By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Lots of love, lots of concern, and lots of questions.
That’s the three-part bottom line for last night’s two-part community meeting at Roxhill Elementary School.
It was originally announced three weeks ago as a chance for the school’s community to speak out about what was at the time a possibility that Seattle Public Schools‘ forthcoming BEX IV levy might result in the closure of Roxhill and its “merger” into a large new elementary school on the Arbor Heights campus a mile and a half away.
That option is not in the newest levy draft, though nothing’s officially ruled out, either, given that the BEX-IV plan won’t be finalized till a School Board vote this fall. But since it’s not currently in play, the plan for last night’s meeting morphed to a two-part mission: Advocacy for Roxhill’s needs, and a West Seattle-wide look at how BEX-IV might best benefit the peninsula, with high-profile district reps there to listen – West Seattle’s board rep Marty McLaren, and assistant superintendent Pegi McEvoy.
Roxhill principal Carmela Dellino (right) presided over the first part, which included not just advocacy, but also passionate testimonials about her school.
It was that passion, in fact, she suggested, that led to the closure/”merger” proposal getting shelved. “We had 300 surveys returned from our families and staff that said ‘no’ – there was not one supporting a merger. It was a clear message.” She described her school as “an incredibly magical place.”
Even a “magical” place, though, “has to be safe” – and that’s part of why she and the school community want someplace new.
The pleas were plaintive. Two Roxhill students spoke first, speaking of the conditions in the seven portables that house students at Roxhill because there’s no room left in its building. They spoke of sitting next to portable doors, with chilly drafts coming in; of noise during recess “when playballs hit the door.” And the school’s playspace itself has shrunk because the portables take up outside space.
Later, student teacher Alison Pirtle shared the concerns she said second-graders had voiced this week while “talking about needs, the responsibilities of citizens, and the needs at Roxhill.” One repeated theme: Ramp conditions outside the portables that students describe as like a “cheese grater,” as in, “kids get hurt on the cheese grater,” as one child quoted by Pirtle put it. She said she was “here to be their voice. Roxhill is a wonderful community … I really feel attached and absolutely love it, and I hope you can hear the needs of these students, and understand that we need a safer environment for them.”
The love was voiced by many others.
Roxhill’s Golden Apple Award-winning librarian Pat Bliquez wanted to make sure the 70-plus attendees, and anyone else within earshot, knew “what makes Roxhill so special.” She recalled an attempt to close Roxhill six years ago, and read from comments made back then, about its “strong sense of community” and other attributes. “I think it’s a sense of community that’s the real bricks and mortar of our school,” but that doesn’t negate the need for “…a building that’s really worthy of our community.”
That community drew praise from first-year Roxhill teacher Michael Nguyen (4th grade), who previously worked in Los Angeles: “From the moment I came here … I was hooked.” He mentioned “the caring at this school … I have never seen a school that cares about so many individual students … Carmela seems to know every single student by name.” He described the staff lounge and its atmosphere at lunchtime – he’s seen “corrosive” atmospheres at other schools, “but not at Roxhill … I can enjoy having lunch in the staff lounge for the first time in my career.” He said his colleagues are “a fun bunch.”
He wasn’t the only ex-Californian to profess Roxhill love after just a year there. Parent Cheryl Richmond said she moved up here “because the schools in California were a mess” and chose Roxhill, even though her home was in another school’s reference zone, because she wanted her daughter to go to a place where “she could learn, and be loved.” She added: “It’s been an interesting year – I’m frustrated by the lack of respect that Seattle Public Schools seems to have for Roxhill … it infuriates me that (South Lake Union) is getting a new school when Roxhill needs new ramps, and curtains, and so many things.”
(One other speaker mentioned the South Lake Union elementary that’s in the current draft BEX-IV list, suggesting that $32 million would be better spent on a new school for Roxhill.)
A parent who identified herself as an immigrant had the most impassioned plea: “We need a new school .. it’s better for our kids. These kids need a unique place where they can learn. They are our future, for all of us … not just the parents … you never know, they can be your doctor, your nurse.” She noted that she is a mother of six, working three jobs, “working so hard.” The students need not only a better building, she said, but better technology. “This is a land of opportunity. We want our kids to experience this opportunity – someone like me, who grew up in another country, we want our kids to have a better life.” She said that she doesn’t want to see Roxhill left behind like a quiet child whose needs aren’t tended to because other kids are louder and get attention.
Yet another parent, who said her daughter had received extra support for a time in Roxhill’s transitional kindergarten, hailed it as a place of inclusion, where you “don’t hear no, no, no, no.”
4th grade teacher Teresa Klein declared that the school has an energy “formed when committed people come together,” saying it “can’t be disbanded, because we have built something together over the years.”
