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Why we need to close some Seattle Schools

The School Board president rebuts some of the arguments in recent Crosscut articles.
A poster used in the campaign to stop Seattle Public Schools from closing Arbor Heights Elementary, which had been listed in an earlier recommendation but spared in the final proposal.

A poster used in the campaign to stop Seattle Public Schools from closing Arbor Heights Elementary, which had been listed in an earlier recommendation but spared in the final proposal. Flickr contributor mahlness

The Seattle School Board works with the Superintendent to guide our District in serving the needs of all students. It is one of our key responsibilities to manage the number and placement of programs and facilities to improve academic performance, balance budgets (both capital and operating), and adapt to changing demographics in the city. At the street level, however, all the clarity of higher-level thinking seems to fade. Closing buildings or moving programs becomes a very real intrusion on the lives of vulnerable children, a failure of priorities, a misallocation of resources.

The School Board bears ultimate responsibility for this decision. We have heard the inspired and emotional testimony, the critical analysis, and the anger. We have visited the schools, met with the parents, asked for ideas and alternatives. This transparent process cannot address the bitterness that a community feels about the possibility of losing their school, but it is our democratic way.

Former School Director Dick Lilly has written extensively in Crosscut against closing schools or what we are describing as Capacity Management. I respect Dick and all our citizens who care enough to participate in the challenges of the perennially under-funded Seattle Schools. Here are some points in response to some of the issues Lilly raises, observations that inform my own thinking on the fast-approaching vote to close and re-purpose some buildings. (I make these points writing as a Board member and parent and not on behalf of the entire Board.)

1. My understanding of research shows that instructional quality, consistency, rigor, and depth are more important than class size (except for K-2), school building size, or program in producing academic success, especially for poor children.

2. Full buildings generally offer more than half empty ones — more variety of enrichment, more after-school programs, more opportunity to match student needs to teacher strengths, more community involvement, and more vigorous professional learning communities for teachers to develop their craft.

3. There is a strong correlation between proper utilization of building capacity and academic performance in Seattle Schools. This is to be expected in a choice system, where parents seek out what are perceived as quality options.

4. Maintaining excess capacity above functional needs and potential for future growth(probably a range of 10-15 percent) is an added expense that steals resources from quality instruction.

5. In an open-choice system, extra capacity dooms some schools to become deeply under enrolled and slip toward non-viability. If we have not balanced capacity with demand some schools must loose in the choice system.

6. The demographics of the city are fluid especially for school age children. The District must react to changes in enrollment by adding or reducing capacity where needed. This should be done regularly to avoid large imbalances building up. Until the recent closures, it had not been done for more than 20 years and that process in 2006 was incomplete.

7. The Assignment Plan framework adopted in 2007 calls for predictable assignments to nearby schools, which may reduce movement and help balance enrollments. It does not envision mandatory assignments to fill under-enrolled buildings.

8. The Board and Superintendent have approached Capacity Management with a new assignment plan in mind. Reducing excess capacity prior to offering predictable assignments will allow for future stability in those assignments and improves consistency in enrollment levels, which affect school budgets and school quality. (Balancing capacity in comprehensive high schools has been postponed one year.)

9. Choice-based programs such as alternative, non-traditional, and APP-ALO programs must also be balanced and accessible. Transportation costs, ride times, geographical equity, and program offerings are all relevant.

10. The previous closures saw 20 percent attrition from Seattle Schools at closed buildings, as Lilly noted. But the situation is complex. For instance, the average rate of attrition at these schools the year before was 16 percent. Our under-enrolled schools generally have more students moving in and out and more who leave the District. That said, we are still concerned about any attrition and about public confidence in Seattle Public Schools.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 21, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Ah! Some clarity on the subject. Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly respond.

