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Originally published June 14, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified June 15, 2011 at 4:53 PM

In the classroom | Alternative elementary faces steep climb to stay open

Pinehurst K-8, founded 40 years ago as Alternative School No. 1, is working to stay open by making changes to its nontraditional program while remaining true to some of what has distinguished it over the years.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle's alternativepublic schools

What they are: Largely parent-created and with distinct missions, the seven schools have several common elements, such as a focus on collaboration, more personalized and noncompetitive learning, strong sense of community and helping students take responsibility for their education. They are different from some other schools, all secondary, that the district also calls "alternative," because the latter are designed specifically for students who aren't a good fit in traditional schools.

Names, neighborhoods: Along with Pinehurst K-8 in the Northgate area, they are: Nova High on Capitol Hill; Orca K-8 in Columbia City; Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle; Salmon Bay K-8 in Ballard; TOPS K-8 in Eastlake and Thornton Creek Elementary in Northeast Seattle.

Enrollment: About 2,500 to 3,000 students combined in the seven schools.

quotes K-8 is most important in acquiring a successful learning etiquette and test taking... Read more
quotes "Why do they get a choice in taking the test? Traditional schools get no choice... Read more
quotes I'm not in a position to make specific comments about Pinehurst, but I have to shake my... Read more

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Many are eager to try this day's challenge — scaling a 21-foot wall blindfolded, wearing a 20-pound pack and breathing through a small straw.

Before gym class ends, the students will rack up another 864 feet in their quest to collectively climb a total of 29,035 — the height of Mount Everest — before the school year is out.

Nearly everyone in this fifth- and sixth-grade class participates. Skinny, short kids. Taller, rounder ones.

Along the way, they've learned about friction and inertia and momentum, geology and geography. They've learned about taking risks — and relying on one another.

For 40 years, learning-through-doing has been a key part of the educational philosophy at Pinehurst — the oldest and one of the most nontraditional of the city's seven alternative public schools. Now, though, Pinehurst is facing a steep climb of its own.

Over the past six years, the district has threatened three times to close the Northgate-area school, and enrollment has dropped to a scant 150 students, close to half what it was a few years ago.

Supporters say that's largely because families are reluctant to sign up for a school that might not be around for long, and because students no longer can get free bus service if they live far away.

To survive, Pinehurst has made significant changes, including encouraging students to take the standardized tests it once refused even to administer.

At the same time, the school is hanging onto to some of what made it an alternative school in the first place — and that includes climbing, one of the hands-on activities that teachers build other lessons around.

"Our philosophy is that drives learning way more than a desire for good test scores," said Margery Edwards, who was a teacher at the school for about 35 years and now has grandchildren there. "It drives real learning that kids remember for the rest of their lives."

Opened in 1970

Pinehurst, originally called Alternative School No. 1, for decades bucked just about every traditional educational practice.

Even five years ago, it described itself as a democratic, progressive school. There was no testing, and students chose their teachers. The school still gives no letter grades.

When a teacher or student had an idea and convinced others that it would be good for kids, it happened, Edwards said. "That's kind of how the school has worked."

After Pinehurst opened in 1970, a number of similar alternative schools followed — all started by parents and teachers who sought a different type of public-school experience. Many continue to be popular, with long waiting lists, while others have struggled. The district shut two — the African American Academy and Summit K-12 — in the last round of school closures.

Pinehurst received a reprieve last year, in part because school-board members agreed that the frequent closure threats hadn't given the school a fair chance to succeed.

The school now is part of an effort to better define — and strengthen — the role of the district's seven remaining alternative schools.

John Miner, principal at Thornton Creek Elementary, another alternative school, is a leader in that effort. Based on what he's heard from interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, he says he's confident alternative schools will continue to be a part of what Seattle offers — even as the district becomes more centralized and pushes for greater consistency in what's taught from school to school.

And he said he hopes Pinehurst will continue to be a part of that. The school now has at least a few years to build enrollment and improve its reputation.

Alternative to a point

It just recently changed its name, in part because Pinehurst needs less explaining than Alternative School No. 1. Too many prospective families thought an alternative school was just for troubled kids.

Pinehurst is open to any student and draws families interested in its multi-age classes, its hands-on learning, its family feel.

The school has made other recent changes, too. Principal Roy Merca, in his second year at Pinehurst, strongly encourages all students to take district and state standardized tests. A year before Merca arrived, 30 did not, which lowered the school's overall scores.

Merca also puts more emphasis on the district's reading and math curriculum, expecting all teachers to spend a specified amount of time on each of those subjects. And test scores are going up, which has earned the school some improvement awards.

Those decisions have caused some parents to leave but have won support from others who say the school hasn't always done well by all its students.

Merca says that, before he arrived, "students would choose what kind of education they wanted. I wanted more of a balance. We could still be alternative, but we could be curriculum-based, too."

"We either had to martyr the school or ... find a way to accommodate, and that's what we did," said Edwards, the former teacher whose grandchildren attend Pinehurst. "It's lost some things. But it hasn't lost it all."

Like the eighth-grade "rites of passage" trip each spring. And climbing.

Reaching up

Originally started by a teacher, the climbing program now is run by parent Cheryl Carp, who came across Pinehurst by accident, surprised to find a public school with the same flexibility and freedom as the private, alternative school that she attended, which was founded by her mother.

Carp has taught climbing for six years, and she led the effort to build a second, more modern wall alongside the first. Between the two walls, five students can climb at once.

Most students have been climbing so long that reaching the top is a breeze — that's why Carp introduces challenges such as climbing blindfolded and breathing through a straw to simulate what it's like to climb in high-altitude, whiteout conditions. Carp also has trained about two dozen students to be the belayers, holding the ropes that ensure everyone climbs safely.

As they climb, the fifth- and sixth-graders, who say they like Pinehurst in part because it's small enough for them to know one another well, live up to the school's mission of being a supportive community.

As they wait for their turn, they cheer each other on, especially when one sixth-grader, blindfolded and carrying a pack, can't quite find the bell at the top.

From the ground, her classmates, without being asked, stop what they're doing and shout advice.

"It's above your head." "To the right." "You almost got it."

When she rings it, they break into applause.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359

or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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