Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E19 - School Shuffle Stories II - Adams and Cedar Park

January 04, 2024 Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel Season 1 Episode 19
E19 - School Shuffle Stories II - Adams and Cedar Park
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
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Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E19 - School Shuffle Stories II - Adams and Cedar Park
Jan 04, 2024 Season 1 Episode 19
Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel

In this episode of Seattle Hall Pass, we feature the second of a three-part series on the October shuffles at SPS elementary schools. Here, we interviewed parents at Sarah Nau at Cedar Park Elementary in Lake City and Cortny Helmink Adams Elementary in Ballard about how the upheaval affected their communities.

Part I - Dunlap

See our show notes.

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Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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In this episode of Seattle Hall Pass, we feature the second of a three-part series on the October shuffles at SPS elementary schools. Here, we interviewed parents at Sarah Nau at Cedar Park Elementary in Lake City and Cortny Helmink Adams Elementary in Ballard about how the upheaval affected their communities.

Part I - Dunlap

See our show notes.

Support the Show.

Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
Sign up for our newsletter

School Shuffle Stories II

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. My name is Christie Robertson.

[00:00:08] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. In our last episode, we brought you stories from Dunlap Elementary after it lost two teachers in October.

[00:00:15] Christie Robertson: Today we'll focus on two more schools that faced disruption. Adams Elementary in Ballard and Cedar Park Elementary in Lake City. And I want to note that all these interviews were edited for length and clarity. 

[00:00:27] Jane Tunks Demel: So Sarah, tell us what happened at Cedar Park?

[00:00:30] Sarah Nau: So Cedar Park Elementary is in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle, tucked up in the corner. We are an option school. It was a neighborhood school for a number of years until I think the ’80s when Seattle Public Schools decided to close down a bunch of schools. And it was reopened six years ago.

And ever since then, we have been growing pretty significantly. I think every year we've outpaced the district's spring projections for what we would see for an enrollment. And we knew this year was going to be bigger than anyone had anticipated, simply by nature of the fact that John Rogers is undergoing construction for their new building.

So those families were going to be either displaced to an additional building or they had the option to choose a different school. So I think our spring projections were around 213. That was what the district said they thought that we would see for this year. And we have 227 students right now.

Every year our enrollment has been more substantial than what the district has projected in the spring. And I know that that's an imperfect science. We get those first option school enrollment numbers and we have information about families who are returning. We know that those numbers are often bigger by the end of the school year, those numbers stay consistent through the summer.

And then traditionally what has happened is come September and October, when our numbers have borne out that we, yes, in fact, have far surpassed what the district has projected for enrollment. Every year that it is indicated that additional staff should happen, it's happened.

And this was the biggest jump we've made by far. Because we had gained 23 students and that had put us over the allocation number for gaining that additional teacher, that was why our school had originally laid out the classrooms in the way that they did. The thought process was we will gain that additional teacher and we'll be able to shuffle things so that we are in compliance.

But what has happened is the district is not giving us that additional FTE [full-time equivalent teacher]. And because of that, it had a trickle-down domino effect that meant that we had to create splits essentially for every class, every grade band, except for kindergarten. Over 80 percent of the students in our building were impacted by this reshuffle.

We have five split classrooms now at Cedar Park out of eight. And the tricky part with that is, we have one third-grade classroom that's with second graders, and we have two third-grade classrooms that are with fourth graders. Which now means there is a small percentage of third graders who are lumped in with the younger grades and don't see their peers on a regular basis. They don't have recess with them. They don't have lunch with them. At an age where that type of social-emotional opportunity is really important. And that is happening with the 4th graders as well. For them to be split with 3rd graders and then also with 5th graders. 

[00:03:47] Sarah Nau: We're really fortunate that the staff is as incredible as they are. And we have a really strong PTA who is super involved trying to organize and work within the parameters that we have to ensure that our students are getting access to their peers and their friends and all of the things that would normally see if they were in a class just with other third graders or other fourth graders and so on. 

But it's been a lot in a very short period of time. And I think the biggest frustration that we see from a parent perspective is: we knew these numbers in the spring. We knew that it was going to be a sort of unique situation because of what was happening with John Rogers. A lot of people were talking about how this was going to look differently for our community and for the John Rogers community starting 8, 9, 10 months ago. And we've heard anecdotally from John Rogers, how hard it was for them to get information about what this transition was going to look like for them. 

So, when we hear from the district that disruption is going to be minimal, they tried to be as transparent as possible, they shared information supposedly when they had it, it just doesn't ring true.