Yet others fell in love with Roxhill not as educators or parents, but as volunteers. Jim Lindquist said he came to volunteer at the school when a friend died suddenly. He addressed the district contingent: “Roxhill is special … It’s the people, it’s the students … I would ask you please to consider it in all your decisions.”
The school’s academic gains, yet another speaker noted, were the result of “the number of adults” who come into the building to help – student teachers, bilingual teachers, and others there to support the staff and students.
So what does Roxhill want, in terms of a facility that’s on par with the love and success?
One student, and multiple adults, mentioned a new school on the former Denny International Middle School site along 30th between Thistle and Cloverdale – something that the district had said was in its long-range plan, the reason the site of the main building has been left an open field, while other parts of the site now hold areas designed for certain sports. The EC Hughes building, currently home to independent Westside School (WSB sponsor) but slated in every BEX-IV scenario so far to be taken back by the district, might be a new home for Roxhill, some suggested.
Teacher Klein spoke of a better location – as had principal Dellino during last month’s community meeting at Arbor Heights – one that isn’t in a commercial zone, on a busy street, close to areas of potential danger like recent police-involved incidents that had led to the children “shelter(ing) in place.”
Denny principal Jeff Clark – concluding his school’s first year in a brand-new building – spoke after watching a while from the side of the cafetorium: “My first message is to honor Roxhill, the great teaching that’s happening here … my second quick point is, all the teachers and parents I know have the same goal, to get the kids to be successful in high school, college, and life. If that’s the goal we embrace as a city, for all our children, then we need to talk about equity, not equality. In order to help everybody to be succcessful as a future college graduate, we need to give more to those who need more.”
Dellino wrapped up: “There’s no question that Arbor Heights needs a new building … its building is in worse shape.” And she acknowledged that Schmitz Park, whose principal was also in attendance and which is expected to get a new building at Genesee Hill via BEX-IV, is overcrowded. But so, she said, is Roxhill: “It’s not OK for seven portables to be on campus.” She said there are 125 bilingual students who have no classroom where they can be served – if needed, they are pulled out for small groups in the hallway.” She doesn’t want Roxhill left behind.
Will it be? Too soon to answer. The final decision is in the hands of the board, including Marty McLaren, to whom the meeting then was turned over. She in turn introduced assistant superintendent McEvoy, who recounted : “It is absolutely critical that we hear this as we are making our decisions,” she said. “What I’m hearing is a couple things. First, I’m hearing Roxhill is a community, needs to stay a community, needs to have some support for its facility, because it’s aging … it has ‘cheese graters’ which we don’t want kids to be on .. you have needs for before and after school … and we need to get kids out of portables.” She noted that the school board has directed staff to get students out of portables. She suggested that capacity relief might come through redrawing boundaries – she did not specifically say that was on the table for Roxhill, but suggested that if a new Roxhill was being built at the old Denny site, there might be boundary revisions in the meantime to reduce the pressure on Roxhill. “We want to figure out how to keep you home.” She said other options “are all on the table,” including moving Roxhill to Hughes. The district, she noted is growing 1500 students a year, and growth is in particular happening in Southwest and North Seattle. “This is a very different levy … We are bringing all of our rental buildings back online again.”
McLaren acknowledged the reopening of the Hughes building would be “a big hardship” for Westside, “but the district needs to have a school there.” As for Roxhill, she said she is “happy” the community has “raised your voice … to tell the district that you are not willing to merge your school with another school. As your school board director, I am two times proud, proud that our community has spoken with one voice, and proud that our staff has understood you so well.”
And since this portion of the meeting had been billed as for the greater West Seattle community, McLaren asked who was on hand from other schools, and got a show of hands for many of those she listed. She went on with an overview, including, “We are going to reopen Fairmount Park,” and said the district was “wrong” to close schools in the past several years, but “it is what it is, and now we’re faced with opening up schools because enrollment has opened up so much.” She noted that the permanent site of the K-5 STEM school has yet to be determined – but insisted Boren will ultimately remain a “temporary” site for schools. Arbor Heights, for example, will likely move there in 2016 if its rebuild remains scheduled for 2018 completion as proposed. Arbor Heights, as was noted several times during the meeting, “is in the worst condition of any building in the whole district.” Schmitz Park is the most crowded building in the entire district, she said.
“We have serious issues, and we don’t have a lot of money … but what we do have, is an incredibly powerful community.”
McLaren wondered aloud if the Arbor Heights timetable could be moved forward, and: “What can we do to address the needs of Roxhill?” Schmitz Park currently is scheduled to move into a new building at Genesee Hill in 2015, EC Hughes to open that year, but even if Roxhill were included in the levy, she explained, the way it is structured, the district would only get $100 million a year, so all the construction, renovations, and repairs can’t be funded at once.
