News

District wants to close J.J. Smith, move students to other schools

By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Citing a steady, seven-year enrollment drop and the chance to implement its long-awaited kindergarten through fifth-grade program, the Enumclaw School District is proposing to close J.J. Smith Elementary School to students beginning this fall.

"Enumclaw is in a no-growth mode," Superintendent Art Jarvis said. "For the past nine years the schools have been getting smaller and smaller."

Jarvis calls it an "opportunity in adversity."

The shrinking size is taking a toll on the district, stretching services thin. Elementary schools in the district already share librarians and school nurses just to name a couple of examples. Closing one elementary school, one that contains fourth- and fifth-graders, and expanding another, Southwood Elementary, which also houses just fourth and fifth grades is a bonus, school administrators claim.

Elementary enrollment, once near the 500 student level, has dwindled to the high 200s to low 300s for the district's six elementary schools. Two of those schools - Westwood and Black Diamond - already house K-5. Each of the district's elementary schools was built to contain between 450 and 550 students.

School district officials said the move stems, in part, from a recommendation made by the district's K-5 committee years ago which suggested all elementary schools convert to that configuration. But, at the time, Jarvis said, it was not feasible. With the drop in enrollment, K-5 can become a reality, he said.

Schools that house K-5 score big points. Those schools allow students, teachers and families to develop relationships over a longer period of time, supporters claim. There are less transitions for students and better continuity between programs and instruction.

The original J.J. Smith was built in 1910 and named after pioneer leader John James Smith. The original three-story building was torn down to make way for a more modern school, the current building, in 1957. In 1989, the district added four additional classrooms. In 2002, the building received new doors and windows. Most recently, the school has been the focal point for two-failed bond issues.

"I went to school here and my dad taught here," fourth-grade J.J. SMith teacher Jody Emerson said. "But it's just a building. It's the people inside that make it special."

Emerson said she looks forward to the move to K-5. She said it's hard to develop relationships with students and families when they are at a school for two years.

"I have fond memories of this place, but we make memories wherever we go."

The first of three community meetings took place Tuesday evening at Sunrise Elementary. The second is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, at J.J. Smith for families with children in the "Magic Strings" program and the third is slated for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Kibler Elementary.

If the plan is approved, come September, fourth- and fifth-graders at J.J. Smith will attend Kibler. The Magic Strings students and staff will move to Southwood. There will be a slight boundary shift that will bring approximately 30 students to Westwood. State route 410 will serve as a boundary for Sunrise and Southwood elementary schools. Students living in the Osceola area and Melody Lane, The Meadows, Glacier Vista and Flensted development side will attend Sunrise. Those living in the development areas behind Safeway and the Mud Mountain and Greenwater areas will attend Southwood.

District officials plan to formally present the proposal to the Enumclaw School Board at its Feb. 28 meeting. The board is expected to make a final decision in the spring.

"It makes sense for kids. It makes sense for staff and it makes sense fiscally," assistant superintendent Mike Nelson said.

The district anticipates the move will also help out its tight budget, saving $300,000 to $320,000 by trimming the cost of a principal, office manager and head custodian.

District officials are quick to point out they do not expect anyone to lose a job; however, there will be administrative changes. District Curriculum Director Chris Beals will give up his position at the district office and move into the principal position at Sunrise. J.J. Smith Principal Susan Arbury, who is instrumental in that school's Magic Strings program, will move with it to Southwood. Joe Jones, Keri Marquand and Randy Stocker will stay at their respective schools.

Current Sunrise Principal Julene Miller will move to the district office where she will oversee the district's individual achievement pullout program and the state's latest requirement for professional certification for teachers. Her position is meant to aide human resources director LeaAnna Portmann, who over the years has scaled back her hours. Vikki Hopper, Southwood principal, will also move to the district office to pick up programs Beals will leave behind like grant coordination, sixth-grade camp and the swim program.

Portmann will be ironing out teaching assignments and classified assignments with the Enumclaw Education Association and the Enumclaw Public School Employees union in the coming weeks. The plan is to reduce positions, but keep people.

"Nobody likes to pack up and move," J.J. Smith teacher Linda Madsen said. "But everybody at this school is excited about the K-5 schools. We hate to be split up. I think that's the hardest part.

"A lot of people went to that school. There's a lot of memories of this school. We're excited. We wanted this (K-5) to happen for a long time.

"It's always sad when a school in a neighborhood closes, but I think the district has been very thoughtful in not shutting it down and boarding it up."

The district plans to keep the building open to non-student use, perhaps as an administration building, storage or for community use.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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