Washington News

Seattle Times
November 26, 2004

The Allure of School Choice: Waiting List for District's Special Programs

By CARA SOLOMON, Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

It all started with that sailing trip in the San Juans. Alee Allen felt a sense of family out there on the water, working with her new teachers and classmates. It stayed with her during those few years at the Environmental and Adventure School in Kirkland, and it lingered long after she left.

"I still talk to every single person in my class almost," said Allen, 17, who went on to attend a private high school in Bothell. "And that's pretty amazing, considering that we all go to different schools now."

The Environmental and Adventure School (EAS) is one of several specialized schools created by parents and staff in the Lake Washington School District. On Tuesday, families can get a closer look at the schools in the district's annual fair, which focuses on the six options at the junior-high level: EAS, Northstar, International Community School, Stella Schola, Family Learning Center, and the Junior High Quest Program.

The district has 11 choice schools, all designed around a specific philosophy or theme. On one end of the spectrum is EAS, which focuses its sixth- to ninth-grade curriculum on the relationship between the environment and people. On the other end is Stella Schola Junior High in Redmond, which builds its sixth- to eighth-grade curriculum around classical literature and historical themes.

For all their allure, the choice schools represent a real commitment for families. Some require dozens of hours of parent service. Some do not have access to sports on campus, which means parents must ferry their children back to their neighborhood schools to participate.

Still, the schools are so popular that there is a waiting list of about 450 people. Students are chosen by lottery, except for the Quest Program for highly capable students, which requires testing before entry; and the Family Learning Center, which is a support program for home-schooled children.

Superintendent Don Saul said Lake Washington's choice program is one of the most attractive features of the district. The only problem, he said, is that there aren't enough schools to meet demand. So the district is accepting proposals for another school at the junior-high level.

The teachers behind EAS created a curriculum that leans heavily on hands-on learning. On Fridays, students participate in service projects, from planting grass to designing a trail. And on Wednesdays, while teachers have planning time, parents run enrichment workshops for students. Topics range from beginning guitar to scuba diving, to sewing with fleece for outdoor clothing.

Teacher Wayne Tannhauser, who helped design the curriculum, said he could never go back to a traditional school. "It's like I died and went to heaven," said Tannhauser, who describes the students as his surrogate children.

Anne James, whose daughter attends the International Community School in Kirkland, a rigorous, six-year program, said the school demands quite a bit from students. And that means, necessarily, that it requires more support from parents.

But James wanted that kind of rigor for her child, and she was particularly pleased with the international focus. The ICS curriculum is designed to work world history and current events into all kinds of disciplines, from art to science. "It makes learning more memorable and meaningful, I think, to tie all those things together," James said.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times 2004

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