want her to go there, but if you take all that parent involvement away from Denny it’s going to destroy the improvements, you’re going to wind up with a subpar school, I don’t care how much enthusiasm you have from the staff … My proposal is that West Seattle Elementary, which has historically been a cross-cluster school, that the line dip down at West Seattle Elementary for it to go north, and for Gatewood to go to Denny. … With the current map, Madison winds up being a very white school. I think both (Madison and Denny) would benefit from the diversity of that line switch.”
That suggestion sparked murmurs of support around the room.
A similar point was made by High Point resident Kathleen Voss, who said, “You can’t draw a blind eye to the socioeconomic realities of this map. … If you (have to move another school into the northern section), why wasn’t it West Seattle Elementary?” She talked about that school’s predominance of students from lower-income families, and asked, “what I don’t see in the plan is, what’s the plan to balance the inequity? It’s great that schools are going to teach the same thing, but schools are (filling out) their needs with PTSA funds.”
Sundquist took sharp issue with that, calling the money raised by PTSAs and other such efforts “a tiny tiny sliver of the funding” schools get, while suggesting that perhaps conversations between north and south end PTAs/PTSAs, and involvement with “organizations like the Alliance for Education,” might “realign those monies.”
“It’s human capital (too),” interjected McLain, and Sundquist said he couldn’t argue with that, though he contended throughout the meeting that individual schools themselves would rise to the challenge, with even staffers recognizing “we really ARE going back to neighborhood schools, I’d better be sure my school has the programmatic supports. You will see programmatic responses in individual schools, to make sure the community keeps coming to those schools.”
One parent did take issue with the neighborhood concept, though that is not up for debate, saying he is the parent of a Madison student who is choosing to attend Chief Sealth: “That’s a very good thing for a child to go through in ninth grade, to have a choice … in turning these kids into adults who are going to make choices in a democracy.”
Those students may still have some choice under the new plan, Sundquist noted, with a reminder about the 10 percent “choice seats” that are to be set aside at the district’s comprehensive high schools. Some at the meeting suggested the boundary challenges might be lessened if that percentage were increased for West Seattle.
Another question involved why international schools such as Concord Elementary and Denny Middle are not considered “option” schools, meaning they can be all-city draws, but also can have geographic tiebreakers; Sundquist said he’d wondered about that too and had asked the district’s chief academic officer to study it.
He also said one section of the map that he was questioning involved the “notch” (take another look at the map – it’s toward right-center):
One man said the border is drawn in a way that will assign his children to a school that is 14 blocks away, rather than the closest one: “I bought a house three blocks from a school on purpose,” he said. Sundquist said he’d be personally checking out some of the areas that he’d heard about it in what he described as a copious quantity of e-mail and other correspondence he’d received about the proposed boundaries. But he did not commit support to any proposed changes – saying he’d be “a fool” to do that at this point – and also saying that there will be an inevitable amount of upheaval once the new system really kicks in: “Once the geographic shift starts to happen, the city is going to go crazy for a while as everybody starts to reset their lives. I don’t think we can predict all the ways in which the world will change when we see what happens.” In West Seattle, he added, it’s believed the population growth projections suggest there may also be more than the 10 percent guaranteed setaside at the peninsula’s high schools for “choice.”
But he also noted a number had changed – while they used to project 59% of babies born in Seattle would turn up in the district when it was time to start school, now, he said, that number is up to 67%.
Whatever your concerns or comments are, Sundquist said, make them known now: “I’m listening … as are my colleagues.” The official public hearing is Monday night at district HQ, 6 pm. Scroll down this page to see how to sign up to testify, if slots remain (and note that same page has information on how to sign up to speak at regular board meetings, including the one on Nov. 18th when the boundary maps are to come up for a final vote; Sundquist’s informal meeting that same day will be 10-11:30 am at Delridge Library).
Other coverage: Seattle Times (WSB partner) report on district informational meeting earlier Saturday in Rainier Beach