When the Jewett twins enrolled in Seattle Public Schools for kindergarten this fall, each was assigned a different school, thanks to a quirk in the district's student-assignment policy.
Annika and Nicole Jewett are twins who live in the same house, their beds just two feet apart. Their mother never dreamed they’d be assigned to different schools for kindergarten this fall.
Stephanie Jewett listed the same three schools in the same order on each girl’s application. Made a note that the girls are twins, and told the enrollment staff the same thing.
When Annika was assigned to Bryant Elementary, and Nicole to Wedgwood, Jewett initially thought it was a mistake.
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In one of the stranger quirks in the Seattle School District’s convoluted student-assignment system, twins can be assigned to different schools, despite the district’s policy to keep siblings together.
Turns out the sibling-preference policy applies only when one child in a family already attends a school. In that case, a younger sibling is almost always a shoo-in if seeking the same school (and applying for an entry grade, such as kindergarten).
Twins do receive something called “sibling linkage,” a step down from sibling preference. The Jewetts didn’t even get that — but more on that later.
The district has offered the twins a chance to attend a third school: John Rogers Elementary, according to Jewett. It’s one of the schools that still has space after the district placed everyone else who applied on time. But Rogers wasn’t one of the family’s choices.
To Jewett and others, the whole situation makes no sense.
Why would twins be treated differently from siblings of different ages?
“It looks like there’s a glitch in the program,” said Lisa Bond, a longtime parent activist who’s worked with parent-teacher organizations at the state and local level.
School Board member Harium Martin-Morris called it a flaw that needs fixing.
“When you think about it, it’s not right,” he said.
He pledged to try to fix the problem as the district revamps its assignment policy over the next few years. But changes won’t be in place until fall 2010 at the earliest.
The explanation from the district?
“All I can say is that’s not what the tiebreakers approved by the board call for,” said Tracy Libros, the district’s manager of enrollment and planning services. (Tiebreakers are some of the rules that govern how students are assigned to schools. For elementary schools, having a sibling at the school is the first tiebreaker.)
It’s not only twins who can end up assigned to different schools. It can happen to other siblings, too, if they move to Seattle and apply to school at the same time.
It’s a problem that’s unique to districts such as Seattle, where parents have some choice in where their children attend school. In districts that don’t, families generally are assigned to one school based on where they live.
New plan in works
Libros declined to discuss the Jewetts’ case because the district doesn’t discuss individual families’ situations. In general, however, she said the twins issue is an example of the many problems with a very complex student-assignment system.
“That’s why we need a new assignment plan,” she said.
Many of those problems would disappear, she said, if the board approves changes it’s talking about, especially guaranteeing students a spot at a school close to their homes. But that simplification has its own problems. For one, it would maintain the racial imbalances that exist at many schools, and which have steadily grown since the district ended busing for racial integration more than a decade ago.
For now, Libros said, the district usually offers twins a chance to attend a school together, but not always one of the buildings where they were assigned in the first place. That’s because the district recognizes the benefits of siblings attending the same school — one PTA to join, one back-to-school night to attend, one walk to school, or one car pool.
Libros also said district staff members are looking for a way to ensure that twins are never assigned to different schools. If they can figure out how to do that without being unfair to other students, she said, they will recommend a change for the 2009-10 school year.
And she noted that the assignment plan can work to twins’ advantage at some alternative schools.
Jewett, however, says none of that will help her girls. She wants them closer to home than Rogers, which is not far away but is not within walking distance of the family’s Ravenna home, like Bryant or Wedgwood elementaries. And she wonders why they have to go to the end of the line because they’re twins.
Twins usually end up at the same place because they apply to the same schools and live the same distance away, which is also one of the main tiebreakers for most elementary schools, after sibling preference.
It appears the Jewetts were tremendously unlucky. Still speaking in general terms, Libros said nearly the only way twins who live in the same house would get assigned to different schools would be if one of them was the last child assigned to one of the schools.
The geographic dividing line, in other words, probably fell in the two feet between the Jewett girls’ beds.
Stephanie Jewett feels as if she’s fallen into a policy sinkhole. She said she’s spent sleepless nights trying to dream up a solution. She and her husband asked, for example, if they could trade Annika’s spot at Bryant with a family at Wedgwood who might prefer Bryant, so both their girls could go to Wedgwood.
No dice. Such switches wouldn’t be fair, Libros said, because they would bypass families higher on the waiting list that could rightfully expect to get any open seat.
Unsure about fall
The Jewetts haven’t told the girls anything except that they may go to Bryant or Wedgwood. They still hope both girls end up at Wedgwood, where Annika is now No. 7 on the waiting list. If that doesn’t happen, they’re not sure what they’ll do.
And here’s one last, weird twist: If either Jewett twin had gotten into View Ridge Elementary — the family’s first choice — the other would automatically have been placed at the top of the View Ridge waiting list. That’s what’s called “sibling linkage.”
But could Annika, enrolled at Bryant, be placed at the top of Wedgwood’s wait list? Or Nicole at the top of Bryant’s list?
The answer is no. The reason?
Because View Ridge was their first choice, both girls were automatically placed on View Ridge’s waiting list. When they switched waiting lists, they went to the end of the line.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org