Cedar Park conversations started in January of this year [2023], trying to be proactive about what this would look like, trying to be proactive about ensuring that our students had the support they needed. Our staff had the support they needed, our communities had the staff they needed. 

[00:05:23] Jane Tunks Demel: Can you tell us more about how you got the information? From what I understand, they [the district] used to work with principals more to see what they thought.

Because, you know, principals know their community. They know what families are staying, what families are leaving. Especially with these smaller schools.

[00:05:41] Sarah Nau: Sure. So I am involved in the PTA at our school, and our school's PTA is pretty deeply involved in what is happening at the school, both from an advocacy perspective and just from a community-building perspective. We knew, with what was happening with John Rogers, that we were going to see an increase enrollment.

[00:05:59] Christie Robertson: Just to provide some background here. John Rogers is getting a new building and were being temporarily moved to a different building for 2023-24. The temporary building is a significant distance from their home base. So it's thought that a lot of parents chose to attend Cedar Park, closer to home for the period of time while they're waiting for their new building.

[00:06:26] Sarah Nau: We weren't entirely sure what that bump was going to look like, but we knew it was going to be significant. The first time we got a sense of how significant it was going to be was when we had the option fairs late January, maybe mid-January and the open houses for families early February. The deadline for applying for option schools is February. 

A good open house for us is 20 families attending. That would be amazing. The open house that I attended, we had over 40 families show up, most of whom were from John Rogers. Most of whom were saying, “We think we're probably going to have to come to Cedar Park because we haven't heard anything from the district about what life is going to be like for us at this other building. We don't know what transportation is. We don't know if there's going to be aftercare. We don't have any of that information.” 

And for families trying to make decisions about how their kids are going to get to school, get home from school, if they need aftercare because they have working parents or guardians — all of that information is crucial. To not have access to that, I think, it drove a lot of families into our building. 

I think the first time I heard off-the-record numbers from our principal and our school admin was probably around spring break. They were like, we have unofficial data about everybody who's put in to come to Cedar Park and we are at 230 students right now.

[00:08:05] Jane Tunks Demel: And what was the projection?

[00:08:07] Sarah Nau: 213.

[00:08:08] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, and what are you now?

[00:08:10] Sarah Nau: 227. I know our principal, and obviously I'm not able to be in his meetings with the folks downtown, but he started saying, “We're seeing a much bigger increase. Do you think it's possible for us to get additional staff allocation looking at our numbers now in the spring?” And from my understanding, it's a lot of back and forth, a lot of wait and see. It's a lot 

[00:08:34] Christie Robertson: Who actually shows up.

[00:08:35] Sarah Nau: Yeah, let's see who actually shows up, which I understand from a logistical standpoint. You can't assume that everybody who says they're going to show up on the first day of school shows up. But in June, they do another round of “Did you get into the option school you wanted? Have you changed your mind?” 

Our school does preliminary fact finding, asking families if they plan to return to Cedar Park or if they don't. 

So we had a pretty good idea that number was going to stay, between 225-230. We knew that in August. And then we saw it on the first day of school, when we had 227 students show up. That number hasn't changed.

Jane, you mentioned that principals and admin staff know their communities really well. And it is frustrating when you have people who are working with these people every day speaking to what their community is looking like and the people who are removed from it and haven't ever stepped foot in our building are telling us we're just not sure we want to believe you. 

I get it's a budget deficit. I get that we can't just write checks left and right, but it feels like there is an unwillingness to listen to the folks who are actually in the buildings with these students thinking through an actual solution to those predicaments.  

[00:10:12] Christie Robertson: Do you feel like it was an unwillingness or do you feel like it was potentially a lack of bandwidth? I've been wondering about the central staff cuts that they made last year. 

[00:10:21] Sarah Nau: I will say I feel like it's always been challenging to get a straightforward answer and/or support from the central office at the John Stanford Center. I would be more forgiving  if there weren't so many other people who had done the work for them already. We weren't asking them to do anything additional. 

We were providing them with facts and information and asking, “Given what we know, how best do we move forward with ensuring we're setting our community up for success? If we have 227 students show up on the first day, which is 23 more than you predicted would show up, how are we supposed to effectively manage that?” And that to me, should be, in theory, an easy answer for someone at the central office to provide. 

And if they're cutting staff that help with those types of situations, then it feels like maybe they're cutting the wrong staff. If they're removing the problem solvers who are helping teachers and administrators on the ground figure out how to do more with less, then that's a huge problem 

[00:11:41] Christie Robertson: That's exactly what I'm worried about.

