You’ve certainly seen that bumper sticker before. But there was something plaintive about seeing it on the side of a car door parked outside a school where parents are about to plot strategy to try to save their kids from getting moved out of their school because of district budget troubles. Two nights after Cooper Elementary officially materialized on Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson‘s list of “potential final recommendations” – with the “potential” proposal being, close the Cooper program and move Pathfinder K-8 into the Cooper building – dozens of members of the school community gathered in the library, as heralded by the whiteboard near the school’s front doors:
Key points of what they said and what they’re strategizing, ahead:
Six nights earlier, we were at Cooper for a gathering called after the superintendent had announced she asked staff to look into the possibility of Cooper housing Pathfinder instead of Arbor Heights – a possibility that had been studied, and proposed, and dismissed, before.
But now – to see it literally in black and white, in a district document – different story.
This meeting, like the one last Friday, was led by JJ Ball, parent of a Cooper kindergartener. She reviewed the issues with which the district is dealing, and where the closure process stands, as well as how it had begun. As she views it, Arbor Heights is off the list because “(they) mobilized parents, got big media coverage, said somebody else is a better choice.” She also noted that it was “demanded of them” to suggest alternatives to closing Arbor Heights, and said she had talked with AH parents, who made it clear to her that the district had conveyed, “we need to close a program — if you want off the list, point a finger. (So) they listed three schools it might make sense to close. … I understand it’s been, for a long time, how do we get Pathfinder into Cooper?”
That “long time” has dated back at least four years, according to the Pathfinder school history posted on the school’s website – the first listed proposal for Pathfinder at Cooper was in spring 2005; district leadership tabled the school-closure process then, but went through several revisions the next year, ultimately deciding to leave Pathfinder at the Genesee Hill building it’s been trying to (re-) close all that time, and instead closing the Fairmount Park Elementary building, “merging” that school into the former High Point Elementary, which is now known as West Seattle Elementary.
A parent who said he also has a child in Pathfinder interjected at that point, “They don’t do anything different (there) … I think we should stand up for the people here and stand up for the wonderful diversity we have here and say, if you’re going to move some kids IN, that’s fine with us …”
Regarding diversity, it’s clear the Cooper parents are discussing economic diversity as well as racial diversity. For a look at how that stands across the West Seattle area, here’s data we recently collected on West Seattle elementary schools – rather than listing all, we will just list the percentage of white students at each school, and percentage of “free/reduced lunch” recipients, according to information on the district website:
2008 “annual report” demographic summary (10/08):
29% free/reduced lunch
Arbor Heights Elementary
33% free/reduced lunch
Concord Elementary (South Park, but is listed as West Seattle for district purposes)
81% free/reduced lunch
71% free/reduced lunch
27% free/reduced lunch
Highland Park Elementary
35% free reduced
78% free reduced
50% free reduced
Schmitz Park Elementary
West Seattle Elementary
Back to last night’s Cooper meeting, where music from a student concert elsewhere at the school drifted through an open door, and Spanish-speaking parents sat with an interpreter near that open door. Much of the concern focused on why the district seems to be committed to “alternative” schools over “traditional” schools: “So they’re discontinuing schools (like Cooper) to move specialized schools in?” asked a woman. (We heard the same question at the first wave of meetings at Arbor Heights.)
Like many schools, Cooper does have some “specialized” programming, particularly its autism program. One parent said her second-grade son is in that program and “if we have to move (schools) again, it’ll be his fourth school.”
Ball at that point put up a slide on a projection screen at the front of the room, listing WASL scores from West Seattle schools. While Cooper has a higher percentage of free/reduced lunch students, which can sometimes correlate to lower test scores, Ball explained, Cooper’s WASL scores trend higher than their counterparts in that demographic. (The statistics she showed are now linked on the Cooper website.) That, the Cooper parents and teachers say, is yet another reason their school is succeeding and should not be “discontinued.” They also noted that schools with a “large percentage of free/reduced lunch students don’t have rich PTSA’s that can provide the services the district can’t.”
After a side track along those lines, another parent interrupted, “We can speculate all we want, but the question is, what can we DO?” The response: “We have a plan we have to nail down tonight because we don’t have a lot of time.”
Ball and others said they met with West Seattle School Board rep Steve Sundquist last night, but were not satisfied with the answers to questions such as whether there were legal grounds for a lawsuit if Cooper were discontinued in favor of an alternative program, and how giving that type of program preference for a building could be justified: “We ARE the model school. It makes no sense that you would take a model school that is doing well and move us out, moving students to someplace that is not educationally advantageous.”
That is where their strategy appeared to be evolving as the night went on: If the district HAS to close a school, why not close West Seattle Elementary, which is not as academically strong as Cooper, instead of closing Cooper and sending many of its students to West Seattle (which is considered a dual-cluster school, so since Cooper is in the West Seattle North cluster, its students could be reassigned to WS): “Legally, they’re asking us to step aside and take a lesser educational situation for our kids, when we have proven that, regardless of race, creed, ethnic background, we can compete with those schools … We have to use their (the district’s) rationale against them, or else we can’t win.”
