As we reported last month, enrollment at Madison Park’s John J. McGilvra Elementary School will be increased dramatically in coming years as a result of a recent decision by the Seattle School District to end a decade-long agreement with McGilvra’s PTA. That agreement, which had limited class sizes in the School in order to improve and sustain the quality of the students’ educational experience, was covered by a formal contract which still has another ten years to run. The District recently concluded, however, that maintaining the agreement would not be “equitable.” As a result, the decision has been made that McGilvra’s enrollment, which had been capped under the contract at about 250 students, will be ramped up to a projected 300 students, perhaps as early as the next school year.
The implication of this new policy is that there will be a 20% increase in average class sizes at the School, something the McGilvra PTA says it is very concerned about. Although the parents briefly considered a legal fight, they concluded that rather than fight they will have to regroup and find a new way to accomplish the goal of ensuring “McGilvra remains a vital community school,” in the words of PTA Co-President Maria Bridge.
When the contract was first negotiated with the District in 2000, it was seen by the McGilvra PTA as the likely solution to a problem that had plagued the School for many years. Although McGilvra was ostensibly a “neighborhood” school, only 10% of the 235 students attending McGilvra in the late 1990s were from the School’s attendance area, according to the PTA. Moreover, the quality of education at the School was considered low. Neighborhood parents decided to change the equation and hit upon lowering average class sizes as the key to improving the educational experience and attracting neighborhood kids into the School. The parents agreed to fund the purchase of two portable classrooms and to annually raise funds sufficient to pay for approximately three new teachers at the School. The District, in return, agreed to the enrollment cap. The addition of the portables plus the conversion of an interior space into an additional classroom resulted in the average number of students per classroom being reduced from 26 prior to the contact to 21 thereafter.
The agreement appears to have achieved its goals, according to the PTA. Neighborhood enrollment at the School substantially increased (to about 50% of the School’s attendees last year), while the quality of the education received by its students dramatically improved. Students at the School consistently outperform both their City and State counterparts on standardized tests, and McGilvra was one of only five Seattle elementary schools honored during the last school year with a Washington State Achievement Award. From the PTA’s point of view, the contact was working as intended.
So what happened? School District spokesperson Teresa Wippel provided this explanation: “We recognize and appreciate the key role that our parents and our PTSAs play in supporting each of our schools. We also believe it's in the best interest of Seattle Public Schools to make centralized decisions about staffing and class size so there is equitable allocation of space. By owning the [McGilvra] portables, we can ensure the most efficient use of the school's classroom spaces and determine the appropriate staffing level consistent with our funding formulas.” She adds that the District is not abrogating the contract with the PTA but simply exercising its right under the contract to buy the portables back from the PTA (an expense the District estimates to be $60,000 or less). That, however, effectively terminates the contract at its half-way point, giving total control to the School District to determine future enrollment at McGilvra.
The McGilvra PTA now has to deal with what is a fait accompli. Before telling the PTA that the contract’s enrolment caps were no longer operable, the School District already had increased the number of students at McGilvra. For this school year, 270 students were enrolled at the School compared to 246 students last year. There are currently 266 students enrolled; and of these, 70% are from inside McGilvra’s recently enlarged student attendance area, which includes Madison Park and surrounding neighborhoods. The big enrollment increase came primarily in the Kindergarten class, which grew from 39 students to 54 students, year over year. The PTA’s immediate reaction to this has been to hire part-time tutors as a pilot program to help reduce the adult-to-student ratios in the two Kindergarten classrooms.
McGilvra’s PTA has been raising well over a quarter of a million dollars each year to support quality education at the School. Last year, this funding represented about 20% of McGilvra’s operating budget, according to the District. In spite of the changed circumstances, says PTA Co-President Bridge, “Our PTA will continue to raise money to support our teachers and students at McGilvra. We think it’s more important than ever to do so.” She notes that funds raised by parents will most likely be used for academic enrichment, such as supporting the School’s arts programs and the library. Additionally, the PTA may give assistance in core academic areas, such as providing math specialists and tutor support.
Nevertheless, there’s concern by parents that larger class sizes will have a negative impact on the quality of education their children receive at the School. Ann Skrobut, who has two daughters at McGilvra, says she’s been frustrated with the School District’s leadership, though she understands there are a lot of very big issues on their plate and respects the work they are doing. Nevertheless, she adds, “One would think that they might focus their energy on the schools that actually need their help and leave the ones that are doing well alone. I feel like we have had more than our fair share of turmoil: poor leadership, lack of support for special education, and now too-big kindergarten classes.” That said, however, she believes that the McGilvra community will come up with creative solutions to deal with this new challenge. “The volunteers I’ve worked with aren’t going to let something we have worked so hard to build be compromised,” she adds.
Corinne Crabs, a McGilvra parent actively involved in the PTA, is also concerned about the new enrollment levels. She says that studies show that lower class sizes are especially important for children in Kindergarten through at least the second grade. Her husband, Karl, shares this concern, adding that the process also bothers him. “I’m always suspicious of greater centralized decision making,” he told us. “I hope the central planners at the District actually have some ideas about how to keep parents engaged at the individual school level. It seems that the District should be facilitating all that funding and energy coming from the PTA, instead of becoming a bigger bureaucracy.” He adds that he’s still hopeful the PTA can find a way to keep McGilvra an outstanding school.
For its part, the McGilvra PTA is being circumspect, at least in its public pronouncements. Co-President Bridge admits, however, that the termination of the ten-year contract with the District is a disappointment. “We as a parent community felt strongly that this agreement benefitted all of the children at McGilvra, as well as the School District,” she says. “Under our contract we were able to not only educate significantly more students by increasing the capacity of our school at parent expense, but to do so with excellence.” She adds that the PTA was “very flexible in trying to negotiate a fine-tuning of the agreement to meet all of our needs, but the District stated that they were not interested in the same kind of partnership that we have had together.”
Bridge tells us that the McGilvra PTA will be investigating how some Seattle public schools with larger class sizes than McGilvra’s have still been able to maintain high academic achievement. The PTA will simply have to consider assisting the School in some new ways. “Our teachers and parent community have met daunting challenges before,” she says. “Suffice it to say that the parents at McGilvra will do whatever we can to continue to support our incredible teachers and do the best for our students.”
[The McGilvra PTA met last night to discuss the implications of the School District’s decision to ramp up enrollment. We will provide a full report on that discussion in a posting later this week.]