Milton's 4K program aids sagging enrollment

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Monday, October 17, 2011
— The Milton School District's new 4-year-old kindergarten program isn't a big revenue generator—at least not yet—but the program has brought an influx of new students at a time when overall enrollment in the district is sinking steadily.

A district headcount this fall shows that Milton schools lost 51 students in K-12 classrooms from the year before. That's a continued decline for the district, which has lost an average of about 30 students a year since 2008, according to district figures.

The figures are based on a student headcount the district takes on the third Friday each September. Student enrollment is one of the main factors that school districts statewide use to determine how much state revenue they can receive and to set their own budgets.

District officials attribute Milton's K-12 enrollment losses to a lingering economic malaise that came with the recession in 2008, as well as to the graduation of some high school classes that had ballooned in size during the years spanning 2003 to 2006, when the district saw rapid enrollment growth.

Enter the district's new 4K program this year, which brought in 177 new students, according to a September headcount.

School officials don't necessarily look for 4K to become an enrollment factory in Milton, and the district won't see the full financial benefit of students in the program until 2013, based on a formula the state uses to count 4K students for revenue purposes.

In fact, the district's startup costs for the program are $725,000, with only about $115,000 covered by earmarked federal jobs funds, Business Services Director Mary Ellen Van Valin reports.

But the new 4K students will immediately feed into the district's formula for state equalized aid, which will reflect an increased financial need within the district. That will help when the district is predicting declining or flat enrollments in K-12 through 2013.

The 4K enrollment boost is a trend that has played out at other area school districts and in 80 percent of school districts statewide that have 4-year-old kindergarten programs.

For example, Edgerton School District has run a 4K program since 2006. The program has brought in an average of 115 students a year, amid the district's K-12 enrollment falling off 8 percent since 2007, according to district figures.

"It does kind of soften the blow a little bit," said Edgerton School District Business Director Mark Worthing.

According to district records, the costs of Edgerton's 4K program was $245,000, although the district received $161,000 in extra revenue from new enrollments that the program brought in. The district paid the remaining $84,000 in costs with reserve funds.

Worthing said Edgerton's 4K enrollment has been as low as 80 students. It reached a peak this year at about 135 students.

He said year-to-year fluctuations happen because families with young children tend to move more frequently. Overall, however, he said the program serves to engrain students within the school district at an early age.

"If you get the kids when you get them in 4K, it gives you a little edge in keeping them in the district," said Worthing.

That could be a boon for the Milton School District, which has about 250 students within the district attending other area schools through open enrollments.

The bulk of those students live on the north end of Janesville and have enrolled in the Janesville School District, said Kim Krause, an administrative assistant at Milton schools who studies district enrollment.

It's not clear how many families on the northern edge of Janesville could eventually use Milton's 4K program instead of the 4K program in place at Janesville School District, or how many would continue to attend schools in Milton.

Van Valin said the district hasn't discussed whether it views 4K as an enrollment growth model, and it's too early to tell whether the 177 students that the program brought in this fall will translate into an increase in the size of the kindergarten class next year.

The district is running its 4K program as a cooperative and staffing it with district teachers and housing class sections at local private day care and preschool facilities.

Van Valin said based on need, staffing and available facilities, the district is "right on target" with the 177 students it's serving.

Last updated: 6:43 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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