Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has given NW Center Kids six months to vacate the property it’s leased for the last 28 years.
NW Center Kids (2919 First Ave. W.) is an inclusive early learning center for 110 children with and without disabilities. It also offers speech, occupational and physical therapy, along with nutritionists, special educators and resource coordinators.
NW Center Kids’ lease has always had a cancellation clause, CEO Tom Everill said. First, it was four months; then it was six months.
“So we’ve always lived with this sort of sword over our head,” he said.
On Jan. 10, NW Center received official notice from SPS. Lester Herndon, the new assistant superintendent for Capital, Facilities and Enrollment Planning, was tasked to find new buildings and took “a pretty legal approach to the lease,” Everill said.
“I get it; I just so get it,” Everill said. “Someone’s going to be unhappy no matter what he decides.”
‘Not a warehouse’
SPS needs the property for Cascade Parent Partnership (CPP), a 200-student homeschool program. CPP is currently at the old Wilson Pacific building in Licton Springs, which is being torn down to create a new elementary and middle school. SPS is expecting to grow by 1,000 students a year.
“We have an obligation to our families to make room for those kids,” said SPS spokesperson Teresa Wippel.
The Queen Anne building needs work, Wippel said, which is why SPS wants it back in June. The district would start renovations immediately afterward and move CPP students in mid-school year. This will open up Wilson Pacific so construction can start in spring 2015 to have the school ready for students in 2017.
The decision to take back the building was made in November along with all of the other school boundary changes. Wippel said the district didn’t send out any notifications until after the new boundaries were approved.
“We don’t want to give official notification until we know for sure it’s going to be happening,” she said.
NW Center is a tenant, Everill said, but they’re so much more, and the work it’s doing benefits SPS and families from around the city. NW Center accepts SPS needs the building, he said, but it needs more time.
It will take time to find a location and remodel it to fit the strict specifications required for early learning, Everill said. Small things, like lower toilets and sinks in every classroom, mean money and renovation before it can start the licensing process, which Everill predicts would take six months alone.
“All we’re asking for is to be part of the conversation about ways that we could leave this facility in an orderly way that doesn’t destroy the community we have going here,” he said.
NW Center’s model is an inclusive model, “not a warehouse where disabled kids are put,” Everill said: Children throughout the ability spectrum flourish and learn from each other.
Keeping it open for the kids
Kyle Simonitch, 5, has a duplicated 15th chromosome, which causes developmental delays. He has been attending NW Center Kids since he was an infant. His younger brother Max, 2, who is typically developed, also attends.
When Kyle was born, doctors told his mother, Christine Simonitch, he may never walk or talk; now, he does both. “We owe the NW Center so much,” she said.
The NW Center provided Kyle with occupational and speech therapy, along with a lot of support. Now, he attends developmental preschool, but he still gets before- and after-school care at NW Center.
Simonitch understands the lease situation, but she thinks SPS should respect the NW Center’s services. The services complement SPS’ mission to integrate all students, she said.
“One of their goals is to provide high-quality education for all of their students,” she said. “The last I checked, special-needs kids were part of that population.”
If Simonitch had to find another place for child care, she may need to put Kyle and Max in separate schools. “I don’t know if someone would take [Kyle],” she said.
When he’s at NW Center, he’s not “Kyle with special needs,” Simonitch said; he’s just Kyle, “and that means the world to me.”
Chiharu Faris lives in Queen Anne with her daughter Chloe, a 3-year-old with developmental delays, low muscle tone and eating problems. Chloe started attending NW Center when she was 15 months old.
“She’s not separated from the other kids,” Faris said, “so that makes me feel really good.”
The environment has prompted rapid progress for Chloe. For a long time, she couldn’t eat, but watching her peers eat has motivated her, and she’s now eating pureed foods.
Faris is worried the center will need to move off of Queen Anne. Faris can’t leave her job, so she’d need to consider moving houses to be closer to the school, especially since Chloe spends so much time at the doctor and therapies.
Faris has joined other parents in fighting to keep NW Center Kids alive, “not just for my kid, but for the other kids, too,” she said.
‘Stop the clock’
In her letter to parents, Jane Dobrovolny, vice president of children and family services at NW Center, told parents the agency was planning to fight SPS’ decision. In October, Dobrovolny and Everill met with SPS to ask about purchasing the property.
“The words were barely out of my mouth before they said, ‘No, we’re not interested,’” Everill said.
Wippel hadn’t heard of any offers from NW Center to buy the building.
Everill said SPS told them the district may repurpose the building in the future, but there wasn’t money for it at the time. Later, Everill learned there was conversation with the boundary negotiations.
“That really disappoints me that they’re talking about such a momentous decision that affects 100 families without engaging us in the conversation,” he said.
NW Center is now “working furiously on multiple levels of contingency planning,” Everill said.
It’s very important to NW Center to stay in Queen Anne, Everill said, because of the community that has been created.
SPS has offered the Van Asselt Elementary School property (7201 Beacon Ave. S.) as a future home for NW Center Kids, but it is too small for the CPP program, Wippel said. The NW Center staff hasn’t seen the building yet, and Everill doesn’t think it’ll be ready to move there in six months. He’s asking SPS to stop the clock.
“It can’t be done in six months,” he said. “We have to protect [ourselves]. We won’t have a community to move there unless the clock is stopped.”
The Van Asselt building was viewed by the state department for child-care licensing a few years ago, Wippel said. SPS’ early learning staff are very confident the licensing process would be quick, she said.
“My understanding is we don’t have more time to give,” Wippel said. [We] really do have to get them out of there in June.”
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