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Tuesday, February 13, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bellevue Christian Opens Branch -- Woodinville Expansion Reflects Growing Support

Seattle Times East Bureau

WOODINVILLE - Love letters to God line the halls at Mack Elementary, written by children thankful for their new school built by years of fund raising.

The 10-acre tree-lined campus is the latest expansion of Bellevue Christian School, further evidence of the support for its program and for faith-based education in general.

Even with the school's newest addition, opened yesterday, there still aren't enough seats to meet demand.

Nearly every classroom on Bellevue Christian's four campuses has a waiting list, according to Ruth Aeschliman, community-relations coordinator.

"We could take more students if we allowed our class sizes to grow," said Superintendent Chuck Pasma. "But we have chosen not to do that."

Enrollment in Washington's private schools is growing slightly faster than in public schools, and much of the increase is at nondenominational Christian schools.

They increased from 97 schools statewide in 1993 to 126 last year.

Bellevue Christian, which educates preschoolers through high-schoolers, is the second-largest private school in the Puget Sound area. Founded in 1950, it offers small classes, education based on a biblical world view and a life of "service and moral uprightness."

The school now enrolls 1,340 students, from all around the greater Seattle area, at its campuses in Clyde Hill, Medina and Woodinville.

Many parents taxi their children up to 45 minutes one way.

Bellevue Christian students continue to prove themselves academically. Last year, every elementary-school student scored in the top 10 percent on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

More than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college.

That kind of achievement is just what parent Dennis Schmuland depends on. He has two children in Bellevue Christian and will soon enroll a third.

"People who believe in faith-based education are more likely to be involved in their children's education," he said. "Having a moral foundation is imperative for education. I think it shapes your world view and determines your attitude toward education."

Parents are so committed to the school that they helped to propel Mack Elementary's fund raising, contributing enough to build the first phase of the campus with the help of corporations such as Safeco, Puget Sound Power & Light Co., The Boeing Co., Microsoft Corp. and Paccar.

Construction costs for the first phase were $4 million; a second phase will be built in five years.

The satellite Bellevue Christian school has been in Woodinville for 10 years but had operated out of a church basement and other leased space.

Landowners Eugene and Marie Mack, from a family of early Woodinville settlers, had no plans to sell their property until approached by Bellevue Christian.

The new school is named after them. The two were honored by more than 500 people who turned out to celebrate at an open house Sunday. Among them were Paul and Cassie Fitzgerald of Renton, who say they will move to Woodinville so their daughter Margaret can attend Mack Elementary.

"You know the criteria and you know it isn't deviating from teacher to teacher," Paul Fitzgerald, a Microsoft software engineer, said of Bellevue Christian. "The public-school system isn't in very good shape and doesn't really concentrate on the basics like math and reading."

School officials say they have worried about elitism and lack of diversity but believe they have solutions. The schools are nonsectarian, offer financial aid to about 100 lower-income families, have an English as a Second Language program and offer help to economically disadvantaged minority students.

Regardless of financial aid, a private-school education is expensive. For most families, tuition at Mack Elementary this year is $4,175 for the first child and is reduced for two or more children.

Superintendent Pasma concedes the school is not right for every family, and educators want parents who share Bellevue Christian's philosophy.

"We are looking for parents who have the same goals and desires we do," he said. "When parents are enthusiastic, that's contagious and the kids are going to come to school motivated. When you have families and schools working closely together, the education automatically improves."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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