This past week stands out among the many reasons I am proud to serve as superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools.
The most important part of my job is to work closely with our families, community and staff to develop a school system that provides equitable access to an outstanding education, regardless of address. This is an amazing place to live and raise a family. At any of our 22 neighborhood schools, you'll find students, parents, neighbors and staff who strongly believe their school is the best in the city because of the people, culture and family engagement. They recognize how important it is for our kids to be well known and cared for by staff, and that our schools are very much the heartbeat of our neighborhoods.
My staff and I have been working very closely with our Larrabee Elementary School community for the past several months, following a unanimous recommendation from a 35-member Facilities Planning Task Force. Larrabee was well represented on this task force. Part of the recommendation was to no longer use the building as an elementary school.
This week culminated in a difficult decision to retire Larrabee for use as a kindergarten-5th grade elementary school. This will occur sometime between June 2014 and June 2016, with the exact date yet to be determined. Our staff remains committed to exploring other educational uses for the building. Current ideas include an early childhood or homeschool partnership program.
The process to reach this decision was one of the most thorough and inclusive in our school system's history, deeply involving those most affected. It was an example of democracy in action. A variety of voices influenced and shaped the process and decision, including keeping Larrabee open for at least one more school year. Many Larrabee neighbors and families wanted their school to remain open. Other Larrabee and district families supported the decision to retire Larrabee. We are fortunate to have a courageous school board that listened thoughtfully to opposing viewpoints for months, reflected and made a decision that will not please everyone but holds what is best for children's learning in the highest regard.
The decision to have Larrabee students attend either nearby Happy Valley or Lowell elementary schools in the neighborhood has been filled with emotion. And yet, I absolutely believe this is what is best for children, both for Larrabee and our other schools.
Happy Valley and Lowell, located within approximately a mile of Larrabee, are under-enrolled and have space to accommodate Larrabee's students. Most, if not all, students who currently walk to Larrabee will be able to walk to Happy Valley or Lowell. The reasons that Larrabee is being retired are detailed in an analysis posted on our website. In a nutshell, Larrabee's outdated building is unable to effectively provide the desired pre-kindergarten-5th grade elementary educational program, now and into the future due to its configuration and available space, both inside and out.
Larrabee has seven classrooms inside the school with fifth graders in a portable, for a total of 185 students. The building cannot house two to three classrooms per grade level, which provides the best possible comprehensive elementary educational program for pre-kindergarten-5th grade students. Larrabee also lacks the space for other important parts of a comprehensive pre-kindergarten-5th grade educational program such as music, special education, counseling and emerging priorities of preschool and world language.
I hope you'll take a moment to learn more about the other parts of the Facilities Planning Task Force's recommendation. It demonstrates a commitment to maintaining, upgrading and rebuilding existing neighborhood schools as supported by enrollment and a facility's ability to deliver the desired educational program for students. This reflects a community value of elementary schools where children are well known, cared for and supported by our staff with high levels of family and community engagement. The average current enrollment of Bellingham's 14 elementary schools is 345, well below state and national averages.
This decision isn't about "small" schools, but about a historic building that needs a better educational use. Continuing to keep Larrabee as a kindergarten-5th grade school limits the learning experience and opportunities for students.
Every child in our community deserves access to an outstanding, well-rounded educational program as part of The Bellingham Promise.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Baker is the superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools.