Growing enrollments bring rebirth for 2 Seattle schools
With student enrollment on the rise, Seattle Public Schools will reopen Viewlands and Rainier View elementary schools, which the district closed in 2007.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The new paint and furniture at Viewlands and Rainier View elementaries make them feel like what they are: a fresh start.
The Seattle School Board voted in 2006 to close the two schools in opposite corners of the city, farming out students to nearby schools and letting jungles of weeds grow in the courtyards.
At the time, enrollment in Seattle Public Schools was at a 50-year low, and the contentious closures felt like evidence that families were fleeing the city, or at least the city's public schools.
But after deciding to close 11 schools between 2006 and 2010, the district saw its enrollment trend reverse. Enrollment is up in other area districts, as well. The Northshore, Bellevue and Highline school districts all report gains this year.
So many new students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools that the School Board voted in 2009 and 2010 to reopen five schools, including Viewlands and Rainier View. McDonald, Queen Anne and Sand Point elementaries opened last year.
"The projections turned out to be inaccurate," said Seattle School Board member Peter Maier. "There's been a sea-change in enrollment. It went down, down, down for a number of years, and after these closure decisions were made, things changed."
Maier attributed some of the enrollment rise to the difficult economy; fewer families can afford private school. And he said the district's new, more predictable student-assignment plan — guaranteeing children enrollment in their neighborhood schools — attracted some families.
Maier said that despite the short-term whiplash, rising enrollment is good for the city. It's something a lot of big-city school systems would love to have, he said.
"Viewlands is back!" announces the reader board in front of the school. On Saturday, neighbors spread mulch in the breezeway and planted pots of flowers out front.
At both Rainier View and Viewlands, first-year enrollment is exceeding projections and the communities are rallying around their old neighborhood schools, readying them for Wednesday, when students will fill the halls for the first time in four years.
At Rainier View, families stopped by late last week to meet Principal Anitra Pinchback-Jones. She knelt down to give the students high-fives, invited parents to the first-day flag-raising ceremony, leaned into a mother's back seat to meet her new students, exclaiming, "We love second-graders at Rainier View! We love kindergartners at Rainier View!"
The school has three nearly full kindergarten classes, the biggest chunk of its enrollment of 171 students. The district had projected only 100 for the first year.
Rainier View, perched just barely inside Seattle's Southeast border, was outdated, underenrolled and struggling academically in 2006, when board members voted to close it. The district spent $7.2 million on improvements, including a new playground, flooring, music stands, computers and furniture.
Now neighbors whose children attended the school are coming back in to take a peek.
The school is 50 years old, but it's also new; Pinchback-Jones has a new mission statement about academic rigor and has listed the school's values on posters in the hallways.
She's dealing mostly with children just beginning their school careers, but she considers Rainier View a "college prep" school, she said, with a focus on math, science and technology.
The schools in Southeast Seattle are the worst in the district in terms of academic progress, according to rankings the district released last fall. Families in that part of town long have complained they're short on choices of good schools.
But Pinchback-Jones said she's not under any particular pressure because of the part of town she's in.
"I think all parents want a good school for their children," she said. "I strongly believe that all children can learn."
An eyesore no more
Viewlands was a fixture in its Northwest Seattle neighborhood, though its enrollment had been falling for several years.
When it closed, the building became an eyesore: Thieves stole copper pipes and wiring, and vandals spray-painted the portables in the back, said Principal Lisa Escobar. An unofficial dog park sprung up on the vacant playground.
Now Escobar is working with her staff of eight teachers to attract students to Viewlands. Enrollment is the lifeblood, since the district receives money for each child that signs up and shows up. In North Seattle, many of the schools have waiting lists.
Lisa Thompson, of Ballard, enrolled her daughter Elena in kindergarten at Viewlands because she liked the school's plan for an environmental focus. She hopes her daughter will meet kids from other cultures because of the school's Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, a first stop for Seattle Public Schools students new to the country.
On Saturday, Thompson was in the Viewlands breezeway, doing landscape work with about a dozen volunteers from the neighborhood.
The district made almost $10 million in renovations to Viewlands' aging building to prepare it for opening. Enrollment is exceeding expectations there, as well, with 179 students expected Wednesday. The district projected only about 80.
Escobar has plans to make the breezeway into an outdoor classroom, plant vegetable gardens, and use the school's proximity to Carkeek Park to get kids learning outside.
The school's closure was "devastating" to the neighborhood, she said. When she started reaching out, she found high-school-aged alumni who wanted to come back and reminisce, donations from the local Starbucks and QFC, and a gardening club and group of landscape architects who wanted to volunteer to help groom the courtyard.
"It's like losing a home away from home," said Ruthanne Rankin, the school's librarian.
Old students on a recent tour of the reopened school, she said, were eager to recall — all kinds of memories. "People come through and say, 'Oh yeah, I threw up over there, and that was the teacher's lounge.' It's like a flashback for them coming back here."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
on the rise
|Enrollment at Seattle Public Schools fell throughout the 1990s, and the district already was closing schools to save money when a low point came several years ago. Now that enrollment is rising again, the district is reopening schools. About 800 more students are projected this year.|
Source: Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction
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