Will there be fewer students in our schools’ future?

Data projects one-third fewer students within 10 years

Three new members have just joined our school board, and within the near future we will start a search for a new superintendent for the Vashon Island School District. When this kind of change occurs in school governance, it is usually indicative of underlying change in the community. This is certainly true in the case of Vashon.

We have all seen housing prices rise over the years; we have seen the cost of commuting off-Island rise. In the coming years the population on Vashon will become older and more affluent as fewer and fewer families with school-age children can afford to live on our Island.

The data gathered recently by Dr. Terry Lindquist, acting superintendent, show a relatively steady decline in student population over the last 10 years. The decline is even greater if off-Island, commuting students are not counted, but even more important, the decline is greater in the lower grades. Projections predict a student population of just slightly more than 1,000 by the fall of 2016. This is down from out current enrollment of around 1,500 students. As our population becomes more affluent, we could attract even more families with a tradition of private schooling, driving down our student numbers even farther.

How will this change our schools? We are proud of our schools on the Island; our students are accomplished young people — their test scores, their later achievements and our own perception tell us we can be proud. But as our school population shrinks, will we be able to maintain the depth and breadth of programs we have now? Our facilities committee is currently grappling with what kind of schools we build for our future student population.

Community change can give us an opportunity to rethink what we want for our schools and ask ourselves how they contribute to our community. First, we want the best schools we can possibly have. Good schools are essential to a healthy community.

Having studied communities of varying affluence over the past 10 years, I have seen two ways in which school enrollments are maintained as their populations undergo the kinds of changes we are beginning to experience. Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland, has begun recruiting students from outside their attendance area. Our own off-Island transfers indicate that families find our schools attractive. In fact, if off-Island transfers are included in the projections, the Vashon school population in 2016 will be 1,200. In Lake Oswego about a fourth of their transfers want to attend the schools so much that their families are willing to pay tuition of about $6,000 if their resident school district will not release the state money allocated to the student. In other districts, notably in California, citizen foundations have contributed private money to the schools to fund programs or staffing ratios not supported by state funds. This money generally comes from the families in the community, not corporations, and allows them to compete successfully with private schools in attracting students. These foundations operate much like our Island-based Partners in Eduction or PIE, but they raise several million dollars annually to supplement tax receipts.

We are not Lake Oswego, nor are we the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of us choose to live here precisely because of the ways our community differs from those. But it is time we start thinking about the future of our schools and the role we expect them to play in our community. Change is a reality. If we look seriously at what our Island may look like in 10 years, we will be able to create the schools we want.

— Carol Merz Frankel, an Island resident, was dean of the School of Education at the University of Puget Sound from 1986 to 1995. She’s written extensively about school politics and community change.