Zion Preparatory Academy, acclaimed for years as one of the city's most successful schools serving low-income African American children, is scaling back to just a few grades next year due to a precipitous drop in funds. The private, Christian school in the Rainier Valley is still figuring out what grades it will offer, but at this point can only say for certain that it will teach pre-K, kindergarten and 1st grade, according to co-founder and head of school Doug Wheeler (pictured at right), who expects to announce the changes on the school Web site this week.
He blames the economy, which has caused annual donations to shrink from about $1.5 million to $600,000. As a result, not only is the school shrinking but parents--many of them now single moms--will have to pay more.
Because the school's board has long believed that tuition should be affordable, just about every family got financial aid. While Zion's official tuition is $700 a month, the average family pays less than half that, according to Wheeler. Beginning next year, the school will ask most families to pay the full tuition.
The school already made some changes to deal with its money problems last year, when it dropped its middle school and sold its sprawling Columbia City campus. It is leasing the site for four more years while looking for a permanent home.
Wheeler acknowledges that this latest blow is a big comedown for the school, which was founded 27 years ago. Charter school proponents once held out Zion as a model of the kind of schools they would like to create for needy kids. Jack Kemp, a charter school advocate and former head of the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, visited Zion in 1996. Wheeler even talked about creating a couple of charter schools himself, should an initiative allowing them be passed in this state. (One never was.)
Zion also received glowing coverage in the media, including a 1990 Seattle Timespiece with the headline: "At this private school, they shower the kids with love and respect."
Wheeler insists he's not yet defeated. After getting the school on a surer financial footing, he says he intends to build the school back up.