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Monday, June 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anxiety runs high in border town fearing its lone school may be lost

Seattle Times staff reporter

POINT ROBERTS, Whatcom County — Whenever Elaine Komusi picks up her dry cleaning, pays her late fees at Rogers Video, treats her kids to McDonald's or takes them to swimming or skating lessons, she has to leave her home in the United States and drive into Canada.

And that's fine with her because in Point Roberts, which has more of a connection to British Columbia than to the rest of Washington, that's routine.

Komusi, though, doesn't want to have to eventually send her youngest child across the border — let alone two borders — simply to go to school, a year before his mother thinks he is emotionally ready. Six-year-old Thomas Komusi will begin second grade in September close to home at tiny Point Roberts Primary School, the only public school in this geographical oddity of a town of 1,300.

But when the year begins, the school will be down from two teachers to one. As a result, Thomas will share the same classroom with kindergarteners and first-graders.

Also, the school will no longer offer a third grade, which has been taught there since 1999.

If Point Roberts Primary stays K-2 in 2006, Thomas would attend third grade in Blaine and ride the bus at least 40 minutes each way.

Declining enrollment is the culprit behind the cuts at Point Roberts Primary, as the Blaine School District adjusts the faculty to reflect the number of projected students. District officials hope the phenomenon is cyclical and assure parents that the cuts are not part of a nefarious plot to shut down the school. Mary Lynne Derrington, Blaine superintendent, said the administration and School Board never have discussed closing it.

"We just always assume that Point Roberts parents will want a school here," she said.

Nevertheless, anxiety is high. It doesn't take much imagination for parents to divine a downward spiral where low enrollment leads to further cuts, which lead to lower enrollment and so on, until the town loses a pillar — its lone school.

Enrollment next fall is projected at 17 students, down from 27 this year and the lowest since the schoolhouse opened in 1993.

Several Point Roberts parents are torn between wanting to support their public school and doing what they believe is best for their children. For a growing number of parents, that means choosing an alternative to Point Roberts Primary: a secular private school three miles up the road in Tsawwassen, B.C.; home-schooling; or the K-2 Blaine Primary School, which has 425 students and has no split-level classes.

Many in town fear that once the school goes, so goes Point Roberts. Its integrity as a great place to raise a family would be ruined and the only folks left would be retirees, Canadian commuters who live in summer cottages and families either wealthy enough to send their children to private school or enterprising enough to teach them at home.

"The future of Point Roberts depends on it being a place where Americans can live and raise their families," said Mark Millman, who with his wife operates the town's only preschool. "If you don't have a school, you don't have a proper community."

Barely American

An American anomaly, Point Roberts is located at the southernmost tip of British Columbia's Delta peninsula, dipping below the 49th parallel and therefore destined to be a part of Whatcom County, USA.

Less than 5 square miles in size and surrounded on three sides by saltwater, it is easy to get lost in the seclusion and imagine an island, like one of the B.C. Gulf Islands visible in the distance.

It's even easier to think Point Roberts is Canada. Gasoline is sold by the liter, restaurant menu prices are figured in Canadian dollars and the Maple Leaf flag flies high at the marina along with the Stars and Stripes.

But since this is America, residents here feel strongly that their government should make good on the most basic of American promises, the one that says if you pay taxes for schools, you ought to be able to enjoy those benefits.

"Why are parents having to fight for something they are entitled to anyway?" asked Teresa Cosgrove, who runs the pre-school with husband Millman.

Point Roberts is part bedroom community, part resort. Its economy used to be fueled — and "fueled" seems like the appropriate word — by Canadians who drove down on Sundays to drink in bars because the serving of alcohol on that day was banned up north. The real-estate market used to be driven primarily by Canadians, but Point Roberts gradually has become a sanctuary for Californians who have moved north to take advantage of the positive differential in property values.

