Whatcom students will remain split by grade level next year

BELLINGHAM - Whatcom Middle School students likely will remain divided by grade level among other Bellingham schools for the next couple of school years.

Sherrie Brown, acting superintendent of the Bellingham School District, is recommending that for the 2010-11 school year, students who would have attended Whatcom should instead attend Shuksan and Fairhaven middle schools and Geneva Elementary School.

Brown will make the recommendation to the Bellingham School Board for a vote on Thursday night, Jan. 28.

"Our top priority in recommending this solution is to provide the best possible learning environment for students," Brown said Wednesday. "This is a tough situation without a perfect answer that will make everyone happy."

Whatcom students and staff have been split by grade level among three other Bellingham schools since the middle school was severely damaged in a Nov. 5 fire. District officials hope to have the school rebuilt and open by fall of 2012.

Under Brown's recommendation, students entering sixth grade in the fall will attend Geneva Elementary School and students entering seventh grade will attend Shuksan Middle School. Students entering eighth grade will attend Fairhaven Middle School, which is where that group of students has been attending school since the fire. In the latest input survey, this was "scenario 3."

Relocated students would become part of their new school and participate in that school's programs, electives, activities and athletics.

Whatcom teachers will be kept in their instructional teams as much as possible, Brown said. Staff will be assigned to district schools according to enrollment projections and negotiated contracts.

Geneva, Shuksan and Fairhaven were recommended for relocation sites because they aren't at full capacity with students from their attendance areas. Portable buildings the district already has likely will be moved to each site, and additional supervision and resources will be provided for those schools.

No decisions have been made yet about where to put the special education BRIDGES program, which is currently housed at Geneva.

To keep school transitions to a minimum, during the 2011-12 school year students attending Shuksan will remain there, incoming seventh-graders will attend Fairhaven and incoming sixth-graders will attend Geneva.

The decision comes after a month and a half of gathering public input about where Whatcom students and staff should be housed until their school can be rebuilt. Through two online surveys, district officials gathered input on various relocation scenarios, ranging from keeping everyone together to splitting and integrating all students and teachers into the existing middle schools. More than 650 surveys were completed in the first round, and parents, students, teachers and community members completed almost 530 surveys in the second round.

In both surveys, there was strong support for a plan that kept Whatcom as its own entity, potentially in a rented facility.

Brown said she toured several commercial warehouses and loft-type spaces that were suggested through the input process. None of the sites met the requirements of building and safety needs and keeping costs within what insurance would cover, according to Ron Cowan, assistant superintendent of business and operations.

Survey "scenario 2," which would have put eighth-graders into high schools based on attendance boundaries, was rejected because of parent concerns over the middle school students being too young to be with high schoolers.

If the school board approves Brown's recommendation, the district will hold open houses for Whatcom parents at each school within the next month. Details about transportation, activities, athletics, student schedules and more will be worked out throughout the coming months.

Whatcom families who want their child to attend a different school than assigned, whether to keep siblings together or for other reasons, will need to submit transfer forms by March 10. Middle school principals will meet and review requests along the established district transfer guidelines. Families will be notified of the transfer request decision in mid-April.


The Bellingham Herald is planning a follow-up story on reactions to the relocation plan. If you are a parent, teacher, student or community member with an opinion about the plan, please contact Kira Cox by 5 p.m. Thursday. She can be reached at kira.cox@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2266.

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