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WANTED: More public school students

Milena Broom, left, and Audrey Anna Hickey work on drawings in kindergarten teacher Marcia Brown’s class at Wilkes Elementary School Thursday. The number of children registered for kindergarten classes has risen as overall enrollment has dwindled.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Milena Broom, left, and Audrey Anna Hickey work on drawings in kindergarten teacher Marcia Brown’s class at Wilkes Elementary School Thursday. The number of children registered for kindergarten classes has risen as overall enrollment has dwindled.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

District seeks more enrollment as staff cuts

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Amid an otherwise gloomy enrollment forecast for the Bainbridge School District, the outlook for kindergarten classes is looking downright sunny.

Parents have already preregistered 237 children for fall kindergarten classes, already eclipsing the roughly 180 currently enrolled, with the start of the new school year still five months away.

“For preregistration purposes, it’s probably the highest number we have seen over the last decade,” Bainbridge Schools Superintendent Ken Crawford said. “So it’s encouraging.”

With no corresponding spike in the birth rate, or glut of new residents, Crawford said no one is sure exactly what has propelled the rise in preregistration, or whether it is cause for optimism for enrollment as a whole.

Still it’s welcome news in a district where student numbers are projected to flag for the third straight year.

State funding for schools is tied to enrollment, and the district has been bracing for a loss in revenue equivalent to six full-time staff positions. Crawford will ask the school board next week to approve a measure declaring a “fiscal emergency” to align 2008-09 expenditures with revenue. The resolution would allow the district to reduce its staff if staff cuts aren’t compensated for by retirements and leaves of absence.

The enrollment malaise has led the district to find new ways of reaching out to students this year.

It held kindergarten orientations in February, the earliest date ever, and in late March launched a pamphlet campaign to raise awareness among new island residents and families weighing school options. Two thousand pamphlets were delivered to local preschools, the Chamber of Commerce, the Public Library and real estate offices.

The “Aspire” pamphlet recounts the district’s strengths, including flexible curriculum, available technology, high test scores and the post-graduate success of its pupils. It also emphasizes the affordability of a public education, compared to private schools, where annual tuitions are often $9,000 or higher.

Tight financial times may have some families reconsidering public education. But the continued high cost of island living means fewer families are moving to Bainbridge to begin with and some are moving away.

While the housing market cooled on Bainbridge late last year, the median home price still hovered at $680,000. A demographics study commissioned by the district last fall found that most families moving to the island were bringing middle or high school-aged students, with housing prices out of range for many young families.

Re/Max agent Kristi Nelson, who recently applied to enter her daughter in full-day kindergarten at Blakely Elementary, said she has seen fewer families moving to the island in the last year, though mostly because they have had trouble selling their homes in other markets.

Meanwhile, the most affordable units added to the market have been condominiums, which are usually appealing to retirees and “empty nesters” rather than families.

“When you’re a family and you’ve got one or two kids, you need 2,000 square feet or more to be comfortable,” Nelson said. “The condos aren’t really designed for families.”

Crawford said the district has seen some families leave the island in recent years to more affordable areas. Bainbridge Schools can, and has, worked to advocate for new housing projects that are affordable but also have the space and neighborhood feel to attract families he said.

“The entire community should be concerned about this, because we want this to be a family friendly community,” he said.

Bainbridge isn’t the only district riding through enrollment doldrums.

Mercer Island School District, another high-performing school system in expensive surroundings, has lost students and ramped up its marketing efforts this year in response. Mercer began accepting a limited number of applicants from nearby districts to bolster its numbers.

Bainbridge already has open enrollment, and accepts students from other districts based on available space. About 100 off-island students currently attend Bainbridge public schools. Crawford said districts in affluent Seattle suburbs have seen families moving to lower-cost areas like Renton and Kent, and communities like Bainbridge will have to work to become affordable to families.

“I think there really is a link to the economy and housing costs,” he said. “At some point I think we’ll see it reversed, but in this community it will need to be reversed through a conscious effort and through planning.”

The district hopes its pamphlets will also reach parents already on the island, who may be weighing the advantages of public and private education.

“A big part of what were trying to accomplish is to make sure every family that is inclined to think toward a private school, takes the time to review the assets and advantages of what is perhaps the state’s finest public school district,” Crawford said.

Smaller size

Private schools have flourished in the area, with at least a dozen on the island or in North Kitsap having Bainbridge students in attendance.

Many families are drawn to private schools because they fill a specific demand in education. Some incorporate religion into their curriculum, or adhering to teaching philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf not found in public schools

“Often parents are looking for a smaller, less institutional setting for their children,” said Missy Goss, enrollment coordinator for Madrona School in Winslow. “They like that there is a very defined philosophical approach to education.”

Like many area private schools, enrollment has remained stable at Madrona School, with growth in its kindergarten and first-grade classes. Goss said parents of young children often choose the school because of its philosophy and intimacy, while older students usually come in search of an alternative to public education. She said the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind act and its emphasis on testing has also left some parents disillusioned with the public school system.

St. Cecilia Catholic School Principal Carla Caldwell said her school has a lot to offer, but with the next closest catholic school located in Bremerton, religion is its primary appeal. Most families find their way to St. Cecilia by word-of-mouth, or through their parish, rather than advertising, she said.

“It’s a very family, small-community atmosphere, but most families come here because we are catholic,” she said. “Students get religion everyday and it is really integrated into what we do.”

Since opening in 2001 with just a preschool, St. Cecilia has added a grade level each year and now has 72 students from tots to sixth graders. Caldwell said school plans to have a full middle school offering by the time its new building opens on the same site in 2010, and she hopes to one day enroll over 200 students.

Enrollment at St. Cecilia ballooned in its first years after opening, growing by 20 percent in 2006. But last year enrollment flattened, and Caldwell said she expects the numbers to remain stable in the coming year. The recent economic downturn and the increasing cost of island living could be factors, she said.

“I think the economic situation is going to continue to impact young families,” Caldwell said. “Paying tuition isn’t going to come before paying the rent.”

While Caldwell doesn’t see her St. Cecilia competing directly with the public district for students, she said there is a high standard for all the islands schools, which leaves parents with a lot of good options.

“We are very aware that we need to be excellent academically,” she said. “I sort of like that challenge, because it calls on all the private schools on the island to be excellent. There is a very high bar here.”

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