Open enrollment benefits some and hurts others
EVANSVILLE Area school districts winning the battle of school choice generally have continued to gain students while districts losing students continue to lose more, according to data from districts in Rock and Walworth counties.
Districts with a net gain in open enrollment remain islands while surrounding districts have seen their net losses increase. Janesville, for example, has increased from a net gain of 20 students in the 2008-09 school year to a net gain of 100 students this year.
Meanwhile, surrounding districts such as Milton, Evansville and Parkview have lost more students.
Open enrollment allows families to apply to send their students to districts other than their resident districts. In the last school year, the state had 36,007 applications for open enrollment, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. This year, a law change expanded the regular time period for families to apply for open enrollment, while a change also allows requests to be made at any point in a school year for special circumstances.
The Gazette surveyed area districts for open enrollment data for 5-year-old kindergarten through 12th grade and also asked each district where its students were coming from and going to.
The results show virtual schools are an emerging factor.
Virtual charter schools
Nearly every area district has students open enrolling to virtual charter schools, with many of them going to Appleton, McFarland and Northern Ozaukee districts.
Virtual schools allow students to complete their courses online from home—or wherever they have Internet access. The structure and course offerings vary among schools.
At McFarland's Wisconsin Virtual Academy, for example, all students interact with one or more state-certified teachers and communicate regularly with teachers through email, telephone, online synchronized opportunities and direct instruction, according to its website. Each family receives all instructional materials, including textbooks, CDs, videos and hands-on tools and resources.
Wisconsin had only two virtual schools in 2002-03, and they taught 247 students, according to the DPI. By 2010-11, the number of virtual schools had increased to 15 teaching 3,927 students.
The 2012-13 school year is the first full year with the statutory limit on enrollments in virtual charter schools lifted.
The added competition is making area districts think about starting their own virtual schools.
"If we had a virtual school available here at Parkview, I'm confident most of the students that left for someone else's virtual would have stayed for Parkview," Parkview Superintendent Steve Lutzke said.
He plans to bring up the idea with his school board.
Some families believe in the online experience as an extension of home-school education, Evansville Superintendent Jerry Roth said. He would "certainly like to find a way to recapture some of those students," he said.
He's starting discussions with his administrators about online options for the district, he said.
While virtual schools are drawing students out of the district, Roth said he's not too worried about that for the large majority of students. A community- and family-oriented district such as Evansville still provides many options for students to be involved, often offering what a larger district can't provide because of its size, he said.
He admits virtual schools have caused administrators to think about how to improve programming and look at ways to keep students or draw them in.
Because of the virtual school increase and questions the DPI has received about them, the DPI is planning an "in-depth review" of virtual charter schools during this school year, DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said in an email.
Staff will gather information from a range of individuals involved with virtual schools "to better understand differences among virtual charter schools and develop guidance materials for the districts," he wrote.
"We believe such information is critical to ensure that virtual charter schools are providing high-quality educational opportunities for the children and families who choose to enroll in a virtual charter school," he wrote.
Beloit and Beloit Turner
The area's most dramatic open enrollment winners and losers are the Beloit Turner and Beloit districts. Beloit Turner attracts a net gain of 189 students while Beloit loses a net of 386.
Eighty Turner students attend Beloit, while 264 Beloit students attend Turner.
The fact that most of Turner's open enrollment students come from Beloit would suggest "parents are simply looking for a smaller district setting for their students," Turner Superintendent Dennis McCarthy said in an email,
Families are generally "very satisfied" with the district's programming and opportunities, he said.
Beloit had steadily lost students, while Turner has increased. Turner went from a net gain of 30 students five years ago to a gain of 189 this year. About 21 percent of Turner's students come from outside the district, the highest percentage among area districts.
Turner started the summer with about 200 students on an open enrollment waiting list for this fall and added about 30 students in various grades throughout the summer, McCarthy said.
Turner has been able to add about 20 students at the sixth grade in each of the last two years because the district has four teachers per grade level at the elementary level but five teachers at the middle school, he said.
Beloit attributes a lot of its losses "to image problems we've had for years, and we're still working to address that," said Melissa Badger, community relations coordinator for Beloit.
Anytime you have a high school the size of Beloit Memorial—1,700 to 1,800 students—some people have safety concerns, she said. But walking through the hallways, you'd find calm, polite students, she said.
The district is doing a good job of increasing test scores and has received national recognition for its advanced placement courses, Badger said.
