If they were hoping to hear that the School District would relent and not dramatically increase enrollment at McGilvra, those attending last week’s PTA meeting were quickly disabused of any such notion. School Board member Harium Martin-Morris was on hand to deliver the word from on high: the contract between the School District and the McGilvra PTA will be terminated and the School should expect as many as 300 students to be enrolled there next year.
The hundred or so parents and teachers who crowded into the school library Tuesday evening were given plenty of time to vent about the situation, but what followed was a productive discussion, led by School principal Mary Lane, about they ways McGilvra can adapt to the changed circumstances—and perhaps even thrive. Many parents who came to the meeting skeptical about the School’s prospects are reported to have had a change of heart after hearing Lane’s presentation.
But it was clear from the start of the meeting that before any discussion could take place on the question of “Where to from here?” there would have to be a discussion of “Why are we here in the first place?” On that score, Martin-Morris, who represents a district that includes McGilvra and extends north to View Ridge, did a good job of fielding the parents’ challenging (though generally not hostile) questions.
Former PTA President Bob Steedman questioned whether the School could physically accommodate 300 students, noting the small size of the School’s two portables, the inadequate cafeteria, and limited bathrooms. Martin-Morris responded by explaining the basis on which the District calculates “functional” capacity, and argued that on that basis 300 kids could fit into McGilvra. He noted that the Seattle Public Schools are growing at the rate of two or three small elementary schools per year (500 to 600 new students), and the district he represents has grown more than any other part of Seattle. The excess capacity at McGilvra will be needed to accommodate this growth, he said.
Skeptical audience members questioned why, if that’s true, the District recently sold the one-time Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Madison Valley. Martin-Morris responded that the MLK site was not viable as an elementary school because of lot size and anticipated repair costs, therefore not meeting the District’s needs. A parent also questioned why McGilvra was being expanded when there is apparently significant excess capacity at Madrona Elementary School. Martin-Morris said that Madrona has had management issues that are still in the process of being resolved. He went on to enumerate other issues impacting the School District, including the cutting of State funding and the fact that several Seattle elementary schools, because of the demographics of their neighborhoods, are already operating above capacity. He said the enrollment dilemma for the District as a whole is only going to get worse.
After about an hour of “Why, why, why?” from those assembled, a parent summed up the resigned mood: “Okay. This is done. This has happened, and now we need to deal with it.” Another parent agreed, saying “It’s not that they are picking on little McGilvra. It’s an uncertain time, but we need to be optimistic and positive. Grumbling among ourselves is not going to help.”
With that, the discussion moved on. Earlier in the meeting PTA Co-President Will Kilbourne had presented what he described as a wish list for the future of McGilvra, a set of principles that had been developed by an ad hoc committee of parents. The parents, he said, felt that small-group learning was important and that enrichment programs needed to be available in the School to allow for individual student growth. They also preferred single-grade classrooms.
Principal Lane, however, cautioned that whatever the School does to respond to increased enrollment should be research based and not simply re-engineering old approaches. “I challenge you to look outside the box and be creative in dealing with the new situation,” she told the audience. She noted, for example, “There are some very positive advantages in multi-age grouping. We do not see this as a negative approach.” What this would mean in practice is that there would be some classrooms with two grades, for example with second and third graders learning together. With the increased number of students in the School, she said, “it’s not going to be possible to only have single-age classrooms.” She added that multi-age learning would allow for better differentiation in teaching individual students at the School, with the challenge being to make sure the students are properly grouped. Another approach known as looping, where teachers remain with their students over a two-year period, may also have some advantages for McGilvra, she said.
Lane told the audience that “organizing our resources to support early intervention is a guiding principle” for McGilvra. One way to do that, she said, would be with the use of additional tutors. Kindergarten, which is expected to grow to 88 students at McGilvra next year, would be in single-age classrooms, as would first grade. This might mean as many as four separate Kindergarten classrooms if the projections hold up. Because of the probable imbalance of the number of students in Kindergarten compared to those in first grade next year, looping and multi-age learning will probably not be possible for those classes.
Lane reaffirmed her commitment to the School’s enrichment programs, including Art education, and noted that McGilvra’s literacy programs might even be enhanced by larger class sizes. “There are all kinds of things that we are looking at that are actually exciting,” she said. But the bottom line is that no decisions have been made regarding next year. “I know this is scary and you want what’s best for your children. We do too.”
Lane said that an on-going dialog with the PTA will be necessary for the School to be prepared for what’s coming, and she ended by urging everyone to keep an open mind: “We may get something that is even better than what we have.”
[Photo: Principal Mary Lane explains why change is sometimes okay.]