Weekend Highlights

Published February 9, 2011
Our Schools

Starting a School from Scratch

by Lisa Stiffler
seattle child article photo
Enrollment numbers appeared incorrectly in the February 2011 magazine. These numbers are correct as of January 2011.

seattle child article photo
Students celebrate the opening of a new school in Seattle.
Photo by Kevin P. Casey

Shiny new computers and desks? Check.

A library filled with 9,000 books, most yet to be cracked? Check.

An energetic, passionate principal who knows all the students by name, plus a small, well-qualified team of teachers? Check and check.

Classrooms packed with kids eager to break in a new school? Not exactly.

Sand Point Elementary, in northeast Seattle, closed its doors more than two decades ago. When it reopened them this past fall, 160 students were expected to enroll. Instead, 50 did.

“We were stunned,” said Claire Spurlock-Cohen, president of the elementary school’s Parent Teacher Association. More students gradually registered. “We were thrilled when it got over 75 (students).”

This school year marked the first time that Seattle Public Schools has truly reopened a school – and it reopened three of them: Sand Point Elementary near Lake Washington, McDonald Elementary south of Green Lake, and Queen Anne Elementary. Two more schools will reopen next year. 

It’s been a bumpy start. Some families were so frustrated by the reopening process that they opted for private school instead. Parents complained that the district didn’t provide them with enough answers and information about the new schools in a timely fashion. So many unknowns proved too disconcerting.

But other parents stuck it out. They decided that the opportunity to help shape the curriculum and focus of a new school, in a building outfitted with new supplies in what – at least for now – is a small school setting, with a new cast of teachers and administrators, was worth a bit of uncertainty. For them, all of that potential trumped their trepidation.

Sarah Koch was among those parents. She has a kindergartner and second-grader at McDonald, where she is the PTA president.

“The families who are there,” Koch said, “are more frontier-minded.”

To some degree, the low enrollment was expected because of how the school assignment policy works. This year, the district only required kindergartners and students new to the district to attend the reopening elementary schools, so that older students were not uprooted from the schools they’d already been attending.

Parents who took the plunge say that despite initial challenges, the new schools are doing well. They offer rave reviews for the principals and teachers. They’re excited to have schools they can call their own.

“It’s a very active, engaged community group that is building this school, and that’s what’s going to make it wonderful,” Koch said. “If you’ve got a strong parent community, it’s a lot harder for it to fail.”


The Move to Neighborhood Schools

Until this school year, Seattle’s student assignment plan was not about community. It was about integration, which over time morphed into a focus on school choice.

In the late 1970s, the district began bussing students across town in an attempt to create racially diverse schools. Over the past decade, it has moved away from integration as a top priority, and in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that student assignment by race was unconstitutional.

As school choice became the underlying principle, the policy worked liked this: Parents would make a list of the schools they liked best. They might get their top pick, or they might not, if the school was particularly popular. So even if a student wanted a seat in the school across the street from her house, she could wind up being bussed to a distant school that might be ranked at the bottom of her list if the closer building was filled to capacity. In short, no one was guaranteed an assignment anywhere.

“The old assignment plan was based on almost a charter school approach,” said Tracy Libros, district manager of enrollment and planning.

“It was extremely complicated. Inherently, it was inequitable,” Libros said, favoring parents who could play the bureaucratic game of picking schools. There were complicated tiebreaker rules determining who got in where. And bussing kids all over Seattle was expensive.

“Schools that did not attract students, their enrollment would go down and they would close,” she said. “The old plan created a downward spiral for a number of schools.”

Many parents agreed that school choice was a failed strategy.

“The status quo wasn’t working,” said Lauren McGuire, acting president of the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher and Student Associations, and a Seattle Schools parent.

This academic year, the district launched a new assignment system emphasizing neighborhood schools. Now each student is guaranteed a spot at their assigned school, one that’s near – but not always closest – to their home. If they don’t like that school, they can apply for a seat elsewhere, which they may get if there’s room available.

The new assignment plan is responsible in large part for the district needing to reopen schools – some of which they’d closed only a couple of years previously. The plan requires more capacity in neighborhoods with more kids. District-wide enrollment also shot up this year, with 1,000 new students entering the schools when only 400 were expected. 

In addition to the three elementaries opening this academic year, Viewlands Elementary in northwest Seattle and Rainier View Elementary in southeast Seattle will reopen in fall 2011.


The Cost of Reopening Schools

So how do you reopen a school after it’s been mothballed for years or even decades? It isn’t cheap, or easy. 

