Getting to school by boat

Students from West Seattle stream off the boat on a dark and rainy morning last week.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Students from West Seattle stream off the boat on a dark and rainy morning last week.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

The 6:45 a.m. ferry run from Fauntleroy to Vashon is virtually given over to teenagers most weekdays. More than 100 young people fill the boat’s booths, transforming it into a kind of floating study hall — poring over chemistry, penciling out math problems and listening to iPods.

Some hold cups of coffee. A few doze. Some horse around.

The teens and pre-teens (some are 11 or 12) are among the 120 students who commute from West Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula every school day to attend McMurray Middle School or Vashon High School — schools they and their parents believe will meet their academic and social needs better than those in their own cities and towns.

“It’s kind of a hassle,” said Kellan Faker-Boyle, a junior who was reading chemistry as he made his morning commute. “You have to wake up early. And it can take an hour and a half to get home.”

Even so, he and others said, the long trek and logistical complications are worth it.

“It can be stressful. But Vashon High School is a better high school,” said Emma Lodes, a junior who’s been commuting since she was in middle school.

Brooke Kipling, also a junior, agreed. “It’s an amazing school,” she said.

Now, administrators at the Vashon Island School District hope that the ranks of these commuter students will grow. Indeed, if Superintendent Michael Soltman has his way, next year’s population of commuter students will number 150 and will include some elementary-school students; currently the youngest kids are middle-schoolers.

Two weeks ago, in an effort to make that happen, Soltman, McMurray Principal Greg Allison and Chautauqua Elementary School Principal Kate Baehr went to an open house in West Seattle to discuss the merits of the Vashon school system. Soltman plans to make a similar visit to the Port Orchard area later this month.

The fact that Soltman visited West Seattle struck parents at the gathering, said Greg Turner, whose son attends Vashon High School and daughter will go to McMurray in the fall.

“People were quite impressed that the superintendent came over to talk to us,” he said. “That really says something about the school district.”

So why the push for off-Island kids? Soltman says there’s a simple reason: Each student brings $5,200 in state funds to the school district, funds that can help the district address another year of yawning deficits that threaten jobs, programs and the district’s much-celebrated academic richness.

The school district, with its high test scores and good college placements, is highly regarded in the region, Soltman said. At the same time, enrollment is declining due to demographic shifts on Vashon, resulting in empty desks and extra classroom space.

The district, Soltman said, should take full advantage of this situation. “We’d be foolish not to.”

Indeed, Soltman contends, the costs of not bringing in additional off-Island students might be more than the community would want to pay. Without those extra students, the choice of electives at the middle- and high school-level would diminish. Classrooms in the elementary school would likely be more crowded. Athletic teams might prove harder to field.

“If we didn’t have (off-Island students), we’d have a very slim program,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s an option for this community. I don’t think this community would stand for the program we’d offer if we didn’t have this revenue.”

But Soltman’s plan will require an important shift at the 1,500-student school district. If elementary-age kids are to begin commuting to Vashon, school administrators say, Soltman and the school board will need to figure out a way to have all three schools start at the same time. The reason is that families will likely consider sending 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds to Vashon only if they have an older sibling in middle or high school who can cross Puget Sound with them.

Currently, Chautauqua starts at 9:05 a.m. and the middle school and high school begin at 7:45 a.m. Two weeks ago, the school board gave Soltman the green light to begin exploring a common start time of 8 a.m. If Soltman’s successful in getting younger kids to make the trek, he’ll also recommend hiring a para-educator who would ride the ferries with the kids and provide supervision.

School district administrators, however, acknowledged that the push for an earlier start time for elementary school students might raise concerns among some parents.

“The common start time will be an issue with some people,” school board member Dan Chasan predicted. “During winter, it’ll be darker.”

Baehr, Chautauqua’s principal, agreed: “I think there will be a lot of controversy around this — and some questions.”

The growing number of off-Island students has also raised concerns over the years. A few parents have questioned the financial equation, suggesting that commuting students really don’t bring in enough funds to offset the increased costs the district incurs. Others wonder about the way these students — coming, as many of them do, from urban areas — influence the Vashon schools and their rural, down-to-earth sensibilities.

But Laura Wishik, who chairs the board, said some of these concerns don’t stand up under scrutiny. Many of the kids who commute to the Island attended private schools before they entered the Vashon school district, she noted, and all have to have decent grades and a record of good behavior to be admitted to Vashon. Their parents, she added, are often involved, engaged and conscientious.

“We have pretty high standards,” she said, adding, “Parents who care enough to look, find Vashon and send their kids here ... care about education.”

As for the numbers, Soltman said the equation’s not complex. The district has fixed costs — utilities, furniture, staff — regardless of whether commuters attend Vashon schools. The kids who are coming, he said, are filling spaces that already exist.

“The incremental costs are nothing compared to the incremental gains in resources,” he said.

That’s particularly true at Chautauqua, where enrollment has steadily declined over the years. This year, Baehr said, the school expects to graduate 20 more students than it will admit. Without additional students, the elementary school will have to let go of a teacher or two and create more blended classrooms, she added.

The elementary school has had a couple of commuter students in the past, she said, but they were unusual situations: One, for instance, had a guardian who lived here. She said she fully supports the idea of young commuters but added that it will require some careful thought on the parents’ part.

“The biggest challenge is making sure these kids have on-Island support,” she said. “If the child gets sick, we need to know there’s a support system on the Island for them.”

Parents of commuters, meanwhile, say the picture is mixed for them. Some try it and realize the long hours and logistical complications are just too hard for their kids.

Abby Wolk, whose daughter Tory was a middle-school commuter, de-cided to transfer her to a middle school in West Seattle midway through the last academic year. Tory, whose father is from South America, felt she stood out “with her kinky hair,” Wolk said. At Denny, “She kind of found her people.”

The logistics were also tough. “The school was great,” she said of McMurray. “But it’s hard. You can’t just drop by the school if you find some homework under the bed that you know she needs.”

Other parents, though, say the complex logistics are worth it in light of the quality of the education they see at the Vashon schools.

Turner, who attended the open house in West Seattle last month, said he and his wife started looking at Vashon when their son Jacob was about to leave his private elementary school in West Seattle and enter middle school. The costs of a private middle school were much higher; Vashon, meanwhile, impressed them with its high test scores, smaller class size and impressive record of college admissions.

“It was a fairly easy decision for us,” he said.

Now in high school, Jacob, he added, loves the commute. His daughter, Capriel, will start commuting this fall. “It’s worked out very well for us.”

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