School-closure fight: Cooper Elementary strategy session

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:

Alki Elementary
2008 “annual report” demographic summary (10/08):
64% white
29% free/reduced lunch

Arbor Heights Elementary
58% white
33% free/reduced lunch

Concord Elementary (South Park, but is listed as West Seattle for district purposes)
13% white
81% free/reduced lunch

Cooper Elementary
23% white
71% free/reduced lunch

Gatewood Elementary
68% white
27% free/reduced lunch

Highland Park Elementary
18% white
73% free/reduced

Lafayette Elementary
71% white
9% free/reduced

Pathfinder K-8
65% white
35% free reduced

Roxhill Elementary
14% white
78% free reduced

Sanislo Elementary
38% white
50% free reduced

Schmitz Park Elementary
79% white
8% free/reduced

West Seattle Elementary
15% white
79% free/reduced

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; 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.)

10 Replies to "School-closure fight: Cooper Elementary strategy session"

  • SpeakLoud December 12, 2008 (7:09 pm)

    Why don’t we just close all the schools-put everyones name in a pot and then reassign everyone-then no-one can point fingers, blame or shame others. Public school should be ONE system that is equal throughout-don’t pick a fight with individual schools-we should all be uniting to force the system to change it’s harmful practices of inequality.
    If you want to choose the school your child attends, pay for it.

  • ML December 12, 2008 (10:11 pm)

    Uh no, it would not be a great day if our Air Force was underfunded…..

  • Flavian December 13, 2008 (1:45 am)

    Bombers and bailouts are not funded by my property taxes. Schools are. In fact, air force bombers haven’t been built in 12 years, and the bailout was also a vast federal stock purchase of the biggest banks. The federal government only provides grants for programs and supplemental services. Operational and capital expenditure must come from local and state sources. I’m an easy sell for schools and have never voted against a school bond, but any strategy to prevent a school from closing should completely avoid both irrelevant, emotional rhetoric and any, and I do mean the slightest, hint of racism when discussing the idea of putting a child in a school bus. Also keep in mind that property assessments are still pegged to the fullest expansion of the now deflated real estate bubble. The real school budget crisis is yet to come.

  • WSB December 13, 2008 (1:56 am)

    Excellent distinction in line 1, Flavian, though ultimately it’s still the same pot of: “Our” money. Is this the time for an income tax, then, since the federal government manages to get enough of that to fund bombers and bailouts, so the state should retool how it gets enough money to keep services such as education alive? Or should the state get a bigger share of federal money? Or? How are we going to stave off that “real” crisis? I am no economic expert but I will be interested to hear what wiser folks believe to be the best solution. How to recalibrate/reapportion where tax dollars – whichever government takes them – go? When you read, for example, that King County needs $137 million to fix up accounting/payroll computers – while Seattle Public Schools are running $24 million to $37 million low – it’s hard not to wonder whether there isn’t some way to move the puzzle pieces around on a more macro level that makes the fed/state/county/city/schools/whatever boundaries more fluid, since it still ultimately is each one of us funding all of those divisions … TR
    (P.S. Re: “no bombers in 12 years,” that car was no late-model specimen, so that may have been a 12-plus-year-old bumper sticker. I just found the juxtaposition interesting, after parking in the adjacent space and noticing it.)

  • ProudLion December 13, 2008 (12:47 pm)

    Thanks WSB for the interesting statistics. There’s one more I’d like to know. How many K-8 students live in the Cooper School reference area? I heard it was pretty full when it was first built until the District changed around all the boundaries and gave it the Duwamish Industrial section, the WS Bridge supports, the golf course, the steel plant, ect. I’m just wondering how many kids are left. Is that something you happen to know?

  • SpeakLoud December 13, 2008 (7:41 pm)

    Wouldn’t moving the puzzles pieces just be robbing Peter to pay Paul? I think there is a lot of similarity between the current bank crisis and the school situation-that is that those at the top that have f$%^& up are squeezing those at the bottom to pay up which will hopefully cover up their mistakes! It’s time for the top to be woke up with some serious pay cutes and accountabilites-if teachers have to have their kids make certain grades in order to ‘pass’ as a teacher shouldn’t the administrtion have to have a certain number of successful schools in order to be paid? I just think there is too much picking on the little guy and not enough questions being answered at the top-the only ones who suffer here are children and families-you have no idea what school transitions can do to a child’s self esteem and well being-there are some studies that put changing schools right up there with parents divorcing as the most stressful expereinces for children. These decisions will have costs of a far more important kind than money.

  • Scott December 14, 2008 (6:20 am)

    In response to ProudLion’s question, the SPS data shows that for the 2007-2008 school year, 79 of Cooper Elementary School students (29.5%) come from within the reference area neighborhood.

    Approximately 70% commute to/from the school from outside of the reference area.
    (page 14 of the Seattle Public Schools Individual School Summary:

  • ProudLion December 14, 2008 (4:26 pm)

    Thanks Scott, but my question really was how many K-5 students are there in the whole of the Cooper School reference area? If every single one of them attended Cooper would they fill the school to capacity?

    Since there are so many parts of the reference area where people just don’t live and before the district re-drew the boundaries several years ago the school was full, I was just wonder what the potential is for Cooper as a neighborhood school right now.

  • Scott December 14, 2008 (8:21 pm)

    For the 2007-2008 school year, SPS data shows 270 elementary school school age students attending SPS within the Cooper reference area. Of these 270, 85 (31%) attend Cooper. The planning capacity for Cooper is reportedly 461.

    In 2007-2008, elementary school students from the Cooper reference area are attending other schools in the following numbers: Pathfinder (43), West Seattle (43), Alki (34), Sanislo (24), & Lafayette (20). A total of approximately 40 students from the Cooper reference area attend Roxhill, Schmitz Park, Concord, Arbor Heights, & Gatewood, each in approximately equal numbers.

    The 270 number does not include home-schooled children or those enrolled in private schools.

    Source: and

  • ProudLion December 15, 2008 (7:04 pm)

    Thanks Scott. I was looking all over the SPS site for those numbers.

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