In April, Beloit voters passed a $70 million referendum to build a new intermediate school, renovate seven existing schools to create three other intermediate schools and build a new pool at the high school. Construction is under way with the plan to switch in fall 2014 to schools requiring two fewer building transitions for students by structuring the grades as follows: 4K to third grade, fourth to eighth and ninth to 12th.
Turner is discussing a spring referendum to build a new high school. The district is in the conceptual design phase, but no decisions have been made. A new high school would allow the district to accept more open enrollment students.
Enrollment has held steady in the district through the recession. Last year's graduating class was about 85, while classes coming out of the middle school are 120 and up.
Parents threatened to leave the Parkview School District in Orfordville if the district closed rural Newark Elementary. The board closed the school over summer, and students have been consolidated into elementary schools in Footville and Orfordville.
Lutzke, the superintendent, said the district probably lost more students this year than it would have if Newark had remained open, but it wasn't as many as it feared. One parent told The Gazette in December 2010 she had signatures from parents of 60 to 70 students who would leave the district if Newark closed.
This year, Parkview had a net loss of 73 students, compared to 34 last year. Of the students leaving this year, 33 went to Brodhead, 30 to Janesville, 11 to McFarland and 10 to Evansville. The remaining students were split among 13 other districts.
The district has been trying to reverse open enrollment departures.
"We feel the better service we provide our students, the less likely they will be to leave," Lutzke said. "We're continually looking to improve the instruction we provide and the environment we provide it in."
The district is considering adding courses through UW-Whitewater so students can get college credit, he said. The board is beginning discussions on possible improvements to the junior/senior high school building.
The net loss of students through open enrollment has been increasing slightly in Evansville, but administrators haven't nailed down the reason, said Roth, who took over as superintendent this school year.
This year, the district has a net loss of 39 students, compared to a loss of 24 last year. Of the 83 students attending outside the district this year, 26 go to Oregon and 23 attend Janesville. The rest are scattered among 16 other districts.
The district surveyed parents who applied to leave in spring, Roth said.
"I don't think there's any consistent reason for people to be moving out," he said. Many of the situations are geographic, with parents choosing to have their kids attend school where they work. Or they live closer to a different district."
Roth has seen this firsthand. Until this summer, he lived in a subdivision near the border between the Evansville and Janesville districts, and several families there took their kids to Janesville, he said.
Beyond surveys and talking to families, Roth said the district will gather input to find the causes and keep an eye on the data.
"I don't think we can put our finger on one thing … it's a variety of reasons," he said.
During last spring's election, candidates for the Delavan-Darien School Board named open enrollment losses as their top concern.
The district's net losses have increased each year.
This year, the net loss is 310 students, a 41 percent increase over last year's net loss of 220 students, the largest percentage increase since the school started keeping track in 2003.
After the spring's election, the school board voted to buyout former Superintendent Wendy Overturf's contract, believing that a change of leadership would make a difference.
"She really worked like a dog, but it just wasn't the right fit for our district," board President Jeff Scherer said.
The board has since hired Robert Crist to serve as interim superintendent.
"We've made a lot of changes," Scherer said.
Many of those changes are driven by the district's strategic plan, a document developed by community members and staff. The detailed plan includes specifics for improving the culture and atmosphere in schools, improving test scores and decreasing the number of students who are opting out of the district.
Of the district's 345 outgoing students, 98 attend Elkhorn and nearly 190 attend Geneva Lake-area districts. The remaining students are split among 15 districts.
Crist remembers working in the Elkhorn district in the 1980s, and Delavan was considered a quality district. He believes community perception is driving some of the open enrollment.
"I've been in the schools; I've been in the classrooms," Crist said. "I feel that good instruction is taking place."
Test scores have been a significant issue, as well. The high school and Turtle Creek Elementary School were designated as Title I Focus Schools. A focus school doesn't mean the school is performing poorly school-wide. Rather, it means that it is not performing well in specific areas and with specific groups of students. For the high school, math is the problem. For Turtle Creek, reading is the issue.
A new director of curriculum and instruction and other administrative staff are working to help "refocus" on skills and knowledge that teachers already have, Crist said.
Scherer believes the strategic plan and fresh leadership will help turn things around.
It may take time, he said. Scherer remembers Barry Alvarez' first year as football coach at UW-Madison: The team went 1-10. Within two years, the Badgers were playing in the Rose Bowl.
Reporter Catherine W. Idzerda contributed the section on Delavan-Darien schools.