Tiger Mountain community speaks out

March 19, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: March 19, 10:14 a.m.

Last month’s news that Tiger Mountain Community High School could be closed has sparked sadness, anger and shock among students and parents at the Issaquah School District’s alternative high school.

The Issaquah School Board began publicly discussing a possible closure Feb. 12, and droves of Tiger Mountain community members showed up for that meeting. Several people returned to speak to the board at its March 12 gathering.

Neil Schmidt, who graduated from Tiger Mountain last year, said he was “dumbfounded” and “appalled” the district would consider closing the school, which has provided a nontraditional learning environment for high school students since 1991. The school currently has an enrollment of about 100.

Schmidt told the board that many Tiger Mountain students go home daily to one-parent or no-parent families. Others have been bullied at previous schools, but at Tiger Mountain, they defend each other and seek out connections.

He believed the district is considering shutting the school because it isn’t graduating enough students, which reflects poorly on Issaquah’s otherwise high graduation rate of nearly 92 percent.

Tiger Mountain’s graduation rate for the class of 2012 was 37.3 percent, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“This district, without a doubt, is one of the nicest in the state,” Schmidt said. “Tiger Mountain is tarnishing that image.”

District officials previously announced a plan seeking to close the school for the 2015-16 school year. That would give the district time to construct a new building, which would house an alternative school with a different instructional model, starting in the 2016-17 year.

Lorraine Michelle, the district’s executive director of communications, said last week that current Tiger Mountain students would be welcome to return to the new school, but their spots wouldn’t be guaranteed.

Because the district doesn’t plan to enroll new students during the 2014-15 year, enrollment will shrink before the closure happens the following year.

“Our hope and goal is that most of the students currently attending at Tiger will graduate before the new school opens,” Michelle said.

Any Tiger Mountain students who haven’t graduated by spring 2015 would return to a comprehensive high school – either Liberty, Skyline or Issaquah – and be taught using an individualized education plan.

That plan has come under fire. Students said Tiger Mountain has been a safe haven for them.

Megan Vaught, a sophomore who transferred from the Tahoma School District this year, said she was into drugs and was bullied at her former school. That quickly changed at Tiger Mountain, where she said she wakes up every day excited to attend classes.

“My first day at Tiger, I felt so welcome,” Vaught said. “The teachers made me feel I was worth something and I could go somewhere in life, and I never thought that was possible.”

Tru Catlin, who has one child attending Tiger Mountain and another who graduated last year, said the monetary costs of keeping the school open are worth it. Students who are forced to return to a comprehensive high school may “fall through the cracks” because they aren’t diagnosed with behavioral or psychological problems and will struggle with any individualized education plan.

“Life is messy, and the messy kids won’t stop coming in this lifetime,” Catlin said to the school board.

Lorraine said the district is working with a consultant from the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation to help develop a model for a new alternative school.

“We are exploring a learning model based on individual student interest, leaving to learn, and partnering with community members,” she said. “Leaving to learn means that students spend a portion of their week out of the classroom doing an internship or apprenticeship at an organization or business.”

The state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has a process for closing schools, Michelle said, and the district must solicit more public input before that could happen. A final decision may not be reached until this fall.

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