A new reality: Some school programs hang by a thread

Jackie Merrill remembers her Camp Waskowitz experience as a fifth-grader on Vashon Island — feeling at first scared to go, then, after a week at the rustic cluster of cabins in the foothills of the Cascades, wishing she didn’t have to leave.

That was 32 years ago.

Now, she’s one of a handful of parents scrambling to try to save a fifth-grade rite of passage that has become the stuff of legend on Vashon.

An intensive and largely successful fundraising campaign in support of the Vashon Island School District earlier this year enabled the district to maintain all of its academic programs and teaching positions, several of which were threatened by a sizable budget gap. But despite the ambitious campaign, which brought in more than $450,000 from parents and other Islanders in support of the district, the public school system is still facing the reality of a declining budget, said Superintendent Michael Soltman. And the outdoor school known as Camp Waskowitz could  become one of the casualties.

“We’re not able to do everything anymore,” he said.

Last spring’s fundraising campaign played an integral role, he noted. “We were able to preserve the academic programs and the class size.”

But with another state deficit looming that could force mid-year cuts in the school district’s budget for the second year in a row, Soltman — like superintendents and school board members across the state — says he and his staff are having to face a new reality.

“Business as usual is over,” he said.

Several small but prized programs — many of which hold a special place in Vashon’s community of parents and civic boosters — are no longer receiving district dollars and, as a result, are hanging on by a thread.

The much-heralded third-grade music program was salvaged this year after Bettie Edwards, owner of The Little House, found an anonymous donor who could cover the costs of the pianist and music.

Diane Brenno, aka the Lunch Lady, got a one-time grant from the PTSA that will enable her to keep her popular lunch-hour program at Chautauqua going for this year. But without district funding, its future is in doubt, she said, and she plans to begin a cookie dough sale this month to try to keep it afloat.

And parents like Merrill are engaged in an ambitious fundraising campaign to ensure that fifth-graders can once again attend Camp Waskowitz, a tradition now in its fourth decade.

Merrill admits to some self-interest. She and her husband Austin, who not only went to Camp Waskowitz as a fifth-grader but also worked there as a high school counselor, returned to the Island 13 years ago in large part because they wanted their children to also experience the famous camp program.

Last year, their fifth-grade daughter attended Waskowitz and loved it, Merrill said. “I want my second-grader to also be able to go,” she said.

As a result, she signed up to be PTSA’s vice president this year, and during the community street dance last month, she sold $550 worth of snow cones in front of Movie Magic Espresso, a business she owns. But she and several other parents who are trying to save the program — including fundraising powerhouses such as Lauri Hennessey and Glynis Delargy — worry that without a hard push by several parents and community members, they won’t be able to raise the $10,000 to $15,000 they need to supplement the portion that parents pay to send their kids to the camp.

“As a fundraiser, I can say that raising $15,000 between now and the end of the school year is pretty daunting,” said Hennessey, whose son is in the fifth grade.

A car wash usually brings in about $600, she noted. A bake sale can reap $400. “What I’m hearing is that parents love the program. But the question is, do they love the program enough to raise this money,” she said.

Jody Metzger, principal at Chautauqua, agreed to reserve dates for the school’s 100 fifth-graders to attend the camp at the end of the school year after a group of parents told her they planned to fill in the gap. Parents of fifth-graders, as in years past, will likely pay around $190 for their son or daughter’s weeklong experience. But the program actually costs more than $300 per child, Metzger said, adding, “I can’t use any school funds.”

“If the parents don’t raise the money,” she added, “it won’t happen.”

Located outside of North Bend, Camp Waskowitz — a picturesque cluster of lodge-style cabins perched near the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River — was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. Today, the 372-acre site is owned by the Highline School District and is both a state and national historic preservation site because it’s one of only two remaining CCC camps in the country with all of its original buildings still standing.

Parents say the camp is life-changing for some students, especially those who haven’t been able or willing to spend much time away from home.

“It made a huge difference for our daughter in terms of her self-confidence and independence,” said Laura Wishik, who chairs the school board. “We weren’t sure she’d make it through the week. She came back just so matured in a lot of ways.”

Other parents say the program acts as a kind of rite of passage, marking the ending of their kids’ elementary school years at the small, tight-knit elementary school and ushering them into the world of middle school. The students also share cabins with students from other schools, many of which are far more ethnically and racially diverse than Chautauqua.

“The opportunity to meet and live with kids from places other than Vashon and to get to know them on a very personal basis is a really big benefit,” said Kay Burrell, a fifth-grade teacher who started working at Chautauqua in 1986 and has taken countless classes to the camp.

Students often talk about it for years, she added. And many return as high schoolers to be camp counselors. “It’s such a tradition on Vashon,” she said.

Hennessey, Delargy and some of the other parents involved in the fundraising campaign say they believe they’ll find the money to send this year’s crop of fifth-graders to the camp. Metzger, too, said she believes the parents will come through. But bigger questions about the program’s future linger, in part because such ambitious fundraising efforts are hard to sustain over time, they said.

“I think we’re going to pull it off,” said Delargy. “Do I know that we can continually pull it off every year? I don’t know.”

But the funding problem, she and others noted, is bigger than Camp Waskowitz, bigger even than the Vashon school district. “I just think there are hard choices everywhere,” Delargy said.


State Sen. Sharon Nelson will hold a legislative update and answer questions regarding the latest statewide budget shortfall and its implications for public education at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, at McMurray Middle School.

The Scholastic Book Fair from Oct. 19 to 28 will raise money for Camp Waskowitz. The book fair will be held in Chautauqua from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be open during parent/teacher conference days and the Harvest Festival (see below). All proceeds go to support the fifth-grade trip to the camp.

A Harvest Party Carnival will be held at Chautauqua from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, sponsored by the PTSA. The event, which will cost $5 for children ages 5 to 12 and be free for adults, teens and those under 4, will raise money for a number of school-related causes, including McMurray’s Exploratory Week, the Class of 2013’s end-of-year celebration and the fifth-grade excursion to Camp Waskowitz.



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