There are many issues facing the Bellingham School District that the school board will need to focus on in the coming years. Of utmost concern is the need to ensure that every child has the support they need to succeed in school. If that means providing healthy meals so students can concentrate on the work, then we must provide food. If it means providing counseling for students who need someone to talk to, then we must provide counseling. If we need to provide extra math, reading and writing support so that every student can succeed, we must provide it. We need to support every child toward graduation and a successful career or college, and accept no excuses and no exceptions.
Regardless of the issues facing the district to ensure that these goals are met, my opponents want to focus on the closure of Larrabee Elementary School. So, while I would prefer to devote the space here to what the school district is doing to support every child's success, I need to address the issues of Larrabee and the erroneous assertions put forth by my opponents.
The vote to close Larrabee was not a vote against small schools and was not a vote to build "mega" schools. Rather, it was based on the specific facts and circumstances of Larrabee. There are no plans to close any other schools in the district. The Facilities Planning Task Force developed a framework for the school district for the next 10 years. The current plan includes improvements to several of our schools, including those considered "small" schools. As much as my opponents want to make Larrabee the key issue in this election, and frame it as a referendum on small schools, it is not. The vote to close Larrabee was a vote to close one school for a variety of reasons. It was not based solely upon the size of the school and is not a vote against small schools.
My opponents have cited numerous studies that show small schools perform better than large schools; however, one fact my opponents omit to cite is that the studies they refer to define "small" elementary schools as schools with about 400 students. Currently, all of the district's elementary schools qualify as "small" schools, and future plans are to keep our schools small. In the same vein, my opponents assert that the district wants to build "mega" schools. This is simply not true. The district is building elementary schools of the size supported in the research that is touted by my opponents. No current and credible research indicates that schools the size of Larrabee (about 190 students, including portables) are best for students.
My opponents also assert that there will be a greater need for busing when Larrabee is closed. Again, this is not true. One mile radius circles around Happy Valley Elementary School and Lowell Elementary School encompass all of the current Larrabee attendance area. Neighborhood schools are commonly defined as being within one mile of a student. All of the children currently attending Larrabee will still be attending a neighborhood school -- either Happy Valley or Lowell -- upon the closure of Larrabee.
Finally, my opponents assert that the performance of small schools, and Larrabee specifically, exceeds the performance of larger schools and other schools in the Bellingham School District. As difficult as this may be to accept, it is not true. Due to a lack of space at Larrabee to provide additional support services like extra instruction in math, reading or writing, or services like counseling, these students are not well served. The Washington State Achievement Index indicates that Larrabee is performing poorly on many measures, particularly for low income students. It is clear from discussions with administrators, the principal, and several teachers that space limitations are the major impediment to Larrabee's teachers and administrators providing the services needed for every child to succeed. I encourage you to examine the board meeting minutes from May 9, 2013 (approved at the May 23, 2013 meeting), which explore how Larrabee is failing to meet the needs of our students.
The primary election for the Bellingham School District Board in August and the general election in November are about so much more than Larrabee Elementary School. The district currently has 10,203 students and I will do my best to make sure all 10,203 students get the education and services they need to succeed, including the 186 students currently at Larrabee.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Incumbant Steve Smith is one of three candidates running for the four-year term for Bellingham School director postion 4. The top two candidates in the Aug. 6 primary advance to the Nov. 4 general election.