At our meeting last night, the School Board unanimously rejected the proposed recommendation to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) that it advocate for limiting the number of students eligible to open enroll in nonresident school districts to three percent of the resident district’s total enrollment.
The Board supported requesting that WASB support a fiscally neutral exchange of state dollars in open enrollment transfers (as opposed to the current arrangement whereby for each student who leaves through open enrollment, Madison loses about three times as much in state aid as it receives for each student) and that it also support limits on open enrollment for school districts whose school boards believe that the district’s fiscal stability is threatened by the number of students leaving through open enrollment (which isn’t the case in Madison).
Board members expressed their discomfort with the recommendation for a 3% cap on students leaving through open enrollment. We are much more interested in addressing the concerns that prompt families to open enroll out of their neighborhood schools than we are in trying to tell some families that they can’t pursue the school options that they believe are best for their kids.
The point was also raised that there is no procedure in place to identify whose open enrollment applications should be rejected if the 3% limit was reached. State law specifies that if more students apply for open enrollment than the district’s transfer limits (currently 10% of the student body), “the school board shall determine which pupils will be allowed to attend public school in other school districts on a random basis, except that the school board shall give preference to pupils who are already attending public school in the school district to which they are applying under this section and to siblings of such pupils.” Wis. Stat. sec. 118.51(6)) That’s a lottery that we’d certainly prefer to avoid.
During our meeting, I also mentioned that I thought the 3% cap recommendation could be counterproductive, as parents considering an open enrollment request could be pushed further in that direction by the fear that the door was going to be closing on such applications soon so they better get their request in while the getting was good.
It is odd that after the State Journal ran Gayle Worland’s good front page story on Monday previewing the School Board meeting and explaining the open enrollment issue the Board would consider, there was nothing in the paper today (or elsewhere in the media that I am aware of) that reported on what the Board actually decided to do.
I should point out that as far as I know, we (meaning the Madison district) don’t have any issues with our surrounding districts regarding open enrollment. I have heard that some districts adjoining more urban areas in the state have actively recruited students from the cities to transfer to the more suburban districts, but that does not seem to be the case here.
Our Board discussion last night revealed a clear consensus that our focus needs to turn more toward efforts to address the issues or conditions that are prompting families to seek open enrollment out of the district.
As part of this effort, I would like us to work on establishing a school-based structure for involving parents who are willing to volunteer some time as ambassadors for the schools their children attend. Working with the school principal, these parents could be available as ready resources to answer questions about the school and provide tours to interested families. Currently, we don’t always do the world’s greatest job in communicating the message to families with young children or new to the district that we really, really do want the opportunity to welcome their children into our schools. We do – we really do.
We receive a list in the spring of everyone who is applying to transfer out of the district. I’d like to see a system where we encourage parent volunteers to contact at least the families who are applying to transfer out for kindergarten, sixth or ninth grades, and so whose transferring student has not yet spent any time enrolled at the school he or she is trying to avoid. The intent of these calls would not be to try to talk these families out of their decisions, but rather to offer to answer any questions parent-to-parent the open enrollment families might have and to share the volunteer families’ perceptions of their children’s experiences in the school.
Of course we would be better off reaching out to these families before they have made the decision to open enroll out of the district. I have been involved in the past in meetings for parents who had questions about the middle school or high school their children would attend if they were enrolled in district schools. The meetings were organized by parents, took place in homes or elsewhere away from the schools, and were attended by the school principal and parents of students who currently attended the schools. For the high school meeting, current students attended as well. The point of the meetings was for parents concerned about the schools to have a candid conversation and to get all their questions about safety, academic rigor and opportunities, and school discipline on the table, and to hear the principal and others acknowledge those concerns and address them. For the high school meeting, what the current students had to say was of particular interest. These meetings have uniformly been positive. We should try to have more of them.
One of our challenges as a district is that we don’t currently seem to have any organized system for these sorts of outreach activities or even a point of contact within the administration. Our current administrative reorganization is something of an ongoing process, and I am hopeful that these sorts of activities will have a home and appropriate level of support once all the reorganization dust settles. I also hope that these sorts of activities and others’ ideas for addressing the root causes of open enrollment are something that the Board’s new, slimmed down Planning and Development Committee (to be chaired by Arlene Silveira) can address this year.
It should go without saying that we need continuously to work towards improving the quality of the education that our schools deliver. As I have written, I think that on a district-wide basis, academic outcomes for our students compare favorably with those for the students of other school districts in the county. But families are choosing a school, not a school district, and some of our schools can present more challenges than others. We need to be attentive to this, learn from what open enrollment families are telling us, and do all that we can to meet the educational needs of all the students in our district and in each of our schools.