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Why we need to close some Seattle Schools

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. Credit: 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.

The data and experience from several rounds of consolidation and closure will form the basis for developing a new policy on capacity management that will establish acceptable ranges of excess capacity by region and by grade level. This will inform a clear process for opening or closing schools to address future capacity challenges and should put an end to large scale closures and re-purposing, along with the disruption that entails.

Closing schools and moving programs is wrenching for everyone involved. But inaction is a decision too. If we fail to address the need for some closures, we would be choosing to spend more on buildings and less on teachers and to leave some low-achieving programs and over-crowed buildings unaddressed. We need to move toward a more durable equilibrium of schools and students both with capacity management and assignment changes.

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