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Originally published Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 4:08 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle's Alternative School No. 1 works and should be preserved

Seattle Public Schools is considering closing Alternative School No. 1 for the third time in four years. AS-1 parent David Burt argues that school's record of academic effort should make it a keeper.

Special to The Times

FOR 40 years, North Seattle has been home to an extraordinary institution that honors Seattle Public Schools' commitment to diversity — Alternative School No. 1 (AS-1).

In Seattle Public Schools' 2009-10 District Scorecard, AS-1's academic achievement was rated "high growth." In both 2009 and 2010, the Center for Education Excellence and Phi Delta Kappa, Washington, honored the school with a School of Distinction Award.

Despite these achievements, for the third time in just four years the district is threatening to bring an end to this thriving community. After last year's closure of Summit K-12, losing AS-1 would likely leave Seattle Public Schools unable to place many students with needs for alternative education.

As the name suggests, Alternative School No. 1 is Seattle's original alternative school. In 1970, a group of disaffected parents and three teachers seeking a freer learning environment started the school with $1,751, no support staff and 84 students. The culture those families created centered on parental involvement in decision-making and a curriculum based on meeting the needs of students best served by nonstandard education.

Over the years, the culture of the community has evolved to an environment where students with such needs can thrive. Classes are organized into learning teams of mixed ages, where students are taught using interdisciplinary projects. Students are immersed in experiential learning, where they connect lessons to the real world.

The school's blend of team-building and real-world experiences leads students to become members of a community and develop a sense of personal responsibility.

The community is as diverse as Seattle itself. About 40 percent of the student population are people of color. More than 40 percent of the students qualify for reduced lunches. AS-1 welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families and provides open support for students.

Unfortunately, Seattle Public Schools has just released a "transition plan" that calls yet again for the school's closing. The transition plan notes unused capacity and "declining enrollment" — a 20-percent decline in the past two years — and concludes this leaves the school "no longer sustainable." But the decline in enrollment is largely the result of actions by Seattle Public Schools.

AS-1 families say the biggest reason for the decline is uncertainty created by the district. The attempts to close the school appear to have led many families to avoid registering for fear of subjecting their children to the disruption of changing schools again. Another factor is the district's withdrawal of citywide transportation, as many families were previously from outside the current North and Northeast school clusters.

The transition plan suggests converting AS-1 into an early childhood center with special-education developmental services. But the facilities are not suited for special education or preschool services, and would require substantial upgrades to meet minimum standards.

The Policy on Alternative Education states "It is the policy of the Seattle School Board to affirm our commitment to academic achievement for all students by offering a system of traditional and alternative education within the Seattle School District."

Closing AS-1 would result in a shortage of alternative-education options for K-8 students in North Seattle. With the closure last year of Summit K-12, the two other alternative schools in the region — Salmon Bay and Thornton Creek — are both either at or near capacity, and could not accommodate all of AS-1's students. Instead of closing AS-1, the district should be directing overflow students from Salmon Bay and Thornton Creek to AS-1.

AS-1's sense of community and immersion in the real world instill in students a love of learning and a sense of duty they carry with them their entire lives. Graduates are making a difference in our community today — as journalists, engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, social workers, teachers, authors, architects, librarians and more.

Seattle Public Schools needs to preserve this invaluable institution.

David Burt lives in Seattle and is an Alternative School

No. 1 parent.

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