School Closure Bombshells

Students at Summit K-12

The bombshells in last night's four-hour-plus meeting on Seattle Public School closures were the proposals for Summit K-12 and Lowell Elementary. Summit, an alternative school, would move from the very north of the city to the very south, to be relocated in Rainier Beach High School, a school that has struggled mightily over the years to improve academics and reverse its declining enrollment. Meanwhile, the academically advanced students in Lowell's Accelerated Progress Program (APP) -- a premier program with a fiercely protective constituency -- would be split up and moved to two different schools: Hawthorne and Thurgood Marshall elementaries.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her staff presented academic rationale for such moves beyond mere cost-savings, but it seemed thin. The supposed similarity between Summit and Rainier Beach, that both stress performing arts, veils vast differences between the two. And the idea that two cohorts of APP students would allow the district to "compare and contrast so that we can improve," as Robert Vaughn, manager of Advanced Learning, put it, had a dubious ring to it. The "school within a school model," whereby a program of gifted kids is plunked down in a regular school, as at Garfield High, creates its own problems. Board member Sherry Carr alluded to this when she talked about the importance of creating a feeling of "one school so that you don't have haves and have nots."

Board members brought up other practical problems with these two proposals. Harium-Martin Morris noted that Summit "is an all-city draw. I can't help but think it would be better in a central part of the city." Michael DeBell pointed out that putting half of Lowell's APP students into Hawthorne would overfill the school. "It's hard to know how you would do that without displacing neighborhood students," he said. He also didn't see how the APP program would have room to grow with this new configuration, as district staff first suggested. "There's not going to be a lot of room to grow," Vaughn conceded.

Indeed, the board questioning on all the proposals was intense. It is a mostly new board, replacing one that was initially perceived as reformist but eventually as dysfunctional. This is the biggest challenge it has faced, and members are showing their mettle, acting neither as rubber stamps nor as obstructionists, in the mode of previous boards, but requiring detailed data and reasoning. "The gravity of these decisions makes me nervous about data that is soft," DeBell said at one point.

One sideline related to the closures that escaped last night's lengthy discussions was the significance of the proposal to close T.T. Minor. This was the school that philanthropist Stuart Sloan dumped a bunch of money into, beginning in the late '90s. Sloan's partnership with the district was controversial, although it eventually extended to The New School, which is not targeted for closure. But his intention to create a model inner city school was worthy and, in the case of T.T Minor, now seems to have gone for naught.

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