Arbor Heights strategizes for tonight’s board meeting, and beyond

They’re not showing all their cards yet, but Arbor Heights Elementary families and other supporters are certainly assembling their hands. That much was clear at last night’s meeting in the school cafeteria, called primarily to discuss the school community’s coalesced campaign to fight Seattle Public Schools proposal to close the program and turn the building into the long-overdue new home of Genesee Hill’s Pathfinder K-8. Above, PTSA secretary Dana Varon exhorts the crowd to make a strong show of support at tonight’s School Board meeting, the first since the closure/change proposals were announced at a special board “work session” one week ago. Read on for what else they’re planning:

The only official board agenda item tonight regarding the closure/change proposals is a report from Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, but the main event for reps from Arbor Heights – and the other schools on the list – is the public-comment period at the start of the meeting.

First thing Monday morning, Arbor Heights community members got busy calling and e-mailing to get on the speakers’ list. One of the six who made it: PTSA co-president Eric Iwamoto, who told last night’s crowd he doesn’t disagree with the need to close Pathfinder, but …

So what do they think is the right solution for the Pathfinder building problem (read Pathfinder’s side of the story here, as published on WSB last night)? They are not – yet – honing in on one specific alternative suggestion, not publicly, anyway (much was made last night of the desire to play some cards close to the vest, so the district couldn’t prepare a counter-argument to whatever AH wants to say).

Iwamoto half-joked that his job as a government employee prepared him for working in that kind of secrecy: “I’ve been digging up all the stuff they don’t want you to see.” But he also noted that they’re not announcing specific plans because “they keep changing”; for a view into their current line of reasoning, take another look at the “fact sheet” we linked to here as soon as Arbor Heights sent it out on Monday.

They are very serious about taking advice they received from West Seattle school-board rep Steve Sundquist at his coffee-hour gathering a week ago (WSB coverage here), the morning after the closure/change plan was announced: Do research, show data, present alternatives.

Arbor Heights hopes it can present a case so convincing, it will be out of the mix sooner rather than later. And for tonight’s meeting, they are hoping for a show of support — a silent one, with signs and T-shirts like the fluorescent yellow-green “Save Arbor Heights” ones dotting the crowd at last night’s meeting:

Preparing to face the School Board required a bit of a primer: You may feel ignored, the crowd was told. They are very stoic; they sit there typing on their laptops. Above all, they were counseled, be respectful (some still stung from Sundquist’s rebuke of an applause outburst during the meeting last week).

Strategy-planners are taking into account the fact that the board will soon be considering a new plan for how to assign students to schools — but not until after this closure/change process is scheduled to come to a final vote in late July. This is at the heart of some criticism of the initial plan — it is widely perceived that the district will swing back toward encouraging families to attend their neighborhood school, after years of emphasizing “choice” that could take a child to any school in the city; in that framework falls the fact that Arbor Heights already has West Seattle’s second-highest percentages of nearby residents in its school population.

“The district wants to move to ‘neighborhood schools,’ schools you can walk to … that sounds an awful lot like Arbor Heights Elementary,” PTSA co-president Suzette Riley noted. “We are exactly the kind of school the district says it wants to have in the future, so why would you close us?”

Arbor Heights’ popularity also is stressed — one recent year, said Riley, 58 kindergarten families listed AH as their “first choice,” more than the school could hold (how many the school can hold, too, is a point of contention; while the district claims the building has room for more than 400 students, the school community says its current enrollment of slightly more than 300 is exactly right for the staff it’s been allotted.

Another point of attack: While the district says it needs to close schools to save money, closing AH, they say, would carry not-so-hidden costs: “Almost two-thirds of the savings of closing the school is eliminated by busing Arbor Heights students” to other “West Seattle South Cluster” schools, Riley says, adding, “Basically, we’re going in with a lot of research and a couple of proposals – to say, if you need to close schools, we have some other ideas.”

During audience-comment time, two speakers suggested the district shouldn’t be discussing school closures at all, including educator Robert Femiano, who believes the district would be better served to focus on attracting, or winning back, more of the thousands of Seattle students who don’t attend public schools, and to take into account the fact that closures can be costly – district data shows a surprisingly high percentage of the students displaced in the last round of closures simply left the district rather than move to a new school.

There was some brief tension as PTSA leaders explained they didn’t want to take the don’t-close-any-schools stance, not because they disagreed with it, but because they believe it’s important to work within the framework given to them by the district: We have to close schools; if you don’t want it to be yours, offer alternatives.

