As the school year drew to a close, parents at Jason Lee Middle School were worried.
Not only were they about to lose their principal, it also looked as if they would lose a slew of popular classes. Spanish, the school’s only foreign language class, was in jeopardy. So were technology, choir, drama and other electives.
The reason? The federal cash infusion known as School Improvement Grants had dried up.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to plant and nurture an amazing garden and then abandon it just as it is about to fully bloom,” Jason Lee parent Danille Ulvila wrote to the Tacoma School Board this spring.
The school, which sits prominently off Sixth Avenue at the intersection of Tacoma’s Hilltop and North Slope neighborhoods, once had one of the worst reputations in the city.
It has come far during the SIG years, according to parents. Fights are down, test scores have climbed and parent enthusiasm is soaring.
“If you haven’t been to Jason Lee in the last two years,” PTA co-president Mary Boone said, “you haven’t been to Jason Lee.”
In letters and testimony before the school board this spring, parents argued that it would be a shame to throw recent success away because of a lack of funding.
Ulvila, whose twins will be sixth-graders in the fall, called Jason Lee a “shining example” of a turnaround school. She was attracted by expanded class offerings under the SIG grants and an improved climate fueled by anti-bullying education for kids and cultural competency training for teachers.
Jonathan Kellett, who left Jason Lee in June to take the high school principal job at Life Christian Academy, worked hard to recruit new families. Parents credit much of the improved environment to his leadership.
But the new parents were shocked to learn, late in the 2012-13 school year, that many of the extras that brought them to Jason Lee were in danger of being lost when the federal dollars stopped flowing.
“We had to make some cuts, primarily because of a loss of funding,” Kellett told the Jason Lee PTA in early June. “We had to make some adjustments to protect the academic core.”
School board member Scott Heinze wrote a blunt letter in response to complaining parents. He said principals at all three SIG schools had been warned to prepare budgets for the coming school year without using SIG money. He blamed Kellett for failing to make the necessary adjustments.
Kellett did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.
Tacoma Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno said she believes Kellett was taking a “calculated risk” that the district would find the dollars to leave Jason Lee’s enhanced SIG-level staffing in place.
“He made a choice to say ‘This is wonderful. I want it to stay exactly the way it was. I hope the district gives it to us.’
“We couldn’t,” she added. “And we can’t.”
Santorno did find money to continue Spanish classes. And many other popular electives have been restored by incoming principal Christine Brandt, formerly principal at Meeker Middle School. Santorno said Brandt did it by tinkering with schedules. She said increased class sizes will make room for core subject teachers to pick up an elective class for one period a day.
But staffing still is down from SIG levels, and class offerings won’t be as extensive.
“We are staffed,” Brandt said. “Our next step is to just plug the kids in.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com @DebbieCafazzo