Opinion

Why do Island parents send kids to private schools?

The Mercer Island School District is “simply exceptional.” Why, then, do Mercer Island parents send their children to private schools?

As superintendent of one of the highest achieving school districts in the state, I want to hear about how to improve the quality of education on the Island. Sometimes I hear that we are not serving the needs of all of our students.

I realize that the Mercer Island School District does not have a “corner on the market” in education on the Island. Having choices for parents forces us to examine what we do and how we can deliver education better. However, I have learned that there are many reasons why parents select private schools for their children.

Some parents are seeking one-on-one instruction in order to provide a truly individualized approach to learning. Other parents desire private tutoring or unique educational settings that meet the specific and focused needs that individual students may have. Some attend private schools for religious reasons. Whatever the reasons may be, I want to understand why our students leave our schools, so that I may address those issues in order to improve the educational system for all students.

On April 23, Board President Pat Braman, MIHS Principal John Harrison and I had the opportunity to listen to almost 40 parents share their concerns about educational programs in the Mercer Island School District and the reasons they have chosen to send their children to private schools for full-time or part-time placements.

The meeting was similar to a meeting held by School Board members two years ago. In both meetings, parents shared compelling stories about their students’ experiences which were sometimes difficult to hear. Many cited large class sizes resulting in increased teacher workload and less attention given to students as significant factors in their decision to leave our schools.

All of them wished that our system could accommodate the learning styles their children needed. 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.

Many parents pointed out concerns about the off-campus credit policy that allows students to take private school classes in order to meet their individual needs. Many wanted to loosen administrative constraints cited in the current policy. However, as students leave our system, a resulting budget problem looms.

Next year, my staff is projecting a loss of 95 students due to demographic decline and private school enrollments. This results in a projected budget deficit of approximately $830,000. This deficit includes the loss of students, contractual obligations and the funding of salary increases for staff not covered by state allocation.

This represents the third school year in which overall enrollment will be in decline. I have opened enrollment this spring only to the extent that we fill the vacant seats due to shrinking enrollments. Open enrollment will only cover part of the deficit. Class sizes will not increase over current levels.

Many of the parents at the April 23 meeting expressed the need for the district to learn more about why parents are selecting private schools. The board and I could not agree more, and we want to hear from you.

To those parents who have ever had children in private schools, please take 10 minutes of your time to provide me with information that I will use to make continuous improvement in our public schools. The survey can be accessed at www.misd.k12.wa.us/private.html.

Dr. Gary Plano is the Superintendent of the Mercer Island School District.

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