Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Separating Siblings

Courtesy of Bellen Drake

Seven-year-old Jacob Palmer, at left, attends Daniel Bagley Elementary. His sister, Julia, age 5, is assigned to another school. 

Who wouldn't want the option to walk their children to a neighborhood elementary school? Making that possible is one of the primary objectives of the Seattle School District's new neighborhood student assignment plan. For most families in the district, the new plan brings certainty about where their children will go to school – a certainty that until this year didn't exist.

But for hundreds of families, the new plan has brought just the opposite. "This is an issue that is keeping me up at night," says Susan Palmer, whose oldest son attends Daniel Bagley near Green Lake. Like each of those families, Palmer has an older child at a non-neighborhood school and a younger child who will enter kindergarten in September 2011. As a result, she is facing the prospect of splitting her children between two schools.

For Palmer and an estimated 600 others (the district can't be more exact until it starts working through its waiting lists), the new plan raises more questions than answers: "Do we move our older child, who is happy and thriving and at a high performing school, to a new, lower performing school? If not, how will I pick up two small children at the same time from two different schools? … Can my kids be transported to a central afterschool program or do we just put them into their specific school's after-school program? … How can I give my time, energy, and money to two schools? … If there is a disaster, which kid do I pick up first?"

This past year marked Seattle's first under the new student assignment plan. Driven by former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the district drew new neighborhood boundaries (attendance areas) around each school and did away with the old choice-based system. Under the new plan, all students living in the attendance area of a given school are guaranteed a space at that school.

Because this was the first year of the plan, the district made it a priority to place as many incoming kindergarteners with their older siblings as possible (by committing to adding portables and extra classrooms). By Sept. 30 of last year, all but 3 percent of 556 out-of-attendance-area kindergarteners were placed at their older siblings' schools.

The district isn't making such assurances for the 2011-2012 school year. Why? "Because we assigned almost all non-attendance area siblings to their older siblings' school this year, many elementary schools are overcrowded," said Susan Enfield, interim superintendent. "Unfortunately, we do not anticipate being able to accommodate many non-attendance area kindergarten siblings at older siblings' schools next year."

Tracy Libros, the district manager of enrollment and planning, noted that a number of schools have "bulges" of students moving through at the higher grades, and so the entry grade numbers need to come down to decrease the total number of students in those schools. "You can't just look at one grade in isolation when looking at capacity issues," she said.

Inequity Across Schools

Courtesy of Bellen Drake

Lucinda, 4, and Veronica, 7, with their mother, Lisa Giannini

"I'm angry and disappointed and mystified," says Lisa Manon Giannini, who has a first-grader at Maple Elementary in Beacon Hill and an incoming kindergartner whose neighborhood school is Hawthorne, in Mt. Baker.

Like many South-end families in her situation, not only does she face the prospect of splitting her kids between two schools, but the two schools have vastly different performance records. While Maple has received honors for its academic achievements, Hawthorne has scored lowest or close to lowest in all categories in the district.

"At least they should have made a detailed policy explanation about how they're going to make the schools more equitable, about how much stress they're placing on families, and about what they plan to do to turn around a school like Hawthorne," Giannini says.

Enfield says the district has a strategy for working with low-performing schools – particularly those in southeast Seattle – that will be rolled out in April. For now, though, Giannini is considering going back to work full-time, partially motivated by the potential need to send her younger child to a neighborhood parochial school.

"It would be a move of desperation," she says, as she and her husband are ardent supporters of public urban education. "It really disappoints me to take her out of the public system, but it's not the parents' job to fix a failing school like Hawthorne."

Like many other families in her situation, she sees the school's decision not to grandfather kindergarten siblings – at least for a few years during this time of transition – as hurting schools as well as families. An active parent in her school community, she'll have to cut back dramatically on the volunteer time and financial support she contributes.

Until last year, Seattle's student assignment plan was based on choice. If you were a parent, you made a list of the schools you wanted your child to attend, and submitted that list during a period of open enrollment. Because there were no neighborhood-based assignments, the first tiebreaker for available kindergarten seats was for siblings. Incoming kindergarten siblings were virtually assured assignment to their older sibling's school.

