A preliminary report on Seattle school closures includes some surprising findings — including that 157 students chose to leave the district entirely when it closed five school buildings this summer. […] Students at the closed schools were expected to merge into designated neighboring schools — but the report found that happened only half the time.
[…] The district didn’t survey parents to find out why their students chose not to enroll in the merged schools, and it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from the numbers alone, said Holly Ferguson, a district manager who has supervised the school closures and who wrote the preliminary report.
“When you look at where the kids went, it was all over the map,” she said. “To me, it says parents just exercised the normal (school) choice process.”
Yeah, maybe. Or, if they had bothered to survey parents, they might have learned that parents were just sick and tired of having their children’s education sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. And they also might have learned that a lot more than 157 children left the Seattle Public Schools in response to the district’s ill advised and mismanaged closure process. Like, for example, my daughter.
The day we learned the shocking news that Graham Hill Elementary was on the preliminary closure list, was the day my ex-wife started looking for houses on Mercer Island. My daughter had attended the Montessori program at Graham Hill since she was 3 years old, and we all loved the school, but middle school was approaching and we weren’t thrilled about our neighborhood choices. We had reluctantly applied to transfer Katie to TOPS for fourth grade, hoping to beat the rush of parents seeking a middle school slot in the popular K-8 program, and while she was high up on the waiting list, it was no sure thing. Then the closure list came out.
Long time readers are well familiar with my obsessive blogging on the topic during the summer of 2006 as we fought to save our school from closure, but despite our eventual victory the process left many of us parents disillusioned with the district and its ability to meet the needs of our children first, and our politicians second. Two days into the start of the 2006-2007 school year Katie was offered a slot at TOPS, but exhausted from the closure fight and emotionally invested in our recently saved school, we turned it down, choosing to keep Katie at Graham Hill for fourth grade. A few weeks later her mother purchased a house on Mercer Island. Katie transferred to the island for fifth grade, so as to ease next year’s transition to middle school.
Katie was fortunate to have at least one parent with the means to make a choice like that, but I know for a fact that we weren’t the only Graham Hill family to leave the district after the emotionally draining closure battle. Several families who had been struggling to make the best of limited middle school choices simply gave up the fight, opting for private school despite the financial hardship. Others picked up and moved out of the city entirely, including one classmate who joined Katie this year at her new Mercer Island school. And I’m sure there are several others I don’t know of, as I’ve never seen such turnover at Graham Hill as I’ve witnessed over the past two years.
Perhaps Graham Hill was unique in that no other school was more misrepresented nor its parents and teachers more bitterly slandered by the district than Graham Hill was in justifying its closure. A handful of administration officials — including a thrice-failed principle with an ax to grind — had concluded that Graham Hill was a racist program, and were determined to cynically use the closure process as a cover for shutting down our neighborhood school. The Citizens Advisory Committee was force fed misleading, cherry-picked, and downright incorrect information, as well as, apparently, a fair amount of innuendo. Our PTSA, arguably the most active in the South End, was wrongly accused of draining resources from the conventional classrooms to benefit a less racially diverse Montessori program, and our school was publicly humiliated for failing to meet the educational needs of our minority and economically disadvantaged children, a charge that was demonstrably untrue.
Just last month Graham Hill Elementary was honored by the state as one of only six Seattle “Schools of Distinction,” recognized for dramatic improvements in reading and mathematics over the past six years — and one of only three such Seattle schools with over 50-percent of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. And yet this was the same school the district vociferously argued should be shut down for failing to educate its disadvantaged students… the same school that was held in such disdain by the district for its alleged racism.
And you wonder why parents like me find it so difficult to trust the district?
I was volunteering at the school when Raj Manhas made his final tour of Graham Hill before including it on his final list of recommendations, and I briefly spoke with him, without acknowledging who I was or what I had been writing. There were a lot of things I wanted to say to the superintendent, but instead I simply admonished him for missing a golden opportunity. I pointed toward all the hard work and enthusiasm communities around the district were expending in their efforts to save their neighborhood schools, and suggested that he could have harnessed this energy to fight Olympia for adequate funding, rather than pitching us against each other in a battle over diminishing resources. What a waste. The fight to save Graham Hill and the other schools was a heartbreaking experience that cost the district much more than can ever be quantified on a financial balance sheet. And the balance sheet doesn’t look so good either…
Already, though, the short-term costs have been higher than anticipated. The original plan called for the district to spend about $500,000 over two years on closing schools. The actual general-fund costs over the past year and a half have been $927,364, according to the report — and an additional $500,000 to $700,000 still may be needed.
The extra money was needed to pay for “transition activities,” from hiring moving coordinators to paying staff members at the merged schools to attend team-building retreats.
“I was a little surprised by the actual operating expense of getting the schools closed down and everyone moved,” said board member Michael DeBell, who heads the board’s finance committee. Still, he said, the district expects to see a net financial benefit of about $1.9 million a year because of closures.
But if enrollment continues to slowly decline, district leaders will need to take action, he said.
Future school closures are an option, but not the only one, he said: “I don’t want it to be the first thing we turn to.”
It’s exactly what we argued in the first place, that closures would never save the district anywhere near the money it was estimating, and would inevitably lead to further declining enrollment. Declining enrollment would lead to more closures, which would lead to more declining enrollment, and so on and so on.
Let’s hope we learn from this failed experiment, and reinvest in our neighborhood schools rather than shutting them down.