By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It’s no sports score; there’s much more at stake with that tally, the 2012-2013 enrollment stats for our area’s two major public high schools.
That’s why it was on the WSHS PTSA‘s agenda for this month’s meeting, with two high-ranking district reps on hand – the Southwest Region Executive Director of Schools, Carmela Dellino, and the elected School Board director for West Seattle/South Park, Marty McLaren.
Neither was in her current position when district staffers and board members crafted and approved the Student Assignment Plan blamed for the current state of enrollment inequity – something the then-board was warned would happen – and did.
But the district will redraw boundaries in the next few years, and that’s what’s being positioned for now.
However – during Thursday night’s meeting, particularly as WSHS principal Ruth Medsker spoke about ongoing improvements and additions at her school, it became evident that WSHS is working to overcome the challenge posed by a feeder area with fewer potential students. Here are the current maps (each linked to the full-size version, if you need a clearer view of which schools feed into which middle/high-school area):
As the discussion began, WSHS PTSA president Tracy Burrows described the topic as “student assignment and how it’s working or not working. … We’re 30 percent lower than Chief Sealth right now, with a fairly comparable capacity, and they have more elementary schools (feeding their enrollment) … and if this trend continues we may lose some critical pieces of our staff .. we’re very concerned about that.”
Dellino was first to speak – she had another PTSA meeting to visit, it was explained. She started with strong praise for principal Medsker, in her third year at WSHS.
“We really do know there’s a huge disparity in terms of the numbers of studnets who attend and are in the service area for WSHS versus Chief Sealth,” Dellino said, attributing part of it to “demographics,” adding, “Depending on what happens to BEX IV [one of two levies on the February 12th ballot] .. based on that and what the voters decide for that, we can take a look at where we will place our programs and where we will place our schools.” She mentioned the Schmitz Park Elementary rebuild (to be done by fall 2015), Fairmount Park Elementary reopening in fall 2014, and “the placement of STEM Elementary” (currently K-5 STEM at Boren) as factors potentially affecting that.
And there will be a boundary redraw, she warned, “which is really going to be dependent on the BEX IV decision of the voters … it really is dependent on what happens with the levy.”
One man suggested that Sealth had a “brand-new school” and “International Baccalaureate funding” that he thought were harming WSHS’s ability to draw.
Dellino said she believed the “great leadership” at WSHS is a draw all its own, including factors such as the improvement of the music program – a vital component of a comprehensive high school. WSHS’s band program, for example, has grown this year (we photographed them the night after the PTSA meeting, at last Friday’s basketball game):
Regarding IB, Dellino said that “there are some things we are considering … One of the superintendent’s priorities is the expansion of the Skills Center,” which currently offers a medical-careers program at WSHS, with students coming from other schools part of the day to attend classes.
What about being part of a pathway for the students in the STEM elementary now? Dellino said nothing had been decided, though that might make more sense, she said, if STEM were part of a neighborhood school rather than an option school. The decision about STEM’s future won’t be made till this fall, Dellino answered a question, as was said at the STEM PTA meeting two nights ago. “We recognize that West Seattle High School is impacted by the smaller enrollment, and we really are looking for ways to support your school, and we recognize that smaller enrollment affects your (staffing and programs).” She summarized that the district was committed to WSHS being a “thriving comprehensive high school.”
That’s when Medsker pointed out that a significant number of students already are opting into WSHS from outside its attendance area, since it has only about half as many potential “neighborhood” students as Sealth, but isn’t that far behind in enrollment. She mentioned last fall’s successful information-night event, which she said drew some administrators from private schools checking out WSHS.
“So you have one school that’s got too many, one that’s got too few, why can’t you just change the boundary today?” asked one attendee.
McLaren explained that would affect a lot of middle-schoolers having to change schools suddenly too, and described the situation as a “huge puzzle.” She also mentioned the district’s new racial-equity policy requiring that any decisions about boundaries and program placement require board members to “consider all the implications” – academic rigor, neighborhood impact, and “implications for groups that have not had access to resources in the past … it becomes really complicated. … So we’re going to be looking at enrollment patterns … We definitely need to move the boundaries down so more students will come north, but we also need to place programs” – such as a dual-immersion international school to be placed, “maybe Montessori … there are a lot of different options. … That conversation can’t start until after we pass the levy … and then it’s going to be complex” because of equity, programs, transportation, option-school placement, etc.
The current boundaries’ odd configuration was then brought up by an attendee who said her child is supposed to go to WSHS – three miles away – even though Sealth/Denny is eight-tenths of a mile away; she wondered if anyone who had drawn the boundaries had ever got in a car and drove the route. There was sympathy, but no explanation (neither Dellino nor McLaren were in their roles when that decision was made).
Dellino reiterated that firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to e-mail opinions, and noted that assistant superintendent Pegi McEvoy had mentioned at the STEM Elementary PTA meeting the other night (WSB coverage here) that community meetings would be forthcoming.
One concerned attendee hoped that since this would take a few years to shake out, the district could commit to its current level of financial support for WSHS.
No, said McLaren: “We can’t make those kind of commitments,” with what she described as a $60 million shortfall faces the district next time around.
The attendee recounted the warning the district was given when the boundaries were drawn – that exactly what has happened, would happen. She said she would “hate to see” the past couple years’ momentum start “falling away.”