[00:11:44] Jane Tunks Demel: it sounds like this process happened every year where they're not listening about what the people on the ground think the numbers will be. But that the difference with this year is that then you didn't get allocated the teacher that you should have under Weighted Staffing Standards? Is that correct?

[00:12:00] Sarah Nau: That's my understanding. In years past, this significant of a shift would have allocated us an additional staff member. and the district said no, basically. 

[00:12:13] Christie Robertson: Did they give a reason in the end? 

[00:12:15] Sarah Nau: They basically said, despite increased enrollment, due to budget cuts, they are not giving us an additional teacher, essentially. 

We had Director Rankin at our PTA meeting and she also shared that in a belt-tightening measure, the district also got rid of a fund to help mitigate shuffle and mitigation measures and my understanding is that fund is what was used a lot of times to mitigate these measures for schools in terms of staffing. 

But they're not huge class sizes. It's more the splits that is really hard. And we know the staff aren't getting the support they need to effectively teach a split classroom. Which is, there are some benefits to having a split class, if the supports are there, and they're not.  

You can't expect a second grader to sit through a lesson for third grade math and vice versa. So a lot of times what's happening is when the teacher is directed toward those students, the other kids are working independently or they're on their iPads or their laptops doing independent lessons on their own.

Or right now our teachers are having a parent volunteer come in and help with some of the additional learning, which is, we have a community that has the ability to do that, though not sustainably.  

And I think that just points to the bigger issue is that schools are left to figure it out for themselves. there's no centralized process, there's no resources, there's no effort, at least to my knowledge, to reach out to these schools that have been impacted by this reshuffle so significantly that they have multiple split level classrooms now to address this. I think every school is left to try to figure out how are we supposed to make this work for our community. 

Now there's so many splits and there's so much commingling that it's like a very difficult jigsaw puzzle to try to put together about how do we get three classrooms that have different schedules for different things. For lunch and recess and P. E. and library and music. And if they have specialists come in, the specialists have to make sure that their schedules are at the appropriate time to work with kiddos. I think that option of reshuffling for math and other subjects — it's too hard, especially when five of our eight classrooms are now split [grades]. There's no way we could just like ring a bell and everybody runs around to different classrooms. 

[00:15:02] Christie Robertson: And also how much of teacher and staff and administrator time is being spent on dealing with that complexity over teaching math and ELA. 

[00:15:14] Sarah Nau: Yeah, and I know there's been a lot of talk about how to work with the advanced learners who are in neighborhood and option schools, making sure their needs are being met. Now they have to mitigate 8 third graders and 15 second graders. Maybe in a couple of weeks, once everything is settled down a little bit, they'll be able to look at the resources that are available for differentiated learning.

But I think it speaks to this broader picture that the pressure is exerted downward in such a way that it's going to break teachers and staff and families. You can't keep asking folks to do all of this stuff and provide a quality education and then not provide them with the resources they need to do that. People aren't going to stick around and if they're worried about declining enrollment and retention of quality educators. This is a surefire way to blow all of that up.

[00:16:20] Jane Tunks Demel: And so tell us more about what people from the district. How have they interacted with your community and what sort of response have you gotten from them?

[00:16:29] Sarah Nau: So we reached out to [School Board] Director Rankin right away when we knew what was happening to ask what information she had. And as we've learned, most of the [school] board was similarly kept in the dark for the same amount of time as parents were. If not, they learned maybe 24 hours before we did, but not with any additional context or data.

Director Rankin was pretty responsive. She has been helpful in explaining to our community the role of the board. She has been very helpful about what their role is in this process, and how they are charged with holding Dr. Jones accountable. That they are the governance over him, who is in charge of management, because I think initially there was a lot of frustration and confusion about who makes these decisions.

Where did they come from? How do we as parents and community members hold people accountable? Like where do we go? And I think again because either there's a lack of knowledge or a lack of transparency from the district and the board, people are like “Who am I supposed to go to with my grievances?” 

I think the general feeling is we feel like we just don't know who to trust anymore, like the public trust in the institution itself is eroding quickly. We have tremendous trust in our little school community at Cedar Park. There was a lot of positive comments about how impressed they are that the teachers and the staff are doing as much as they are with as little as they have been given. But it feels a little like we're shouting into the void that we are trying to come to the table to express our concerns and our frustrations and the response we're getting is either it's not that big of a deal. This happens every year. It's minimal. Or this is just the world we live in because we don't have enough money. 

[00:18:52] Sarah Nau: Which it's like a both/and. Yes, we understand, but you also have to appreciate the very real human consequence that is attached to these decisions and for a district that touts really a commitment to serving all kids, especially those furthest from educational justice and a commitment to transparency and clear communication. I feel like they are failing at all of that and aren't willing to hear the very valid criticism that comes along with that.

