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Originally published November 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 27, 2008 at 12:09 AM

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Seattle School District braces for parents opposed to school closures

Parents at the African American Academy and other Seattle public schools recommended for closure were organizing Wednesday to oppose the school district's plan, which was presented to the School Board Tuesday night.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Recommendations to the board

The Seattle Public Schools staff has made a preliminary recommendation to close or relocate these schools:

Schools that would close: T.T. Minor Elementary, African American Academy, Alternative School No. 1, Arbor Heights Elementary and Meany Middle School.

Schools that would relocate: Lowell APP, NOVA, Pathfinder K-8, Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, Summit K-12, Thornton Creek, T.T. Minor K-3 Montessori, Thurgood Marshall EBOC, Van Asselt.

Buildings that would close: Genesee Hill (houses Pathfinder), Lowell, Mann (houses NOVA), T.T. Minor, Pinehurst (houses Alternative School No. 1), Van Asselt, Old Hay (houses Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center).

Source: Seattle Public Schools

A sign above the entry to the African American Academy says "now enrolling," but parents and teachers holding conferences at the school Wednesday knew the school may have enrolled its last class.

The academy, a 20-year dream of black community leaders in Seattle, was one of six programs that Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson has recommended ending next year. The School Board will vote Jan. 29 on whether to close seven school buildings, end five school programs and move nine others.

Parents at affected schools all over the district were organizing Wednesday to oppose the plan, which was presented to the School Board Tuesday. Goodloe-Johnson said the closures are necessary to overcome a looming budget crisis, tackle excess capacity in some South End schools, and make more space for students in crowded North End schools.

The recommendations are sure to draw some of the district's most politically active and impassioned parents to community meetings next month. Besides closing the African American Academy, staff members have proposed closing Lowell Elementary, which is used by the district's APP gifted program and severely disabled students.

Students would be shifted to other schools. The district also proposes to close one alternative program — Alternative School No. 1 — and move three others, Summit K-12, Pathfinder K-8 and NOVA high school.

"It's affecting the entire district," said School Board President Cheryl Chow. "I think, generally speaking, people understand the budget deficit and the district having to deal with it."

Academy formed in '91

The African American Academy was formed in 1991 by a group of local activists who envisioned the school becoming a model for how to educate black children. Curriculum is grounded in African-American cultural principles like unity, purpose and creativity. Students wear uniforms and are called "scholars," and some of the curriculum focuses on identity issues.

But since it opened, the school has struggled academically, and enrollment has declined. Its 8-year-old, three-story building on South Beacon Hill is only half full.

"I think this will be a pretty severe blow, primarily because the academy has always been a symbol in the minds of the African-American community in part, and the minority community at large," said Kevin C. Washington, the education chairman for Tabor 100, a group of African-American business leaders.

Although a Tuesday evening rally to keep the school open is already planned, there is a sense of resignation among some school supporters. Two years ago, the district replaced the school's principal. And the federal No Child Left Behind law mandates the school "reconstitute" this year because its test scores have not been keeping pace with standards.

That doesn't mean there isn't disagreement over whom to blame for the school's failure. The district could have put more resources there, said Washington.

"It's been an uphill battle since its inception," said Harvey Drake, a South End pastor and supporter of the school. "We will be obviously spending some time trying to strategize to see if we can keep this school going."

Changes due

The superintendent's proposals would achieve some of what its leaders have been hinting at doing for years. Internal and external reviews have recommended that special-education students not share a building with gifted students in the APP program at Lowell. Federal law requires special-education students to spend as much time as possible in classrooms with typical students.

And for years, the district has been looking for a new location for Pathfinder K-8, which operates out of a rundown building and a yard full of portables in West Seattle. In past years, the School Board has backed off proposals to move Pathfinder to Cooper Elementary and into the Boren building. By moving Pathfinder to Arbor Heights, the district would finally be finding a resolution.

As the culture of Seattle Public Schools has shifted away from school-by-school autonomy, alternative schools have felt threatened. Two years ago, the district proposed combining Alternative School No. 1 and Summit K-12, something both schools largely opposed. This time, the district recommends closing AS No. 1, in the Northgate area, and moving Summit 18 miles south to the Rainier Beach High School.

When deciding which schools to close, the district didn't consider whether programs were one-of-a-kind, said Carla Santorno, the district's chief academic officer.

"It wasn't a separate decision about alternative schools," she said. "We really just followed the criteria."

The School Board's criteria for closing schools included building condition and academic performance. The district is planning an outside review of its remaining alternative programs, Santorno said.

"We do value them. They serve a need that we have in Seattle," she said. "We know that we need schools that serve youngsters with different kinds of needs."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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