South End looks at the future of schools

District grapples with declining enrollment

LANGLEY — A forum Wednesday on the future of South End schools began with a peek into the school district’s pocketbook.

Whether the subject is teacher salaries, staffing levels, technology in classrooms, nutrition in the cafeterias or bleachers for the softball field, sustaining a school system takes money.

South Whidbey school officials are pondering a future where there will be less money for all of that.

At a forum Wednesday at the high school, officials gathered with parents, teachers and community volunteers to talk about strategic planning for the future.

Superintendent Fred McCarthy and school board member Rich Parker began the discussion with a reality check.

The state pays school districts a fixed amount based on how many full-time students are registered.

Following sustained growth between 1995 to 2000 — an increase of 22 students per year — enrollment in South Whidbey schools has declined an average of 52 students per year through 2007.

In other words, the South Whidbey School District has dropped from a high of 2,264 kids enrolled in 2000 to 1,898 this year.

And it isn’t going to get better as Whidbey Island’s demographics change — higher housing prices and lower wage scales means fewer young families with children are moving here. Current projections show a drop to 1,507 students in the 2010-2011 school year.

“The high school’s junior class has 220 graduating next June,” Parker said. “My daughter will start kindergarten class in the fall with 79 others.”

The district’s goal is to provide the best learning environment possible with the funding available. “We’re getting smaller but better and we want to stay that way,” McCarthy said.

“But there are questions that must be answered and that is why you’re here,” he told the crowd of about 50. “Our community has the best and the brightest; by tapping into that knowledge base we can come up with answers.”

Despite the money talk at the start, the forum, the fourth in a series, focussed on four specific areas: wellness and nutrition, community engagement, technology and facility use.

Committee chairmen began with a brief introduction.

Nutrition specialist Dr. Greg Wisont made the case for higher-quality food by comparing the cost and benefits of a package of Twinkies and an apple.

“It costs 36 cents less to buy the Twinkies than an apple,” he said, holding up the yellow cakes.

“Of course, you get 39 totally useless additives with these,” Wisont added. “Five percent of kids age 6 to 18 were overweight in 1970 versus 20 percent today. We must develop healthier eating habits at an earlier age to help the student learning process.”

Wisont noted the district’s program of menu revision using research students from the University of Washington.

“Kids love making up their menus, provided they have a little guidance,” he said.

Susie Richards stressed the importance of getting locals actively involved in the schools.

“Right now we need a coordinator; it’s a big job. But should that person be a volunteer or a paid staffer?” she said.

Facilities are truly big-budget items for any school system.

Mike Heinrich asked the crowd, “What is the criteria we use for taking a building out of service and should we convert it to another use, sell it to a developer or tear it down to create a playground?”

A good question, but no solution — yet. Raising the community’s consciousness over the hard choices is all part of strategic planning.

Finally board member Fred O’Neal offered a slide show demonstrating the importance of getting and sustaining technology in classrooms.

Computer literacy will be a key for students competing in the 21st Century job market — children at the Intermediate School will be applying for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. The Website MySpace which didn’t exist a few years ago, for example, but now has enough registered users that were it a country it would be the world’s 11th largest.

O’Neal noted the $850,000 the district will get from the recently-passed technology levy.

“We’ve started to implement the funding but there are questions,” he said. “How can we sustain a tech program in the years ahead? How best to integrate technology and communications within and between school and community?”

One key factor, O’Neal said, was using technology to compensate for predicted staff losses. Distance learning was one option, he said.

Another is classroom learning. As participants checked out the various tables containing information related to the four topics at hand, fifth-grade teacher Sally Thompson was demonstrating a state-of-the-art educational tool — an electronic touch screen called the Classroom Performance System.

The device combines interaction, assessments and even a little entertainment to encourage creativity in the classroom. Currently, the district has four units, one in each school.

The CPS lets the teacher use a computer like an overhead projector, while also giving students the chance to interact with what’s displayed on-screen via their own remote control unit. The system is designed to promote an environment of steady provocation and interactive learning.

“The kids love it and I’ve discovered their interest level remains high, even when teaching difficult subjects like ratios,” Thompson said.

Whether the purchase of such hardware for inclusion in every class makes sense is the kind of decision the district will make in the years to come. And the strength of the district’s educational offerings will be key to a sustainable enrollment base.

“When a family is thinking of moving here, the first question to the Realtor is usually about the schools,” Parker said. “Maintaining an outstanding program will always be of the highest priority.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or

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