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Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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City kids, suburban schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

West Seattle High School seemed too violent and private school seemed too elitist, so Barbara Tippett looked across the water to find the right school for her son, Sky.

Starting this morning, his first day of high school, Tippett will drop off Sky at the Fauntleroy ferry dock to catch the 6:45 boat to Vashon Island. He won't be alone. About 75 Seattle kids commute the same way every day — filling two school buses that shuttle them from the Vashon dock to the island's three public schools.

The rural, 550-student Vashon Island High School meets Sky Tippett's criteria of a "real high school." And Barbara Tippett likes the socioeconomic diversity of a public school without the problems she sees at some of Seattle's.

"I found they're much too violent," she said. "I have safety concerns for a freshman boy going into a public high school."

Seattle Public Schools faces a funding crisis that is tied largely to its falling enrollment — half what it was in the 1960s — and is closing school buildings to cut costs. Families are leaving Seattle in search of cheaper housing, while many of those who remain send their kids to the suburbs for school.

It's a compromise they say gives their kids a public-school experience without the challenges that can plague an urban district. Parents rattled off reasons they want to avoid Seattle's schools: gangs, large class sizes, test scores and financial mismanagement.

"As West Seattle becomes more yuppified, parents want a better choice, and Vashon offers that," said Mike Bowers, who lives above Alki. His son is a sophomore at Vashon Island High School, and another son graduated from there. Last week, he took his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter by ferry to her freshman orientation.

A Seattle superintendent's committee appointed last year to study the 47,000-student district's financial crisis said enrollment is falling partly because of a lack of public confidence. Similarly sized districts across the country have seen the middle class flee their public schools, and the state's open-enrollment policy — which allows students to easily transfer between districts — could make it affordable for more middle-class families to leave.

Already, about a quarter of school-age children in Seattle — some 15,000 — choose not to attend public schools. Most of them go to private or parochial schools, while nearly 1,000 enroll in surrounding districts.

Each year, Seattle gains several hundred more students from surrounding districts than it loses to interdistrict transfers. On the Seattle Public Schools Web site, the district lists schools with openings, and at which grade levels. Tracy Libros, Seattle's manager of enrollment planning and student assignment, said many parents who work in the city but live elsewhere find it convenient to be near their child's school during the day.

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The transfer process is simple: Students need a release form from their home district so that state funding follows them to their new school. It's up to individual districts to decide how many students they will accept, and under what conditions. School districts are funded with state and local money on a per-student basis, and while state money follows students between districts, local levy money does not.

Seattle Public Schools wasn't able to provide detailed figures about how many students were leaving, or in which districts they enrolled. The Shoreline School District reports that it has accepted nearly 100 new Seattle students this year alone; Bellevue officials say they accept about 35 Seattle students annually, and Highline enrolled about 100 Seattle students last year.

Interdistrict transfers, Seattle School Board member Irene Stewart said, are one way to measure how well the district is doing.

"You can't take for granted that we can even hold the market share we have," Stewart said at a recent meeting. "They're not going to choose any of our schools if we can't provide a high-quality program."

And it's disappointing to see families go, she said.

"We would do better to have those families involved in our schools," Stewart said in an interview. "Not only are they giving us a lower head count, but they're taking the time and the energy and the interest that they themselves would bring to the school, and that's valuable. That's really valuable."

So many students want to go to school on Vashon Island that Vashon High School principal Susan Hanson can be choosy.

She won't accept any students with discipline or attendance problems, and kids who cause problems on the ferry face punishment at school. She e-mails parents throughout the day to reassure them if they're worried about transportation. (Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether said the few behavior problems on the boats are quickly handled with the district's help.)

Incoming Vashon freshman Hailey Brock remembers riding the ferry as a third-grader with about 15 other kids. Now the crowd of young, bleary-eyed Seattle commuters fills a portion of the ferry every morning, she said. Some do homework. Most sit in groups and talk during the 20-minute crossing.

The commute can be inconvenient. After school, students take a school bus back to the ferry terminal, where they wait nearly an hour for the 3:25 ferry. After-school sports pose a problem, but most kids find they can catch a Metro bus or a ride with a friend.

And although the early start can be grueling — "Sometimes you think you're going to lose your mind," Brock said — there's a bond among the commuter students.

"I have really good people that do it with me," she said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

"They're not going to choose any of our schools if we can't provide a high-quality program."

Irene Stewart

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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