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Whidbey Island Academy will make move to Primary School

LANGLEY — A future with fewer students in South End classrooms has prompted school district officials to consider moving Whidbey Island Academy from its current home in portable buildings behind the high school.

In August, Whidbey Island Academy teachers and staff will begin moving to a cluster of four classrooms at the Primary School now occupied by special education kids.

Special education classes will be transferred to the Intermediate School, the beginning of a long-term process designed to make better use of classroom space.

In January, the district’s facilities committee recommended phasing out the Primary School as a cost-cutting measure. But the district wants to act now.

“There are 86 fewer children this year than last and we project another drop of 75 next year,” District Superintendent Fred McCarthy told the school board Wednesday. “Two years down the road, the number is roughly 110.”

That means the overall number of students enrolled will drop from 1,807 today to 1,622 in the 2009-10 school year.

Those numbers reflect a continuing demographic trend; eight years ago, there was an all-time high of 2,264 students enrolled in South End public schools. The state pays the district about $5,100 per student so the budget impact has been growing.

Whidbey Island Academy serves students of families who have chosen to homeschool their children. The academy has

110 full- and part-time students in grades kindergarten through 12.

McCarthy said the proposal isn’t cast in stone yet; the school board still needs to approve the move.

“Next month, the board can accept, modify or reject moving the academy to the Primary School,” he said. “But the primary and academy school staffs wanted to know as soon as possible so they can prepare. And my sense is that the board wants to move toward consolidation sooner than later.”

Academy director Sharla Matthews noted no one likes change but there are clear advantages to the move.

“We’re trying to find a way to make this happen,” she said. “But having a place for the kids to eat, a playground with a swing and access to the computer lab are amenities we’ve always needed.

“And since we have a drama program, being able to use the music room will be a big plus,” she said.

McCarthy said the move will require the least disruption to students and teachers. And he said he hopes the move will inspire other families who homeschool to join the district’s program.

“I’m concerned with conditions at WIA,” he added. “Those old buildings do not meet our standards, so making this move is a logical decision.”

In September, the district will form a transition team to report back on how well the move went.

“There are a lot of unknowns at this point,” said board member Helen Price Johnson. “The bottom line is that we have to prepare now since the enrollment problem isn’t going to get better.”

The school board has held frequent site visits to school facilities in the past few months.

At the Intermediate School, they found there are several instances where three rooms are used by two grades.

“The loss of that extra class for primary grade use isn’t an optimum solution, but it is doable,” McCarthy said. He also noted the community room — where board meetings are held — can be used if needed.

Board member Fred O’Neal explained there will be some definite advantages to moving the academy.

“First, it let’s us try out the process,” he sad. “It buys time for the transition committee to resolve inevitable questions, then give us feedback for the second phase.”

Eventually, the empty classrooms could be leased to organizations with close ties to the schools; the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District, Skagit Valley College or local health agencies.

McCarthy stressed that the move is the right thing to do.

“Students in the academy are essentially being taught in their storage rooms; they will benefit from a traditional classroom situation,” he said.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

Community Events, April 2014

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