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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

Spokane Public Schools closes in on plan for new boundaries, but concerns over equity linger

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street. (JESSE TINSLEY)

The lines have been drawn at Spokane Public Schools.

Superintendent Adam Swinyard and his staff have doubled down on a boundary revision plan that he said holds the promise of stability, walkability and predictability for the vast majority of the city’s 30,000 students.

What the boundary plan doesn’t promise is equity, at least not in the near term. Spokane will work to find other paths to closing that gap, but it will take time.

In the meantime, the district has received considerable pushback from skeptics who note that the gap between many secondary schools will only widen under a proposed boundary change that’s expected to be approved next month.

For example, at Sacajawea Middle School on the South Hill, 36.6% of the students qualify for free- or reduced priced lunch. At Shaw Middle School in northeast Spokane 86.2% of the students qualify.

Under the new boundary proposal, those numbers will be almost unchanged. The map, too, is only slightly altered from its original form. The public has one more chance Wednesday night to offer comments on the proposal, which is expected to be approved later this month.

Furthermore, the gap between high- and low-achieving secondary schools will widen in many cases. Most egregious to some critics, the district is set to break ground next week at what will be the new Denny Yasuhara Middle School, with a free-and-reduced-lunch percentage approaching 90%.

A year later, construction will begin on the new Carla Peperzak Middle School, which will draw on an upper South Hill demographic that will be the most favorable in the city.

Lewis and Clark High School, already the best off socio-economically, will see its free- and reduced-lunch percentage drop from 39% to 28%.

Critics were quick to pounce, and they had plenty of ammunition. At Sacajawea in 2018-19, almost 70% of students passed a battery of standardized tests; at Shaw, the pass rate was in the low 30s.

On average, teachers at Sacajawea are better-educated, longer-tenured and more likely to stay in their current buildings.

“How can we expect schools with free and reduced lunch numbers in the 30s to benefit from the same quality of opportunities as schools in the 80s?” one person commented during an online forum last month.

Another asked “Is there a way where we can balance the needs of keeping kids together and making sure that we create more equity?”

The answer is yes, they were told, but it will take more than adding three new buildings and redrawing lines on a map.

Comprehensive boundary changes – the first in more than four decades in Spokane – are necessary because of the addition of three new middle schools and the shift of sixth-graders into those buildings.

The district used the opportunity to tighten boundaries, and keep 99% of its students in the same cohort. That means that should they stay in the same home, they will be able to stay together during their entire school career.

According to the district, the emphasis on cohorting and neighborhood schools will “bolster students’ sense of belonging, build students’ relational networks with teachers and other students and allow for meaningful parent-school collaborations, especially at the secondary levels.”

But could the school district have done more? Yes, officials acknowledge, but only at the cost of mangling boundaries or large-scale busing, driving up transportation costs.

Board member Nikki Lockwood, who ran for election on an equity platform in 2019, conceded the point: that the disruption of busing on families would outweigh the benefits of placing low-income students in a better education setting.

Board member Mike Wiser commented that “the power in this change will be in the cohort model.”

Then he threw open the question of what else can the district do to move the needle toward more-equitable schools within its borders.

Wiser noted that the district spent “the last decade or so” discussing the idea of expanding its popular Apple program to seventh- and eighth-graders.

That opened the door to a wide-ranging discussion of other options, including early-childhood education, and the establishment of magnet schools in northeast Spokane.

Kindergarten-readiness, or the lack of it, has been a sore spot in Spokane, where in 2018-19 only 32.9% met a statewide standard. That number is far behind other big-city districts, including Seattle (67.3%), Tacoma (55.2%) and Everett (46.8%) and ahead of only Yakima (23.6%).

Because of the lack of affordable pre-K education programs, Spokane Public Schools is left playing catch-up in the early elementary grades.

Swinyard said the district is working to expand slots for Early Childhood Education and Parenting (ECAP) slots. He also said that an investment in smaller class sizes will pay off in the future.

This fall, Swinyard said, kindergarten through third grade classes will average 18 students, grades fourth through sixth will average 22 students per classroom, and secondary classes will have 25 students.

School board President Jerrall Haynes noted the record-breaking graduation rates last year at Rogers (89%) and North Central (94%).

“We’re proving in real time that if schools have the right resources and commitment, they can be successful, regardless of their location,” Haynes said.

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