It's back to neighborhood schools for Seattle

It's also back to reopening five schools closed a few years ago, with a cost of $45 million. The district releases its detailed maps and makes the case that predictability for families will outweigh some of the tradeoffs in desegregation and flexibility.
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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

It's also back to reopening five schools closed a few years ago, with a cost of $45 million. The district releases its detailed maps and makes the case that predictability for families will outweigh some of the tradeoffs in desegregation and flexibility.

The Seattle School District has come up with a new assignment plan that makes it clear where every student will attend elementary, middle, and high school, providing a predictability to assignments that'ꀙs been missing since desegregation busing started almost 40 years ago. But the plan requires spending $45 million to reopen five schools less than a year after a decision that closed five other schools last spring and relocated eight academic programs.

Seattle Public Schools'ꀙ neighborhood-based assignment plan probably isn'ꀙt a big deal for Seattleites without kids in the schools. Much of what will be argued about at public meetings this month — where the attendance boundaries will fall, equitable access to 'ꀜchoice schools'ꀝ — will seem like inside baseball to most folks.

But what might get taxpayers going is this: To enroll kids close to where they live, recreating the neighborhood school system of almost 40 years ago before desegregation busing started, the district will reopen five elementary schools, two of which shut their doors in 2007 at the end of the school year and one that was closed only last year.

Reopening those schools will cost as much as $45 million in capital improvements, according to Kathy Johnson, the district'ꀙs facilities planning manager. Ironically, a report to the school board'ꀙs finance committee on the estimated capital savings from closing seven schools in 2006 and 2007 was $44,870,246. The capital cost savings, mostly avoided maintenance, from closing the five schools earlier this year was estimated at $33 million. The district will ask voters to foot the $45 million cost of reopening these schools as part of its Buildings-Technology-Academics capital levy on the ballot in February.

Rainier View in the far south end and Viewlands in northwest Seattle, both closed in 2007, will reopen in the fall of 2011. Old Hay on Queen Anne Hill, which housed a school for middle- and high-school-aged immigrant children learning English until last spring, will reopen as an 'ꀜoption'ꀝ (read 'ꀜchoice'ꀝ) elementary in 2011. The other reopening schools, McDonald in Wallingford (opening 2012) and Sand Point (2010), have been closed much longer, though McDonald has often served as a temporary home for students whose schools were being rebuilt. When it was closed along with another group of schools last year, district officials said reopening Old Hay was likely to handle enrollment growth in the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods.

While closing schools one year and opening others the next may undermine the district'ꀙs credibility with voters, the new student assignment plan has a lot of pluses. 'ꀜIt has been 39 years since we have had predictable assignments in Seattle Schools,'ꀝ board President Michael DeBell said Tuesday night (Oct. 6), referring to the start of mandatory busing.

Now, based on a family'ꀙs home address, residents will know from the outset exactly where their children will attend elementary, middle, and high school. That hasn'ꀙt been possible up to now because the 'ꀜopen choice'ꀝ enrollment system was essentially one of competition, mediated by complex rules, among all students for seats in desirable schools. Effects of every action rippled across the district as the losers were assigned to second or third choice schools. Lack of predictable assignments is frequently cited by parents as a reason to send their children to private schools.

In fact, under the system now being phased out, families moving into Seattle might find that even living across the street from the school wasn'ꀙt enough to get their kids enrolled, especially if they arrived in town after the school assignment period closed in March. Because of that, some businesses reportedly would tell new employees with kids not to move into the city, but to try Bellevue instead.

That kind of irrationality is gone in the new system. Under the new assignment plan, every elementary school has an assignment area and if you live there, your children can go to that school. Up the line, your address also determines which middle and high schools your children will attend. And at the same time, the new plan offers 11 choice schools (mostly the desirable K-8s and three alternative high schools) that families who want something different can apply for without losing their children'ꀙs guaranteed spaces in their 'ꀜattendance area'ꀝ (neighborhood) school.

The option schools, known as alternative schools in the current plan, likely will enroll about 10 percent of the district'ꀙs 46,000 students. As the alternative schools do now, the options will provide the escape valve for those dissatisfied with the quality of their neighborhood school.

The challenge for the district is to bring up the quality of its weakest schools, mostly those serving low-income neighborhoods, so fewer families feel they need to get out.

Yesterday district planners released the attendance-area maps they'ꀙve been developing from demographic data for the past several months. The idea is to keep the attendance areas stable until at least 2015, so district planner Tracey Libros has made sure there'ꀙs extra capacity in the attendance areas where growth or program changes are expected. The new plan will be phased in one class-year at a time beginning next year with the school-entry levels of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades. Students at other levels will stay at their current schools until the highest grade, though they may transfer to their attendance-area schools if space is available.

Meetings for public comment on the assignment plan and the maps defining each assignment-area school have been planned for much of this month. The schedule is here. Not surprisingly, there will be plenty of discussion on issues that remain unresolved or change traditional enrollment patterns. Among them:

  • The plan removes the last vestiges of race-based school transfers. Some will question whether a district promise to consider an assignment preference for students from low-income families two years from now is enough to maintain the community'ꀙs commitment to equal educational opportunity and social equity.
  • Changing the maps for the north end high schools is already in the works in order to balance their enrollments. That will raise anxiety levels.
  • Is there a lack of middle school space in northeast Seattle? By some estimates there are 400 Seattle-resident students enrolled in the Shoreline School District who could return and crowd their attendance area schools, particularly Eckstein Middle School.
  • Laurelhurst residents who'ꀙve sent their kids to Eckstein since the 1950s may oppose the plan which assigns those kids to Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford.
  • What about quality? Under the new plan, there'ꀙs less opportunity (but still quite a bit) to transfer out of weaker schools, often those serving the highest percentages of low-income families.
  • Can all of Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard fit into Ballard High School as the plan'ꀙs high school map shows? People will ask the district to reopen Lincoln as a comprehensive high school to avoid crowding. (Right now, Lincoln serves as a temporary home for students whose buildings are being renovated and in 2010-2011 will house kids signed up for McDonald and Old Hay while those buildings are readied.)
  • The enrollment areas for the 'ꀜoption schools'ꀝ are undefined. Folks will want to know which options they can get their kids into and how much busing the district will provide.
  • How safe is putting all high school kids on Metro buses, which is part of the plan? Several board members have already expressed concern about this and about areas where there are no direct routes to high schools.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.