Cale

Posted Wed, Jan 21, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Mr. DeBell but you don't get off so easy.
The reasons for the current round of closures and program changes have been shifting,contradictory, and confusing.
1. Cooper students will be moved into schools with lower academic profiles. How does this help Cooper?
2. Summit, whose population mostly draws from the N.end, will be assigned to already over crowded N.end schools. Making the capacity problems in the N.end worse.
3. Lowell is full and operates in an efficient manner.(APP)Why does this building need to be repurposed?
4. APP elementary is being split but it's two halves will remain housed in the central area. Which begs why geographic equity is a reason given for splitting this program.
4. Van Asselt will be moved within blocks of Wing Luke. Without a new student assignment plan in place, one of these school's reference areas will be need to be creatively drawn.
5. Removing Meany as a middle school is short sided and leaves an enormous hole much like the one made when Queen Anne high school closed.
5. The district's recently released functional capacity data was not available prior to the final proposal. It also appears to refute the notion of the need to close any schools at this time.

What the School Board needs to do is work on the new Student Assignment plan AND a policy that guides future school closures and program placements first. Not close schools first and work out the details later. And remember that this plan emerged rather suddenly. It was thrust on the public, at the holidays under the guise of a budget crisis. Please.

Margie

Posted Wed, Jan 21, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

What's wrong with attending the school that you live closest too ?

Staff the school with competent teachers. Give the school lighting, heating and clean restrooms. Provide the teachers with current course books. Provide functional seating with desktops and allow for chalk or white boards on more than one wall.

Identify children who will not behave and TOSS them out. They become the burden of their parents, NOT the school. They are a separate problem, deal with them separately ! Likewise, toss the teachers who cannot teach content and let parents accept their responsibilities !

Why are all you white people fleeing the S end of Seattle ? Why not admit to the issues that make you move North and accept the reality ? Why are the parents of S end children in denial about their abilities as parents ?

Posted Wed, Jan 21, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

I completely agree with everything Michael has outlined.

However, that does not mean that this particular plan is a good plan. SPS has excess capacity and it needs to be reduced to better serve everyone. SPS spends too much money on transportation and that money could be spend inside a classroom rather than on a bus.

For some unclear reason, this plan ignores some fundamentals. It leaves in place all of the schools with extreme excess capacity. Closing TT Minor creates a huge geographic vacuum in a area of town experiencing a baby boom. It is unreasonable to dissolve Summit, an amazing inclusive community, when there is ample space in other parts of town.

I think the reasoning behind closing schools is sound. I think the board is moving forward with good intentions. However for a plan to create better student outcomes, it must be focused on better student outcomes, not just fewer buildings.

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 12:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Board President DeBell,

I’m disappointed by your arguments in support of school closures. Although they may appear well thought out and reasoned, they are technocratic and lacking vision. Despite all the talk about the benefits of a “transparent” process, let’s admit that the proposals put forth by the Superintendent were clearly flawed form the start, lacked the requisite supporting data and have changed radically with each iteration. And what is missing in all the various scenarios? A clear mission statement that says plainly that the end goal of any changes to schools or programs is to improve the quality of education of students, engage and energize communities and reverse the downward enrollment trend in our public schools. In other words, make Seattle Public Schools a model of a successful and thriving system that other urban areas can look to for inspiration.

You mention the complexity of changing demographics and how that can play into attrition rates. Let’s be honest. For over 10 years we have seen a downward trend in enrollment in Seattle Public School. Is that due to a lack of prospective families with school age kids? Of course not. It’s due to a lack of confidence in the schools. And the erratic nature of the current set of proposals will no doubt send more families fleeing the system. Do you really want to make lasting changes to Seattle Public Schools? Then have the courage to support changes that will reverse the negative trend, bringing new families into the system and also making those that have exited take a second look and reconsider their private school choices.

All I see is a complex and risky cascade of changes that theoretically may save a small amount of money. But no long term vision to grow enrollment and increase funding in the process. No focus on improving facilities and teaching staff, refining curriculums and emulating successful school programs. It’s all about maximizing building capacity and functional needs, with an off-the-mark comment about large class sizes not being important thrown in for good measure. I see a reactive rather than a proactive approach to problems. I’m one of the actively involved parents who has supported Seattle Schools for over 5 years and I feel like heading for the hills.


HaroldG

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. DeBell makes several points with which I agree. However, his conclusion on #10 is not borne out by the data he presents.

