As a near-lifelong Walla Wallan, I have seen this community change in many ways over the years. Some of these changes — like the mix of storefronts on Main Street — are obvious and visible. Others emerge only after careful study of long-term trends.
A good example of a less obvious trend is the long-term aging of our population. Walla Walla continues to grow, by about one percent each year, but many of these newcomers are empty nesters or retirees. Combined with the maturing of our own resident population, I, and much of Walla Walla, look significantly grayer than we did a couple decades ago.
The impact of this change has been felt in our schools. Our district now serves 250 fewer elementary students than we did just 10 years ago. Though this year’s kindergarten class was slightly larger than its predecessor, the enrollment gap continues as smaller classes move through our system each year.
There are many rooms that no longer have classes in them, and five elementary schools can now support an elementary population that previously necessitated six schools. Reducing the number of elementary schools would not increase the number of children in each classroom.
This reality is why the Walla Walla Public Schools Board of Directors launched an in-depth review and outreach process in March focused on potential elementary reconfiguration. We have also been studying the possibility of repurposing an elementary school into a communitywide early learning center/community hub.
At this point, though no final decision has been made, the Board has settled on a preliminary determination to move forward with plans to repurpose Blue Ridge Elementary as the new Early Learning Center.
Among the many studies commissioned, the full Board carefully considered and deliberated the following: 1) Current student enrollment, attendance patterns, and school demographics, 2) Community population trends, including future areas of growth in the community, 3) In-depth facility analysis, including site visits by Board members, 4) Consultation with early learning experts, 5) Public surveys and multiple testimony opportunities, and 6) Financial efficiencies through administrative and overhead savings that can be redirected to students/classrooms through consolidation.
The purpose of this last round of communication is to engage our community about the process of study we’ve completed and to seek any final factors that should sway this decision.
We know that adjustments such as this can be difficult, particularly for the families, teachers and support staff who will be transitioning schools. That’s why the Board decided to take nearly a full year to study and implement any change. We wanted the administration and the community to have ample time to plan a transition that would support every student and staff member.
We also recognize that there is tremendous opportunity in a new early learning center that serves the entire community. Numerous community studies and our own kindergarten readiness data point to the urgent need to improve access to pre-kindergarten learning and related services. The Walla Walla Community Council’s “Education as a Path to Economic Growth,” the Early Years Taskforce and Community Conversations “Early Learning Study,” all point to a need for an early learning hub/center to help our Valley prosper educationally and economically.
Based on all our studies, Blue Ridge is the obvious — and in some ways, only — location for this new hub. More than half the classrooms in the building already house preschool classes. It is also the only facility in the district that is set up to meet the needs of federal and state-funded preschool programs without significant — and expensive — remodeling.
Continued community engagement takes place this fall, with the Board making our final decision in October for a 2020-21 school year implementation. Absent any surprise findings between now and the October decision to move forward, the Board’s next step will be to begin a comprehensive process over the winter and spring months to review and modify school boundaries to reflect our efficiency efforts, while maintaining current class sizes.
Our district vision is “Developing Washington’s Most Sought-After Graduates” and the Board is keenly aware that decisions like this must be carefully thought through. As a collective Board, we will continue our efforts to be transparent in our operations and encourage parents, community and faculty to continue to engage with us in these important decisions.
Visit Early Learning Expansion/Elementary Consolidation link at www.wwps.org. for more information.
Ruth Ladderud is president of the Walla Walla School Board.