Seattle Parents Rankled By School District's Proposed Boundaries
At 6:55 a.m. last Friday, wearing a red backpack and holding an apple fritter, 11-year-old Arlo Jackson trudged out the door to Mercer Middle School.
"The cold air kinda wakes you up," Arlo said as he walked to his first stop, his friend Nico Binuya’s house. After Nico got a kiss from his mom, the two friends were on their way, chatting about “school, sports and, like, girls.”
Arlo’s dad, Tom Jackson, likes that his son has this routine. And he’s dismayed that school boundaries are likely changing, which means that his daughter will have to attend Washington Middle School two miles away – too far to walk or bike safely, but too close for a school bus to pick her up.
Jackson said the boundary changes don’t make sense to him, given the district’s talk about neighborhood schools and walkability.
"Maybe if I knew the bigger picture of how the boundary changes were [determined], maybe it is the right thing, but I haven’t had one good explanation yet why it is. I’m willing to listen," Jackson said.
Jackson is one of many parents frustrated that Seattle Public Schools didn’t consult with them before drafting new school assignments. The school board is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes on Wednesday evening.
At her desk at the school district’s headquarters, Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Teresa Wippel scrolled through citizens' e-mails to school board members, on which she is automatically copied.
"As you can see, if you look at those subject lines, we’ve got everything from APP elementary, TT Minor, special education, The World School, Indian Heritage School – all over the place," Wippel said.
She said she understands parents’ frustrations about the boundary changes.
"This is really tough work for everyone,” Wippel said. “It’s never easy to tell parents that their children may not be going to the school they thought they were going to."
But she added the changes are necessary given the new schools the district will soon open to accommodate more students. Seattle has 51,000 students in the district this year, and Wippel said the district anticipates 60,000 by 2020.
"The biggest driver for changing growth boundaries is our enrollment,” Wippel said. “We certainly have always said it’s a good problem to have, because it’s better than having to close schools.”
But parents note that the district did close numerous schools in recent years, and they’re frustrated by what they see as the district's history of shoddy projections.
As for parents’ confusion about why boundaries are changing, Wippel said there are many factors, of which walkability is only one.
Others include equitable access to programs for kids throughout the district, keeping the district’s costs down and minimizing disruption to families.
Wippel said the district did extensive community outreach, and has gone through several versions of the boundary proposal. But Jackson, Arlo’s dad, said that’s news to the parents he’s talked to on the sidelines of his son’s ultimate Frisbee games on Beacon Hill.
"When I say, 'Kimball’s feeding into Washington next year,' they’re like 'What are you talking about?'” he said. “The first response is always disbelief, and I’m going, 'Yeah, you didn’t know – don’t you get the emails?' 'What email?'"
Jackson said parents who aren’t on district e-mail lists and those who don’t speak English often don’t get notified about the proposed changes in time to comment.
However the board votes on the proposed changes, the new boundaries will be short-lived: District officials acknowledge that the new schools won’t accommodate the number of students expected to enroll in the district in coming years.
That means more boundary changes are on the way.