“Or else we can use the race card,” came a voice from elsewhere in the library, which continued to fill as the meeting went on. That led to great dispute: “No, you CAN’T use the race card, that doesn’t work,” another attendee countered.
Many ideas ensued. Find a volunteer lawyer; create a “Save Cooper” website (there is some information on the school’s official site – check the upper right corner of the home page); alert the national media.
“If we are doing better than (those in) comparable demographics, is that not enough leverage to bring to the School Board and say, is this not the reason the public school system exists, so that every child gets a fair shot?” was one rhetorical question. “We should keep using the word ‘model,’ a model that can be expanded on and learned from.”
That also led to a lament over the district having to make cuts to deal with a shortfall of up to $37 million, while multi-billion-dollar bailouts are going to corporations. “Is there a higher power (in government) to get to,” it was asked, “to say, let’s find this money and keep ANY schools from closing?”
Ball’s response: “The more you get the message out, get to the school board, get to the media, the politicians, state, city, any religious group you’re with, any community groups, getting the word out is essential. That’s what Arbor Heights has taught us.”
Again, it was asked, can’t the money be found to keep all schools open? The response: “Mr. Sundquist is very clear a school will be closing, and the question is which school.”
“But the problem is in the South cluster (overcapacity),” a woman noted, “so why are they even talking about this school (which is in the North cluster)?”
Another voie: “Just because we are not Pathfinder or Arbor Heights or affluent, we have just as much right, they have no right to get rid of a model that’s being successful.”
They also have an answer for those who point out that Cooper was not a “first choice” for most of those who attend it (22 percent chose it #1; other West Seattle schools vary widely, all the way to Schmitz Park, which is a 100% first choice). Ball said, “The West Seattle North cluster also includes Schmitz Park, Lafayette, Alki … You get to pick three preferences – which three would YOU pick? But, once you GET here, it’s an amazing place! What we have here is an incredibly capable and caring staff who work with the parents and families … I’ve never seen a program as caring and capable, and that’s why I’ve been driving myself crazy [working on the closure fight] this past week.”
A dad: “If my daughter can’t go here, I’m leaving the district.”
A mom: “If this school can change the lives of so many kids, why would you get rid of it? You feel at peace when you drop your kids off here.”
As the talking points continued to gel, the issue of how to convey them remained in flux. Lem Charleston went up before the group and urged an all-out fight (he’s at center in this photo):
“This is about money,” he said. “This is about the school district’s money. But they have a final say in allocating where that money goes. The constituency is unhappy with how the district is being run. When most politicians realize they won’t be here next term, the money they’re concerned about is in their own pockets. We have an almost insurmountable amount of data and facts. What we have to do as a group of parents is notify your politicians, flood them with data, you don’t have to argue, it’s the data the (district) has provided for us. It shows there is a nefarious agenda somewhere at the district. … If you have information to prove a spurious point, write to say, here’s what they are hiding. Cooper meets all the standards – why are they attempting to close us down? Politicians will find out, if their jobs are on the line. Sadly, you have to appeal to their ego and their greed to get this done. Flood all the people you know with these e-mails, to get it done.”
At that point, though he didn’t speak during the meeting, we noticed anti-school-closure activist Chris Jackins of West Seattle toward the back of the room; he and a related group have taken legal action against the district in a number of matters (this week, for example, an appeal of the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse sale has appeared in a list of recent filings).
As for the data – Ball noted, “There are 116 kids from the (West Seattle Elementary area) alone that go to Pathfinder. So why do they keep putting Pathfinder in the north, when their students are concentrated around West Seattle Elementary and in the south? If they’re worried about costs, transportation is a significant cost. It makes more sense for Pathfinder to be in the South End.”
Another voice: “We’re saying, if you have to close someone down, make a smart choice.”
Bringing the discussion back to an action plan, Ball stressed that Tuesday’s meeting at the current Pathfinder building on Genesee Hill is key: “We don’t just need speakers at the meeting, we need presence at the meeting.”
The meeting concluded with participants breaking informally into groups to make signs, create committees, and decide what they would do next. Among the first steps: Signing up to speak at two key meetings next week – the Tuesday meeting at Genesee Hill is at 6:30 pm, the official district public hearing required because the building is proposed for closure; 6 pm Wednesday, the next full School Board meeting since last week’s “potential final recommendations” list.
Signup information for Tuesday is described clearly at saveseattleschools.blogspot.com; signups for Wednesday start at 8 am Monday, in the procedure described on the meeting’s agenda. The district website also publishes the latest official information in the school closure/change process here. (All WSB coverage of this process, dating back a couple months to the first hint new closures were ahead, is archived here, newest to oldest.)