Issaquah schools release plan for closure of Tiger Mountain Alternative High School

July 1, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: July 1, 3:38 p.m.

The Issaquah School District has started a 90-day process that could result in the permanent closure of Tiger Mountain Community High School.

Superintendent Ron Thiele presented his rationale for the closure at the Issaquah School Board’s June 26 meeting. Several Tiger Mountain students and parents were in attendance, and some provided their reasons for keeping the alternative school open.
The idea to close Tiger Mountain first began circulating in February, and the board adopted an official school closure policy in April.
District administrators have cited the school’s declining enrollment numbers, low test scores and low attendance figures as factors behind the closure plan. They’ve been working to design a new alternative high school, which would open in a new location, and likely under a different name, at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
Tiger Mountain, which currently houses about 100 students in grades 9-12, would close at the end of the 2014-15 year. What will happen to the students who don’t graduate by then is a major source of disagreement between administrators and community members.
Thiele said the district plans to bolster support staff next year at its three comprehensive high schools – Issaquah, Liberty and Skyline. Each building will add a full-time educational assistant and a half-time “graduation specialist” to help students who are struggling with family issues, behavioral problems, or motivation in class.
Administrators are looking into other ways of helping Tiger Mountain students transition to a new place. It may not be as simple as sending them back to their neighborhood school, Thiele acknowledged, and there are options such as Running Start or online courses that could be utilized.
“To put it bluntly, I want kids to graduate from high school,” Thiele said.
Figures show Tiger Mountain’s enrollment has dropped significantly over the last 15 years.
In 1996, the school represented 3.12 percent of Issaquah’s total high-school enrollment; today it’s 1.63 percent.
Average daily attendance numbers at Issaquah, Liberty and Skyline high schools were all above 95 percent this year. At Tiger Mountain, it was 79.7 percent.
Graduation rates have also declined there, while remaining steady at other schools. Nine years ago, Tiger Mountain graduated 77.2 percent of its students within four years. The figure dropped to 30.5 percent in the 2011-12 year.
Opponents of the closure said those numbers are skewed.
Tiger Mountain’s enrollment is roughly 95 percent smaller than Skyline’s, for example, so one student’s data represents a much bigger slice of the pie.
There are more personal reasons, too, for keeping the school open.
Ivy Catlin, who will start her senior year at Tiger Mountain in the fall, said she “would not have survived at a comprehensive high school.” She was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and cannot touch paper.
At other schools, she said, she couldn’t use her cell phone to take notes in class, but it’s an accepted practice at her current school.
Catlin liked the idea to increase support for students who are at risk of not graduating on time, but disagreed with the closure.
“I don’t see why you have to close Tiger to make these changes at comprehensive high schools,” she said.
In planning a new alternative school, board member Lisa Callan said, the district needs to look closely at students transitioning from Tiger Mountain and given them individual education programs, or IEPs, tailored to their specific needs.
“It is still our obligation … to make sure we give those kids all that we can give them,” Callan said.
The district is working with the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation to design the framework of a new alternative high school. Paula Phelps, the district’s executive director of high schools, said the group has helped Issaquah recognize there are “students with much more challenging demographics than we have that are doing very, very well.”
Jeff Petty, the consortium’s regional director, attended the meeting and acknowledged concerns about shifting Tiger Mountain’s remaining population to other schools.
“My experience suggests that there are a number of students for whom no array of interventions would make it OK for them to be in a comprehensive high school,” Petty said, “just because, for some students, the size, the culture, everything about it, is terrifying.”
The school board plans to continue discussing the proposal over the summer, and will hold two public hearings in September before making its decision.


Thiele’s contract renewed

The Issaquah School Board voted unanimously June 26 to renew the contract of Superintendent Ron Thiele, who just completed his first year in the position.
State law requires school boards to review their superintendent’s contract on an annual basis prior to July 1. Issaquah board members cited several reasons for retaining Thiele, including his work to help the district pass three levy measures in February.
“We really do feel that your leadership in that area, and leading the charge during that campaign (was strong),” board President Marnie Maraldo said.
Under Thiele’s leadership, Issaquah recently increased its Standard and Poor’s bond rating to AA+, the highest rating of any district in the state. The rating is based on overall strong finances and a long history of levy renewals.
Last month, district administrators secured a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the local teachers union, the Issaquah Education Association. The parties focused on solving workload issues, increasing classroom instruction time, and implementing new evaluation forms for teachers and principals.
“We’re very happy with the timing of that, the fact that it was all done prior to the (2014-15) school year,” board member Suzanne Weaver said. “And I think any time both sides walk away from the table happy, it’s a good bargain.”

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