On the other hand, students who lived within walking distance of a school weren't assured seats, and in many cases they had to be bussed to other neighborhoods. The choice system also favored families with the time and resources to research, visit, and participate in the schools of their choice. Though the old plan evolved over many years from what began as an attempt at desegregation, it had become complicated, unpredictable, inequitable, and antithetical to community.

In the best of circumstances, the new plan offers the stability of a predictable assignment to a neighborhood school. Under less favorable circumstances, the plan continues to create high degrees of uncertainty, inequity, and stress. So how does a neighborhood plan work when there's such inequity across schools and neighborhoods?

"Equity is the work of the district; it's not the work of the assignment plan," says Libros. She pointed out that if a student is assigned to a school that does not meet "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind, the district – by law – has to offer that student the option to attend another school.

Awnie Thompson, principal of John Muir Elementary in Mt. Baker, does connect the neighborhood assignment plan to equity issues. "You have to have a neighborhood plan in order to create that equity, harsh as that sounds," she says. "I understand and respect and empathize with families facing difficult choices. But you can't do it gradually. Until everyone attends that school, it's not going to turn around." Thompson cited John Muir as an example of a school prospering with an outpouring of community support.

"We're not requiring families to split their children," Libros says. Indeed, the plan still uses siblings as the first tiebreaker for available nonattendance-area seats, and includes "safety net" transition rules that enable older siblings to switch to their neighborhood school upon request.

Breaking Up Families

For Linn Haralson, who has three children at Stevens Elementary in Capitol Hill and a daughter entering kindergarten in the fall, moving her three older children to a new school doesn't feel like a viable option. Though Stevens has always been the family's neighborhood school, when the district redrew the attendance area boundaries this year, for a variety of stated reasons, the family was taken out of the school's boundaries by two blocks. Now her youngest will be assigned to McGilvra, over a mile and a half away, in Madison Park. While both schools are among the highest performing in the district, Haralson is frustrated with the district's lack of communication and apparent misguidedness.

"I love the vision of a unified public school system, but that movement to a cohesive neighborhood system breaks down when they break up families," Haralson says. "How does the district expect us to believe in their plan for a unified, equitable school system when they are not keeping families together?"

Haralson, Stevens' current co-PTA president, has considered enrolling all of her kids at McGilvra, but that option doesn't seem beneficial for her older girls, who will be entering fourth and fifth grades in the fall.

"I don't think they're being malicious; they're rightly concerned with overcrowding. So we have to choose: do you go with overcrowding or keeping families together? I think they should've come to families and said, ‘You are the backbone of our schools. We are going to cause overcrowding for a few years. Are you willing to come up with creative solutions?' That's such a different thing than just saying, ‘You're not allowed.'"

Additionally, she points out, the district hasn't cited numbers to back up its decision not to grandfather siblings. According to the district's 2010 Annual Enrollment Report, 599 nonattendance area children will enter kindergarten in 2011. But Libros says that this number is based on a self-selecting parent survey, and can't be used to reflect any actual number. "We don't have any way of estimating the number of non-attendance area siblings who will be entering kindergarten in September 2011," Libros says.

The ten out-of-attendance-area families in Daniel Bagley's Montessori program who have children entering kindergarten in the fall face similar issues. And because the district uses separate waiting lists for Montessori and traditional programs, parents who want to keep their children together need to gamble by applying to one or the other program: "It makes me sick to know that our chances are essentially cut in half," Susan Palmer says.

While this year there is a sibling tiebreaker for Montessori applicants, it will be discontinued in 2012.

There's no question that eventually, as more and more families send their children to neighborhood schools, the sibling issue will all but go away. In the meantime, many families are left despairing over the district's unwillingness to allow for a longer transition period to help keep families together. And it remains unclear how the district will ensure equity throughout its neighborhood schools.

In the words of School Board member Kay Smith-Blum, "We cannot afford even one weak school – the bad apple spoils the barrel. If you do not believe in your school's ability to educate your child, you, too, become a victim of the system."