There is a golf course, a private marina and a grass air strip, but no hospital, veterinarian or pharmacy. There is high-speed Internet service, but cellphone reception is unreliable.

"The remoteness is very comfortable when you have kids," said Komusi, a British and Canadian citizen who in 2000 moved from New Westminster, B.C. " My kids play in the forest behind the house and I can step out and call, 'Hey kids! Time for dinner,' and they come running. And that's great because that's the way I was raised, too."

Humble beginnings

The primary school was launched in 1992 at the community center and moved into the current, three-room building the following autumn, opening with one teacher for kindergarten, first and second grade — the same teacher who is to teach the similar split class next fall. Enrollment has fluctuated over the years, with a second teacher added in 1995 and third grade in 1999.

Starting next fall, a sliding panel between two classrooms will be kept open to create one larger room. The other room will be used as a lunchroom. With no cafeteria, kids must brown-bag it.

On inclement days, students have recess inside a garage that the district opened this school year. On nicer days, they can play soccer on a huge field that ends at a forest. The ringing of a dinner bell summons kids back to class.

The school receives extra funding from the state because of its classification as "remote and necessary." There are 11 such schools in the state, nine in Western Washington — most on islands — and two in Central Washington. Some have fewer students than Point Roberts Primary and split classes with ranges beyond K-2.

But the additional money still does not cover the cost of running the school, Superintendent Derrington said. "But I've never considered the school a challenge," she said. "What I consider a challenge is the emotion and anxiety of parents right now."

The district doesn't have statistics showing the number of parents who opt out of Point Roberts Primary in favor of private school or home-school. But Derrington said that among third-graders, about one-third attended Blaine Elementary last year instead of Point Roberts Primary.

"Those parents obviously didn't think it was a problem," she said.

Suzanne Crawford has sent her youngsters to Blaine to get an early start making friends with classmates they would have throughout their school years.

Fiona Reimer plans to send her daughter to Blaine Primary for second grade next fall, but might move her again if the bus ride proves too traumatizing. Neil Pope is enrolling his son in Point Roberts Primary for first grade next fall, but said he may pull him if the split class detracts from the quality of education. Tracy Jacobs, though, might just move out of town. Her daughter starts kindergarten next year but it won't be at Point Roberts because Jacobs does not want her taught alongside second-graders.

"Kindergarten is about problem-solving, relationship-building, learning about school and the expectations tied to that," said Jacobs, a first-grade teacher in Canada. While kindergarteners have short attention spans, second-graders tend to be able to work quietly for longer periods, she explained. "If my child got antsy in class and got disciplined because of it, that's not fair because she shouldn't be expected to have the same maturity level as her older classmates," Jacobs said.

Getting aggressive

Rather than sending their two older children, ages 12 and 10, on the school bus to Blaine, Pauline and Ross Beck teach them at home. They plan to enroll their younger children, ages 5 and 3, in Point Roberts Primary for as long as possible.

"We want to support the school and help it as much as we can," Pauline Beck said. "We're not home-schooling because we are anti-school. We're home-schooling because there is no school here for the older children. We like the idea of having our children in a school, where they can interact with other kids."

The Becks and other parents are determined to aggressively promote the primary school. The school's parent-teacher organization plans to survey parents currently not sending their children to the school. The organization also wants the district to develop a five-year school plan, as assurances could help lure parents. But Derrington said such commitments would be difficult.

Nancy Bakarich, principal at both Point Roberts and Blaine Primary schools, said the district is publicizing the school with brochures and full-page advertisements in the town newspaper. She spends 2 or 3 three days a month

Cosgrove, the preschool owner, said she was surprised how little parents knew about the primary school. Earlier this year, she invited Bakarich to meet with the handful of parents whose kids start kindergarten in the fall.

"There is a lot of unpredictability about the school's future," Cosgrove said. "And if there is one thing parents hate, it is having to make their children adapt to change. They don't want their child to get settled at Point Roberts and then have to pull them out of there."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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