There is an alternative explanation for the 16% attrition seen at the four schools closed in 2007 (Fairmount Park, Rainier View, Whitworth, Viewlands) in the year before they closed (i.e., Jan-Oct 2006 attrition)

These closures were approved in summer 2006, though the schools remained open through June 2007. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that the closure decision was a catalyst for increased attrition, but that the effect was drawn out over the two years Mr. DeBell cites. I.e., once the closures were confirmed, some people jumped for the nearest exit before school started in September 2006; others couldn't make it out on short notice over the summer and didn't leave the district until after the 2006-07 school year.

The 2-year attrition totals for these schools was over 30%. This is consistent with the attrition seen following the closure of Martin Luther King Elementary in 2006, which did not enjoy a year of lame-duck status and saw attrition of over 32% in the year following its closure.

If Mr. DeBell has access to data showing that the attrition rates for these four schools was consistently 15-20% in the several years prior to the closure decisions in summer 2006, he will present a much more compelling case. To my knowledge SPS has not published this data publicly, but if provided it would be welcome. The figures he offers do not adequately support his case that the marginal impact of closures on net attrition is relatively small.

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

With or without a budget crisis, the District needs to manage its capacity. It needs to expand capacity where there is too little and reduce capacity where there is excess.

The current plan does not adequately expand capacity in the northeast if it cannot find an acceptable new location for Summit. Without that, too many Summit students will appear in the northeast neighborhood schools and will use up the bulk of the added capacity. For the plan to work, the District needs to find another home for Summit. Lincoln springs to mind.

The District did a geographic analysis of school capacity and demand, but not all demand is strictly geographic. Demand for non-traditional schools does not appear in their tally of butts and seats. The District needs to recognize the fact that without Summit, we will be short on alternative school capacity as there will be more demand for alternative schools than the surviving schools can accomodate. The District needs to retain the Summit program to provide adequate alternative school capacity.

The goal of the Capacity Management Plan was to reduce capacity by about 2,000 seats. However, when the District switched from counting planning capacity to counting functional capacity, about 2,000 seats were removed from the inventory. In other words, the District achieved its capacity reduction goal through a more accurate capacity count. They could declare victory and stop there.

While the District continues to pursue the reduction in capacity they are refusing to reduce high school capacity - where the excess capacity is the greatest. Not only has the District refused to eliminate any of the thousands of excess high school seats, they are spending millions of dollars to expand Nathan Hale and Ingraham high schools. How does this make sense?

coolpapa

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

DeBell -
Your excuses for closing programs have been proven to be just that - excuses. You and MGJ do not have an ounce of credibility any more. There is no support for this plan, and you know it. This plan was dumped on parents at the beginning of the holiday season, and rushed to a vote just after the holiday season for a reason - to keep input from the community to a minimum, and deny parent groups the time to organize.
Every set of data you have presented has been refuted.
The plan does not achieve any stated goal - it does not save money, it does not increase capacity in the NE, it does not lead to "excellence for all". (The emptiest slogan ever)
As to transparency, give me a break. There is only one board member who makes himself accessible to his constituents, and that is Harium Martin-Morris. He is the only one who answers e-mails and snail mail, he is the only one to maintain a blog, and he is the only one who tries to meet with and honestly listen to the affected communities.
the other six board members, yourself included, are cowards, hiding from accountability in your Stanford center holding cells.
The parents of Seattle have no confidence in you, MGJ, your data or your proposals.

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 9:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Spectrum and AOL's are all over the southern part of our city and not supported and not attended what makes you think bisecting elementary APP will have any different results? Last night I heard that 96% of those that test in go to some sort of advanced program. How much more success are you looking for?

Honestly, who wants their kids to be a part of an experiment that has no hypothesis nor controls pursued in a capricious way that only seems vindictive.

I heard a murmur at one meeting that the remaining logical reason for all of this was to increase privatisation of Seattle's Schools... After the functional data has now shown that there was no merit in what resulted in terrifying spec ed families and mystifying APP families with Lowell's demise... I am starting to listen to the talk at the back of the meetings. And of course, we are considering enrollment in Mercer Island. Anyone want to car pool? But alas, I hold out hope that calmer heads will prevail... And we can once again believe in Seattle Public Schools again.

