By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“I cannot describe to you how much we want you to be our advocate.”
West Seattle’s elected representative on the Seattle School Board, Marty McLaren, heard that plea and a whole lot more during her two-hour community-conversation meeting on Saturday.
Before the meeting was over, she in turn asked community members to help her advocate for them – and that resulted in this whiteboard list of priorities suggested by the 20 or so who came to her meeting:
(Click image to see larger view)
The urgency of a priority list comes from the fact that within days, McLaren and other board members are expected to see the next draft of the Seattle Public Schools BEX IV levy. It doesn’t go to voters till February, but the board is supposed to finalize the levy proposal by early November.
While the group in attendance on Saturday was dominated by parents of students at K5 STEM at Boren – who are suddenly in turmoil over district administrators’ repeated refusal to say where they eventually will be housed, or even whether they are a “school” or instead a “program” to potentially be dispersed among campuses – the priorities were for the entire peninsula.
“This is so exciting,” McLaren enthused by meeting’s end.
The format for these meetings is informal; most board members have them, and often they can be sparsely attended, unless there is a hot topic before the board – as there is now.
The meeting in the basement of the West Seattle (Admiral) Library branch began with one Arbor Heights Elementary parent asking “why are we last?” in the current draft of the forthcoming BEX IV levy – slated to be rebuilt for a 2019 opening, despite being in worse condition than any other building in the district. (She was part of the AH contingent that went to last Wednesday’s board meeting to plead their case again in the public-comment period – WSB coverage, with video, here.)
“Fairmount Park [reopening and addition] is first because it’s quickest and cheapest,” McLaren explained. “The argument is that Schmitz Park is so overcrowded, with well over half their students in portables, and even if we get them into a new building by 2015, they’re still going to have too many students for it and add two more portables.”
“Half the kids at Arbor Heights are ALSO in portables — that were past their useful life 10 years ago,” interjected another parent.
Adding on to that was another one: “We have projects all over the city that could be arranged – it’s not Arbor Heights vs. Schmitz Park, just because we’re in the same neighborhood.”
“Why can’t we leave the old Schmitz Park open” to create room for more students, was the next question.
Rick Johnson, a parent who’s been working on capacity issues as a volunteer for Schmitz Park, said, “We had put that on the table.” He said there are “so many variables,” but one thing that is clear is that Fairmount Park, closed since summer 2007, needs to be reopened as soon as possible. (It’s scheduled to open in fall 2014, after renovations and an eight-classroom addition.) What it will be, the district will not say – a neighborhood school, or perhaps co-housing for a neighborhood school and K-5 STEM.
The boundaries set up for “neighborhood schools” are causing the Schmitz Park overflow, as one parent pointed out. “We are being set up to fail.”
The past then came back to haunt the future, as conversation turned toward the rationale for the last round of school closures, widely acknowledged now as a massive mistake. “The (then-) school board messed up,” reiterated McLaren (who defeated an incumbent who had been involved, West Seattle’s previous school-board rep Steve Sundquist). The last closure round closed the Genesee Hill Elementary campus where Pathfinder K-8 had long been housed; Pathfinder was moved to the building that had housed the now-nonexistent neighborhood school, and that area of east West Seattle was left without a true neighborhood school.
Now, while concerned parents fear they see mistakes being repeated, McLaren cautioned, “There are so many moving parts … to come up with solutions for the whole peninsula. The superintendent’s cabinet is looking at so many scenarios and trying to hash out the pros and cons of each. The story I’ve heard is that this is so complex that we must really land the levy proposal first and figure out what the buildings are and then we can work out the building situation.”
McLaren said she had met yesterday with deputy superintendent Bob Boesche and given him two messages: “The parents at STEM need to know what we are thinking right now – transparency – and the parents of West Seattle need to know what you are thinking regarding program placement – have you devised a process yet for making those decisions?”
She then alluded to the “leadership vacuum” elsewhere in district management, with open positions.
The meeting was joined by more parents at that point, and by K-5 STEM’s best-known teacher, Craig Parsley, who left Schmitz Park to be a guiding force at the new school.
McLaren said she had not heard anyone suggest that they would let K-5 STEM “dissolve.”
But: “Being a ‘program’ is definitely an option,” she said, adding that she had heard various suggestions: “That it could move to Arbor Heights and be merged with Arbor Heights … one thing that could happen, Arbor Heights could move into Boren at almost any time, and that could ease the pain at Arbor Heights, which could co-exist with K-5 STEM for some time while getting rebuilt.” Number two, she said, she had heard it suggested that Schmitz Park at Genesee could become the STEM school, “but I don’t see how that could work”
Other possibilities McLaren said she had heard mentioned (though in exactly what context and by whom, was not clear):
*STEM could go to Schmitz Park
*STEM could go to Fairmount Park
*STEM could go to the current Schmitz Park (“a fine idea,” Parsley said from the sidelines, “since it already has science labs …” referring to the forested park adjacent to the school)
“There is no talk about booting people out who are already in?” said one parent.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, NO,” retorted McLaren.
