Sunday, August 29, 2010

Advocates fight Washington state school district's decision to raze alternative school

From the Seattle Times:

A group of parents, teachers and concerned citizens are fighting a decision in Renton to tear down an alternative high school and relocate the students, saying the school district has ignored its input and is violating a state policy that encourages community feedback.

Black River High School, a 150-student school for students who failed in regular comprehensive high schools and need special teacher attention, soon will be demolished. Students will be redistributed throughout other high schools when the school year begins, and by 2011 a bond-funded new school called the Secondary Learning Center will open its doors at the current Black River site.

Leaders with the community group say the Renton School District changed the allocation of bond money without voters' approval and did not consult the community before closing the school.

Michele Savelle, a member of the community group, is concerned about student and staff separation. Alternative schools, which are much smaller than regular high schools, are close-knit communities that, if ripped apart, destroy at-risk students' motivation to stay in school, said Savelle, who also is the founder of the community-revitalization organization Skyway Solutions.

Separating students is "essentially throwing away students who are already at risk and had just gotten their confidence back in school," Savelle said. The closure left students "really mad and they're really hurt. And when teenagers get mad and they don't have really good support at home, they get into trouble," she said.

The group has said the district is not following a state policy that requires 90 days of community feedback before a school is closed.

The district maintains that it followed the rules because the district isn't closing the school, just rebuilding it, said district spokesman Randy Matheson.

"They say you should run your district like a business, and that's what we do," Matheson said. "The curriculum we set up, it has parent input. We get student input. But we can't accommodate all that input."

Wendy Bluhm, whose son goes to Black River, said her ideas haven't been welcome at the district. She also was upset that along with the changes, the district decided to cut a popular horticulture program because it didn't meet state science requirements.

She said cutting horticulture will force the students, many of whom have ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and other learning disabilities, to take more advanced classes such as biology and chemistry, whose textbooks are "too thick." Horticulture, she said, provided students with hands-on learning.

"That's how they learn, that's how they pass," Bluhm said.

The teacher of the class, Carol Grimes, said she could have "changed the class to fit requirements," but was given little notice of the change.

The Renton School District has rebuilt and reopened 13 schools with the bond money since voters approved a bond measure in May 2008, Matheson said — "and we're doing the same thing with Black River."

But unlike previous school reconstructions, where students and teachers traveled together to a temporary site, just over half of Black River students and teachers will be housed together at nearby Sartori High School, another alternative school. The rest will go to regular comprehensive schools in the district.

Then, after the school is demolished and reconstructed, the district expects to give the replacement school a new name, and its student population will be different.

The district's plan blurs the lines between closure and reconstruction, which aren't differentiated or defined in the state policy, said Dave Stolier, chief of the education division at the state Attorney General's Office. But a state document says the policy doesn't apply when schools are temporarily closed for renovation and students are relocated to another school in the meantime. Whether the exception still holds true when the "renovation" is a total tear-down and when students are relocated to multiple schools rather than just one is unknown, Stolier said.

"It sounds like it's a little bit of an eye-of-the-beholder question," he said.

It's also a question the state can't answer because the project isn't using state money, according to Scott Black at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

If the project were state-funded, "there would usually be a swing facility where the school would put all the kids in temporarily," Black said, but "the fact that the district didn't do that is a local decision that they have a right to make."

For now, this handful of concerned residents have tried to get the district's attention with letters and by trying to involve others in fighting the decision, but group members say they can't afford the roughly $3,500 needed to file for the injunction their lawyer suggested. They attempted to raise money with carwashes and community donations, but many of the school's families don't make much money and can't donate.

Instead of seeking an injunction, the group plans to use the money it raised to print informational fliers about their fight and distribute them in neighborhoods by the Black River campus.

Though the community group isn't taking legal action, it is fighting to keep the students from Black River together, something the district's current plan doesn't do.

At the new school, called the Secondary Learning Center and expected to be completed in 2011, the school's population will be a combination of students who now attend Sartori and students from Black River who this fall will be housed at Sartori. The students who will be redistributed to comprehensive schools this fall will not reunite with their fellow Black River students after the school's reconstruction.

Though Sartori, like Black River, is an alternative school, it's for people who dropped out of high school and have returned as adults to earn GEDs at their own pace. Black River is for teens who failed in their regular comprehensive high schools and require more teacher attention to succeed in school.

The district didn't solicit the entire Sartori community's input before deciding to move Black River students in with Sartori students, said Sartori math teacher Tim McIntosh.

But, he said, if the two schools are kept separate, they can coexist well in the same building — now and in the future.

"One answer for everybody won't work," McIntosh said. "That's why these students failed in their regular comprehensive high schools."