Hot Button: Class Struggles

In pursuit of excellence and equal opportunity, Seattle Public Schools has to convince parents that

Seattle Public Schools will reverse a longstanding tradition of allowing parents to choose their kids’ schools when it phases in a new “neighborhood school” student assignment plan in September for students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades. The district rewrote its 30-year-old boundaries and is now assigning students to schools closer to their homes.

The new assignment policy is part of the district’s five-year—and some say overly ambitious—Excellence for All strategic plan launched two years ago to dramatically improve students’ academic performances, raise high school graduation rates and identify and strengthen underachieving school programs.

All eyes are on the district as it rewrites the book on school choice and pours millions of public and private dollars into all schools for updated textbooks, teacher training, family engagement workshops, expanded arts, music and foreign language programs and more. The goal: to ensure that the district’s 46,000 students are on a level educational playing field, where math, science, language and music classes offer equal opportunities for all.

Many parents embrace the idea of harking back to the days of neighborhood schools, but the million-dollar question is: How will the district reconcile the student assignment plan with Excellence for All—especially when many of the 88 public schools have wildly differing “specialty” programs, such as foreign language immersion, integrated arts and nationally recognized music programs?

“How are they going to make sure my son has the same curriculum at Rainier Beach as [he would] at Garfield?” asks Cris Fernandez, cochair of the South Shore K-8 PTA. “Do all the kids have access to the same classes and programs?”

The district says students will have that access with the help of “aligned curriculum,” more educational resources and beefed-up teacher training. The old school assignment plan focused too much time and resources on the logistics of where students would be placed, says Tracy Libros, head of the district’s Enrollment and Planning Services. The new plan brings predictability and “more focus on what happens in the school when the children get there.”

To ensure that all students are taught consistent material in all grade levels, new textbooks are being introduced this fall in math, language arts, French, Japanese and Washington state history. Historically, teachers in Seattle schools had more flexibility on choosing texts and related materials. “It’s creating a system so that we can recognize high-performing schools and help those that are struggling,” says Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. But it’s a tall order, considering that 26 percent of third-graders are not reading at grade level, 44 percent of seventh-graders can’t pass the state math tests, and about 68 percent of high school students actually graduate.

“It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Goodloe-Johnson. “This is the first time the district has integrated all of this important work.” She says the strategic plan is on track, but it’s still a work in progress as the district wrestles with “a decades-old imbalance between where we have facilities with capacity and where our students live.”

Many parents don’t understand how the strategic plan affects them and view it as “just a document that exists more for the school board,” says Melissa Westbrook, a frequent blogg

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