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Girl Refuses To Switch Schools But District 81 Says Sixth-Grader Must Be Bused To Alleviate Overcrowding

The seeds Tiffany Cook’s sixth-grade class plants today are supposed to mature in six weeks.

That’s not soon enough for her.

Starting this morning, the 10-year-old girl no longer will be allowed in her Woodridge Elementary School classroom, school administrators say.

The thin, freckle-faced girl is one of five Woodridge children scheduled to be bused to a school four miles away because their sixth-grade classrooms are too crowded.

Tiffany is different from the other four, though. She’s refusing to budge.

And if she doesn’t climb those bus steps this morning, school officials say, she’ll spend the day in a conference room - a makeshift classroom of her own.

“I’ve already made friends and everything,” Tiffany said Monday evening. “I made my best friend the first day. Now I’ve got to do the whole scary first day over?”

Thirty-eight families with children in District 81 elementary schools recently learned there’s no room for their kids in the schools they enrolled in.

It’s a heartbreaking, last-minute shuffle that happens every year to the unfortunate ones who enroll last in crowded schools. Two years ago, some 125 children were bused from their neighborhoods.

But as far back as educators can recall, no one’s ever flat refused to go before.

Tiffany’s parents, Tammy and Greg Cook, don’t want her to transfer either. “If she has to stay in that conference room all year, she’ll stay in that conference room all year,” said Tammy Cook, a computer trainer.

The school year got off to a rough start for the Cook family all the way around.

It bought its four-bedroom home in the Indian Trail neighborhood a month ago, in part because neighbors raved about the school: good teachers, good principal, lots of parental involvement. Less than a mile from home.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Tammy Cook was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The family had little time to grapple with that before Greg Cook, a pilot at Fairchild Air Force Base, was sent to Oklahoma to learn to fly KC-135 fuel tankers. He left Sunday after spending hours trying to convince Tiffany’s teacher, principal and a District 81 administrator to let his daughter stay at Woodridge.

“It’s hard to deal with an emotional child, a husband who’s leaving for four months and another daughter who doesn’t want her sister to go,” said Tammy Cook. Torie Cook, 8, is in the third grade at Woodridge.

Mike Lobdell, Tiffany’s teacher for two weeks, refused to discuss the problem. “It’s kind of an ugly situation,” he said.

Laurie Dolan, area director for northwest Spokane schools, said her heart goes out to the Cooks. “It’s terrible timing for that poor family.”

But the district’s hands are tied, she said, by a teacher contract that limits the number of students in classrooms.

The contract puts the lid on elementary classrooms at 29. Tiffany’s classroom had 29 children. But two of them have learning disabilities, and they are counted as 1.5 students. So that puts the class over the size limit.

The rule helps ensure classes are small enough for teachers to pay attention to all students, said Lynn Jones, president of the local teachers union, the Spokane Education Association. “All the research I’ve ever seen indicates lower class size leads to better education.”

But occasionally, Jones said, “there are individual situations that just break your heart, and you’d like to fix them. It’s really hard.”

Spokane schools saw a rise in the number of elementary pupils this year for the first time in five years - from 17,380 to 17,451.

Woodridge Elementary had 518 students at the start of the school year. Ninety were in sixth grade alone.

Administrators plan to conduct a demographics study to figure out why there are more elementary students, but they say it might reflect on job and housing availability. All but five of those to be bused are from north Spokane.

Bob Pedersen, principal at Woodridge, said he usually buses children to closer schools, but those nearby were filled to capacity, too. So he selected for busing the children who enrolled last.

If Tiffany doesn’t get on the bus today, she’ll probably be placed in a conference room near his office with a stack of lessons from Browne Elementary, Pedersen said.

Tiffany, a gifted student who wants to be a meteorologist, probably would adapt quickly to Browne Elementary, said Dolan.

For now, Tiffany is mourning the Thursday mathematics test she probably won’t be taking. “I like math tests, which is kind of funny, but I do.”

And she’s wishing she could help her new friends put those seeds in the soil today.

“Tomorrow morning, we were going to plant them,” she said Monday afternoon. “But now, I don’t know …”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Student numbers increase in Spokane

Tags: enrollment