Oak Harbor to become a 3A school next fall

After 33 years of competing in the state's largest classification, the Oak Harbor High School athletic teams will drop down one classification next school year.

Based upon the latest school enrollment figures gathered this fall, Oak Harbor will move from 4A to 3A because of a drop in its average enrollment of about 50 students to 1,237.

Washington state divides its high schools into enrollment classifications to make athletic competition equal and more competitive.

Oak Harbor moved from a 2A school to 3A in 1977-78. At that time, 3A was the largest classification in Washington. When 4A was introduced in 1997-98, Oak Harbor became a 4A school.

Two other Western Conference schools, Mountlake Terrace and Shorewood, will join Oak Harbor in dropping from 4A to 3A. Now Wesco has eight 3A schools out of its 19 members; previously it never had more than five. Since there are so many 3A schools, the league will divide by classification. In the past it was divided geographically into northern and southern divisions.

Oak Harbor High School athletic director Nicki Luper said this change in divisions is not final, but has a "99 percent" chance of happening. It has yet to be approved by the Western Conference principals and superintendents.

The Western Conference will now have a division of its eight 3A schools: Oak Harbor, Mountlake Terrace, Shorewood, Shorecrest, Lynnwood, Meadowdale, Everett and Glacier Peak.

Luper said the conference is still discussing whether the remaining 11 4A schools will form one division or whether they will be split into two smaller divisions.

Since most of the 3A Wesco schools are the the farthest south, it will increase travel time for Oak Harbor, the northern most school.

On a positive note, Oak Harbor will now face schools of similar size and should have more success athletically. When competing as one of the smallest 4A schools, the Wildcats often faced much bigger schools, some twice it size.

Marysville-Pilchuck, the state's largest school with 2,560 students, is a member of the Western Conference. That will change when Getchell High School opens in Marysville in the fall of 2010 or 2011.

Four years ago the state changed its formula for determining classifications. Up to then set enrollment figures were used. All schools with enrollments between 0-149 were B; 150-299, 1A; 300-599, 2A; 600-1,199, 3A; and 1200 and over, 4A.

When determining classification, the state counts only grades 10 through 12 because not all high schools have freshmen. School districts that have junior highs and not middle schools have separate athletic programs for ninth graders.

In 2005 the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for high school sports, changed its classification process because of the discrepancy in the size of the different classifications. It also added another classification, 2B, to create more balance. For example there were about 30 more 4A schools in 2004 than 2A schools. This made it more difficult for schools in the 4A division to qualify for one of the 16 state tournament spots for each sport, thus making it more difficult for student-athletes and their communities to enjoy the experience of competing in state tournaments.

Now the classifications are determined by percentages. The largest schools 66 schools (17 percent) are 4A; the next 17 percent largest schools are 3A; etc.

Schools, however, can "opt-up" a class if they wish. For example, a 3A school may choose to play in the 4A classification.

There are a variety of reasons why schools opt up, and the three most common are for large school districts with more than one high school to have all of their schools in the same classification; for the prestige of playing against stronger competition; and for traditional rivals to stay in the same class.

Schools opting up in the past exposed a flaw in the new system. So many schools opted up that the sizes of the classifications were unbalanced once again, with nearly 30 more 4A schools than 2A schools.

This year the process was changed so that when one school opted up, say from 3A to 4A, the smallest school 4A school was then bumped down to 3A, according to WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese.

Until the new classification system was developed in 2005, most schools changed leagues when they changed classifications because there were very few mixed-classification leagues. When Oak Harbor became a 3A school in 1977-78, it left the Northwest League of all 2A schools and joined the Western Conference of all 3A schools.

Over the years, more and more leagues contained mixed classifications as schools resisted moving leagues and chose to stay with their geographical neighbors regardless of size.

The reclassification process takes place every two years. In 2007 it appeared that Oak Harbor might drop to 3A and considered leaving the Western Conference to rejoin the Northwest League (now Northwest Conference), primarily for less travel. Mount Vernon, Ferndale and Sedro-Woolley are 3A schools in the NWC and closer than most Wesco schools. The Northwest League also includes nearby Anacortes and Burlington and the Whatcom County schools.

When the 2005 enrollment figures were released, Oak Harbor ended up being the second smallest 4A school, thus Oak Harbor stayed in the Western Conference; there are no 4A schools in the Northwest Conference.

Oak Harbor, however, will not consider joining the Northwest Conference this time around, according to Nicki Luper. Oak Harbor could possibly be a 4A school again in the next count in two years, and Luper said the school doesn't want to bounce between the two leagues. Mount Vernon, a 3A school now, has twice grown to 4A in the last 20 years and has jumped between the two leagues.

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