Parents Fight Seattle Public Schools Over New Grade School

The district wanted to place high school students on the same West Seattle campus.

By Matthew Halverson August 21, 2012 Published in the September 2012 issue of Seattle Met

When Seattle Public Schools announced in February that it planned to open a new math- and science-focused grade school in West Seattle this fall, parents of Mary Mathletes and Bunsen Burner Bobbies felt like they’d found nerdvana. The STEM program—short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—would add about 250 seats and help address the district’s growing capacity problem. But mainly—math and science! The only hitch? “This is Seattle Public Schools,” says Heidi Alessi, whose son will be a second grader at the school. “You have to take the leap of faith that they can really pull this off.”

Alessi and the rest of the parents who took that leap got slammed back to earth this summer. From the beginning the district planned to place the new school in the Louisa Boren Building on Delridge Way Southwest, which had sat vacant for more than a year. It was a big campus that would provide a safe, quiet learning environment; the loudest distraction kids would encounter would be the clink of test tubes. 

But then in June, Middle College High School—an alternative public school—got squeezed out of the space it had been using at South Seattle Community College, and SPS decided to stick it in the Boren Building as well. Without telling the STEM parents. Who found out about it from the West Seattle Blog. And promptly went from geeking out over the new program to freaking out that their children would be exposed to the underside of teenage culture: cursing, kissing...Facebook. “We were outraged,” says Kathleen Voss, the parent of another second grader. “It was like a slap in the face.”

SPS will spend $3.9 million to open the building this year. Had it waited another year, that price would have doubled.

The district unveiled the new STEM school only one month prior to the enrollment deadline, and parents had to commit their kids before a principal had been hired or any major curriculum decisions made. (They were crossing their fingers for Singapore math, the trendy but effective, everyone-learns-at-his-or-her-speed teaching approach.) Tensions started to cool when the district introduced the new principal, Dr. Shannon McKinney, an administrator from Arizona who had recently turned around a perpetually underperforming middle school. And in May, they got their wish for Singapore math. But then came the announcement that students would be required to wear uniforms. It wasn’t the end of the world, but…uniforms? Really?

The whole process felt rushed. And it was. Although Seattle schools spokesperson Teresa Wippel says the district launched the STEM program to cope with overcrowding, the decision to do it now was certainly motivated by money. SPS will spend $3.9 million to reopen the Boren building this year. Had it waited another year—and taken more time to plan—that price would have doubled, thanks to a City of Seattle requirement that any public school building closed for more than two years undergo “substantial alterations.”

Seattle Public Schools had planned to relegate the teenagers to portable units in the parking lot, where they’d have no contact with the younguns, but Voss, Alessi, and the other STEM parents rallied. They planned their response on a Yahoo message board. They spoke at school board meetings. They sent emails—hundreds, by Voss’s count—to the district. And they won. The kids will still be required to wear uniforms, but in August SPS found space for the Middle College students at a nearby community center. And it learned a valuable lesson: Parents of young achievers are not to be trifled with.

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