In addition to offering reasons why Roxhill Elementary or Cooper Elementary might be more fitting candidates for closure, they also noted some possible dark-horse ideas, such as moving Pathfinder to the building that Denny Middle School will vacate when its new facility is complete on the Chief Sealth High School campus in a few years; there also seemed to be some momentum for a suggestion to close the Roxhill building and merge its “program” with Arbor Heights, since the AH building apparently has enough room, provided Roxhill teachers came along.

To present their options, the Arbor Heights team says it’s found supporting data, such as, Iwamoto elaborated, “the district claims Pathfinder wouldn’t fit in Roxhill … but using their own data, I found out Pathfinder has a population of 391. If you look at district data, Roxhill has a capacity of 390.”

Arbor Heights teacher and tech expert Mark Ahlness interjected that the district may be continuing to assess capacity, as “someone was actually in the building (Tuesday) counting classrooms.”

Remember the kids, someone said, finally. If this goes through, even neighbors who have gone to school together for years may not wind up at the same school. The kids, no surprise, are taking part in the anti-closure campaign, making signs and displaying them before and after school:

(photo by Tammy Wooley)
As the meeting got closer to its end, the focus was on what the adults can do. On the back wall of the cafeteria, large sign-up sheets were hung for various committees to handle various aspects of the battle. One calls for outreach to community members who don’t necessarily have kids at the school – “This is a neighborhood school; many people care about having this school here, even if they don’t have school-age kids.” They pleaded for volunteers to help get flyers to local businesses, maybe even table at the Farmers’ Market, perhaps even march with signs like the anti-war demonstrators who are there week in, week out. They’re also talking about a possible demonstration in connection with a long-planned fundraising book fair at Westwood Village Barnes and Noble Friday-Sunday (more info here including a link to the book-fair vouchers), hoping sign-waving will continue to help them get the word out that their school “program” is on the chopping block.

In the meantime, they will continue to make signs, and even buttons:

And getting the word out in more than one language:

The closure process isn’t easy for anyone; Arbor Heights seems to be carrying a particularly heavy burden at the moment, dealing with some in-school trials and tribulations as well — not the least of which is their principal, Dr. Carol Coram, battling colon cancer (it also was mentioned at last night’s meeting that an AH teacher is fighting leukemia). But they’re vowing to fight as long as it takes – starting at tonight’s School Board meeting (6 pm, Stanford Center in Sodo; here’s a map) – “This is the first chance we have to speak in public,” observed Riley, “so we’re going to make the best of it”; the rest of the timeline is on this district page.

All WSB coverage of the latest round of school closure/change proposals can be found here; the Arbor Heights community is updating the Save Arbor Heights blog first launched hours before last week’s official announcement of the closure proposal.

3 Replies to "Arbor Heights strategizes for tonight's board meeting, and beyond"

  • Cryptical December 3, 2008 (9:07 am)

    As always, great coverage WSB! Arbor Heights sure is a special place. So glad for all of you. SAVE ARBOR HEIGHTS!

  • Eric B December 3, 2008 (9:44 pm)

    A quick note … the numbers for the Roxhill idea are not quite correct. I offer this only so that their important points and suggestions are not lost due to a small inaccuracy. (The folks at AH have really put a lot of hard work into looking at the numbers and trying to figure out reasonable alternatives.) Roxhill has only 22 teaching stations, insufficient for Pathfinder’s K-8 Program. Yes, their planning capacity is 390. But their capacity without portables (according to the 2005 MENG report) is 273. That same comprehensive report states their operational capacity is only 348. Even if one uses the inflated planning capacity, Pathfinder’s current (November 2008) enrollment is 397, and is often above 400. Finally, I think the District, in its proposal deliberately tried not to move self-contained special education programs (as evidenced by the proposal not to move those classrooms from Arbor Heights.) This would obviously not be possible if Pathfinder K-8 would move into the Roxhill building. This may seem minor, but as someone who has really looked at all possibilities for Pathfinder, this one clearly won’t fly and I am concerned that to propose it might make other proposals (good or bad) look suspect. Best of luck to you all this evening at the JSC!

  • Michael December 4, 2008 (3:15 pm)

    Still seeing not much in the way of a workable alternate plan, short of “what about that school over there?”
    Let’s hope the Arbor Heights parents can pour their considerable resources into a well-researched solution.

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