I’ve covered public education, off and on, for decades. But schools look very different when your own skin’s in the game. This was my thinking as I sat with 60 other parents planning to enroll our kids in yet-to-be-opened Fairmount Elementary come September.
Plenty gets said about the Seattle school district — that it’s segregated, unequal and lets too many children languish — so I’d prepared myself to leave the meeting suitably frustrated. But listening to Fairmount’s new principal, Julie Breidenbach, I was heartened.
Literacy will be her mantra. Music, her holy grail. And science-tech-math? Not so much.
“I look at this as my little public charter school,” Breidenbach said, demonstrating her acknowledged penchant for operating without much of a political filter. “We’ll be inclusive of all children, but we get to do some things differently.”
Difference Number One: A strong push-back against the technology flavor-du-jour.
“Nothing sends shivers down my spine” like plunking little kids in front of computers, Breidenbach remarked. “Everything we do is about literacy. The math and science will come. But you will not be successful as an adult in this society if you are not highly literate. Kids need to learn to communicate.”
To that end, Fairmount has $140,000 for a new library, and 9,000 books. Reading at home — while required — will not count toward homework.
Refreshingly plainspoken, Breidenbach had no trouble telling parents that she values art and music but has no talent for either. Or that despite her reputation as a champion of accelerated learning at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, she had not been a highly-gifted student herself (“I couldn’t even write my name when I went into first grade”).
The moms and dads assembled wanted nitty-gritty, not descriptive overviews. They asked about the appeals process for kids who had not made it into Seattle’s Accelerated Progress Program. They had questions about Breidenbach’s plan to blend APP students with others in the also-gifted-but-less-accelerated Spectrum program. Old pros at this game, they nodded at terms like “walk-to math” and “flexible grouping” (both refer to ways of tailoring instruction).
There was much that Breidenbach was unable to answer, beyond guessing that the West Seattle school would open with 300 students. Kindergarten will likely be the largest age group, and periodic intensives in poetry, drama, cooking or claymation will be open to all.
“I know I’m asking you to have a whole lot of faith,” she told a father who wanted to know why he should sign on at Fairmount after two consecutive years of moving his child between buildings. “I’m asking you to jump into the pool right now, and you don’t know how deep it is.”
Stay tuned as this education reporter navigates the birth of a new school from the standpoint of a mom.