Last night was the regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Graham Hill Elementary PTA, but we didn’t manage to stick to the scheduled agenda. For only minutes before, the Seattle School District released its preliminary list of recommended closures, and our children’s school — our school — was on it.
I do not think it possible for most of my fellow parents and teachers in attendance last night to fully communicate to the district their sense of shock, disappointment and anger… but I can. I’ve got a soapbox politicians and journalists actually read, and I intend to use it.
So at the risk of being accused of NIMBYism, I want the district to understand in no uncertain terms: NOT MY SCHOOL!
Not this school… not the most racially and ethnically balanced school I’ve ever seen outside of the UN Headquarters’ on-sight pre-school. Not this jewel of the neighborhood… this incredibly tight-nit community of parents and teachers who have struggled through a half-decade of benign neglect from the district to create a school that would be the pride of all but the most affluent suburban districts.
Not this parent-driven experiment in education that could be used as a model for innovation, but instead is being tossed on the dung heap because district officials never bothered to take the time to understand its programs and its community.
Graham Hill Elementary is home to the district’s first and only pre-K through 5 Montessori program — essentially, a charter school within the school, but without all the unnecessary, politically destructive bullshit of the charter schools movement.
It may come as a surprise to many Seattle families that they even have a Montessori option. And considering the total lack of support we’ve received from the district in recent years, I’m guessing it might come as a surprise to some district officials as well.
But what won’t come as a surprise to educators and parents who have studied the literature or have an iota of real-world classroom experience is that those children who pass through Graham Hill’s pre-K program are incredibly more prepared to learn, at all grade levels, than their schoolmates who did not.
But all this is lost on a district that bases its decisions on demographics and statistics and goddamn WASL trends rather than the heart and the mind and thoughtful observation. 60 percent of Graham Hill students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and nearly 20 percent qualify for English as a Second Language (ESL). This is not an easy population to educate, and our test scores reflect the many challenges of our students. But by looking only at our numbers and our address the district has always only viewed Graham Hill as “just another South End school,” oblivious to our unique educational offerings, and our incredibly strong and diverse community of families.
Why close Graham Hill instead of more obvious choices like the struggling programs at Dunlap or Ranier View, or the aging building at Van Asselt? Well, apparently, we’re just another South End school, so what’s the difference?
The difference is the parents. While many South End schools struggle to get any parental involvement at all, Graham Hill boasts one of the largest and most active PTA’s in the district. Out of a current enrollment of 360 students, we have 113 paid PTA members, plus many other non-paying members who routinely volunteer their time. Despite the preponderance of low-income families we manage to raise nearly $40,000 a year to pay for basic services, supplies and amenities the district no longer covers, as well as fund tuition scholarships to the pre-K program.
My daughter, now finishing up third grade, has attended Graham Hill since she was three years old, and during that time the district built a beautiful $4.8 million addition that they now want to scrap. It was during that time that parents took the expanse of broken asphalt that surrounded the building, and through $400,000 worth of fundraisers and grants — and a helluva lot of backbreaking labor — we transformed the schoolyard into gardens and playgrounds and a play field that is now used by the entire community.
Just last Saturday I spent hours laying pavers, putting the final touches on a playground studded with our children’s artwork, that the district now wants shutter. No other school in the South End could have done what we have done at Graham Hill, especially under the circumstances we endured.
For we have not only been the victims of benign neglect, we have been royally screwed by a district that has left us leaderless for most of time my daughter has been there.
Graham Hill has had 9 principals over the past 6 years… and they want to shut us down because of low test scores? I don’t want to hear anybody on the CAC telling me that our school is failing… for it is the district who has failed us, year after year after year!
It was with trepidation that we toured the school 7 years ago, but we were won over by a fabulous principal who had overseen a transformation at Graham Hill during her nine-year tenure. But between the day we enrolled our daughter and her first day of class, the district, in its wisdom had transferred our principal to another school, leaving Graham Hill virtually leaderless ever since.
Every time a principal leaves, be it due to sexual harassment or incompetence or personal health, the parents and teachers of Graham Hill have pleaded with the district to give us a voice in choosing the next principal… and nearly ever time the district just plugs in whoever is most convenient for them.
After the most recent disaster — the sudden resignation of a principal the teachers adamantly didn’t want, and who through mismanagement and neglect left our school budget in tatters and yet another interim principal “in charge” — we had an angry meeting with District Education Director Walter Trotter, at which he promised to make up for the lack of support and attention Graham Hill has received. In a follow-up letter signed by Raj Manhas, the superintendent assured us that “meeting current and future school leadership needs of the Graham Hill community is a top priority for both Mr. Trotter and me.”
Priority my ass!
There is no question that a round of school closures is long overdue in a district that has seen decades of steadily declining enrollment. But as they prepare to cut the heart out neighborhoods throughout the city, I hope that Superintendent Raj Manhas and his advisors give some serious thought not just to reacting to declining enrollment, but to considering its causes. For if today’s list of proposed school closures is any indication, educated middle and professional class parents will continue to flee the district in ever larger numbers while our schools continue their seemingly inexorable return towards 1950’s style segregation.
That is what is going to happen to the core of the Graham Hill Community, the families who have fought to maintain this program through years of district neglect. Many of us can afford to move to suburbs or even to send our kids to private schools. But we choose to live in the South End, and we chose Graham Hill because we wanted our children to grow up in a diverse and balanced community that is more reflective of the outside world.
But these are our children, and we’re only willing to put up with so much shit.
Should the district close Graham Hill, many of us will leave the district, and some the neighborhood. This will be yet another step towards the ghettoization of the South End schools, a process that hurts all our children.
I can and will write much more on this subject, but I’m volunteering in my daughter’s school this morning. While she still has one.