McLaren said she didn’t think that would happen because of a “tremendous amount of positive energy.” But it takes funding – which follows enrollment – too, added Medsker, explaining that the school has a lot of “needs … and as we get smaller, it’s harder with the contract to meet the needs of quite a varied group of students.” She said they were concerned about possible funding moves at the state level that can have an effect.
Another attendee said the removal of the “school choice” option when the Student Assignment Plan kicked in was a frustration too, and he thought it might have factored into the approval of the charter-school initiative last year. He recounted his son at Madison Middle School going a whole quarter without a science teacher because the school didn’t give money to the school. And there’s no more “slush fund” to handle needs that arise, he added.
Dellino said a change was in progress that would allow staffing funding to be locked in June, so that an enrollment drop would not mean a staffing drop – though an enrollment increase would still lead to a staffing increase.
She also tried to reassure those in attendance that the superintendent is not expected to move principals around – implying that popular principal Medsker would NOT be arbitrarily shuffled. Someone noted that nearby Lafayette Elementary was going through another principal change, and Dellino described that as a “career move” for former just-arrived principal Shauna Heath, to serve the entire district, as opposed to a principal-shuffle type of move. The reason for that move, she explained, was evident in a document she distributed titled the Draft SPS Strategic Plan Foundational Document, which included a mention of the Common Core Standards to be implemented in the next few years.
Overall, she lamented, “I wish we could say we had lots of money and were going to bestow it to West Seattle High School,” but she couldn’t.
PTSA president Burrows declared it would be an “ongoing conversation.”
PRINCIPAL’S REPORT: Ruth Medsker said that while the district officials’ report might have sounded a little negative, the school’s budget is in good shape. She said they’re making changes districtwide regarding, for example, how they allocate assistant principals. She said WSHS has “really good assistant principals” and is working to keep them. January 29th, her next “principal’s chat” is coming up, talking about “what is really making a difference this year.” She said thoughtful planning will help, and that work is starting at a staff meeting next month.
WSHS has added eight more Advanced Placement classes, she said, because the district has given a “tremendous commitment” to help them grow AP classes – Advanced Placement biology will be added next year, and she’s hoping for deep-dive problem-solving. Overall, according to Medsker, AP classes will include world history, English, French, Spanish, biology, environmental science, calculus, government, and US History – 10 in all, mostly for juniors and seniors. “Some of those classes are really, really tough,” she mused. And further down the line, they will have to look at adding B/C Calculus, too.
She ticked off other “really good indicators” of support for the school: “I believe we’re going to be fine.” Regarding enrollment, there are two smaller classes coming in next from Madison, smaller than the current 9th/10th grades, and then after that she expects to see it level off.
Next topic: security. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure your students are safe in our school.” She talked about changes that were previously publicized, such as one point of entry, where they now are “visually greeting” everyone who comes in, and can also notice if a student comes in and seems to need extra support. She said changes have helped deal with some vulnerability she said the school seemed to have. The Safety Committee continues to meet regularly.
Next year’s courses are being planned, so signups for next year are not going to happen as early as they used to be – which had been in early February. “They don’t really know where they are (then),” she explained. That will be a planning challenge, to push it back, especially for predicting how they will staff electives, but they are working on it. April is the expected signup month instead.
And one note regarding her status, for anyone who was left wondering, despite reassurances from Dellino: Medsker also noted along the way that, having worked at district administration before taking on the WSHS leadership job, “I have no intention of going back downtown.”
SCHOOL LEVY BRIEFING: As with almost every PTA/PTSA meeting this month, there was a presentation on the school-district levies that will be decided in the February 12th election. Betty Hoagland – identifying herself as a Lafayette Elementary mom and past president of the Lafayette PTA – noted that the district puts forth a levy every three years, but can’t campaign for it, and that’s where Schools First comes in. She said she’s been working on these campaigns for almost two decades – when she began, the operations levy represented 23 percent of school budgets; now, it’s 27 percent. As for BEX IV, she noted that the West Seattle High School renovations last decade were under BEX II, and that the Schmitz Park and Arbor Heights rebuilds are part of BEX IV. The district estimates 7,000 more students in the next 10 years, and there has to be someplace to put them. This year alone, “1,400 more students showed up” district-wide. She said that while the two levies together total a billion dollars, they are “renewals.”
She said the levy campaign, hoping to have $180,000 to spend, is $35,000 short, so they’re trying to rustle up more volunteers – phone banks, etc. She also mentioned a promotional video which she sent to WSB post-meeting, with a student cast including two West Seattle kids:
Asked if all the BEX IV money is spoken for, Hoagland acknowledged, “There’s a plan, but the school board CAN change it.” Changes aren’t always bad, noted McLaren, saying a proposal for the first part of the contract for Arbor Heights Elementary engineering drawings was put forth that same day at the School Board Operations Committee because they’re hoping to be able to get bridge financing to make the rebuild happen two years earlier than the current 2018 date.
After Hoagland’s presentation on the levies, the PTSA voted to endorse them.
OTHER NOTES: The fall WSHS auction was twice as successful as the previous year, president Burrows said. She also pitched for volunteers and participants in the May West Seattle 5K. “Taste of the Arts” will be back on the second night of this year’s WSHS musical presentation, she added. And Grad Night is coming back again this year – registration is under way, and the PTSA hopes all seniors will take part.
New event: On February 1st, the WSHS Jazz Ensemble is presenting an evening of swing dance, with the WS Big Band. $15 at the door, in the school commons. (Here’s the announcement published here on WSB.)