Parents pleased with school boundary plan

But grandfathering siblings still in question

Parents of students throughout the Seattle Public Schools district finally have what they want most: predictability.

Though parental concern over diminished diversity in the district, and some parents anxiously await the Seattle School Board's decision on grandfathering siblings, Queen Anne and Magnolia parents seem pleased with the plan.

"In my opinion, the district has tried to do the best it can do with what it has, and they can only build on it from here," said Magnolia resident Cathy Anesini, who has three children at Catharine Blaine K-8 School and one at Ballard High School.

"From the people I've talked to, they're happy," Anesini said. "In general, people in Magnolia are relatively happy with their cluster schools. The biggest thing people didn't like here was the unpredictability."

For Anesini, the predictable element of neighborhood schools matters most, especially since now she knows her three children at Blaine are officially in the attendance area for Ballard High School.

"I'm happy. I'm all about convenience," Anesini said. "Making these assignments is certainly not going to work for everybody, but the old plan wasn't working for a lot of people as well."

School board President Michael DeBell acknowledged the plan is a work in progress. He figured the district made about 60 changes in initial boundaries and made use of the parental and community feedback it received during several boundary meetings over the summer and fall.

"We really did try and accommodate the feedback we got," DeBell said. "By and large people really appreciated that."

Predictability, simplicity and savings are at the heart of the move, according to DeBell. He said the student assignment plan frees up a good chunk of money from transportation expenses that can be rerouted to improving the quality of lower performance schools.

For Magnolian Melissa Hyatt, the guarantee of a neighborhood school means she no longer has to worry that her kids will be split up. Hyatt's son, in ninth grade this year, attends Ballard High School, and her daughter is in eighth grade at a private school in Ballard.

Hyatt moved her children into private school because of not knowing which schools her kids would attend. As an actively involved parent, Hyatt wanted to be able to dedicate energy to her child's school, but without a predictable assignment that was impossible.

Plan hinges on more parent involvement

One of the main ideas behind the new system centers on greater parent involvement and community support, which Hyatt thinks will work, especially in Queen Anne and Magnolia because it will keep all the active parents together.

"Don't gripe about your boundary lines," Hyatt said. "Get involved in whatever school your kid's assigned to and make it your own. Get involved and make it the school you want your child to go to."

Meg Ferris, who has a fourth-grader at Coe Elementary School and a younger son who will now officially attend Coe as well, praised the district for creating the plan "thoughtfully and prudently." For Ferris, predictability again was crucial.

While she's concerned about what will happen to the socioeconomic diversity in the schools, Ferris said schools first and foremost have to function as a center of education, and they tend to function best, she said, when there are stronger community ties.

"A school can do amazing things if it has all the right tools," Ferris said. "Children learn best when they feel connected, to the faculty, to the community, and when their parents participate."

One of the expectations of the plan is that parent involvement will increase because there is the assumption that proximity lends to a higher probability of parent/guardian volunteers in the classroom or parents/guardians being a part of the school's PTA, for example.

New plan might

diminish diversity

But with that positive outcome, comes the parallel negative: further polarizing of Seattle's schools. Though diversity may not be advanced in the new system, the old system was not accomplishing its goals in this arena anyway, DeBell said.

"We essentially made a philosophical shift," DeBell said of the plan, "and we felt it was really not the school district's responsibility to desegregate the city. In fact, it's almost impossible [for us to do so]."

Between Seattle's geography and housing patterns, Seattle has an underlying segregated demographic which means schools will, in large part, reflect those housing patterns.

"We spent 30 years running a busing system that moved kids all around the city...," DeBell said, "and it was an eye-opener to many people. Studies show there was no improvement in academic performance. We tried it for a long time and didn't get the results we wanted."

Some parents agreed the district's job wasn't to ensure a racial or socioeconomic diversity learning space for the students. It would be desirable, they conceded, to have a diverse learning environment.

"The school boundaries do ask for stronger community schools," said Marcos Zuniga, a parent of a fourth- and second-grader attending John Hay Elementary School. "But there's going to be a negative effect with making it a neighborhood approach, let's face it."

However, this plan may be the path for schools to be equal. And to Zuniga, a worse scenario would be if the quality of schools in the district continues on a path of inequality causing parents with the means to pull their students into private schools, further bifurcating the public education system.

While they acknowledge the importance of diversity, Queen Anne and Magnolia parents tend to agree that predictability and the opportunities for parent involvement in a neighborhood-based school take priority.

While the goal of diversity might be out of the district's hands for now, the next step is finalizing the Transition Plan. The final vote on the last portion of the student assignment plan will be on issues such as transportation rules, program options like the program option at Old Hay and perhaps most contentious - whether or not siblings will be grandfathered into a school that's not the family's neighborhood school.

Mindy Smith, who lives in Magnolia, chose to enroll her kids at John Hay. With the new assignment plan, Smith's neighborhood school becomes Blaine. But her daughter will be grandfathered in at John Hay.

Without a decision on grandfathering siblings, Smith's son, who is in John Hay's pre-kindergarten program, may not be allowed to continue at John Hay.

"Overall, I think the plan is great. It makes a lot of sense," Smith said. "The move to neighborhood schools keeps people focused on improving their community and puts the power to improve those schools within a community."

The problem for Smith will be that she might have to split her parent time and energy between schools which defeats the purpose of a neighborhood school.

"By refusing to grandfather siblings right off the bat, the district's forcing parents into a two-school solution," Smith said. "They need to figure out how to keep those families together, and they need to speed up the enrollment process, so we're not left hanging until fall when it's too late."

Though Smith could hypothetically enroll her daughter into Blaine next year to adjust to the new plan, she said the district has told her there may not be enough seats at the third-grade level.

"Granted, they're both good schools, but we've made a huge investment at Hay," Smith said. "It's going to impact how we choose to donate our time and money to the schools they're at."

In a self-study done by parents, it was found that 18 families at John Hay were in this situation, along with a smaller number at Coe, Blaine and Lawton elementary schools. Apart from concerns of diversity, other parents agreed the main problem with the plan is for families who have a child at a different school from their assigned school, and if the district does not allow younger siblings to be grandfathered in.

"Wherever you draw boundary lines, whenever you implement a new assignment program, there's going to be a transition period where some people are happy and some people aren't," said Kimball Mullins, a Lawton parent.

Even so, Mullins said her perception is that most parents in the neighborhood are generally really happy about having a predictable school path.

In this long process, Mullins said the most unfortunate aspect is that it was sometimes framed as neighborhood against neighborhood, not the way it should be, she said.

"I really don't like the way it was played out," Mullins said, "because I think every parent wants the same thing for their children - a good school, a reduction in transportation time, proximity and predictability."[[In-content Ad]]