We want the district to fight for our kids. We want the district to recognize the importance of fully funding education. And instead of exerting, like I said, the pressure downward on its staff and its community members, where are the efforts to exert pressure upwards?

Where are the efforts to exert pressure on themselves? To think through creative solutions or advocacy efforts, to make sure that the kids are the ones who aren't having to bear the brunt of adults not willing to adult is sort of the way I'm looking at it. 

[00:20:07] Jane Tunks Demel: As Sarah described, surprises around staffing shortfalls reverberated across Cedar Park this fall. Now let's hear how similar enrollment issues impacted another Seattle school community.

[00:20:18] Christie Robertson: Adams elementary also grappled with painful shuffling decisions in October. Courtny Helmick shares her perspective as an Adams parent and PTA leader. 

[00:20:29] Cortny Helmick: We're a little bit different actually. We weren't part of the October shuffle. We were just underestimated in enrollment. 

I want to say it was late winter, early spring that we started to be told an estimate. They were really lowballing us and we knew they were, just based on the number of kindergartners we had at that time. In the end, they lowballed us at 279. We were 323 at the time. We knew we would have more than 279. But that allowed them to cut half an office person, half a music teacher, and three teachers we lost at the end of last year. 

Two of those teachers were already moving on, so it was really just this one teacher. And everybody felt confident. "These numbers are going to be fine. The numbers are going to be fine. We're going to keep this teacher. She's not going to go anywhere.” She was a third grade teacher, and it just so happened that she's a beloved, beloved teacher. 

So the principal's thinking and we're all thinking, “It's going to be fine. We're going to have this teacher. We have 24 more kids than what they estimated and 24 more kids is a whole classroom of students.” 

And they just had no intention, I believe, of giving us that extra teacher. Every other year we would have received enough teachers to teach the students that we have. 

So it gave the same results that the other schools are experiencing, where we had to combine classes. So we had 60 second graders and about 42-43 third graders and they had to make two 2nd/3rd grade splits. 

They made two so that they could divide them in half some of the time like for math. The third graders will get together and the second graders will get together and they'll teach a couple of those separately, but then the kids will go back to their mixed classrooms. 

Our teachers put a lot of time and energy into forming those classes and trying to figure out six weeks into the school year how we can make this work. 

Our teachers are so well respected at Adams. We care about them so much. These aren't just numbers. These are kids. Teachers can't just drop kids and pick up kids and move around like this. It's not fair to teachers. it's really not. They're people, their students are people, and they're not just numbers.

And it has happened at Adams, I think, three times since I've been there, where we've had an October situation. And it's kind of baffling to me that we can't do that in August. Can we do that on August 31st instead of October 1st? It's like moving heaven and earth. It's affected about a hundred students at Adams.  

[00:22:54] Jane Tunks Demel: And then we asked Cortny if the Adams PTA had considered paying for an additional teacher salary to avoid any shuffling. 

[00:23:01] Cortny Helmick: Our PTA discussed, “Can we make this happen?” And the answer is really just no. Not only is it too expensive to fund an entire teacher, teachers do not want to be funded by PTAs. It was just a nonstarter with them. They're like it's not ethical. It's not how we want this to work. So it's like, okay, well we advocate them because we can't find the money and they don't want the money anyway. So let's really turn on the advocacy on full blast and see what we can do to get this decision reversed. We can at least draw awareness to this decision so that it doesn't happen again. 

[00:23:35] Christie Robertson: Can you tell the sequence of your advocacy around this? What communications did you have with the district and the principal?

[00:23:42] Cortny Helmick: Yeah. We found out on a Friday night. And so that Saturday morning, I'm talking with my three exec-team people on the PTA and I'm talking with my teacher rep that I know. And she's like, “Parents need to go to the school board meeting and sign up to speak.” They're like, “They're not going to care if teachers fight it. We need parents to fight it.” So we're like, “Okay, let's do this.” 

So we meet with our principal Monday morning. And of course he can't, you know, isn't allowed to tell us anything. But he tells us what he can and he's just he's bummed. It's super hard to have to do this at your school. And we just double-checked what numbers that he was allowed to tell us and talked to teachers. And we're like, “Okay, we're gonna write a letter to our school board director Lisa Rivera Smith. We're gonna write OSPI. We're gonna call some media, we're gonna mobilize our parents.”

And there just happened to be a school board meeting that Wednesday. And then we started to contact our parents. And people were emailing, emailing, emailing, calling. 

