Whatcom Middle School relocation working, with a few drawbacks

Whatcom Middle School teacher Dan Liden works on a graph with sixth-graders Denny McAuliffe, 12, left, Wiley Vincent, 12, and Kim Dorr, 11 during class at Geneva Elementary School in Bellingham, Tuesday morning, Dec. 2, 2009. More than 180 sixth-graders moved to the elementary school after Whatcom Middle School was badly damaged by fire.
Whatcom Middle School teacher Dan Liden works on a graph with sixth-graders Denny McAuliffe, 12, left, Wiley Vincent, 12, and Kim Dorr, 11 during class at Geneva Elementary School in Bellingham, Tuesday morning, Dec. 2, 2009. More than 180 sixth-graders moved to the elementary school after Whatcom Middle School was badly damaged by fire. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Students and staff from fire-damaged Whatcom Middle School have been distributed among four other Bellingham schools for three weeks.

The relocation plan appears to be working. Whatcom students and staff have picked up where they left off, transportation schedules have been fine tuned, basketball practice has started and classroom supplies are rolling in.

But while the plan, which was created in a matter of days, is working well, teachers and administrators see it as far from ideal. There is no decision yet about whether the current relocation plan will last through the end of the school year or beyond, but many involved hope that some issues will be addressed before a permanent plan is put in place.

"It's the best option for right now," said Steve Clarke, principal of Bellingham High School, where eighth-graders and their teachers have been housed. "We provided a nice wing for Whatcom and provided a nice home, but it didn't come without sacrifices."


After Whatcom Middle School was severely damaged in a Nov. 5 fire, students and staff were split by grade level among Geneva Elementary, Fairhaven Middle and Bellingham and Squalicum high schools.

At Bellingham High School, moving Whatcom staff into seven classrooms affected 48 high school staff. Some teachers gave up their classrooms and now, with the use of supply carts, teach in other teacher's rooms on their planning periods. Two computer labs have been turned into classrooms; there is some overlap in gym, art and music space need; and the Career Center was reclaimed for a classroom.

Doing that allows Whatcom students and staff to be housed in one wing, keeping them separate from the daily operations of Bellingham High. The schools run on two separate schedules, with separate break and lunch periods.

That also means there's no "downtime" on the building, Clarke said.

"There's a constant shifting of bodies throughout the day," he said. "There's a hum in the building that's constant."

But even with the extra noise, people and buses and fewer computers, Clarke said, "no one is complaining."

At Fairhaven, which went from being the smallest middle school to the largest, things have gotten crowded in hallways and classrooms. To accommodate the seven Whatcom classrooms needed, Principal Deirdre O'Neill and her staff reclaimed some offices, conference rooms and resources rooms, turning them into small classrooms for classes with fewer students or ones that don't meet as often.

But the bigger problem is the computer lab. Whatcom teacher Jason Custis' classroom is now in the lab. The computers are all still set up around the edge of the room, and teachers can send in groups of students to use them, but the teacher can't come in with them and teach.

"It's been a tricky transition, but staff and students here have been so gracious and welcoming that I want to return the favor and tread lightly," Curtis said, adding that's part of the reason he allows students in the lab during his lessons. "I think the last thing we want to do is be the guest that overstays our welcome."

Geneva Elementary is seeing the least impact of the three main host schools, thanks to a population drop from the opening of Wade King Elementary School. With the Whatcom sixth-graders, the school population is around 600 students, which is where it was a few years ago.

Freeing up seven classrooms didn't require moving many people. Two portables were empty and being used as storage, two classrooms didn't have classes in them, the music room was moved from a portable back to its original home near the cafeteria, two resource rooms were consolidated into one and some instructional assistants were moved out of their small room.

"It's kind of like when relatives visit and you have a full house," said Principal John Heritage. "It's really fun to get to know everyone and make friends."


While Whatcom staff are being flexible in working in whatever conditions are available, students aren't getting the same educational experience as before.

Part of Whatcom's culture over the last seven years has been a drive to increase academic excellence and reduce behavioral issues. To do that, teachers were placed into grade-level teaching teams, allowing them to collaborate across subjects. But they also were in teams by subject, allowing them to plan lessons and curriculum across grade levels.

And the cross-grade level collaboration was beginning to show. Eighth grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning science scores have jumped 17 points over the last couple years, and Whatcom seventh-graders had the highest WASL math scores in the county last year. An earlier version of this story misstated the WASL scores.

"We were just on a roll, hitting our stride," said eighth-grade teacher Jim Zucher. "We'd love to be back together. The loss of the community is what hurts the most."

Jeff Coulter and Ann Buswell, principal and assistant principal of Whatcom, bounce among the schools to give students and staff a common thread. Coulter starts and ends each day at Bellingham, the transportation hub for Whatcom students, giving him an opportunity to touch base with kids. He also visits classrooms daily, making sure teachers and staff can at least feel connected through him. And staff meetings have been set up for every two weeks.

But it's not the same as being able to step into the hall to talk on a regular basis, Coulter said.

One of the programs hardest hit is the special education program BRIDGES, which got moved to Squalicum High. Those students used to be able to have classroom time and eat lunch with fellow students.

"It's an area we're trying to address," Coulter said, adding that those were "his kids" and that he misses having them around. "Meeting the needs of sixth- and seventh-graders embedded in high school, that's challenging."

The elective teachers also have had a tough transition. Since they teach multiple grade levels, they have to travel between the schools, shortening the amount of time available for them to teach and the amount of time students spend doing electives. They also don't have a home base, making it difficult to reach them or for them to keep up on e-mail.

"We're making it work because we have to," said art teacher Leora Willis. "But I also wonder how long we can keep it up because it's exhausting."

Elective teachers aren't alone in changing lesson plans. At Bellingham High, Shelley Sulkin teaches eighth-grade science in a non-science classroom. This means there's no sink or safety equipment, so labs involving fire or chemicals must be changed.

"They'll definitely get the flavor, they'll definitely hit the main concepts, but some of the gee-whiz cool things that grab attention, they won't get that," Sulkin said.

District and school administrators and teachers are discussing the pros and cons of the current situation and will be making a decision about the rest of the school year and the future in coming weeks.

"I think things are going really well," said O'Neill. "But, it's going to take all of us working together to resolve issues ... for the long run."

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