University Place never got the university it sought, losing out to Tacoma more than a century ago. But the suburban community did build a popular K-12 public school system that draws widely from neighboring districts – especially Tacoma.
Transfer students in the past have comprised as much as one fifth of the 5,500-student enrollment of the University Place School District.
Last year, 929 students from outside the district attended schools in the westside suburb, and nearly 700 of those transferred from Tacoma Public Schools.
With a new school year starting Sept. 4, nearly 800 Tacoma students have been accepted to go to school in University Place. Some UP campuses and grade levels – fifth through seventh grade, and some primary grades – were closed to transfers this spring and summer after reaching capacity. That picture could change depending on how last-minute enrollments shape up.
So what’s the draw to UP? District Superintendent Patti Banks said it’s the safety of her schools and the quality of academic programs.
“(Students) come here for the overall academic culture of the district – a culture of high achievement for students,” she said.
Tacoma students give their home district a variety of reasons before they make the switch to UP: It is closer to home, it has different grade configurations, it is safer, or it helps families maintain social connections such as church groups, sports teams and clubs, according to transfer data from 2009 to 2010.
For Shannon Davis, who lives on Tacoma’s East Side, strong academics and extracurricular activities are important. She started homeschooling her kids after her oldest son entered the now-closed Gault Middle School in Tacoma.
“I started researching test scores, and I was not happy with where Tacoma was,” she said.
Her oldest transferred to UP schools and graduated from Curtis High School last spring with a college scholarship. Her next oldest son, KeShaun Hixenbaugh-Davis, will be a Curtis sophomore this year. Their neighborhood high school in Tacoma is Lincoln.
Davis said her kids are involved in sports and music, and Curtis has a great reputation for both. The only down side is the Pierce Transit afternoon schedule, which can leave KeShaun rushing out the door after school to catch the bus.
‘BALANCE OF TRADE’
The flow of children goes the opposite way, too. In the 2011-12 year, 258 University Place students transferred into the 28,000-student Tacoma school district, according to Tacoma’s figures.
Tacoma has its own popular programs and is the only school district in Washington to be designated an “innovative district,” a label that it requested from the state this year.
Innovative districts offer students a wide range of options. The Science and Math Institute and the School of the Arts are two examples. Tacoma also has two public Montessori programs, a “school within a school” at Lincoln High’s Lincoln Center, and International Baccalaureate programs at the elementary, middle school and high school level.
“Small districts can’t offer the breadth of programs that we can,” said district spokesman Dan Voelpel.
Tacoma school administrators say the district could gain more students and lose fewer transfers if it were to better publicize the innovative offerings it already has.
“A sophisticated marketing campaign,” says a memo presented to the School Board this year, “could shift the ‘balance of trade’ into positive territory within a few years.”
Historically, the main exodus of students has moved from Tacoma to University Place.
Both Banks, the UP superintendent, and David Hammond, principal of Curtis High School, point to Curtis’ music program as an example of what attracts outsiders. The school offers three band programs, orchestra, men’s choir, women’s choir and a cappella choir, Hammond said.
Curtis also offers specialized classes such as advanced placement environmental science. Without out-of-district students, Hammond said, it would be hard for such a small district to generate student numbers needed to offer these classes on a regular basis.
While the high transfer rate is a point of pride for the small district, it’s also a source of financial challenges.
Although state education dollars follow students when they switch districts, local levy dollars do not, which means out-of-district transfers are partially funded by UP taxpayers.
The average student was funded with $2,217 in local levy dollars in the 2009-10 school year, according to the most recent figures available through the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“That’s a serious dilemma that our board is looking at,” Banks said.
On the plus side, each transfer student brings about $5,932 in state funding with them. That’s about $5.5 million a year for UP, Banks said.
Overall, it’s a question of balance: Transfer students cost local taxpayers money, but without them UP schools wouldn’t be able to provide a broad range of programs.
“If the district as a whole were 20 percent smaller, we would probably look at closing an elementary school,” Banks said.
