Changing demographics take a toll on preschools

Rafael Escovedo’s class for 2- to 3-year-olds at the Vashon-Maury Cooperative Preschool is not as full as last year’s.  - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
Rafael Escovedo’s class for 2- to 3-year-olds at the Vashon-Maury Cooperative Preschool is not as full as last year’s.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

When Island kids returned to school this fall, several classrooms were emptier than usual, especially at Vashon preschools, where many have fewer students enrolled than ever before.

The reason for the dip in numbers appears to be twofold, early childhood advocates say. A decline in young children on the Island, which the 2010 census documented, is likely a leading factor, and the poor economy, leaving some families with a jobless parent and many with limited incomes for child care, also contributes. It has meant many programs have had to cut back and find creative solutions to this new reality, a sharp contrast to just a few years ago.

“It used to be five years ago we had a long waiting list and no worries at all,” said Dan Cullinan, who has owned Starbreak Adventure School with his wife Kathy Zbryk for the past 14 years.

In the school’s heyday, it served about 16 to 18 families, and almost all the children attended full time. Now, Cullinan said, to create full classes, they have had to offer more scholarships and part-time options. The school carries no waiting list and has space for a couple more children, which was unheard of not long ago.

Acknowledging there are fewer young kids on the Island than their used to be, he believes the interest in part-time programs is fueled by the economy.

“They want the quality of the program, but they cannot afford the five days,” he said.

Several of the other preschools tell similar stories about declining enrollment, including those that have been on the Island the longest. At the Vashon-Maury Cooperative Preschool, which has served the Island for 40 years, there is no toddler class this year because of lack of enrollment, and the 3/4 class is just seven students, less than half of full capacity, according to Tessa Francis, the school’s board member in charge of registration.

“We are very concerned,” she said.

While the low numbers have affected the school’s bottom line, the board has planned well financially, Francis said. It is in no danger of closing, though it may scale back and change fundraising strategies. The board will also keep monitoring interest in its programs on a quarterly basis and will add a toddler class if enough people are interested.

Zoe Cheroke has run The Barbie school for nearly as long as the co-op preschool has been open — 37 years — and she too has far fewer students than in the past. Typically, Cheroke has had two groups of students, totaling about 25 kids. This year she has 11.

“I think it’s an issue of a smaller demographic,” she said. “There are just so many kids to go around.”

She had planned on scaling back, she noted, so the decline in enrollment is not hurting her financially. But she said she has counseled people interested in opening preschools on Vashon to think hard about it and consider if doing so is economically viable.

At Kids Are People Too, a preschool and one of only two licensed daycares on Vashon, owner Danielle York has had to let her assistant go because of low numbers.

“This is the first year I have had openings in 16 or 17 years,” she said.

She prefers between nine and 11 students, she said. Now she has six or seven each day.

Data from the most recent census confirms what preschool teachers are experiencing in their classrooms. The census counted 75 fewer children under age 5 on Vashon in 2010 than in 2000. There were 22 fewer 5-year-olds, 19 fewer 3-year-olds, 16 fewer 2-year-olds and 35 fewer 1-year-olds. Only 4-year-olds saw an increase.

A look at births to Vashon families tells a similar story. According to records kept by Seattle-King County Public Health, the birth rate has not changed dramatically over time. But the actual number of births has dropped in recent years. While the decline is not large, in a population the size of Vashon, a modest decrease can be noticeable. In 2000 and 2001, for example, there were 81 births each year. By 2009, that number had fallen to 65.

But it’s not only preschools that are affected by the shrinking demographic. Other programs as well as the public schools are also experiencing a shift.

At Vashon Kids, the before and after school program at Chautauqua, numbers are down, according to Dalinda Vivero, the program’s long-time manager. Eight years ago, she said, there were three staff people in the afternoon and 32 kids. Now, the staff has been cut back to two people and there are 18 kids. Last summer, the program had about 20 percent fewer kids than in earlier years. Numbers are up a bit in the morning, she said, but not enough to outweigh the decrease in the afternoon.

“We’re barely surviving,” she said.

The program’s financial challenges stem from lower numbers and the end of its involvement with the YMCA, which provided the program with important funding. Now Vashon Kids is a program of Vashon Youth & Family Services, and she and others are looking for new funding sources. The need for the program is apparent, she said: Last year, the program handed out $36,000 worth of scholarships; this year it has given out $40,000 worth.

It’s a similar story at Chautauqua Elementary School, where Principal Jody Metzger — like her counterparts at McMurray and Vashon High School — is actively recruiting off-Island students to bolster the school’s ranks. This year, 15 children commute to the elementary school from off-Island, she said, including four kindergartners.

Excluding preschool students, there are 502 students at Chautauqua now, compared to 615 students in 2004 and 588 students in 2005.

What’s more, the larger classes are the older classes, Metzger noted, with 100 fifth-graders compared to 75 kindergartners and 86 first graders. This year there are only two classes of second grade; typically there have been three.

Metzger said she believes the school’s declining enrollment is connected to the poor economy and the high cost of living on Vashon. To weather this difficult time, she said, the district will need to be responsive to the community and reach out to others so that it can continue offering all that it wants to for a high-quality education.

“That takes money, and that takes enrollment,” she said.


VYFS sees an ongoing growth in its early childhood programs

While many programs that cater to preschool children are seeing a decline in numbers, Vashon Youth & Family Services, which has several offerings for young families, is seeing an upsurge in people participating in its early childhood services.

“We’re busy,” said Ken Maaz, VYFS executive director. “There’s a lot going on.”

The agency’s programs include play groups, support groups for parents of babies and toddlers, parenting workshops and one-on-one parent coaching.

It makes sense that the numbers at VYFS might go up when preschools go down, Maaz said, because the many parents with limited funds could attend the playgroups and reap their benefits and those of other programs for a modest amount of money.

VYFS delivers Welcome Baby baskets to all families on the Island with newborns, and Maaz said they have noticed a decrease in those in the last year or so. He attributes the Island’s decrease in the numbers of babies and young children to the high cost of living here and the time and expense of the ferry commute.

“We lose a lot of our young adults,” he said. “It is not easy to come back.”



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