BELLINGHAM – More than 70 people, including students, packed the Bellingham School Board meeting Thursday night, Jan. 28, questioning and upset about the plan to relocate Whatcom Middle School students in upcoming school years.
Despite parent, student and teacher objections, the Bellingham School Board unanimously approved acting Superintendent Sherrie Brown's recommendation.
The recommendation is to divide students by grade level and have them attend Geneva Elementary School and Shuksan and Fairhaven middle schools until the school can reopen, potentially in fall 2012. Teachers will be kept in their teaching teams as much as possible, depending on enrollment.
The plan affects Whatcom's incoming sixth-graders the most. Those students will attend Geneva for sixth grade, Fairhaven for seventh grade, Whatcom for eighth grade and then move on to their high school. That makes for five schools in five years, upsetting many parents.
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Child psychologist Susan Kane-Ronning, who is also the parent of fifth-grader affected by the plan, said changing schools and peer groups are two "primary risk factors" for dropping out of school, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency.
"My concern is having these kids doing three moves during a critical time of adolescent development," she said, adding that when sixth-grade students move on from Geneva, they'll be joining a school where they don't know the teachers or the other students. "School bonding is a critical factor to staying in school."
Whatcom parent Joanna Nesbit, who also has a fourth-grader, said she wasn't surprised by the decision and wished there had been an "in-district solution" that kept everyone together. But now that the decision has been made, she hopes the next steps move quickly.
"I would like to see the same speed and dedication to this decision applied to the rebuild," Nesbit said. "I think it's really important for the community to come together and to get that school, Whatcom, done as quickly as possible to mitigate the effects of these decisions on the kids who have to move around a lot."
Some parents were frustrated with how Brown came to her recommendation. The district put out two input-gathering surveys with potential options of relocation plans. In both surveys, there was strong support for any option that kept all the students and teachers together.
District officials said there were no district facilities that would be able to house the entire school and that they would only rent space if it was possible to find one that met school-building requirements and kept costs within what insurance would cover.
Brown and other district officials toured sites and said they didn't find anything that met all the requirements. But some parents question whether the criteria for determining the feasibility of a site was fair.
"If this criteria had been used at the Halleck (Street) building, the retrofit never would have been allowed to occur during the school year," wrote Whatcom parent Susan Hofstetter in an e-mail. "The two main issues that were cited to me by school board members as to why some locations failed were lack of science lab facilities and small cafeterias. Currently, my 8th grader has science in a classroom without a sink and my 6th grader has lunch in his classroom."
Scott Hartwich, the parent of a fifth-grader, said he couldn't believe there wasn't a facility somewhere that would work.
"It looks to me like the surveys I took were simply an act of appeasement, rather than any real appeal for ideas or input," he wrote in an e-mail. "I feel badly for the students at Geneva, Shuksan, and Fairhaven, as well, as they will be crowded by several hundred more students than usual."
But not everyone saw the decision as a bad one.
"I just want to say that I think it is an important move for the Bellingham School District to utilize the space it already has," wrote Margaret Fogarty, a district employee, in an e-mail. "District funding is at its worst and community members are losing their jobs. … I believe the students of Whatcom Middle School can take this experience and turn it into a great opportunity to meet new friends and best of all embrace how change can make a difference in their lives."
Dennis D'Amelio, a Fairhaven Middle School parent and the director of the nonprofit Communities in Schools, sees the decision as one that focuses on all the students in the district, rather than just Whatcom students. And now that the decision has been made, he thinks the best thing for all is to integrate students and move forward.
"Trying to remain a school within a school will place too large a burden on families, teachers and school administrators," he wrote in an e-mail. "The WMS community have been welcome guests at the host schools but it has been a challenge for all. The more quickly we can move away from a host/guest relationship and begin a one-building, one-school model the better."