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School Standoff Comes To Tearful End On Sidewalk Sixth-Grader Tiffany Cook Walks Away From Fight To Attend Woodridge

Sat., Sept. 20, 1997

Tiffany Cook’s last day at Woodridge Elementary School ended minutes after it started, as she sobbed and hugged her new friends goodbye.

The sixth-grader ended her battle with Spokane School District 81 officials Friday when they threatened to get court orders forcing her to stay away.

“She’s like our best friend, and we don’t want her to go,” said Alison Reith, 11, not bothering to wipe the tears streaming down her face.

“I thought I was brave enough to take it,” Tiffany said later, “but I had to cry when I said goodbye to my friends.”

The 10-year-old has been at an impasse with District 81 officials all week - ever since they said there’s no room for her in the class she enrolled in.

Tiffany, along with four other sixth-graders who enrolled last, would have to ride a bus to Browne Elementary, where there’s more space, said administrator Laurie Dolan.

“We don’t like that,” Dolan said Friday. “That’s the last thing we want to do.”

But the district has no affordable options, and the ones suggested this week by Tiffany’s supporters won’t work, she said.

Woodridge Principal Bob Pedersen first realized last spring his three sixth-grade classes were full. When school started, more kids had enrolled than are allowed under a teacher contract that limits those classes to 29 students.

That’s when the rule kicked in: last in, first out.

The Cooks, a military family, enrolled Tiffany and her third-grade sister, Tori, on Aug. 20, days after they bought a four-bedroom house within walking distance of Woodridge.

Last week, just before her father left for four months of pilot training, Tiffany learned her sister made the cut but she didn’t. Pedersen asked Tiffany to take the bus to Browne, four miles away.

When the Cooks balked, administrators asked the three sixth-grade teachers if they’d each take an extra student. “That would at least allow them to get Tiffany in,” Dolan said.

They refused, saying kids get a better education in smaller classes, where teachers have more time for each one.

The Cooks, in turn, refused to put Tiffany on the bus, and the standoff began. Tiffany landed in a Woodridge conference room alone with a pile of lessons.

When classmates walked by, waved and whispered, she was moved to an office away from the hallway. As the week wore on, she wasn’t allowed to eat lunch or have recess with her friends, either.

Too disruptive, administrators said. All the kids need to move on.

By Thursday, the Cooks were inundated with calls from sympathetic people - two of whom circulated petitions calling for administrators to make room for Tiffany at Woodridge.

Just hire another teacher, they suggested. Have four sixth-grade classes with about 22 kids each. Or bring back the combination fifth-sixth-grade class Woodridge just ended after three years.

Dolan said Friday none of those options are feasible.

With only five extra sixth-graders, a combination class is impossible, she said.

And if she pulled in an extra teacher for Woodridge - at a cost of about $50,000 - the district would have to do it for the other 10 schools forced to bus kids, Dolan said. Thirty-nine students, including Tiffany, were transferred, compared with about 125 three years ago.

Some parents thought it was cruel to let Tiffany attend Woodridge for two weeks, make friends and settle in before busing her.

Dolan said that’s because enrollments fluctuate dramatically during the first two weeks.

“If the community is saying to us, don’t bus students, then we won’t,” she said. “But the school district would need more money than we get to make that happen.”

Carl Waters, Tori Cook’s soccer coach, doesn’t buy it. On Friday morning, he stood watching Tiffany leave Woodridge for the last time.

“I know everybody’s under the gun for finding the money,” he said. “But the district can find it.”

Another supporter threw a sweater around the girl’s shoulders as she shivered in the cool morning air.

“Tammy!” one woman shouted to Tiffany’s mother. “A lot of us home school our kids. We can help you get started with that.”

The Cooks haven’t decided what to do yet. They said they can’t afford private school, and they’re adamant about bypassing Browne.

Tiffany, who wore her red, white and blue Easter dress for the showdown Friday, said Pedersen gave her the option of staying alone in her small room for one more day.

But Tammy Cook, hands shaking, ushered her daughter outside.

“I’m not going to put her through any more,” the mother said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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