School's out (of students)

Busing's end leaves some schools scrambling.

SO YOUR KID'S about to start kindergarten? John Hay Elementary has some videos it'd like you to see. In one, principal Joanne Testacross stands in front of this Queen Anne public school, looking capable in a smart red jacket, and waves you inside to meet a "dream team" of teachers. In another, happy children busy themselves with creative projects, and an administrator hails the school as a "real special place" because of its diversity of students.

John Hay's marketing campaign for kindergartners doesn't stop there. As prospective parents were mulling over schools last year, Testacross sent out brochures, went on numerous speaking engagements, personally gave weekly school tours, showcased the kindergarten music program with a student concert, and established a "kindergarten hotline" for parents wanting information.

Since when have kindergartners become such a hot commodity? Since Seattle Public Schools decided to end mandatory busing, beginning this month with the new school year. Like many schools in the mostly white North, John Hay worries about how the loss of minority students will affect enrollment—if not this year, when a grandfather clause allows kids already at schools to stay put, then two years from now when that's no longer the case. Since a high proportion of kids in the North End attend private schools, busing students from South Seattle is all that's kept some public schools alive.

With almost 500 students last year, John Hay isn't likely to close, even if it lost its entire minority population (40 percent of enrollment last year). But it could lose considerable funds given that the district allocates funding on a per-student basis, and that minority kids often bring in extra dollars due to a formula that is weighted to favor students who are poor or have special needs.

So while schools in the south try to stave off overcrowding as a result of students staying closer to home, John Hay and other North End schools are thinking of ways to attract students when they're most open to a new school—just before beginning their academic career in kindergarten.

THAT COULD BE GOOD NEWS for continued integration—if North End schools can market themselves to minorities. "Of course, we would love to recruit kids of color," says Testacross.But there's a catch: Under the new system, those kids can't necessarily get into schools outside their neighborhoods. The district will continue to take integration into account when considering whether to grant parents their choice of school. But racial balance has a low priority, beneath such considerations as geographic proximity and whether the child has a sibling in the school.

Nancy Chin, principal of Laurelhurst Elementary, explains how the school decided against targeting out-of-area minorities after much discussion. "It wouldn't be fair to the families," she says. "They'd put us down as their first choice and then they'd be penalized." By the time the district determined that their first choice was out, it might be too late for a spot in the parents' second and third choices.

So Laurelhurst, like most North End schools, is concentrating on drawing neighborhood kids who would otherwise attend private schools. The plan seems to be working. Laurelhurst's enrollment is up, from 420 last year to a projected 439 this year, despite both busing's demise and the school's recent loss of a bilingual program that typically attracted some 20 new students a year. (The district redesignated bilingual centers so that they would be closer to the students they serve as part of the drive toward "neighborhood" schools.)

Chin says she doesn't know this year's racial makeup of students yet. But she expects that in kindergarten, where changes are bound to appear first, only two or three out of a class of 28 will be bused in, down from seven or so.

John Hay's kindergarten is also growing whiter, a projected 72 percent this year, up from 63 percent last year. At least one black parent fears that process may be helped along by the school's decision to charge $1,850 in tuition for all-day kindergarten—a pilot program for the district. While John Hay has traditionally offered one free all-day kindergarten class in addition to half-day classes, it wanted to expand its all-day program as part of its effort to capture new students. It couldn't do so without bringing in new funds, Testacross explains, adding that students who qualify for free- and reduced-lunch are exempted from the tuition.

But Don Dudley, a longtime schools activist and Columbia City resident who has happily sent three children to John Hay, fears that some parents won't be able to afford the tuition even if they earn more than the qualifying income for free- and reduced-lunch ($29,700 a year for a family of four). "If you think that all-day kindergarten has an educational value—and all the data suggest that it has—then you have to find ways to make that available," he says.

Still, it's worth noting that Dudley's objection concerns academic inequity not racial or economic segregation per se. Such segregation is almost universally accepted as an unfortunate trade-off for the eradication of busing, which was bemoaned by black and white parents alike. It's quite possible that in a few years, John Hay will no longer be able to tout diversity to get kindergartners and their parents through the door.

 
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