Friday, October 8, 2010

District's Enrollment on the Rebound

Today I want to talk about about the emerging turnaround in our enrollment and what that means for our school district. During the 1990's and in the first years of the decade thereafter, our school district's enrollment declined at about 200 students per year. A significant part of that enrollment decline occurred initially in the elementary grades, and when you lose students in the elementary grades, that decline moves through each grade, year after year, because of course when you lose students in first grade, the next year you lose them in second grade. We are still losing enrollment in the upper grades as a direct result of the declines that occurred about a decade ago.

When you lose 200 students, that costs the school district about one million dollars in revenue. Now when you lose 200 students, you have to cut teachers, because you don't need as many teachers. Because Minnesota law imposes a seniority system on school districts, when you lose 200 students, you must lay off the least expensive licensed professionals first. That means that when you lose 200 students, you lose more revenues than you do expenses, and that means that the district goes in the hole financially, unless it makes even more cuts than the number of students would suggest. Declining enrollment districts are thrust into grave financial difficulty. The fear is that declining enrollment thrusts you into a declining spiral in which enrollment losses leads to cuts, and that those cuts drive more families away.

When you gain students, the reverse is true. You must hire more teachers to take care of the new students, but since you hire those teachers at an entry level, your revenues increase more than your expenses. That's why a school district like Sartell, for example, has such big financial reserves. As a growing school district, they have far more teachers at the beginning of the pay scale than at the top. That means that their average teacher cost is way lower. Growing school districts take in more operating revenue from the state than they need; declining enrollment school districts are mired in financial challenges.

Beginning in about 2005, our school district gradually began to make a turnaround in enrollment. Its too early to tell whether that will be a permanent trend, but the signs are encouraging. Our elementary enrollment is up approximately 275 in the elementary grades this year. Early enrollment statistics can change on us, but the signs are really encouraging. If that enrollment increase continues into the secondary grades, its going to cause an even greater increase in the next decade as the larger enrollments work their way up through the grades.

Where is our enrollment increasing? A major component of our elementary enrollment increase is occurring at schools that have made significant efforts to provide programs that attract parents and students and to reach out to their community to develop community provide in their local school, and especially at the western and eastern ends of our district.

Since 2004, Clearview elementary has increased its enrollment from 396 to 542.
That school, its leadership, its staff and its parent supporters have made an outstanding effort to become integrated into the fiber of the community in that region. The more a school becomes a part of its community, the more it listens, the more it involves parents actively, the better it is bound to do on the enrollment front. Several years ago, the parents and leadership of Clearview Elementary decided to introduce Spanish immersion, and that program has proved extraordinarily popular. Its bringing new families to the school and the success of that program is a central part of the pride that parents and students feel for what they have done out there. The success of Clearview in growing its enrollment is not only vital to our whole school district, but it is an asset to the the cities and township in that region.

Since 2004, the elementary enrollment of Kennedy elementary is up by 123. When I joined the Board of Education, we were hearing from community leaders in St. Joseph that they were losing hope that the school district were capable of meeting the community's needs. There was even loose talk about trying to leave the district altogether. The Board made a commitment to address the need of that community for a school that could be central to that community's future, and the new Kennedy K-8 school was an important part of that commitment. Enrollment is up significantly in the elementary grades, and that increase is a testament to the fact that the leadership of the school and a strong parent organization are providing a school program in which the community takes pride. When local schools maintain strong ties to their community, and when they integrate parents into the school community, they thrive.

Madison Elementary has increased its enrollment from 501 to 627 since 2005. Now you have to make allowances at Madison, because Madison lost its 6th grade to North during this time, and then it gained a small chunk of territory from Westwood (which is up 55 students since 2004, by the way). But still, the gains at Madison are impressive. Madison too is a school that has made a significant effort to improve its connection to its community and to parents. Part of the increase as well can be attributed to the immersion program, which has attracted families who otherwise might have left the district. The immersion program has developed a strong, active, involved parent group who have become advocates for that school. It has created a buzz about Madison as a school where change is under way. Whether you are a fan of immersion or not, in theory, you can't argue with success: the market is telling us that immersion has had a significant impact on enrollment.

Often I hear from people: "why don't you run schools like a business?" And this is one place where they are right. Running local schools as a community asset; listening and involving parents; providing programs that parents want; creating a community buzz; these are all good business, and if the trend continues, its going to provide a financial boost to the district in the coming years.

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