Reprieve From Closure : Battle Begins to Lure Back School's Students

Times Staff Writer

Only six months ago, Walt Whitman Elementary School seemed on the brink of extinction. The small Clairemont public school was scheduled to close in June, another casualty of declining enrollment and competition from private schools and magnet programs.

But instead of closing Whitman's doors next month, teachers and parents will be knocking on doors today as part of a plan to lure students back to the school with an ambitious enrichment program.

A group of 23 volunteers will canvass 1,700 area homes, asking residents, "What would it take to get you to bring your children back to Whitman?" The answers they get will determine whether school officials will pursue a new computer center, an expanded music program or any of seven other options.

"We want to become a No. 1 school, but we need community input to decide a focus," said first-grade teacher Judy Froning, who conceived the canvassing plan. "If we put together a program that doesn't have community support, it's just not going to fly."

The lesson that public schools must compete for students to survive has been well-learned by concerned teachers and parents at Whitman. The school's attendance has declined markedly in recent years, primarily because parents in the area have opted to send their children to private schools or to magnet schools elsewhere in the district that offer special enrichment programs.

In September, 1983, Whitman's enrollment projections dipped to the point where district officials decided it was no longer economically feasible to keep the school open.

"We certainly couldn't keep it open if there are residents of the area sending their kids everywhere else," said Ronald Anderson, district operations manager.

The district's announcement of Whitman's impending closure only worsened the school's attendance problems, as more parents removed their children to place them in private schools or magnet programs. However, it also spurred a few parents to start a campaign to keep the neighborhood school open.

"I myself was going to send my children to private schools, but I figured, 'Why spend the thousands of dollars before giving public schools a chance?' " said Jo Powers, mother of a Whitman first-grader.

The small but vocal group of parents and teachers began an extensive lobbying effort to convince the school district to give Whitman one more chance. In January, the district--encouraged after receiving more optimistic attendance projections--recanted, granting the school a two-year reprieve to bring up its enrollment.

"I was really surprised when I went out and saw the enthusiasm of the parents and the teachers," Anderson said. "Looking at what they've done since, that probably was the turning point."

Not content with mere survival, the group that saved Whitman is now looking to revitalize it and lure back the students it has lost in recent years. Although the results of today's canvassing will not be compiled until next week, a questionnaire sent to parents last month suggested a clear choice for the program that would bring students back.

"Computer programs seemed to be No. 1 with everyone," said PTA president Terri Delgadillo. "A gifted (students) cluster was also big, but most parents were interested in some kind of computer education."

But to offer the kind of high-caliber programs parents demand for their children, Whitman needs something no public schools have in abundance: money.

"They're going to apply for every grant they can get," Anderson said, adding that the school has already applied for an $8,000 state grant to build a new computer center. Whitman officials are also seeking a sponsor to "adopt" the school, he said.

"We have some programs we know will be very appealing additions," Anderson said. "We're going to go over the (results of) the survey and see what and we can and can't do and what we might be able to get in place by September."

The absence of a secure funding source has not dampened the enthusiasm of Whitman's parents and teachers.

"I see a lot of support from the parents of my first-grade class, which hopefully will continue next year," Froning said. "If you get the parents and staff members together, you can do a lot of things, even with a little money."

"We just want to make Whitman a model neighborhood school, so we don't have to send our children to private schools," Powers said. "Is it too much to ask that Whitman be as good as other schools?"

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