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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hoping for stronger neighborhood connections, Spokane Public Schools could lower equity in some schools

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

 As debate has swirled around the proposed new attendance boundaries of Spokane Public Schools, district staff and school board members have kept one goal at top of mind: Keeping kids from the same neighborhoods together as they move from elementary to middle to high school.

The concept, called cohorting, is meant to preserve social connections, promote walking to school and strengthen neighborhood connections.

But the plan has a downside, too. It likely will decrease the diversity of students from different economic backgrounds at many schools.

The school board has tentatively planned to vote on the proposed boundary changes during a special meeting Wednesday. The boundaries, which haven’t been adjusted in decades, are driven by the city’s growth, the construction of new middle schools and a realignment of sixth graders from elementary into those new middle schools.

All of these plans align with the board’s oft-stated goal of improving equity across the district, said School Board President Jerrall Haynes. He acknowledges that equity issues will linger once the boundary changes are in place, but he said the board will continue to zero in on educational equity.

“Getting it right is us providing the tools students need to go to school and receive adequate amounts of services to be successful,” Haynes said. “That’s what equity is: (Spokane Public Schools) being able to create boundaries and a system that’s held accountable and responsible to the needs and realities of our students and families.”

As the school board prepares for the future, experts warn of the past coming back to haunt them within the cohort model. However, Haynes contends work toward equity begins with the cohort system and continues beyond it. Laying boundary lines is just one piece of city-wide equity puzzle.

“It’s not a cohort-fix-all-inequities within a public school system,” Haynes said. “This has to be coupled with a lot more intentional work and that’s what we’re committed to not only as a school board but a school system.”

But as critics are quick to point out, the process of creating connected groups of kids comes at the cost of economic equity across the schools, as some schools will experience a dramatic increase in the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches if the plan is approved. Spokane’s proposed boundaries could widen gaps of Spokane’s economic diversity and the cohort model could act as a lasso to wrapping students together. The model could potentially group low-income students together, whisking them away from more diverse opportunities and experiences.

Dr. Stefan Lallinger is a fellow at The Century Foundation, a research-driven think tank that pursues equity in systems such as health care and education.

He’s a director of foundation’s Bridge Collaborative and focuses on student integration in racial and socioeconomic aspects. For Spokane, Lallinger suggests that eliminating high-poverty schools should be the goal. Working from the most disadvantaged student and forward ensures equity while eliminating socio-economic issues.

“Maintaining the vertical feeding patterns means keeping the disadvantages for some students,” Lallinger said. “It can perpetuate residential segregation that already exists. That’s why cohorts have a fairly mixed reception to its model.”

Free and reduced-price lunch is a substantial indicator of household income as families under an area’s poverty line meet the guidelines to participate in the program.

Ninety percent of students at the new Denny Yasuhara middle school would qualify for the lunch program and would be home to the highest non-white population.

“That to me is indication that creating socioeconomic and racially diverse schools was not at the center of this process and I think that shows on what came out on the other end,” Lallinger concluded.

Only about 31% of students at the new South Hill middle school, Carla Peperzak Middle School, would qualify for free or reduced lunch under the boundary proposal. The best option for the Spokane district lines, Lallinger said, is for committees to return to the drawing board and look at alternative solutions.

“This decision should ensure all resources are distributed and delivered in an equitable manner,” Lallinger said.

Weighted words like “segregation” have been thrown around as the school board expresses the importance of cohorts while drawing boundaries. Rion Ametu, a candidate for school board whose daughter will be in seventh grade next year, attended a segregated school in Los Angeles and finds the comparisons dull.

“As someone who grew up in a segregated school, I find it highly insulting that someone would make these claims as a way to score quick political points during a time when real, fundamental change and attention to detail are needed,” Ametu said in a letter to the editor supporting the district’s boundary adjustment plans.

Ametu is looking forward to seeing the cohort model intact. His own experience feeds his desire to see children build community with one another throughout their academic careers in balanced educational environments.

Smaller class sizes, shortened bus commutes and easier access to all resources are some of the other benefits he sees to cohorting.

“When you look at the cohort model, it seems like the school board has come to the conclusion that the best way to build community and help foster community relationships is to keep children together,” Ametu said.

Spokane Public Schools created a parent-led boundary committee to “study and recommend” a proposal that meets needs for their communities now and in the future.

Lindsey Shaw, a mother of two boys who will attend Libby Center in northeast Spokane, saw the process from start to finish as a volunteer on the boundary adjustments committee.

Negotiations ran smooth at the beginning of the 18-month process. But, once the pandemic hit, stay-home orders interrupted the intimacy of in-person meetings. Virtual meetings interrupted organic face-to-face interactions between the committees. It minimized time to address issues specific to those regions.

Completely equal school districts aren’t realistic, Shaw said, but more time should have been taken to discuss each region’s issues. With less attention toward issues, parent volunteers from northeast Spokane felt unheard at the end of meetings. Not even membership on the committee was equitable, as northeast Spokane was represented by just four of the 27 volunteers. The southeast area had six representatives, while southwest had seven. Northwest had the highest participants with 10.

“It was the super focus on the one, two, three areas that happen to be more affluent.” Shaw said. “Every school and family is going to have obstacles, and we could’ve done a better job by giving everyone equal times to speak. I’ve talked about it so many times that it feels kind of hopeless.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the correct name of the school Lindsey Shaw is referring to. It is the Libby Center, not the Leona Libby Middle School.