New census figures show the changing face of Vashon

Though Vashon’s total population hasn’t changed much in the last decade, the makeup of the community has. Recently released 2010 census data reveal what some on Vashon already suspected: The Island is now home to fewer children than it was 10 years ago, and its Latino population has grown significantly.

According to census figures, Vashon’s total population grew about 5 percent over the past decade, from 10,123 to 10,624.

The gain took place exclusively on the northern half of Vashon Island, above S.W. 204th Street and S.W. 220th Street, where the population increased by about 10 percent. The population on Maury Island and the southern half of Vashon saw a slight decrease of 0.3 percent.

The figures came as a surprise to Alice Larson, a social services researcher who taught Vashon demographics as part of Vashon College’s Vashon 101 class for a number of years.

Larson said the state Office of Financial Man-agement (OFM) estimated that Vashon experienced a surge of growth in the last half of the decade, and its population topped 11,000 in 2009.

She says she and many others accepted OFM’s estimates until the recent census figures told a  different story.

“These figures are used by everyone,” she said. “It’s really important to get these numbers right.”

Though Larson is still unsure of the reason for the large discrepancy, she said further investigation has led her to believe it is likely due to the OFM’s estimation methods.

Much of Vashon’s recent growth was driven by an increase in the Island’s Latino population, which grew about 67 percent in the last 10 years, from 259 to 434.

Sarah Day, who worked as a King County public health nurse on Vashon for about a decade before she was recently laid off, said she witnessed this population boom, seeing more and more Latino patients over the decade.

Day, who is fluent in Spanish and therefore often worked with Spanish speakers, said that almost all the Latinos who moved to the Island in the last decade chose to come to Vashon because they  had family on the Island.

“It’s pretty hard to come to a random place when you don’t speak English,” she said. “They come and stay with family, and family will connect them with work. It’s like a base of support for them.”

Still, Day said, most Latino families are barely making it, often working low-paying or seasonal jobs and living in substandard housing situations.

She said organizations that serve the underprivileged on Vashon have taken notice of the increasing Latino population, and there is a movement afoot to better meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking community.

Ken Maaz, director of Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), said the agency now offers a support group for Latino mothers and a preschool scholarship program for Latino children. In addition, the center has a Spanish-speaking mental health therapist available, though he said the service is seldom used.

Maaz feels that VYFS and other Vashon organizations could serve the Latino community even better if they could better communicate the services they offer. However, he said, the language barrier can make this difficult to do with limited resources.

“We try to reach out as best we can, but there’s definitely room for more to be done. … That population has grown, and we’re recognizing we need to reach out and make sure they feel welcome and make adjustments in our services to make sure they’re available to them,” he said.

Reaching out to the Latino population is exactly what Islander Victoria Clayton recently set out to do.

Clayton, who is Mexican herself and teaches at a high school in Tacoma, is heading up Amigos en Vashon, a small group that aims to make the Latino community and other minorities feel welcome on Vashon and to meet their needs in whatever way possible.

“We’re coming up with ideas on how to build genuine bridges between groups There’s a lot of diversity on the Island. The only problem is people don’t know each other,” she said.

Amigos en Vashon, born out of the Welcome Vashon gathering last month, recently began an informal group at the library where those learning Spanish and those learning English can practice their skills once a week through casual conversation. The library also offers a weekly English-as-a-second-language class.

Clayton said she knows there are many Latinos on Vashon but believes they keep largely to themselves, as she rarely sees them in town. She hopes Amigos en Vashon will work to make them feel more a part of the Vashon community.

“My dream is to go to First Friday and have all the Latinos there,” she said.

Though Vashon’s total population increased over the last decade, census data also show that the under-18 population shrank by almost 12 percent.

The figures weren’t surprising to Vashon School District Superintendent Michael Soltman, who says enrollment at Chautauqua Elementary has fallen slightly in recent years. Numbers at the middle and high school, he said, have stayed constant due to students returning from private schools or home school programs.

Soltman said he isn’t concerned about the dip in the number of children, as he believes it follows a national trend.

“Typically the suburban school districts and island school districts have all been in a pattern of declining enrollment in the last 10 years. … It has to do with the ebb and flow of the baby boomers, of those generations passing though,” he said.

Indeed, the nation’s population didn’t see a significant amount of growth either, with a 9.7 percent increase last decade, much of it due to immigration. The only decade to see slower growth occurred during the Great Depression.

Soltman did express concern, however, that this pattern of decline in those under age 18 could turn into a permanent one on Vashon. Cuts to ferry service, among other things, could discourage young families from moving to Vashon, he noted.

“I think if that trend continued over time it would be a concern for this community in terms of becoming a retirement community. … I think we very much are going to control our own destiny by the commitment we make to schools and ensuring we continue to have adequate ferry service,” he said.

Maaz agreed, speculating that the trend of young Islanders moving off Vashon after high school and not returning to raise their own families may contribute to the declining under-18 population as well as the Island’s relatively slow overall growth.

Vashon’s slow growth rate sets it apart from the rest of King County, which saw an overall gain of 11 percent in its population in the last decade. The Island, unlike some other parts of the county, has external limits to growth: Much of Vashon is zoned for only one house in five or 10 acres; and Vashon town, where denser growth is allowed, has experienced a moratorium in water hook-ups for more than a decade, making development difficult.

Other factors are likely at work, Maaz noted.

“A lot of that really has to do with the economy,” he said. “We don’t have a job base on the Island to speak of. Most people have to go off-Island to work, and that’s just time consuming and costly.”

Growth is sometimes valued in communities, because it’s thought to bring additional public dollars. But Maaz said he doesn’t think Vashon’s slow growth rate will hurt it much in the chase for grants and public dollars.

What’s more, he said, a lack of growth should be valued for the stability and ecological health it can provide a community.

“The lack of growth in and of itself I don’t think is a bad thing. The infrastructure of the Island can only support so many people,” he said. “The issue isn’t the numbers; the issue is quality of life. Just because you have more people doesn’t mean the quality of life is any better.”

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