Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Babies and Buildings: The Trends Creating Demand for a New Public School in Downtown Seattle

A new study shows that a combination of a surprisingly high birth rate among young couples living downtown and the continued housing boom there are producing significant demand for a downtown elementary school that could provide a solution for some of the district's overcrowding problems.  However, the planning for the district's next round of capital investment is out of step with actual events and could turn some good news into a frustrating near miss. 
The Seattle School District, the City of Seattle and the Downtown Seattle Association recently conducted research on downtown demographic trends and resident attitudes about a public school in downtown.  The numbers tell a compelling story, but it comes at a time when the district's six year planning process for capital investment is nearing its conclusion and with no representation from the downtown. 

Let’s start a discussion of the results with some major factors at work in the downtown’s demographics, residential construction activity, employment trends and the school district's struggles with an unanticipated surge in new enrollment.

In the last twenty years, population in the downtown more than doubled and it is now the city's most populous neighborhood -- 40,000 people living west of Interstate 5 along a strip from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square and the International District.  This does not count close-in First Hill and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, which the Downtown Seattle Association also considers a part of the downtown, totaling another 20,000 people.  However, for purposes of this study, the DSA focused on two elementary school attendance zones west of I-5 in the downtown corridor, the John Hay attendance area and the Bailey Gatzert area. 

Live births in the John Hay Attendance Area
Downtown births in Green
The demographic portrait that emerges from these two school attendance zones is that residents are disproportionately young – a full third of them 25-34 years of age, three times more than 1990 census data and well above the city-wide percentage of 25-34 year olds. A higher concentration of young adults is a predictor of higher birth rates and clearly these young people have become adept at making babies and are delivering them at a surprising pace. Last year they were responsible for the births of 220 kids, twice the number of births ten years ago.  The city-wide birth rate over that same period is well under the downtown's.  In the John Hay attendance zone, two thirds of live births come from downtown.  These kids will start attending school in five years.   The study also shows there are more than twice the number of kids under five living downtown compared to 20 years ago and this is also true for the under 14 population. 

Not only does the downtown have considerably more children, it is finding even more places to put them.  Nearly a billion dollars in new residential housing has just been completed, or is permitted and under construction.  These buildings represent about 3,800 units of housing and about 20% of them will be child friendly with two bedrooms and above.  Another major development looms, though is not yet approved.  Yesler Terrace, Seattle’s first low income housing project just at the edge of downtown, will be rebuilt and re-imagined, and it will bring an additional 5,000 units of housing, about 2,000 subsidized and another 3,000 market rate. 

A supporting and continuing factor in the downtown is the health of downtown employment.  Downtown employment is strong and particularly strong in its northern end, South Lake Union.  Since 2004, nearly 13,000 jobs have been created with another 10,000 projected as the area builds out by 2020.  Overall there are 200,000 jobs in the downtown -- slightly behind Boston and San Francisco, on par with Philadelphia and more than double the jobs in the Portland, San Diego and Charlotte downtowns.  The employment base in the downtown provides jobs to about 60,000 Seattle residents many of whom commute from North Seattle, Central Seattle and West Seattle.  This could be another source of educational demand downtown, relieving pressure on other neighborhood schools. 

The explosion of downtown population growth adds to the problem the school district is currently coping with – 1,500 new kids each year knocking on the school door, students the district didn’t anticipate.  This makes it harder to deliver the district’s policy of guaranteeing placement in a school if the student lives in its attendance area.  Instead of shrinking, as the district believed a few years ago, the school district is beginning to look today like the 1950s, kids spilling out into the hallways or lunchrooms for classes, portables moving into the playground, parents scowling at the waiting list notice.  And more children, particularly from the downtown, are on the way.

In the past, residents of downtown with small children moved somewhere else as the child's school age approached but, while still a factor, fewer people are following that path.  Focus group research shows that parents like the convenience of being downtown – no mind-numbing commute, lots of other parents and kids nearby, the short distance from work/home/daycare.  And, they can see what's happening around them, hear what their friends say, listen in at conversations at work.  These people are not thinking about cul-de-sacs!  Spend a Saturday morning in South Lake Union and you will see what's happening as well. Strollers competing for space on the sidewalk, several park options available just blocks away, kid-friendly and kid-crowded restaurants.  So, while the options are imperfect, more downtown parents are staying and sending their children to Seattle public schools, either to the schools indicated by their attendance area or at one of the district’s option schools where a particular emphasis exists in math, science or the arts.

