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School district is moving forward with major transition plans

  • Written by Deborah Stone
The last three months have been busy ones for Northshore School District Superintendent Larry Francois.

He has been on a mission to do presentations at PTA and staff meetings at every school, as well as speak at a variety of community gatherings.

By April, he will have made nearly 70 of these talks in an effort to clearly communicate the district’s aims for the future.

Last October, the school board unanimously voted to pursue planning for a new high school and grade reconfiguration as a longer-term solution to north end enrollment growth, and to provide educational benefits for all students.

According to Francois, the presentations provide a chance to tell the “whole story” in regards to the rationale behind this decision, as well as the process moving forward and the established timeline.

“My goal,” he says, “is definitely awareness and to prepare people by laying the groundwork. I see what I’m doing as deputizing people with good information because in the absence of good information, people speculate.”

He adds, “These presentations also give me the opportunity to hear what the questions and concerns are among parents, teachers, staff and the community at large.”

As to his reception, the superintendent comments that audiences have taken in the information “thoughtfully,” as they try to grasp the plan and understand its challenges.

“It’s a complicated story,” he admits, “and it encompasses much change, for some parts of the district more than others. But, this is a thoughtful plan which has come about through a thoughtful process over the last two years involving an in-depth study of demographic trends and facility options, among other factors.”

He notes that people are most concerned about the issues of boundary adjustments and school consolidation.

With the new plan, boundary adjustments will potentially impact one third to one half of the district’s schools.

In regards to school consolidation, Francois says, “This is not a definite. It is an issue that needs to be addressed one way or another. We will need to decide whether we plan to accept having small schools, or whether we come to the conclusion that small schools are not the best thing for our kids, which will then drive the need for consolidation.”

Currently, there are a few buildings in the district with enrollment in the low 300s, and Francois points to the fact that once sixth graders leave these buildings for middle school, the enrollment will decrease even further.

He asks, “Is this an instructionally viable situation? That’s what we need to examine.”

He notes there are a number of negative consequences to having overly small schools, including fewer placement options for students; more split grade classes, which presents challenges for teachers; limited opportunities for principals to create common planning time for teachers; the necessity to utilize part time as opposed to full time specialists; and a smaller parent population from which to draw in regards to PTA responsibilities, classroom support and other participatory school-related activities.

“There has been a pattern of declining enrollment on the east side of the district,” comments Francois. “It’s been going on since the late 1990s and the trend is projected to continue in the future. It revolves around the fact that there is very little residential construction occurring in this area, as well as a lack of opportunity for such construction.”

He adds, “Most of the people I spoke with understand the challenges for schools that are getting smaller. They get it.”

According to the superintendent, the school board is prepared to decide on the issue of school consolidation possibly by the end of the school year or at the beginning of summer.

It is important to note that if the board opts for school consolidation, any school closure would be part of the larger plan for a 2017 implementation.

Francois indicates that this decision needs to be made as much in advance as possible prior to the February 2014 bond vote.

The bond is estimated to be within a similar range as the 2010 measure, which totaled $149.2 million. Construction of a new high school will cost $130 million.

“That’s the bulk of the proposed bond,” says Francois. “Beyond that, the capital bond planning task force is working to prioritize the district’s needs. Under consideration is the final phase of Woodinville High School, as well as some remodeling at other schools.”

He adds, “Our facilities overall are in good shape, but they’re each at a different stage with different needs. Some are close to needing more major renovation than others.”

The superintendent states that he’d like to be optimistic about the passage of the bond measure, but he admits that he is not overconfident.

This explains his motivation to meet with as many people in the community as possible to ensure full understanding of the district’s objectives.

As part of the planning process to prepare for a new high school and grade reconfiguration, the district will begin creating task forces. Beginning in April, notices will be posted and applications will be accepted for those interested in serving on one of three task forces.

“The groups will focus on the instructional side, defining what the instructional program will look like at the elementary, middle school and high school levels,” says Francois.

At the secondary levels, he notes the necessity of embracing the middle school philosophy, viewing middle school as the bridge from the self-contained classroom to a six period subject-specific high school structure.

He comments that middle school has a more student-centric environment as opposed to junior high, which is similar to high school, just on a smaller scale. The goal is to capture curriculum variety in the middle school while maintaining some of the self-contained structures reminiscent of elementary school.

A trio of three teachers, for example, might be teamed up and share 90 kids, with each taking responsibility for teaching a specific subject. They will collaborate together and work as a unit.

“At the high school level, there’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done with regards to curriculum,” says Francois. “The task force needs to look at what the impact of having a ninth grade program will be on the rest of the school. What is this going to look like? What about the course offerings? And what themes will there be to structure programs around at the new high school.”

The task force at the elementary level will be charged with examining instructional components in a K-5 environment as opposed to the current K-6 structure.

Each of the task forces will be comprised of about 12 to 15 people, consisting of district and building level administrators, teachers, parents and a non-parent community member.

The high school and perhaps middle school task forces will also include one or more students.

Francois says, “We will be looking for applicants with skillsets that will be helpful in this process and we will also take geographic balance into consideration so that we have representation from across the district.”

Members will be appointed by the superintendent and the school board. The task forces will begin meeting in the fall and continue working through plan implementation in 2017.

“The input the task forces provide is very important to us,” adds Francois. “These groups produce recommendations that help to inform administrative actions and work for the future.”

Northshore is fortunate to have several models to learn from in regards to the major transition of grade level reconfiguration.

Nearby Lake Washington School District implemented the change last fall, which is ideal for Northshore, as it can reap the benefit from its neighbor’s experience. And both Snohomish and Marysville opened new high schools, providing additional learning opportunities for Northshore.

“We’re fortunate that we have these models,” adds Francois. “We can visit them, talk to administrators and teachers and learn what they did well and what they would have done better. It’s a great learning opportunity for us to ensure we get it right.”

For more information, including a link to the superintendent’s presentation: www.nsd.org or call the district’s communications department at (425) 408-7670.

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