Posted Fri, Jan 23, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Board President DeBell,

The lack of uniformity and poor quality of Spectrum programs throughout the district should be reason enough to not split APP. The public knows this as witnessed by the low opt-in rates for Spectrum. People are “okay” with the longer bus rides for the high quality APP program as witnessed by the much higher opt-in rate and this is very high praise and testimony indeed. Congratulations on creating this outstanding program. A bit of overcrowding at APP during these tough economic times is acceptable. Take your time and do this right.

Points 1-10 above do not come close to providing sufficient justification to override the earlier experiences with APP being co-housed at Madrona as outlined in the Stanford report. To disregard the past is foolish. To weaken APP beyond the Madrona model by splitting it into two co-housed cohorts is playing double jeopardy. Chance of success is low at best. Or perhaps, the definition of “success” is being changed.

The economic justifications are not there as well. One can only conclude that it is the school district’s inexplicable (yes, mystifying) mission to split APP. The APP split proposal makes little sense and must not be approved.

That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done
Is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.

ratman

Posted Tue, Jan 27, 2:20 a.m. Inappropriate

With due respect to our School Board President, the latest rationales for school closures and program splits is now shifting more than ever. The presented rationales are vague concepts like "community involvement","more vigorous professional learning communities", and "fluid demographics". I hardly noticed the rationale that I thought this disruption was all about--saving money in the face of a budget deficit.

Excuse the comparison but this school administration's shifting plans and rationales seem analagous to the ever changing rationales for going to war in Iraq-i.e. first it was WMDs, then it was the non-existant Saddam-Al Queda link,then it was to spread democracy, then it was to defeat terrorists who weren't there in the first place....

Like the diminished credibility which befell President Bush/Cheney, evershifting proposals and justifications harm the credibility of the present school board and superintendent. When credibility suffers, there is no buy-in to the proffered proposals and people turn to other solutions-protests,lawsuits or opting out of the school district altogether.

Buy-in is important for ultimate success. If the rationale is to save money, then implement targeted solutions that actually save money: consolidate two nearby schools, build a couple of portables at overenrolled schools, and trim the fat of a bloated school administration that is at least 16% larger than school districts of similar size.

Don't mix up other school administration goals that the school district thinks it can hide under the cover of "capacity balancing" and "fiscal responsibility." Don't argue "capacity" is the impetus for dividing successful programs like APP when the solution simply makes other schools overcrowded in the process. Don't imply that as a result of the APP/ALO proposals that "transportation costs" and "ride times" will improve when there has been no data presented that backs up that assertion. Don't say that the rationale is improved access to Elementary APP with two sites within a few miles of each other but no new north end site is created.

There are underenrolled Elementary Spectrum programs in every neighborhood. Enrollment in Elementary APP is a much higher percentage of the eligible population, and is strategically located at a central location which displaced very few neighborhood kids 12 years ago. Thus, the proposal to split this highly enrolled centrally located successful program is beginning to look like an elegant solution to a non-existant problem.

The one honest reason I see from the School Board President's many rationales is that the program changes/closures are an experiment "to form the basis for a new policy on capacity management."

The problem though is that parents don't want to gamble with experiments when it comes to their children's future, when all they want is just some certainty for a 12 year window, especially when the District's experiments mirror prior experiments that didn't work. (e.g. Compare TT Minor/Lowell consolidation with Madrona/APP consolidation and explain why Superintendent Stanford was wrong and why it will work this time.)

The School District's shifting rationales and proposals have caused it to lose its footing with the current proposal. The best option in this credibility crisis might be a couple of tailored solutions that actually save real dollars-a percentage cut to school administration would be a good start and would give the school board instant street cred. Then, place the current proposal back on the parents and school staff and ask them to design and implement solutions that would result in stated achievable goals: e.g. increase total enrollment by 10% each year or risk closure, increase minority recruitment by 10% each year or risk geographic splitting of magnet program, Likewise, address accommodating the overenrollment at overenrolled schools with new construction that would cost less than $150,000 or risk splitting programs like Washington Middle School. There are many parents, staff members and committees who would love to find solutions to these challenges (including myself)and most important there would be buy in and teamwork, not lawsuits and an exodus from the Seattle School District.

Unfortunately, an exodus would inevitably produce another round of school closures, which will produce more uncertainty and another exodus, which will produce another round of....you get the idea.

tadd

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