She invited attendees to engage in brainstorming – but it played out more as Q/A.
First question was whether Fairmount Park would possibly house the K-5 STEM at Boren school longterm. McEvoy said that hadn’t been decided – it would either open as a neighborhood school or possibly as the STEM site. They are committed to keeping it in West Seattle, though, she said.
What about EC Hughes – what will it be opened as? “Capacity,” said McEvoy, “we want to put some of the new students we anticipate coming to us in that particular program. There have been some discussions that this school could go to EC Hughes … if we did that, then I am not gaining any additional seats for the capacity issues.” She said new enrollment projects are due June 1st ‘and we’ll be looking very carefully at that to see, what does each neighborhood need.”
McEvoy was asked about boundary redraws and sibling grandfathering and had no particular answers. “We are very concerned,” said McLaren, “with meeting the needs of families – that would lead us to be consistent and to grandfather.”
What would the district do with the Schmitz Park building after it closes? No plans currently, McEvoy confirmed.
Roxhill’s head teacher Christopher Robert suggested that perhaps K-5 STEM at Boren could stay at Boren and that Arbor Heights could move to Roxhill while its new school is being built, with Roxhill moving to EC Hughes.
McEvoy said the community certainly could be asked about that option.
Then the suggestion arose again, regarding building a new elementary at the ex-Denny site, one that could hold 700 kids, if Roxhill moved to EC Hughes and left a capacity void. McLaren pointed out that a new building at the ex-Denny site had not been brought up in this process so far. McEvoy said no architect or engineer has analyzed the site for something like that but could be done “if the school board directed us to do that.” Regarding the suggestions of dropping the plan to build a school in South Lake Union, she said “(that suggestion) was one of the reasons the school board asked us to daylight this conversation, so we could have an intentional conversation about how we feel about that … we know down the road, people are staying in the city and we have some capacity needs.” She said the rezoning there is bringing in more people, and they’re waiting for “data” and for projections from the Downtown Seattle Association.
Another question: Would 700 or so be too big for an elementary? One attendee suggested it would be “overwhelming” and “frightening.” Then from another attendee: “Come to Lafayette” (which had more than 550 students by last count).
Arbor Heights principal Christy Collins said there were schools more than 600 in population in the Eastside district she’d worked in previously. She said that whether it’s a small school or a large school, “I can honestly say from my own experience, kids are well cared for and have a very positiive and productive time in the school.”
McLaren pointed out that “we as a district can conserve funds if we build large schools.”
What happens if the BEX-IV levy doesn’t pass? It was asked. McEvoy pointed out this is a levy, requiring simple majority, not a bond; she said they could go to voters twice in a year and could revise it if it fails. She also noted the district will have a maintenance and operations levy on the same ballot.
Librarian Bliquez then asked: What can we do as the Roxhill community to make sure our voice goes on to be heard?
McLaren suggested further meetings, “perhaps in another month or so,” to continue the dialogue.”It’s true that you have spoken out very loudly with one powerful voice … and it’s also true that, as time goes on, you’ll need to do the same thing (again).”
EC Hughes was inquired about again – McEvoy said, “I open the buildings and build the buildings, but then there’s the question of what we put in those buildings … we will have to have the conversation of how do we utilize those seats we just opened up for the community.”
“Does anybody see good solutions to this puzzle?” asked McLaren, once it was past 8 pm.
One suggestion: The Roxhill site should be sold for commercial development, to raise some money for the district.
McLaren said that given bad experiences in the past, she didn’t envision that happening – “these schools are an incredible asset to the district.”
Future Seattle teachers’ union president Jonathan Knapp was introduced. “I just wanted to make two observations. One is, the discussion about the community around Roxhill is really powerful, you don’t see that everywhere – it’s the strength in your community. … I want you to know that teachers work hard to be able to do that for you. And our association works hard to make that possibie.” To Bliquez’s point, Knapp said, “talk to every single person that you know about the challenges in public education. This is not an isolated issue just for Roxhill in Seattle – all the issues you are discussing are part of the challenge of public education in Seattle, in Washington state, in America, we need very strong parent advocates like you to talk to those who DON’T have children in public schools.” Talk to your friends, your co-workers, your church community about your school and the importance of public education, he exhorted.
One person tried to make some ssense of the logistics of everything ahead – and thought they found 300 new seats while building two new buildings. “E-mail me,” smiled McLaren.
Schmitz Park principal Gerrit Kischner was there too, and said toward meeting’s end that he was grateful to principal Dellino “for bringing us together for this conversation” – one that will no doubt continue.
HOW TO SPEAK UP: The district is taking BEX comments via this e-mail address – firstname.lastname@example.org – and Marty McLaren has another community-conversation meeting next Wednesday (May 9), 12:30 pm at Southwest Library (35th/Henderson).
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