Elementary school students living west of I-5 totaled 272 students in 2011 and they have two basic public school choices.  Those in Pioneer Square and the International District go to Bailey Gatzert on the south side of First Hill and those north of Yesler Way are routed to John Hay, on Queen Anne.  There are also 107 middle school students and 179 high school students living downtown. 

Downtown children make up about 10% of students at Bailey Gatzert.  Attendance there has been relatively steady, though Bailey Gatzert is over its capacity.  However, new development in Pioneer Square and the Yesler Terrace Project will cause headcounts to rise dramatically at Bailey Gatzert with the district potentially unable to keep its current attendance area promise.  John Hay Elementary is already feeling the effects of growth in the northern part of downtown.  In 2007, just 36 downtown residents were John Hay students.  Today, 102 downtown residents attend John Hay, pushing its headcount to 540, well-above its capacity without portables.  This will only grow as the bow wave of births in the downtown continues and as new residents fill up the 3,800 new units on the way in South Lake Union and the 5,000 or so at Yesler Terrace.

Research shows that downtown parents want an elementary school and the numbers clearly show that a downtown elementary school would take pressure off John Hay and Bailey Gatzert.  The dilemma facing downtown parents is that the discussion about new capital investment going on today does not include them, because the public involvement process is focused on existing schools and lacks input from downtown residents because they don’t yet have a school.

Major capital funding for the school district is decided through a process called the Building Excellence Program, or BEX.  This process is interactive between the school board and members of an advisory committee made up of parents from throughout the district.  The board filters various capital requests from principals, parents and activists and creates a special levy that the district then puts in front of voters every six years. 

This program creates the schedule for any downtown school proposal and sets in motion all the political forces throughout the district.  The school district has already held one round of community meetings in March and has assembled a rough draft of its special levy and hopes to begin refining it during the summer so that it can roll out a fairly specific draft plan for public comment toward the end of September.  It then goes on the ballot in February of 2013. 

While the downtown school idea is a bit tardy to the BEX process, it doesn’t necessarily mean that including it is impossible.  But there are many questions that need to be asked and answered about a new school downtown.  What kind of a school should it be?  Should it be an option school, perhaps with an emphasis on math and science?  Such a school could be attractive to some of the tech savvy parents in South Lake Union and also be attractive to some of those 60,000 Seattle citizens commuting from other parts of the city into the downtown.  What regulatory problems must be overcome?  Schools for young students have various design standards that need to fit with what might be a non-traditional school building.  And, there’s the question of where it should go. Is there an existing building and perhaps a favorable lease from a downtown advocate? Is it possible to shoehorn some kind of a modest beginning of the downtown elementary school into the BEX process now or does the district really want to wait six years for the next planning process to run its course before it addresses a school age population that may have doubled again.

There are many interests that would be attracted to some kind of participation in a downtown school.  The biotech and other tech businesses populating both ends of the downtown could see nearby education opportunities for the children of young, downtown workers as an important recruiting and retention tool.  In the research, today's employees placed a high value on a downtown school and many are ready to move if nothing happens.   There are also some private educational interests who see the value of an creating an educational foothold with the school district in a community of young achievers.  The city’s goals of attracting well-paying technology businesses are paying off in South Lake Union and in the gaming community in Pioneer Square and help enable some terrific investments – a major transportation amenity with the trolley, the South Lake Union Park that will, in time, become a very good one, a great central waterfront connecting to the downtown through the Seattle Center and the Sculpture Park. 

And the school district’s interest is, of course, substantial.  It is coping today with a surge in enrollment, but for those of us who have watched the district crash from nearly 100,000 students to just 40,000, today's problem of more students sounds like good news.  And in the downtown, there are opportunities for the district to play to a new and growing community and help manage the problems of growing enrollments.  What’s wrong with the district identifying itself as another symbol of the downtown’s resurgence, one that helps capture a well-educated workforce by offering a nearby education for their children, one that is close enough to allow parents to be very active?  What's wrong with creating a school environment where the car takes second place, where every meeting isn't a twenty mile trip?  In the first major special levy since the financial crisis began, what’s wrong with lighting a little fire under the city's most populous neighborhood?

The Downtown Seattle Association Development Guide

Downtown Seattle Research Library


  1. Downtown also has a number of homeless children who live in shelters or temporary housing. A downtown school would have the opportunity to serve them too.

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  3. Informative post and I enjoyed reading this article...Thanks for sharing about this topic

  4. It is interesting to know about the building for public school..great topic

  5. Great post. Really happy to hear this information. Thanks for sharing.
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