Marysville to evaluate changing or ending small high schools

MARYSVILLE — The Marysville School District’s 10-year experiment with smaller high schools likely is going to change. It might even come to an end.

The district is facing competing pressures, including falling enrollment and higher costs maintaining the four smaller schools on the Getchell campus.

Uncertainty has hovered over the fate of Getchell’s small learning communities or SLCs, as most school and district staff refer to them, after a series of moves this school year that appeared to signal a transition into something more like a comprehensive high school.

On Monday, Superintendent Becky Berg plans to introduce a proposal to the school board to establish a committee to evaluate the structure of all secondary education in the district.

Berg said that a report from the Washington Association of School Administrators changed her thinking about how best to approach the problem.

“I imagined this was going to be a rather contained decision of whether we could have four schools or one” at the Getchell campus, Berg said.

However, the report also highlighted how interconnected Getchell is with the other high and middle schools in the district.

Converting Getchell to a comprehensive high school would require significant capital investment to build a school library and expand lunchrooms and athletic facilities — this in a district where a $320 million bond measure failed when put to a vote in 2016, and where the 46-year-old Marysville Pilchuck High School has more pressing capital needs, such as a leaky roof.

Changes at Getchell also would require reworking the district’s transportation system. Reinstating a school boundary system is also an option.

“It’s kind of like a barrel of monkeys, where you pull one out and it’s connected to all others,” Berg said.

Teachers, staff and parents in the district are divided about possible changes.

“We need to be equitable,” said John Natterstad, who teaches social studies in the School For the Entrepreneur at Getchell and an AP U.S. Government and Politics class with students from all four schools. “I know there’s a lot of financial inequity between Pilchuck and Getchell.

“As far as the SLCs, I like what we do, but it’s not feasible to be doing it the way we’ve been doing it,” he said.

Vanessa Edwards, the head secretary at Getchell’s International School of Communications, is an unabashed fan of the small school system, even with recent changes that point toward more consolidation, such as standardized bell times, all-school assemblies and reducing the number of principals from four to one.

“I certainly think that we can make a hybrid work so long as we also preserve all the different cultures and values,” Edwards said.

Her school has been acknowledged by district staff as being one of the more successful experiments in small learning communities, with an internal “house” structure and competitions that have led to a distinct culture.

“Our culture has been preserved by our upperclassmen. They are mentors, they are the ones who take the lead,” Edwards said. “And that’s how we pushed them to be. We pushed them to be leaders, so that when they graduate, it’s more than a piece of paper, they’re ready to go to college, they’re ready to take on the world.”

Edwards said the looming changes to Getchell were the primary inspiration behind her run for school board this fall. She is challenging incumbent director Bruce Larson for his seat.

On the other side of the issue is Shannon Grandbois, Getchell’s varsity girl’s basketball coach.

The small school structure isn’t working for athletics, she said, and limits the availability of some courses.

“They don’t have the choice, they don’t have a lot of electives,” said Grandbois, who coaches students from all four schools on the team. She also has two daughters attending the International School of Communications.

That gets in the way of fostering school spirit for the entire campus.

“Half the school didn’t even know we were in a playoff game,” Grandbois said. “The large school feeling isn’t there.”

The lack of electives offered in Getchell’s individual schools has necessitated more and more crossover classes open to students from all four schools. That in turn necessitates standardized class schedules.

The four schools — the International School of Communications, the Academy of Construction and Engineering, the School for the Entrepreneur and BioMed Academy — were designed to foster stronger ties between students and staff and provide greater emphasis on potential career paths.

It’s come at a price, however. There are redundancies in core classes, which the WASA report cited as costing approximately $600,000 per year. When coupled with a transporation network in a boundary-free district, the cost of maintaining Getchell as it is could be as high as $1 million per year.

This is all coming at a time when enrollment in the district has been falling, leading to an expected reduction in state funding of $1.4 million for the coming school year.

“I think the reason we have declining enrollments is that kids aren’t getting what they want from the Marysville School District,” said Jeff Walter, the president of Getchell’s Booster Club, whose three sons all attended or still are attending the school.

Walter admits to being torn about the bind the district is in, but said it also needs to be smart about spending the public’s money at the newer Getchell campus when there are greater needs elsewhere.

“No wonder our bonds aren’t passing,” Walter said.

Several current and former students have testified at recent board meetings in support of maintaining the small school structure, as well as their parents.

Berg said she envisions establishing a committee similar to one currently reviewing facilities and repair needs in the district to evaluate secondary education and issue recommendations. She said she does not have specific parameters in mind, other than it reflect the entire district.

“We’d want it to be representative of the demographics of our students, our longtime Marysvillians and newcomers, and representatives of neighborhoods and areas in our district,” she said.

The committee could take as long as a school year to complete its work, if it needs the time, Berg said.

“Another six months or a year to reach a better decision for all the students of Marysville I think is well worth the time,” she said.

“I know it will frustrate some folks because they just want the bandage ripped off, but I think this extends beyond the campus of Getchell,” Berg said.

Likewise, the committee should consider everything from converting Getchell to a traditional high school, turning the campus into a middle school, and whether some of the schools on the Tulalip campus, which include the arts-focused 10th Street Middle School and Arts &Technology High School, also should be reorganized.

One exception is likely to be Heritage High, which has a largely minority student population and is operated with support from the Tulalip Tribes. That’s a unique case, Berg said.

“We only have 75 students there,” Berg said, “and that’s really subject to negotiation with the tribes (rather) than with a large multidisciplinary committee.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @CWintersWriter.

Board meeting

The Marysville School District Board of Directors is scheduled to take up Superintendent Becky Berg’s recommendation to study secondary education at its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in the district administration building, 4220 80th St. NE, Marysville.

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