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Selling Seattle schools -- to prospective students

In a city where nearly one in four children attends private school, and where the population of school-age children is expected to dip over the next decade, it won't be easy for Seattle Public Schools to burnish its image and put a stop to declining enrollment.
/ Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

For Jane Harvey, the decision to move her son and daughter from their neighborhood school to the private Evergreen Academy this fall was agonizing.The teachers at the public school, Capitol Hill's Stevens Elementary, were "fantastic," but Harvey feared her children wouldn't get enough individualized attention -- especially if future Seattle Public Schools budget deficits led to bigger class sizes.

"We made this decision with incredibly heavy hearts," said Harvey, the former Stevens PTSA fund-raising chairwoman. "It was a hard decision, and it's going to be a hard transition. We're going from walking a block and a half to school to driving a fair distance to a private school. But I think there will be benefits for our kids."

Harvey and the thousands of other parents who send their children to private schools represent yet another challenge for the crisis-weary Seattle district: how to burnish its image and put a stop to declining enrollment.

In a city where nearly one in four children attends private school, and where the population of school-age children is expected to dip over the next decade, it won't be easy.

Officials in the 46,400-student district -- which has long marketed its popular school-choice system through brochures and enrollment fairs -- plan to intensify their efforts and even recruit parents to help generate buzz about Seattle schools.

At stake are thousands of state dollars for each additional student the district can enroll.

"When more people sign up, everybody wins," said Andrew Kwatinetz, a Montlake Elementary parent leader who recently met with district officials to brainstorm marketing ideas. "To me, that would be the most positive way to solve the district's budget problems."

The district hopes to have a new marketing plan in place by fall, spokeswoman Patti Spencer said, likely focusing initially on one geographic area and targeting parents of incoming kindergartners or middle-schoolers.

Those parents tend to spend a lot of time determining what school their children should attend, Spencer said, and their decisions tend to be influenced by what they hear from other parents. "The most powerful messages come from parents of current students," she said.

With that -- and the district's limited marketing budget -- in mind, many of the ideas revolve around parents organizing inexpensive events to tout the values of public schools.

Parents and district administrators have discussed several ideas, such as running public school information booths at community festivals or having recent high school graduates attend enrollment fairs to share their experiences.

Another idea is to sponsor informal coffee chats. Parents of fifth-graders, for example, would invite the principal and teachers from the neighborhood middle school to come to their home to mingle with prospective students and their parents.

At some point, the district would also like to target parents of potential students as soon as they arrive in the city, providing packets of public school information to families moving to Seattle or to parents of newborns.

In the meantime, the district is reaching out to parents, including members of PTSAs and Communities for Public Education, a new parent-led coalition. Spencer envisions a task force at each school of staff members, parents and community volunteers who would rely on the district for promotional materials, support and advice but would organize their own marketing.

Officials hope the planned marketing push will shift the public focus away from the district's projected budget shortfalls and last spring's controversial school-restructuring plan.

The scuttled plan, which would have closed 10 schools and phased out open enrollment, so incensed some parents that they threatened to withdraw their children from public schools if the plan was approved.

Because most private-school applications were due before the restructuring plan was proposed, admissions directors say, it's probably too early to tell if that will have an impact.

Elizabeth Atcheson, director of admissions and financial aid at The Bush School in Madison Valley, said she heard from a handful of people this year concerned about the public schools. For some, private schools "swam onto their radar screen for the first time" because of the turmoil, she said.

The district won't have a final answer until official enrollment counts are done in October. But several parents who switched their children to private school said the district's financial instability was a factor. The district is facing a projected $13 million budget deficit in 2006-07.

Fear of future public school budget cuts and a desire for small classes led Arthe and Howard Lee to enroll their daughter Amanda in a private school.

They began looking at private schools after worrying that Amanda, who attended McClure Middle School, wouldn't be admitted to her first-choice public high school, The Center School.

Even after she was accepted, Amanda's family opted to enroll her in ninth grade at The Bush School, feeling she would have more classes and extracurricular activities to choose from.

The school is also less prone to budget cuts. In the Seattle district, no one knows "what effect that would have on The Center School or any public high school she would have gone to," Arthe Lee said. "They don't have any of the answers yet."

Competition between public and private schools is likely to intensify in the next few years as high housing costs drive a growing number of families to the suburbs, leaving a smaller pool of prospective students.

Public school enrollment is expected to continue to drop in the near future, according to district projections. Nearly 47,000 students attended in 2002. That figure dropped to 46,400 last year and is predicted to dip to 45,400 in the next five years.

Private schools are likely to see similar dips in enrollment, said Seattle Public Schools analyst Rachel Cassidy. "We just have fewer children in the city than we have in the past."

District officials say they're encouraged by slight gains in the percentage of students attending public schools last year and the higher number of kindergarten applications received.

But they acknowledge that some schools could do more to market themselves and, in some cases, more to counter negative perceptions about them.

It can be done, and parent involvement is key, Spencer said. Ingraham High School had a reputation as a dangerous, academically weak school before a group of parents helped develop an International Baccalaureate program there, she said. Now, the school has a waiting list.

And at Bagley Elementary, which was threatened with closure in 2000 unless enrollment went up, parents launched a Montessori program that has since almost doubled the school's student population. Test scores have gone up, and the school has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for playground improvements and other projects.

The important thing about those success stories, Spencer said, is to recognize that the transformations took time. Even if the district's new marketing efforts are a success, it will likely be a while before tangible results are seen, she said.

"We know that it's tempting to think about what we could do to impact enrollment for 2006 -- and I hope we will," she said. "But we know that perceptions change over time ... and we realize it will take a number of years to build."


P-I reporter Christine Frey contributed to this report. P-I reporter Jessica Blanchard can be reached at 206-448-8322 or jessicablanchard@seattlepi.com.