We heard back from Lisa, but not until after the meeting. Parents were frustrated that she wasn't following back up. She did make a comment and you played it on your podcast where she was like, “People are emailing me and just know that you have to copy the district because I don't know what’s — I don't know about this. I'm trying to find out and we don't make that decision.” She did end up sitting down and talking with some of our parents in that week following that school board meeting. 

We know the ship has sailed, right? We know that we need to move forward to making sure this doesn't happen again, to school after school after school, and focus on what can we do to support these teachers in these classrooms right now.

As a PTA, we're focused on our own building, our own students, our own teachers, so that's who I'm looking at. How can I support these teachers and these kids because they now have a tough job? Two of the teachers now have to teach two curriculums. These are two great teachers that were given this responsibility. And we know they can do it, but it's an uphill battle and it's really not fair to put the teachers and kids through it.

[00:25:40] Jane Tunks Demel: And how are they doing the curriculum? Because it turns out that school site to school site, everyone's handling it differently. 

[00:25:47] Cortny Helmick: Like I mentioned, they're doing the two classes so that they can split. I believe they're swapping for science and math. So all the third graders are together for science. It just means there's a really huge class of second graders for math. 

[00:25:57] Christie Robertson: And then Courtny explained to us how, even though their enrollment was over the projection by 24 students, they still couldn't get an additional teacher assigned by the district. Because the district was only assigning new teachers to schools that needed at least two additional teachers, not schools that needed one additional teacher. Here's how she explains it. 

[00:26:23] Cortny Helmick: They basically had told us and and made our principal tell families that we didn't have enough over. We were over, but we weren't enough over. And what's strange is, if you needed two [teachers], you got two [teachers]. If you needed two [teachers], they didn't give them one  [teacher]. They gave them two [teachers]. We got zero [teachers], and other places got two [teachers]. It feels like a hatchet. 

It's very strange and it's very frustrating to parents. And I know we have few upset parents. Mostly, the parents have mobilized behind the teachers and are like, you know, we're just going to support our kids and support our teachers and do everything we can.

And PTA is like, how can we make this year great? How can we really show our Adams community that we care about them and that we're looking out for them and that we're down to make this the great place that it is? 

We have a wonderful school. We feel like we have to market our school, which is crazy for a boundary school. 

I think we're so close to Salmon Bay, which is a choice school and which has a great reputation. Everybody wants to go there. Our boundary overlaps with them 

I hope that what's happened to us doesn't show people that we're not the place you want to send your kid 

We have two choice schools near us and, you know, they're like, “We're going to close small schools.” So it's like, “Come to our school, come to our school, be in our school building. It's an amazing place to be.”

 It just feels like such an uphill battle 

[00:27:45] Christie Robertson: And I guess probably a lot of parents are worried that the schools that got screwed over in this round are the ones that are vulnerable in the closures and consolidations. 

[00:27:55] Cortny Helmick: Right, I think parents do have that worry. Again, I'm a Pollyanna, I'm like, “We're going to be fine.” I feel like Adams is in a really good position, but obviously none of us knows what's gonna happen, and so it's a real blow to not be fully staffed. We want to involve people and get parents a seat at the table for making staffing models for the future of SPS. 

[00:28:17] Christie Robertson: Right on. Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us. 

[00:28:20] Cortny Helmick: I'm always happy to talk about our school and our kids and our teachers. 

It was really lovely talking of you. Thank you so much for the work you're doing for our kids. 

[00:28:28] Christie Robertson: That concludes our interviews with parents at Adams and Cedar Park. 

In our previous episode, we talked to parents and a teacher at Dunlap and in the final episode of this set of on-the-ground school shuffle stories, we will be speaking to parents and teachers from Leschi, Olympic Hills, and Orca.

This is just a small set of stories from the disruptions that happened at more than 50 schools this fall. 

We hope that sharing these stories fosters understanding and pushes SPS leadership as well as our state legislators to acknowledge the human impacts of decisions affecting our schools. A failure to talk to those on the ground, combined with chronic underfunding of public education can have drastic effect on our students.

Show notes are available at where you can subscribe or donate to support our podcast. 

[00:29:21] Christie Robertson: You can also subscribe to our podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts to make sure you don't miss our next episode.

It also helps us if you can rate and review us as this helps people to find our podcast.

[00:29:34] Jane Tunks Demel: I'm Jane Tunks Demel.

[00:29:36] Christie Robertson: And I'm Christie Robertson. We hope you'll join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.

Cedar Park Elementary
Adams Elementary