More than 300 Mercer Island kids enrolled at off-Island schools | Going private

A growing number of Mercer Island students are attending off-Island private schools, with more than 200 students at Catholic schools this year. The reasons why Island parents are choosing private schools over public are numerous and individual; from smaller class sizes, to individualized instruction, to a more Christian classroom environment.

According to Rosanne Tomich, director of admissions at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, the number of Islanders attending the all-girls school has jumped from just four students in 2003 to more than 40 this year.

In order to better serve this growing demographic, Forest Ridge added a new South-end bus stop to its Island route in September. Previously, Forest Ridge students on the Island had to carpool to the North-end for their morning and afternoon buses.

Other private schools that have seen a jump in Mercer Island students include Seattle’s Lakeside School, with 42 students; Eastside Catholic, with 49 students; Holy Names Academy in Seattle, with 24 students; and Seattle Academy, with 30 students. At St. Monica School, 82 students attend the K-8 program.

Mercer Island School District administrators are well aware of these numbers. Just last spring, Superintendent Gary Plano conducted a Private School Survey in an attempt to understand why Island parents were pulling their children out of district schools.

A total of 237 parents replied to the poll, representing 359 students attending 36 different private schools or being home schooled — some full-time and some part-time. The majority of private schools serve students in grades 6 through 12.

Results of the survey, which were addressed at a School Board meeting in June, show that 92 percent of the parents polled feel that their children’s individual needs are better met at private schools. Ninety percent of parents said they chose private schools because they offer smaller class sizes, 83 percent because private school methods “build their child’s self-esteem and confidence” and 74 percent because the setting is “more suitable to their child’s learning style.”

“This confirms my thesis that some private schools have a niche market for meeting these very important needs,” Plano said during the June 28 meeting.

When asked if Mercer Island schools were “overly challenging for your child,” 52 percent of parents polled said they disagreed or strongly disagreed.

According to Tomich, the reasons that parents send their girls to Forest Ridge are more personal than academic.

“Middle school is a disaster in most public schools, with bullying and pressure to behave in ways students are not ready for,” the admissions director said. “Parents want a place for their kids to discuss values and faith in a guided atmosphere.”

Around the time of the survey, Plano organized a meeting with Island parents to discuss their concerns with the district’s academic program. In addition to the personal reasons mentioned by Tomich, many parents said their students were not performing well enough in particular core classes — predominantly math — at district schools.

“All of them wished that our system could accommodate the learning styles their children needed,” Plano wrote in a Reporter forum last spring. “Most of the parents expressed dissatisfaction with the math curriculum at all levels, particularly at the high school. Many pleaded for understanding and wanted the district to be responsive to the concerns they have expressed for years.”

Administrators will continue to speak with parents about the MISD curriculum while working to improve it. The district is currently conducting a Math Curriculum and Program Review that includes a parent survey. Meanwhile, more than 300 Island students wake up extra early weekday mornings to commute across the lake — one direction or another — for private school.

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