Aced out on Advance Placement - Are local schools squelching student potential?

Like a bad marriage, Seattle School Board director Dick Lilly can at least offer that it started off so very well. With stellar credentials as a journalist and consummate city hall insider, he offered us hope of a bright future together.

Sure, Lilly already had kids, but then, so did all of us with children in the Seattle Public Schools. With some work, we could make it a lasting relationship. And my, could he talk about his hopes for small schools. Practically made me think he knew Bill and Melinda Gates personally with all the talk of their Foundation.

And always the promise to keep an open mind regarding charter schools - to preserve our options.

The newly renovated, and therefore over-enrolled, Ballard High School was causing no end of headache for Magnolia and Queen Anne families "aced out" by assignment plans worthy of the Politburo - but Lilly assured us he had it covered. He had been a reporter after all.

Yes indeed, he was really going to 'have at it' for us. Just three short years ago.

Fast forward to summer, 2004: We are working our way out from under $33 million in accounting errors and budget shortfalls from 2000 (albeit before Lilly's watch) through 2003. There is hardly a school building in Seattle that can hold onto a principal, and the vacuum caused by leadership turnover is frustrating parents to the boiling point.

But the topper is the high school assignment plan. This year we asked voters to approve operating and capital levies (I say "we" because of my extensive volunteering on its behalf) and what came as the most immediate response to the Magnolia and Queen Anne communities?

Answer: a high school assignment plan so punishing to our students it clearly must have been designed to send a message.

I have been a booster of the Seattle Public Schools most of my life. But the sheer malevolence of this assignment plan crosses the line. And shatters trust.

Ordering an advanced placement ("AP") eligible student to ride a bus almost two hours to attend a high school where AP is a chimera creates intolerable injustice to the educational potential of that child. If that child were eligible under a protected legal status by the civil rights laws of this country, government would leap into action, protecting equal access to education. Not so if that child is in the mainstream. (Oh, how carefully we tread in these areas, the minefields of politically correct society run amok.)

Why, you ask? Well, to spare you a semester's study of constitutional law, because the mainstream child's parents have the full benefits and advantages of the political process. In other words, we vote on our problems. And Houston, we have a problem, because the Seattle Public School District is one crippled ship headed out of orbit.

I was proud to go to Meany Middle School and Ballard High School in the 1970s. And I have volunteered and financially contributed to Ballard ever since. I also have volunteered at Franklin High and here at Catharine Blaine schools (where my daughters attend).

The Seattle Public School District has succeeded, however, in one thing: eroding my 30-plus years of bedrock support into quicksand - because of what I see them doing to high school children who don't deserve such horrible treatment.

And where is this high school that so many of our students have been assigned? Look, it's easy to find out. Suffice it to say that this school is part of Lilly's small school dream - calling it "our achiever high school" in letters he has written.

So what of its achievements? In looking at the teacher Web site for the highest level math and science courses offered, even the faintest glimmer of hope for student achievement is shut down. Regarding each course offering the teacher states: "Extra credit - Really, there isn't any. Don't ask" with regard to physics; and "There is essentially no extra credit. You don't need to ask," about pre-calculus. This puts it plain as day. Do the course work and don't bother me. We are having no advanced work here for motivated AP students.

This is essentially an academic death sentence for those students.

The Seattle School Board should immediately amend the high school assignment rules to reflect the real needs of the advanced placement learner. If an eighth grader qualifies for advanced placement learning, that student must be given assignment to a high school that offers AP classes in each and every subject (math, language arts, social studies, science) for which that student qualifies - and that school can be no more than one half hour away, door-to-door.

This action benefits all students, because as Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson said in her most recent State-of-Education address: "Four times as many Washington students are taking advanced placement exams as they did 10 years ago, and over the past five years, participation rates for students of color have increased between 70 and 170 percent."

This action is about delivering on the dream for all students in the Seattle schools, and will create strong incentives for middle school students to maximize their efforts as they head toward high school.

Finally, what about basic fairness for high school students in Magnolia and Queen Anne? District officials should take immediate action on construction plans (following the successful example of West Seattle High's temporary move into a middle school building), shifting Roosevelt High School's temporary location to the former Wilson junior high on North 90th near Aurora Avenue. This would allow the enormously important resource of Abraham Lincoln High School to be opened again as a school reborn - an incredibly overdue milestone.

Lincoln, because of its close proximity to the University of Washington, is a "no-brainer" for advanced placement learning. Its location provides commute options superior to any other high school in the city. Lincoln is right there, waiting to reach its potential. We should do no less to foster the potential of our high school students - because Lilly's dream has become a nightmare for our community.

P. Scott Cummins lives in Magnolia.

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