Students took center stage Wednesday as the community rallied for the second time in a week demanding answers and action to perceived educational failings at South Whidbey School District.
Called a “Community Conversation,” the meeting had already been scheduled by Superintendent Jo Moccia prior to last week’s lengthy confrontation with the school board.
For more than two hours on April 10, school board members listened to dozens of residents express concern over bullying, racial harassment, special education shortcomings and the effect of declining enrollment.
An online petition appeared shortly afterward, calling for Moccia to resign.
The same topics were raised again this Wednesday, sometimes with a fury of frustration and tears. Parents also asked about the district’s plans to attract more families to choose public schools and why 7th and 8th grades were dropped from the alternative program, South Whidbey Academy.
The district hired professional facilitator J. Marie Riche to keep the meeting flowing and orderly, which was mostly achieved. A few choruses of boos and loud rounds of applause and cheers spontaneously erupted throughout the 90-minute meeting.
“We have a lot of work to do in our district and tonight is the beginning,” Moccia told the gathering of about 160 people seated around dozens of table inside the high school’s common area. “I have a huge commitment to rebuild trust and move forward together.”
Sam Mirkovich, a popular South Whidbey High School art teacher, spoke emotionally about how declining enrollment would directly affect his job next school year. He said the administration has told him he can either teach art full time at the elementary school or remain at the high school but with reduced hours.
“My skills and my talents are here at this high school,” he said. “I cannibalize myself here, and the reason I’ve done that is I’ve had more than a full load for the past three years and now these classes are not needed. I’m effective, and I’m being punished for it in my eyes.”
South Whidbey High School junior Madison Ellerby-Muse asked Moccia how budget cuts and declining enrollment would affect the school’s 2020 goal to make sure all graduates “leave the district career, college and culturally ready.”
“How do you intend to uphold this promise to us?” she asked, nodding toward a table full of juniors, the class of 2020. She said they fear art or other elective classes would get cut and class sizes will become larger.
High School Principal John Patton jumped in to answer.
“We will be offering the same classes next year as we’re offering this year,” he said. “We may reduce the number of classes, but we’re not losing the programs.”
Ellerby-Muse persisted, saying her question had yet to be answered.
“We love this school,” she said. “It’s not what you will do for us in the future, but what steps are you going to take right now to protect our education?”
Moccia explained that declining enrollment over the past decade is finally taking its toll.
“We are down 150 students,” Moccia said, “that’s why they’ll be eight fewer staff here in September.” Some of those include retiring teachers.
Seventh-grader Ava Stamatiou stood up and told her story about not feeling safe at South Whidbey Elementary School. Midway through sixth grade, her parents enrolled her at Island Christian Academy.
“I didn’t feel it was a safe environment, and I didn’t feel the kids were nice or supportive,” she said.
Some staff is being added to the elementary school to help with behavioral issues, Moccia responded.
The superintendent repeatedly thanked several key parents, particularly Danielle Klamm, who stepped up to organize a truce and a collective search for solutions.
“I feel your anger. I accept you are angry with the district. I accept you are angry with me,” Moccia said. “The most important thing we need to do is address students’ social and emotional feelings, and how we’re preparing them academically. And address how are we going to move forward together.”