Wednesday, November 15, 2006 - 12:00 AM
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Seattle school gets results, but it costs a bundle
By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times staff reporter
Inside The New School's crumbling building in Rainier Valley, some of Seattle's most at-risk kids are getting what may be the most expensive public education in the state.
On top of the public money every Seattle elementary school gets, an anonymous donor more than doubles The New School's funding every year. This year, it got $1.5 million.
The school spends it on small class sizes, teacher training, music and art. On preschool and all-day kindergarten, and extra hours in the school day.
These are the very things that a consultant advising the governor's Washington Learns panel considered an "adequate" education. But at The New School, they cost twice what the school district is paying now.
The notion of spreading that model to every school in the state seemed so outlandishly expensive that members of the Washington Learns panel referred to the consultant's report as a "wish list."
The committee's report ended up including only some of what the consultant suggested. Now it's up to the Legislature to hash out the recommendations, while students at The New School live the state's "wish list" every day — on someone else's dime.
"We know what works, and we don't have the money to do it," said Carla Santorno, Seattle Public Schools' chief academic officer.
The New School opened as a preschool and kindergarten in 2002 with an anonymous donation that supplied all but $195,000 of the school's $1.4 million budget. Since then, it has added one grade a year — up to fourth grade this year, with an enrollment of 301 — and eventually plans to accommodate the eighth grade.
But the grant from The New School Foundation is scheduled to expire in 2012 and shrinks every year as the school grows: This year, the grant is 54 percent of the school's budget, or about $1.5 million.
The extra money makes a difference in the school every day.
On a recent fall afternoon, three third-grade teachers and a consultant perched on kid-size chairs in an empty classroom, rifling through math worksheets. Did this student need extra homework slipped into her backpack? Was another student using logic or memorization to solve those problems?
The grant buys the extra hour per month for teachers to work together on student assessments. It buys the time at the beginning of the school year to talk to each student, one on one, about math.
It pays for substitutes during the school day so first-grade teachers can watch an experienced teacher give children a writing lesson. It pays for preschool for 4-year-olds and all-day kindergarten, for bus rides home when kids need to stay after school for extra help.
Signs of success
The first tangible results of this effort came last spring.
More than 71 percent of New School third-graders passed both the math and reading sections of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Districtwide, 62 percent did.
The New School's demographics are comparable with those of other schools in the neighborhood, but its scores were twice as high.
Families interested in enrolling in the preschool or kindergarten programs last fall had to live within a mile of the school to secure a spot.
The school has more two-parent families than surrounding schools, and fewer children in poverty, said principal Christopher Drape. "People choose it with intent, which lends it more stability," he said.
The school also tries to recruit low-income children, students of color and those who speak English as a second language, said Laura Kohn, executive director of The New School Foundation.
The New School Foundation wants to serve disadvantaged students, but it is also making a political statement about what an adequately funded education looks like, said Kohn.
"Our project doesn't give you the magic number, because we aren't testing out different levels of funding, but I think at The New School we're demonstrating that the level of funding that school's getting is adequate to give kids an extraordinary education," said Kohn.
And supporters point to the school's results: Academic success, they say, is something money can buy.
More than money
On the state level, things aren't quite as simple.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who served on a Washington Learns subcommittee, called The New School "a good laboratory."
But the right amount of funding "will be different for different schools," he said. "A school in the Rainier Valley has very different needs than a school in the Yakima Valley that has very different needs than a school in Medina does. You can't take the number of dollars that we spend at The New School, multiply it by a million and say, 'That's how much we should be spending.' "
And educators argue that money alone won't guarantee a school's success. It needs to be combined with good leadership and vision.
Santorno, Seattle's chief academic officer, said that research shows small class sizes work — but not if they're taught the same way as large classes would be.
But Drape, the school's principal, said you can't separate the extra funding The New School receives from the culture that's formed there.
"One of the things that is very powerful for us is the depth of the relationships that we have with kids and with families, and that is fostered by small class sizes," said Drape. "People are right in that money alone is not going to make the difference that we want to make, but ... relationships are fundamental to what we are doing, and it is easier to develop relationships when you have fewer kids in your class."
The New School is not without its critics. In the struggling South End, some parents see The New School as powerful and privileged at the expense of other schools. Some say The New School Foundation had too much influence in the district's proposed February bond measure, which would allocate $64.7 million for a new building for the school.
"I don't mind if some kids have more stuff because they have a foundation helping them, but I don't think they should get ahead off the backs of other kids," said Melissa Westbrook, who opposes the bond measure because The New School's building is included.
Lisa Moore-Roberson, whose two daughters attend The New School, didn't know the school got extra money until after she became co-chair of the school's parent group. Then she studied the budget and learned that the snacks, extra teachers and free preschool are all paid for with foundation money. Now she struggles with the question of inequity every day as she walks her kids to school past Dunlap, an elementary school that is so close, it shares a playground with The New School.
"It just makes me kind of feel a little different about it," she said. "It just brought that divisiveness in the community."
Her kids are doing well academically, but what she likes most about The New School can't be bought with a grant, and research says it's another key to academic success: parental involvement.
Almost every day, Moore-Roberson is at the school, helping in the classroom or hanging out in the common area at the entrance, where parents are gathered on couches, drinking coffee before work. They talk about their kids and last year organized to apply for a city Department of Neighborhoods grant that pays for a multicultural celebration at the parent alliance meeting each month.
"Sometimes we joke, 'Well, if we just had a bed, we wouldn't have to go home,' " she said.
And that sense of community is something money can't buy.
Comment: Recently we've had a small increase in tuition. Most of the parents were very supportive. They understand what this article is saying, that education costs. Most places locally would have simply cut staff to make the ends meet. We didn't do that. Every dime our little place makes goes directly to the student. There are no profits. Educators know it costs to provide the kind of environment necessary to learn. That environment means the right people with the right knowledge and interest to be able to three things: the interest to find out and remember information about the world, the intelligence to sort out what's important and the stamina to present it 40 hours a week. The environment also has to support what teachers are doing. In Evv, that's just not going to happen someplace else.