Opinion: Perception vs. reality in our public schools

Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to understand how you’re viewed. While McGilvra parents don’t show up to school with checkbooks in hand, we recognize that our kids who attend McGilvra Elementary are perceived as lucky. It’s true that McGilvra is rare; It’s a public neighborhood school below the shipping canal, well-supported through a PTA and parent community that has financial means to provide much-needed support to our students.

As a long term McGilvra parent, I’ve read recent media coverage on our school and noticed it didn’t address why McGilvra parents need to be so engaged to volunteer hours and fundraise for our kids. In reality, McGilvra is third from last in the Seattle school district to receive funding.

As a result, our community assists with educational necessities, like reading, math and special education support, because its sparse Seattle school district allocation does not provide core educational services. While more attention has been paid to the gap in PTA fundraising budgets from school to school, it’s not well known that some high poverty schools receive $900,000 more in district funding than McGilvra (understandably, they are also dealing with a much higher-needs student population).

As a result of this team effort, McGilvra is a great public school, ranked in the top 100 schools in Puget Sound, both in terms of diversity and academic achievement, and recipient of Washington State’s Achievement Award for High Progress, the state’s highest education award.

This success demonstrates a solid partnership of staff, teachers, parents and community. Characterizing that joint effort as solely the result of wealthy, white fundraising diminishes and detracts from the work done by students, staff, administration and community.

The news also skipped over addressing the school district’s new policy restricting school choice to neighborhood schools, and its impact on all schools’ social and economic diversity.

Our school is approximately 60/40 white to people of color/mixed race. That proportion is lower than at some other public elementary schools. At the same time, let’s not erase, or silence the diversity that we do have at McGilvra, including across all socioeconomic levels and abilities.

In this most recent school year, McGilvra’s attendance plummeted from an average of 290 to about 250, due to a new school district policy prohibiting students from outside the school boundary to attend McGilvra. McGilvra’s social and economic diversity is more limited as a direct result of this change in policy.

In the past, the ability to attend McGilvra provided families from outside the school area boundary a strong public school option, rather than moving to private schools (which 30 percent of Seattle families do when faced with this choice, the highest percentage in the state.) It gave the school a more diverse student base. It built strong, diverse and academically performant students, with community support.

This year, however, the district’s new policy restricts students to their neighborhood schools, and prohibits moves to schools other than to designated option schools. This hurts McGilvra’s efforts to extend beyond its boundaries. Our annual surveys report that there is less diversity in the classroom and community as a result of this shift.

Close to home, my son is the only black child in his class. That was not the case when his sister attended the school. The school district’s new policy works cross-purposes to the school’s diversity.  If there is room, and a child wants to attend, why not open the doors? It’s better for everyone involved.

So, the issue here is not whether McGilvra should share its PTA funds with other, lower income schools. The issue is twofold: why Seattle Public Schools are so woefully underfunded to require such fundraising in the first place; and if equity and diversity are concerns, why aren’t more families allowed to move to excellent schools that have openings.

Any conversation on PTA revenue sharing will take years to implement and possibly see any impact in our public schools. In the meantime, there are kids in our neighborhood right now, who would benefit from a more diverse student body, and neighbors whose kids are just as deserving of an excellent education. We should be focusing on inviting in more families to this great school, and increasing budget funding levels that provides all kids across the district, including ours, with their basic education needs.

- Nancy Jensen, Madison Park

Jensen is a McGilvra Elementary and Meany Middle School parent.