Attracting students a factor in Turner, Beloit school plans
TOWN OF BELOIT — Competition for students has come into sharp focus in Beloit.
The Beloit School District lost nearly 400 students this year to open enrollment. It's spending $70 million on new construction and remodeling.
The Beloit Turner School District gained 200 students a year through open enrollment and has 200 more on a waiting list. It's asking voters for permission to spend $28 million for a new high school.
Retaining and attracting students are factors in both districts, and officials say the state's school choice law has forced districts to embrace the competition and improve their schools or lose the battle for students.
Voters in the Turner district, which wraps around Beloit, will vote April 2 on a referendum to build a new high school with a capacity of 600 students. The new facility would allow the district to grow while rearranging grades among the rest of the schools.
In Beloit, the community backed a referendum last spring 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.
If Turner moves ahead with its plans, it would allow more room for new students, some of whom likely would come from the Beloit district. Turner officials say they're hoping for population growth inside the district and see open enrollment as an "insurance policy" in case growth in the district doesn't materialize.
Beloit Superintendent Steve McNeal said he understands why people would see Turner's plans as a method to get more students.
"But we don't fear that at all," he said. "Our district is very healthy and doing great things."
Schools respond with quality
Turner's net gains through open enrollment have grown in the last five years, while Beloit's net losses have worsened.
Turner went from a net gain of 52 students in 2008-09 to a net gain of about 200 this year, according to state and district data. During the same time, Beloit went from a net loss of 154 students in 2008-09 to a net loss of 386 this year.
This year, 80 Turner students attend Beloit, while 264 Beloit students attend Turner.
The Turner School Board last month approved 68 additional open enrollment spots for next year between 4k, 5k, fourth grade and sixth grade.
UW-Whitewater associate professor of economics David Welsch has published two papers on Wisconsin's open enrollment, one looking at why people change districts and the other examining the competitive effects on districts.
He found that districts that lost students produced higher standardized test scores in the subsequent year. He also found that districts do not appear to be lured by the prospect of students coming into the district. Rather than working to attract new students, districts appear to place more emphasis on preventing students from leaving, according to his research.
"These findings provide evidence that schools respond to competitive force by improving quality," the paper's abstract states.
The Beloit district's responses include focusing on customer service and keeping class sizes smaller in good spaces, said Melissa Badger, community relations coordinator.
When construction is finished, the district will save money by consolidating resources. The savings will be put toward programming, she said.
Beloit has 22 Advanced Placement courses, the largest selection in the area, and it is sharpening its focus on career and technical education. The district is investing about $500,000 in new equipment and programming, she said.
The district also is using a model called response to intervention to help students—both underachieving students and gifted and talented students—get to where they need to be, she said.
Results have amazing, she said. The district went from four reading specialists to 19 in the last few years. The freshman class started last year averaging a seventh-grade reading level, but by the end of the year they tested at grade level on average, she said.
The high school has revised its course selection and has added about 50 new classes in the last three years—"trying to make things more appealing to students," she said.
"If we want students there and not missing classes and graduating on time, we have to make it interesting for them," she said. "That's something we have to do in today's world."
Despite the efforts, state data show the Beloit district still lags in some areas.
The state's new school report card grading system using 2011-12 data shows Beloit Memorial High School had an overall accountability score of 58.5, which falls into the "meets few expectations" category. Turner scored 72.4, ranking it in the "meets expectations" category.
Badger said Memorial just missed the next best category because of attendance issues, and a new policy already is improving the problem.
Beloit Memorial High School has about 1,700 students, and Badger acknowledges a school that size might not be for everybody. An advantage is that the school can offer more for its students, she said.
The Beloit superintendent said he's "extremely proud" of the many recognitions the district has received in recent years. With the referendum construction and new programming, McNeal said Beloit has many things a district such as Turner will never be able to offer.
"They are a good district, and we wish them luck in the referendum as it is good for Beloit," McNeal said. "Our strong feelings are that competition is good, and they have some things that will always be attractive to students and parents being smaller, and we will have offerings that they can't afford to have, which makes us a great choice."
'Proud of ourselves'
Turner does not recruit students for open enrollment, school board President Doug Clark said last month at the meeting when the board approved the referendum.
Kids on the district's waiting list have asked to attend Turner schools "on their own terms. Their reasons obviously vary," he said.
"I think we can be kind of proud of ourselves that these people do want to come to Turner School District," he said.
He's seen districts recruit kids, but to his knowledge Turner has never done that, he said.
Turner probably turns away more open enrollment students than any other Wisconsin district, he said.
Turner board member Jim Olson, who co-chaired an ad hoc committee to analyze the referendum planning, added his thoughts at the same board meeting. He held up a copy of a newspaper story about the Brodhead School District's plans to seek a referendum to avoid staff and program cuts.
"What we want to do is to avoid this kind of thing, and we do it through open enrollment," he said. "How do we get open enrollment students is we compete for them."
Turner will see "more and more" competition from virtual schools, charter schools and Beloit, he said, pointing to the Beloit district's $70 million referendum and Advanced Placement courses.
"We've got to compete for those students or we'll wind up like Brodhead," he said.
Districts have to pay attention to competition because each student represents state aid, Badger said.
Open enrollment has created a competitive atmosphere, she said, but she's glad it hasn't eroded collaboration. Superintendents still are willing to share ideas and help other districts, she said.
She thinks one intention of open enrollment was to make school districts look at themselves.
"(To) look in the mirror deeply, see what it needs to change," she said. "I think it is working in that results—look at our own district. We've just improved by leaps and bounds."
To apply online for open enrollment, go to www2.dpi.state.wi.us/OpenEnrollApp.
More information is available on the state's open enrollment web page, sms.dpi.wi.gov/sms_psctoc.
Open enrollment starts Monday
Since the 1998-99 school year, parents in Wisconsin have been able to apply to send their children to schools outside the district where they live.
Enrollment in a requested school or program is subject to space and other limitations and is not guaranteed. Transportation is the family's responsibility.
When the option started in 1998, the state had 5,926 applications for open enrollment. That number increased every year to 41,203 applications for this school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
A district loses about $6,500 for a student who open enrolls out. The district that receives that student gets that state aid.
The period for parents to sign up their children for open enrollment for the 2013-14 school year starts Monday and runs through April 30. In 2011, the law changed to create an alternative procedure for parents to apply at any point in the school year if students meet certain criteria.
The state encourages parents to apply online, although school districts and the state Department of Public Instruction also have paper application forms.