Interest surges at Lake Washington choice schools
March 2, 2010
By Christopher Huber
Ever since starting seventh-grade last fall at the Renaissance School of Art and Reasoning, Sammamish resident Joshua McLaughlin has stepped out of his comfort zone, said his mother, Judi McLaughlin. Joshua, who has Asperger syndrome, came from the 784-student Smith Elementary and had struggled academically.
He was 16th on the waitlist last spring but somehow got in.
In his six months at Renaissance, a school of 90 seventh- through ninth-graders, Joshua has improved his grades and decreased his stress level, she said. Recently, he even got up in front of 250 students and danced to Thriller.
“It is a godsend,” Judi McLaughlin said. “A lot of people think that because it’s a performance school, it’s easy, but it’s not easy.”
Interest is surging among parents and students to enroll in the Lake Washington School District’s choice schools, according to Renaissance secretary Erin Ashley and district communications director Kathryn Reith.
The deadline passed at the end of January and applications were up over last year for most choice schools district wide, according to district data. The International Community School saw 86 more applicants than this time in 2009; Stella Schola had 43 more applications than last year and Environmental and Adventure School received 29 more. And about 900 people showed up to info nights in January to learn about the 90 openings at International Community School, Ashley said. She said about 300 attended Renaissance’s info night this year, markedly up from the previous year.
District officials attribute the increase partially to simplifying the process and improving communication.
“We’ve made it easier in the last couple of years to apply for choice schools,” Reith said. “I think (people) are doing a better job of getting the word out of what the possibilities are.”
The Issaquah School District does not have choice schools, but its magnet and science-technology programs have also seen an increased amount of applicants, said communications director Sara Niegowski. The 2008-2009 school year saw 111 applications for approximately 76 spots. 173 students applied for the same amount of spots for the 2009-2010 school year.
Each of the 11 choice schools in the Lake Washington School District focuses on specific needs and interests, such as hands-on project learning, multi-age classes or integrated curriculum. They exist because parents and teachers have, over the years, initiated and developed programs to create alternative models.
Stella Schola, in Redmond, focuses on literature and Latin language for grades six through eight. International Community School is meant for junior high and high school students who want to stress core areas of international studies, humanities, world languages, the arts, science and math. Renaissance, housed at Inglewood Junior High School in Sammamish, is the district’s only choice school that centers on visual and performing arts.
Choice schools are open to all Lake Washington students, but they must apply for enrollment. When accepted, parents pay a small annual fee and, in schools like Renaissance, commit to 25 hours of volunteer help, said school secretary Erin Ashley.
When number of applicants is greater than open spots, the district runs a lottery or wait system, according to the Lake Washington Web site.
“We did not know, when we started it, what was going to happen,” said Connie Walsworth, a former Renaissance parent and current artist-in-residence. “It’s turned out to be the most amazing thing.”
Eighth-grader Erin Bryar said she was the driving force in coming to Renaissance. Her parents had not necessarily thought to enroll her there, but Erin’s friend raved about the school.
“I really like it. It’s nice to have a small school,” Erin said during art class Feb. 23.
“It kind of does away with cliques,” classmate Kira Sorenson chimed in a second later.
The class sizes are the same as regular junior high, but Erin said she likes being able to talk more openly and often with teachers.
Renaissance employs four general-education teachers and one part-time special-education teacher, Kane said. The small staff enables them to collaborate more efficiently among all subject areas. And, it being an arts-centric school does not mean the students lose instruction in the core areas required by the district.
The 90 students attend five classes per day. They don’t get some of the electives like to main junior high students get, like wood shop or technology classes, but they gain a better understanding of dance and theater.
“It’s the same education,” said Renaissance secretary Erin Ashley.
It’s the same education, minus about 1,000 other students. And they students have the same teachers for all three years — seventh through ninth grade.
“We don’t have to start over every year or every semester,” Kane said. “We know our kids much better.”
Walsworth said one of her concerns before sending her son to Renaissance four years ago was how he would fare academically at Eastlake.
“My son doing so well I can’t even believe it,” she said.
Now that one class of Renaissance students has transitioned to Eastlake High, Kane said she and parents have seen positive evidence for how the choice school system works. Renaissance, like many of the other 10 Lake Washington choice schools, is housed on another school’s campus. Thus the transition to Eastlake was easier, Kane and Ashley said. They fit right in once they’ve entered the main school.
“The benefit is, this is their campus,” Ashley said.
They seem to have more overall confidence, Kane said.
“They have this higher level of confidence and I think they come in (to Renaissance) with very little,” Kane said. “This particular group, they’re off the charts. There’s a culture in each class that you just work hard.”
Walsworth acknowledged that plenty were skeptical in Renaissance’s first year. But so far, so good.
“It was the great unknown four years ago,” Walsworth said. “Now, because of the success we’ve had … it’s a desirable thing now.”
Reporter Christopher Huber can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 242, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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