John DeVleming remembers the unruly Mercer Island School Board meetings of several years ago — people yelling and cursing as they...
John DeVleming remembers the unruly Mercer Island School Board meetings of several years ago — people yelling and cursing as they argued about the district’s curriculum.
DeVleming, a semiretired attorney who is a parent in the school district, had considered running for School Board years ago but shied away because of the infighting. The School Board’s past two elections were highly contentious, with multiple candidates running for each seat. The campaigning was fierce as candidates seeking sweeping change clashed with candidates more inclined to fine-tune the system in place.
Two years later, the angry attacks during public meetings have ceased, and this election has been comparatively bland.
Now DeVleming, who is running for Position 2 on the board, and Adair Dingle, who is running for Position 4, will be elected without opposition next week. DeVleming and Dingle seek to pick up where their predecessors left off, and both hope to offer more honors and advanced-placement (AP) courses — but they’re relieved that past hostilities seem to have died out.
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“I thought about running four years ago, but I thought how people were acting was so unfair to both sides,” DeVleming said. “I still would not have been brave enough to run two years ago.”
The controversy stemmed from debates over how rigorous the school district’s curriculum should be. Some parents believed the district, already among the top-performing in the state, had become complacent and wasn’t challenging students or offering enough honors and AP classes. Other parents were concerned that toughening the curriculum could leave some struggling students behind or put too heavy an emphasis on curriculum and not enough on students’ personal growth.
Dingle and DeVleming will take the places of Carrie George and John Fry, both of whom also sought changes to the curriculum when they campaigned four years ago. When DeVleming and Dingle take their seats, the most senior board members will have been elected two years ago, and the entire board will be in its first term of office.
“It will be a young board,” said George, who didn’t run again because of the time commitment of being a board member. “I am concerned about a loss of continuity. But the board we have in place works well together. Things are much, much better now.”
A conflict-resolution workshop held two years ago brought parents, staff members and the board together and helped the different groups communicate their concerns and work through their problems. The workshop proved to be key in helping the district move forward, current board members said.
“We actually talk to each other now,” said board President Pat Braman, who was elected in 2003. “We still disagree, but we talk to each other in a more calm environment. It’s a little boring, but at least you’re not wondering when an issue will set someone off.”
Besides dealing with curriculum, the board had to contend with administrative turnover. Since 2001, the district has had three superintendents. It hired Cynthia Simms in 2003 with a three-year contract. The high-school principal retired in 2004, and the school had an interim principal last school year. The district appointed a new principal, John Harrison, this school year.
Now that the administration is settled, the board can move forward more easily, Braman said.
Yet some of the old concerns linger. Fry believes the district has the potential to be among the best in the country and is disappointed the district hasn’t taken more steps to make that happen.
“While Mercer Island is successful when compared to surrounding districts, it doesn’t come close to hitting the radar when asked what the best schools in the country are,” Fry said.
More than 80 percent of Mercer Island students meet Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) standards in reading, math and writing — well above state averages. Fry had hoped he could help transform the district into a national top-performing school, but that vision wasn’t embraced by all, he said.
“Every institution has its own momentum,” Fry said. “I don’t see a true belief or commitment to doing this.”
Still, there has been some headway, such as implementing a process to review and refresh curriculum on a regular basis, he said.
“The current leadership has put into place some thoughtful, long-term processes to ensure the district works on areas it needs to improve,” he said.
Dingle, who teaches computer science at Seattle University, said she also wants to focus on improving students’ academic achievement. As a university teacher, she said, she has often seen bright, capable students start college without the academic skills they need to achieve. She hopes to ensure that students graduating from Mercer Island have the skills to thrive at the university level.
“I think there’s still a problem of not challenging students enough, and a problem of leaving some students behind,” Dingle said. “They have started making progress, but I’m not sure there’s as much choice [in academics] as there should or could be.”
One of DeVleming’s goals is to see more AP courses added at Mercer Island High School. Now, the high school offers a full complement of honors courses, which are developed by individual teachers, and some AP classes. Students who take AP classes also can earn college credit for their work, and DeVleming believes many college-admissions offices weigh AP courses heavier than honors courses.
“I think it’s an ongoing attempt to balance the needs of the students,” DeVleming said. “We have a high-achieving group of kids, but the top ones are not the only ones who deserve special attention.”
Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or email@example.com