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Ryan Bakken, Forum News Service, Published November 04 2013

Crookston schools, losing students due to open enrollment, markets its benefits

CROOKSTON, Minn. – The school district here is losing about $1 million a year in state aid because of students who open-enroll elsewhere.

At first, school leaders concentrated on learning what they were doing wrong. Recently, they’ve changed their strategy to emphasize what they’re doing right.

At the effort’s forefront are Superintendent Chris Bates and Dave Davidson, a retired English teacher who was the chief union negotiator for 25 years and is now a school board member. Bates also has a diverse educational background in Crookston, as he was a foreign exchange student from England here in the 1970s and a teacher in the 1990s.

“I know for a fact that we aren’t going to bring back herds of kids,” Davidson said. “We might be better off meeting the needs of the people we have and emphasizing the positives.”

Two responses

Bates said the school district has 170 children who are open-enrolling elsewhere and 50 children coming into District 593. That’s a net loss of 120 students, at a state-aid level of $8,000 per student, resulting in the loss of about $1 million per school year.

“I don’t like talking about the money because it looks like we’re putting a cash value on kids,” Davidson said. “I just want to show that this is the right place to be.”

In an August phone survey of 28 Crookston families, officials learned their school-age children were open-enrolling for a wide range of reasons, most of them not under the school district’s control.

The administration’s response has been basically twofold: 1) study whether to tweak the busing situation, and 2) tout what Crookston has to offer.

Tweaking busing

In the survey, parents of open-enrolled students said they liked the fact that Fisher and Climax school buses picked up their Crookston students literally at their homes’ doorstep.

Because of the time involved in picking up a much greater number of students door to door, Crookston can’t offer that amenity and has to stay with bus stops that require no walk beyond five blocks, Bates said.

However, the school district is likely to provide a more flexible busing system. Current policy is to allow only one pickup location and one drop-off location for each student. The idea is to allow a second drop-off site option, for the likes of appointments and extracurricular activities. A questionnaire will be sent in December about the busing situation.

“I thought busing was a big part of the answer to begin with, but now I’m not so sure it’s that big of a piece,” Davidson said. “I’d say we should be the best school district we can be and let the chips fall as they may.”

Touting positives

Bates notes that Crookston and other larger schools have their own advantages, although different than a smaller-school atmosphere. Among the pluses he promotes are:

E Advanced-placement classes. Crookston has five AP classes, which allow high school students to gain college credits without paying the tuition.

“Those five classes amount to 16 credits, an entire college semester, with no tuition cost,” Bates said. “The AP classes also give us a better ability to attract higher-caliber teachers.”

E A wider curriculum. His examples include a construction trades class that builds a house each school year.

“That’s relevance gone wild,” Bates said. “That’s math in the real world.”

E More extracurricular options. Orchestra is one that most schools don’t have.

E More teacher options. Bates said the elementary averages about 100 students per grade, meaning there are five classrooms.

“That means there are five teacher options,” he said. “Having a choice of teachers is a positive.”

Davidson, chairman of a recently formed publicity committee, has written five “Right Fit for Me” columns about the school district’s pluses. They have been published in local media and on the school district’s website at www.crookston.k12.mn.us.

“I really love education and I really, really love this school district,” Davidson said, again accentuating the positive.