State law allows parents to choose where their children attend schools. Students are permitted to transfer out of their home district if it will improve their financial, educational, safety or health conditions; if the new school is easier for families to access from home or work; or if students have a special need that can be better met at a different school.
The receiving district must ensure it has room for the transfer student, and the home district must release the student. The receiving district also has the right to reject a student for behavior reasons.
Parents are generally responsible for transportation, although students with disabilities or other special circumstances may qualify for district-funded transportation.
Tacoma school officials have kept a watchful eye on transfer trends. Last year, the School Board looked at data that showed more than 3,000 students transferred out of district in the 2010-11 school year. Of that number, 31 percent left for University Place – the main destination for Tacoma transfers – while another 20 percent opted for online programs based elsewhere. (Tacoma didn’t offer an online program until fall 2010.)
For many years, transferring out of Tacoma schools was as simple as handing in a form.
“It was just a one-way street without people having to explain themselves,” said longtime Tacoma School Board member Debbie Winskill.
Last year, Tacoma began asking families to speak first with their principal.
Winskill said transfers to University Place picked up steam in 1987, when Tacoma switched from a junior high to a middle school system. Some parents weren’t thrilled about sending their sixth graders into a school with eighth-grade students, she said.
MATTER OF GEOGRAPHY
For some families, transferring to UP is at least partly about geography.
Demetra Annest, 15, lives in University Place but her house falls within the Tacoma School District. A square mile chunk of the smaller city has historically been part of the larger district; two attempts by parents in the past eight years to switch the territory to UP have been resisted by Tacoma and turned down by a state committee.
If she weren’t a Curtis transfer, Demetra would attend Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma. Her younger sister Sophie also attends school in University Place.
Mom Stephanie Annest said she doesn’t want to be critical of kids, but she believes the school environment in UP is better for her daughters.
“I can’t be a parent for all the other kids who don’t have involved parents,” she said. She also likes the academic assistance that helps her daughters achieve.
But most of all, she said, “I just want my kids to be in my community.”
Taryn Letzring, 16, started school in University Place, then moved to Tacoma following her parents’ divorce several years ago. But her mom wanted her to stay in school with the friends she’d made and where she already felt at home.
This year, Taryn will be a junior at Curtis. If she’d stayed in Tacoma, she’d be at Mount Tahoma. She’s looking forward to getting her driver’s license so her mom won’t have to drive her to school each day.
“I like how they teach,” Taryn said of her adopted school. “They know how to help you. It’s a safe place. Everyone gets along. Everyone knows each other.”
‘I FELT UNSAFE’
The high transfer rate into UP schools is not a new phenomenon, and students who are now adults point to similar reasons for making the switch.
Taylor Reyes, now 21, transferred from Tacoma’s Hunt Middle School, which closed in 2010, to Drum Intermediate School in University Place when she was a seventh-grader.
Although she enjoyed kindergarten to fifth grade at the now-closed Wainwright Elementary in Tacoma, the transition to Hunt’s highly capable program was not easy. She recalls how she and her high-achieving friends were teased during lunch period.
“I felt really unsafe,” she said. “Even with having a sixth-grade mind, I knew that’s not what school was supposed to be like.”
After one year, Reyes transferred to the smaller school district. But in some ways, she felt ill prepared for the change. She was behind in math, so she spent lunch periods at Drum doing remedial assignments. She also worked with a tutor for about two years. Math was a problem that followed her all the way through school.
“I was always a year or two behind,” said Reyes, who’s now an Eastern Washington University senior studying speech pathology. “I remember feeling really stupid when I was a junior.”
Winskill, the Tacoma School Board member, said perception can be a problem when it comes to the uneven transfer rate. Parents have the idea that University Place will be the best choice for their student, but sometimes it isn’t a good fit, she said.
The transition can be a bumpy ride for some students. Moving into a different school system, no matter the reputation, is no guarantee of success.
“They think they’re going to get a different experience in UP that doesn’t always pan out,” Winskill said. “It’s like any other place around.”