Seattle Public Schools is spending $48.1 million to reopen the five elementary schools, using money from a voter-approved levy. To varying degrees, the buildings need retrofitting for earthquake safety, improvements to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, rewiring for today’s technology needs, plus new paint and roofs. Viewlands needs additional work to repair walls that were damaged when vandals stripped out the copper wiring and pipes shortly after the school closed.

All of this expense raises questions about the cost savings that were supposed to come from the school closures in the first place.

Kathy Johnson, facilities planning manager for the district, said that they did save money by eliminating operating costs for the years the buildings were shuttered. Some of the closed schools were rented by other groups. Many of the repairs being made now were inevitable.

“One of the big reasons we closed the schools was we had declining enrollment, and those buildings were in really bad shape,” she said. “If we were going to continue to operate them, we would have had to put this money into them anyway.”

Queen Anne and McDonald students are being housed at the former Lincoln High School while updating is being completed. Queen Anne students will return to their building next fall, and McDonald students will return in 2012.

Sand Point was the first to open. Its gleaming main hall is tiled in vibrant colors. The lights are bright and click off in empty rooms to save energy. The walls are freshly painted and there are new sprinkler and fire alarm systems.

But it takes more than a paint job and lights to open a school. The district formed design teams with community members and parents to give them a voice in the reopenings. The teams helped write mission and vision statements for the schools, establish the criteria for hiring teachers, and choose playground equipment. They also helped shape art and music offerings, and selected math, reading and writing programs.

A particular point of frustration for parent and community design team members, however, was that they weren’t able to select the overall focus of the schools. Would the school feature an immersion in foreign language, or maybe an emphasis in math and science? The district recently designated McDonald an international school. For the others, these questions will be answered in the coming months and years.

“The design teams worked on a lot of the brass tacks of setting up the schools,” said McGuire, who served on the McDonald team. They had “to focus on opening the doors.”


The Rebirth of Sand Point Elementary 

For Sand Point Principal Dan Warren, taking his new job this past fall meant leaving a sure thing. For five years, Warren was principal at Queen Anne’s John Hay Elementary, one of the district’s top schools.

“I was absolutely scared,” he said. But a few months into the year, he has no regrets. “This has been really rewarding.”

Because the student body is so small, there is one kindergarten class, one “transitional” kindergarten class with students with special needs, one kindergarten/first-grade split, and one class of second to fifth graders.

In addition to its wide age range, the 24 students in the second to fifth grade split classroom speak at least eight different languages. To ensure that all of the students’ needs were met, Warren temporarily returned to his teaching roots and provided math instruction. Now, with extra dollars from the district, the school’s librarian regularly joins the classroom to teach reading.

Somewhat amazingly, it seems to be working. On a recent visit to the class, the students are quietly finishing an assignment. They greet the principal respectfully and organize themselves for a group discussion. The walls are lined with vocabulary words and a rainbow of self portraits.

One of the girls in the class models the school T-shirt for visitors. It’s a simple black-and-gray design featuring the name of the school. The shirt is intentionally plain. That’s because one of the countless details involved in reopening a school – particularly one that’s been shuttered so long – is reestablishing who and what the school is. That includes picking a mascot and school colors that respect the past while embracing the diversity of the reborn school. 

Warren is pushing for the Sand Point squirrels (three of the bushy-tailed critters have made uninvited appearances in the building this year), but sharks and bears are also in contention.

And there are weightier matters to resolve. There are plans for Japanese and Spanish lessons in the not-too-distant future. Sand Point already holds music classes one day a week with singing, recorders and even instruments for older students to play. Dance, drama and art are offered before and after school.

Then there’s the matter of enrollment. There are 14 classrooms available and only four are filled now. Warren hopes to reach capacity in three to four years.

The school is hosting regular potluck dinners to drum up interest. There are plans to build a garden at the school to engage the community. Warren encourages interested families to contact him directly for personal tours of the building, offering a level of attention he could never afford at a large school. 

Spurlock-Cohen, Sand Point’s PTA president and mother of a kindergartner, is likewise eager to share their story. 

When Sand Point opened, “one of the areas that we were really worried about is academic rigor,” she said. Those fears are waning. “I think it’s turned into a smashing school and has the potential to be hugely successful in addressing the concerns of the community. I’m incredibly pleased with how the school’s turned out.

“I think parents will come,” Spurlock-Cohen said. “I think people were afraid of the unknown.”

Lisa Stiffler is a freelance writer and mom.

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