School hopes to branch out with Learning Tree: M.L. King School hopes to increase enrollment with new academic programs

In an effort to combat the dwindling enrollment at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, staff, parents and community members will meet Monday, June 7, to discuss possible new programs as a way to attract more students.

With 170 students currently enrolled in the kindergarten through fifth grade at the school, principal Barry Dorsey wants to boost this total up to 275 within the next eight years.

Increasing enrollment, he said, is essential to maintaining the school's longevity.

"It's hard to maintain a small school, as far as being economically feasible or efficient," Dorsey said. "At the meeting, we are going to listen to the process of how a school goes about changing their programs. Our main goal is to have some sort of program change that all stakeholders in the community are united behind."

Among these stakeholders to present at the meeting include representatives from the Learning Tree Montessori School, a nonprofit child-care center and preschool founded 25 years ago.

A unique style of teaching that allows students to explore a range of learning materials and work at their own pace, the Montessori program has already produced positive results at Seattle's Daniel Bagley and Graham Hill elementary schools.

Both schools experienced significant increases in enrollment after introducing the program. According to Dorsey, enrollment at Graham Hill expanded from 165 to 385 students after instating the Montessori program.

When the Montessori program was introduced at Daniel Bagley four years ago, the school had an enrollment of 150 students. By next year, said principal Brigit McShane, that total is expected to nearly double.

Learning Tree co-founder and co-director Laurie Wick also will be among the representatives presenting at the June 7 meeting. She hopes that the Montessori program can begin to serve a wider range of economic classes within the community.

"The reason we're taking this on as a possibility is because we feel it would be a way to provide the Montessori program to low-income families," Wick said. "We realized that M.L.K. had been having difficulties, and the scores of the kids going through the Montessori program [at Bagley and Graham Hill] are phenomenal. The statistics are good for this being a positive change at M.L.K."

If enough approval is generated from the meeting, the Learning Tree will plan on presenting a proposal to the Seattle Public School board, with a target date of September 2005 for the program to be introduced for preschool through first grade.

"Montessori appears to be the catalyst to really fuel increased enrollment and involvement at those two schools," Dorsey said, referring to the results seen at Bagley and Graham Hill. "It's a very successful model, and it really allows students to have a deeper understanding of concepts and applications."

An additional program at M.L.K. looks to use its resources as a way to support increased enrollment as well. The Dream Foundation, founded by first-grade teacher Jan Lind-Sherman and her husband, Vaughn Sherman, provides scholarships to high-school graduates who attended the elementary for at least two years.

Through their own personal donations and donations from private donors, Lind-Sherman and her husband use the foundation to award six to nine scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $3,500 each year.

According to Lind-Sherman, the Dream Foundation will modify its focus to support increased enrollment.

"To help the school, we are taking an expanded role and changing our mission to help the school grow," she said. "We are gathering information right now to decide what direction M.L.K. can take to help the school grow and to help see how it can become a community center."

The Monday, June 7, meeting will take place at M.L. King Elementary School, 3201 E. Republican St., at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Following the meeting, those interested can join a steering committee that will lead in developing a new program plan to be presented to the school board.

"We're changing the programs because we want to offer something more attractive to the community so that they choose us as an educational vehicle," Dorsey said. "The time is now that we need to do something."

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