“But,” said another parent, all the planning (for K-5 STEM) has been as a (self-contained) school. “From the beginning, the concept was different, it was meant to be a school that has a different approach. The design team worked on it that way.”
For an example of what’s a program vs. what’s a school, McLaren brought up APP, the district’s top-level-gifted program, which has gone through some location changes in recent years. She said it was still a “strong program … so having K-5 STEM identified as a program is not the kiss of death.”
“People in ‘programs’ are kicked around, torn apart,” contended one parent, who noted that there is a transitional-preschool “program” co-housed with K-5 STEM at Boren right now. She talked about all the preceding discussions of K-5 STEM and how it was “sold to the West Seattle community …. (as) an option school.” She said that the concept of a “program” dispersed around the district does not have to be either-or with the existence of the West Seattle K-5 STEM school. She expressed frustration that energy now has to be spent on this fight for survival, instead of on exploration of curriculum, best practices, other things to make this school better, and to discover ways this form of education could be deployed elsewhere. “We are a school, we have teachers, we are a community.”
Said a K-5 STEM parent: “I don’t think the district realizes how hurtful it is to be referred to as a program. Why are we not being referred to as an option school? You would never say that to Pathfinder. We already have 300 kids. (It’s not the same) to place us next to another school.” She expressed concern that making it a “program” would limit its access, which is the last thing they want to see.
Rod Clark, who has been working with McLaren as a volunteer, talked about how the BEX IV levy is smaller than originally proposed – at this point – and how it will not even address overcrowding as it stands now. He also noted that BEX III led to undersized buildings such as the Denny/Sealth co-located campus, where both schools are now jampacked.
“Has reopening EC Hughes even been put (back) on the table?” asked one parent. “When we are talking about overcrowding, I don’t understand why (it’s not).”
That was a reference to the closed public school in Sunrise Heights that is leased to independent Westside School (WSB sponsor); having the district take it back was proposed a couple times during the process of capacity management and BEX IV drafting, but it is not in the latest draft, because district administrators say the Fairmount Park 8-classroom addition will handle enough additional students to make it unnecessary.
McLaren said, “It’s not off the table, though it was taken out of the second iteration.” One reason it might not help is that it’s so far south, she noted, pointing out that boundaries will be redrawn.
She also said that the next time the district redraws boundaries, it should be clear “that if people move into different areas in order to access those schools, we will have to redraw those boundaries again …”
Another parent: “The district needs to acknowledge they have not been transparent. … I want to believe in new superintendent (José) Banda, I like his message, but there’s a lot of baggage that came before.”
Parsley spoke next, including, re: K-5 at STEM, “The subjective indicators here are that we are not a supported school. We’re still lacking basics. We’re still lacking essentials at the school. I understand there’s been a lot of change downtown, we lost our chief warehouse people, I understand that. But for schools to function, they needto hve basic materials, they need funding for professional development, core support from administrator. I **personally** feel that all of that is absent, therefore we have a future uncertain. We (as teachers) left secure jobs to create this vision, we planted the seed the STEM grew and the fruit is rotting on the vine. From a teacher’s perspective I understand this because I am in the trenches…. On the other hand, the parents in this community know that this fruit is rotting on the vine because we are not supported, beause promises … we can’t say the are not kept yet, we can say (there is concern) they may not be kept” because of what’s been said publicly. “In the future in terms of the buiding … we don’t know if we will get what we will be promised. That hurts me as a teacher because I letf a job that was secure … I chose this, with these parents, for one vital reason, that STEM education is what Seattle needs more than anything else right now, because the president’s report says we need millions of STEM-educated children in the next 10 years to be competitive (internationally) … our school is the cutting edge … if it dies on the vine, we fail the national vision, the local vision, … I don’t want that to happen, I want this to succeed.”
The room, with more than 15 people by then, applauded.
McLaren said, “There were things that should have happened …. and the people who were at the top were just assuming that other people were taking care of it, but it turns out there was too much loss of staff and of memory and all that. I can say authoritatively that the people now in responsibility, Bob Boesche, (executive director of school operations) Phil Brockman, (new executive director of West Seattle schools and former Roxhill Elementary principal) Carmela Dellino, are now aware of what’s going on at STEM and they are going to be bringing resources to bear.”
The resources that are needed are human as well as physical, said Parsley – support workers, for example. McLaren suggested the parents do the research to figure out what is available out there. “Aren’t there people in the district who should be doing that?” responded a parent. McLaren suggested they are so maxed out that while they can pick up on research that’s done, they can’t just start from scratch.
