For some, 'school choice' means starting their own
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
There are so many things to do before the dream gets done.
Find students. Hire teachers. Build a curriculum. Buy blackboards. For the parent founders of Eastside Preparatory School, the list is overwhelming.
"I have an image of them holding classes at Tully's," said Janet Levinger, the one-person site-selection committee. "Those are my nightmares."
In the spirit of a do-it-yourself project, a handful of Eastside parents have banded together to create their own secondary school, complete with small class sizes and a curriculum built from scratch. The school, slated to open with about 40 students this autumn, could serve as many as 650 students in several years, the founders say.
Across the state, parents looking for more school choices are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, building the schools they have been unable to find. They are poring over educational research, picking through real-estate regulations, draining their savings accounts and adding dozens of hours to their weekly work schedules.
"It's exhilarating and exhausting," said Sharon Hammel, a working parent and a founder of the 2-year-old Seattle Girls School.
Over the past decade, the state has seen a steady rise in the number of private schools, with most of them created by noneducators, such as parents or community leaders. Nearly 200 state-approved private schools are operating in King County, compared with 171 in 1997. The schools are cropping up in all sectors of society, from the inner city to suburban corners.
"It's not what you'd call a big tidal wave, but there has been steady growth," said Marcia Riggers of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. "Right now, there's a lot of political and cultural support for that."
Starting, staying small
Many of the new schools start out small and stay that way, catering to a few dozen students in makeshift classrooms. But a select few, such as Eastside Prep, take on the task of educating hundreds.
The schools vary in their missions and their means, but most come with a craving for a more specialized education.
Eastside Prep wants to build its curriculum around the latest research on how kids learn, with an emphasis on critical thinking and a citizenship ethic.
The Seattle Girls School was created to empower girls in their study of science and math. Zion Preparatory Academy started up with a broad mission to educate, protect and provide three meals a day to disadvantaged children.
Dan Sherman, executive director of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools, said some parents are simply no longer satisfied with high test scores and a time-honored teaching technique. They want something more from their child's school — but plowing through the public-school bureaucracy is no guarantee of getting it.
It's that sense of disconnect that leads some parents to private schools, Sherman said. In that setting, they can more easily control their child's education.
"Parents can effect the change they want to see happen," said Sherman.
The new head of school for Eastside Prep, Judy Lightfoot, said she was inspired by the strength of the founders' commitment. It was their vision that convinced her to come out of retirement.
"They could be buying castles in Spain or chateaus in France, but instead they're building something that will be a legacy for generations," said Lightfoot, who had retired after 25 years of teaching at Lakeside School in Seattle. "I can't help admiring that."
Mike Riley, superintendent of the Bellevue School District, said he has no argument with parents starting their own school — as long as it is backed up with the expertise of teachers and school administrators.
"Honestly, I think the competition is a good thing," said Riley. "It gives us the inspiration to do a better job."
Eastside Prep is still hundreds of thousands of dollars short of its goal. But the school started out with certain advantages: The six founders were able to put up $80,000 in seed money. And they have raised $375,000 in private funds since autumn.
Those financial advantages put Eastside Prep in a "different world" from most independent schools, said Sherman; typically it takes founders a few years of organizing and grant writing to create a school. Eastside Prep is likely to open within the space of a year and a half.
Apart from money, friends and relatives have already thrown the weight of their expertise behind the project. Volunteers are working on everything from "brand identity" for the school to building a database of parent contacts.
"I wish I had that now," said Doug Wheeler, school director of Zion Preparatory Academy, laughing. "It's been 20 years."
Zion Prep, the largest black private school in Seattle, started in 1982 with a basic mission: Create a safe, educational haven for the children of the Central District. At the time, the community was caught up in the chaos of a crack epidemic. With many parents gone missing, Zion Prep took on the role of family in its students' lives, making meals as much a priority as lessons in math.
Together with his wife, Elizabeth, and father-in-law, Pastor Eugene Drayton, Wheeler launched the school in a neighborhood house with six students, one teacher and $13.64 in a savings account. Tuition was $35 a month, and the teacher worked on a volunteer basis. Occasionally, she was paid through a fund-raiser at a local skating rink.
Wheeler and his wife retrieved school supplies — partially used notebooks and computer paper — from the trash bin at the Seattle Distribution Center.
"When you have to work hard for something, you appreciate it all the more," said Wheeler, who has seen Zion Prep grow from six students to more than 350. "There's a strength to what you do, and you'll never leave it."
Eastside Prep may have certain financial advantages, but its founders face an uphill battle on other fronts. The market for private high schools is smaller; about 60 percent of private schools are at the elementary level, while less than 10 percent are high schools.
"High school is a whole different ballgame," said Sherman. "It will be interesting to watch."
Eastside Prep will be competing against public high schools that are ranked among the best in the state. They have prestige. They have a proven track record. They have ties to college admissions officials. Eastside Prep does not even have its accreditation.
There is also no scholarship program. The annual tuition for Eastside Prep comes to nearly $17,700, not including transportation expenses and after-school activities. That tuition is comparable to that of the Overlake School.
"Creating great education is not cheap — nor should it be," said Ellen Cressey, one of the founders, stressing that teacher salaries will be highly competitive.
Diversity is listed as a top priority in its brochures, but financial aid for Eastside Prep students is still a few years away. Once the school is on solid ground, say founders, they will phase in scholarships.
Kioumars Najmabadi, an engineer at Boeing whose son attends a private school, said he considered the lack of economic diversity a real disadvantage. He wants his son to see more of the real world in his school.
"I don't like that he is always asking me why I don't drive a Porsche," said Najmabadi.
The private-school landscape is actually more racially and economically diverse than ever, Sherman said, with one recent federal study showing comparable percentages of racial minorities in private vs. public schools. About 30 percent of secular private-school students qualified for the free and reduced-price lunch program, the study showed.
Marja Brandon, the head of Seattle Girls School, said the founders refused to open the school until they could afford to put 30 percent of its students on scholarship. It is part of the school's mission to bring girls of all different backgrounds together, to see them "bump up" against each other. That, she said, is the real world.
But handing out scholarships is a difficult task, given that school officials "beg" for every dollar that they get, Brandon said.
And money is not the only obstacle. Mistrust is another problem in the search for more diversity. Some low-income parents believe private schools are only for the rich, she said.
So Brandon goes into churches and housing projects, trying to convince parents that their children are not only welcome but needed. In its second year, the Seattle Girls School has added a grade, doubled its student body to 72 and brought the number of scholarship students up to nearly 40 percent. Tuition this year is about $11,600, school officials said.
"I could fill the school tomorrow with white kids who could pay," said Brandon. "But that's not the mission for this school."
Ariel Jesserson was among the 36 students to stream into the Seattle Girls School the first day. She helped craft the school's constitution and its bill of rights.
And she stood by in September, welcoming a new crop of sixth-graders to her middle school.
"It feels kind of good," said Ariel, 12, who plans to become a pediatrician. "You know you can look back on it in 20 years, when the school's really successful, and say, 'I was a pioneer.' "
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published March 4, was corrected March 12. A previous version of this article stated that The Overlake School near Redmond was the only independent, secular, secondary school on the Eastside. There are, in fact, at least two other schools that fit that description: the Hillside Student Community in Bellevue and Chrysalis School in Woodinville. An accompanying box listed Bellevue Montessori School as one of several new private schools approved by the state in 2000-2001. Bellevue Montessori opened a new elementary school program in Issaquah that year, but the school itself has been in existence in Bellevue for more than 35 years.