Somebody on site would be best to figure that out, offered Parsley – a head teacher, for example, who would teach part of the time and do that sort of administrative/proactive work part of the time.
Maybe the budget could be rearranged? McLaren wondered aloud.
No one involved with K-5 STEM in the room had seen the budget.
McLaren thought that might be because it’s classified, as rued earlier, “as a program. Technically, you don’t have a school.”
Another parent said, that’s part of the problem with the district, a trust issue. “We were told it was a school, not a program.” .. “It’s on the list of schools. I signed my child up for a school, not a program.”
Parsley interjected, “Let’s go to the children here … the ultimate goal is to educate children in a STEM environment. There’s are two ways to do that – a school within a school, or an independent school.” An independent school would seem most cost-effective, he noted.
But the nomenclature is vital because of district policy, a parent pointed out – a policy that spells out “a whole set of issues that come with that name. … A school is not the building. The school is the community, the principal, it has a focus, it is one whole entity. We are a whole.”
“My anxiety stems from my past experience with Arbor Heights [when AH was proposed for closure],” another parent said. ” … even as a public-school proponent, I feel like pulling my kids out of the school because I feel I have no control” as decisions are made, and “It really is upsetting. I’m looking 5 years down the road, 6 years down the road, where are my children going to be … It doesn’t seem the district is making decisions with forethought.” She also repeated that the school community would like to be working now on creating a “template that could be disseminated to other schools that could use the same template … if we are the designated STEM school we could work on those things and they could be disseminated throughout the district.”
One parent – on the verge of tears – said, “It’s ridiculous that this amount of energy has been spent … and we’re having this semantic argument about whether we are a program or a school. We ARE a school. … We as a community want to be a school, we want to be known as a school, we want to be at Fairmount Park, it is the best resource, it is the best use of that resource, we will fill it. We want Arbor Heights to be moved up on the timeline, we want Schmitz Park to get Genesee almost simultaneously, and we urge you to leave the old Schmitz Park to help with capacity. … I cannot describe to you how much we want you to be our advocate … how much we (WS schools) need someone to say, West Seattle deserves better, we need these things to happen … I understand there are the politics of compromise, but we have kids that are affected, and when we don’t have answers, it hurts. As parents we’re just trying to do what’s best for our kids.”
“One of the things that worries me about what you said,” another parent told McLaren, “and that you don’t understand what we said … is that the APP program has its classes, and then it will share music, share PE. One of the things I loved this year is that our PE and music teachers talked about how she’s incorporating the STEM curriculum into her classes …” She stressed that K-5 STEM needs to be kept together and Arbor Heights needs to be moved up to “immediate status.” Because of the building condition at AH, “half of the community is (now) somewhere else.”
Parsley continued on the PE point – the physics of archery, for example, the math of music … “When we have the materials – we are already on that,” he said. “Those are our next steps.”
The parent advocating a vision for West Seattle said, “We need to be four steps ahead … we need to look at it like chess. If this, then this, then this.” She said EC Hughes could be another option for STEM, with Fairmount Park handling north West Seattle growth.
A K-5 STEM mom said, “There are so many tears being shed right now … These decisions that are being made with no transparency … this is ripping us apart and killing or enthusiasm when all we want to concentrate on is teaching and learning. Right now this is being discussed so clinically … there are humans and small children on the other side of this.” She noted that co-location could present issues because the STEM kids, for example, are in uniforms.
Parsley wondered if a Creative Approach School might be created (it takes 80 percent of the teachers voting to approve it, he said) – providing more centralized in-building control over curriculum, how money is spent . “It’s out on the horizon, maybe closer than you think.”
Another suggestion: The current Schmitz Park would make a better neighborhood school than Fairmount Park – which would be drawing from less-crowded areas than SP. “It’s not the big solutiont hat people would like to think that it might be.” She also suggested that STEM’s status as an option school is indeed relieving pressure on some schools where there are extra children but not enough to add extra classes. It was noted that the school has just under 300 students – and 13 fifth-graders. It hadn’t drawn from overflowing, portable-laden Schmitz Park, though, because “(SP) is basically a STEM school already,” Parsley pointed out.
Before the meeting went into its final 20 minutes – Johnson suggested that they all come up with some ideas for all of West Seattle. That’s where the whiteboard (above) came in. The top of the list was advocating for Arbor Heights to be at the top of the rebuild list in the BEX-IV levy: “It has to have a new facility now.” Then, a permanent home for K-5 STEM and recognition it’s a school, not a proram.
The rest of the list is on the whiteboard.
It was pointed out that a group advocating for all West Seattle public schools already was in the fledgling stages, with a meeting of PTA/PTSA representatives recently. Next, a message will be crafted, with a request for the greater West Seattle community to get behind it – watch for that soon, and for a request for support at the October 17th School Board meeting.