Herald Journal, Nov. 1, 2004
Open enrollment: option of school choice a popular one in area
By Jane Otto
On any given school day, school buses from three different districts drive into Winsted.
Children are getting on buses headed to schools in Lester Prairie, Watertown, and to the city’s own district, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted.
According to numbers recently filed with the state, Watertown-Mayer reported having 96 HLWW students open enrolled in its schools, Dassel-Cokato has 66, Lester Prairie 44, and Buffalo 43.
Other students from the HLWW district also attend Delano, Maple Lake, Annandale, and Glencoe-Silver Lake.
Their reasons for going elsewhere are as varied as the schools they attend.
Two of Melanie and Charlie Fiecke’s children are among those students boarding the Watertown-Mayer bus.
Five years ago, the Fiecke family decided to open enroll their oldest son in the Watertown-Mayer district.
Now a ninth-grader, Jeremy had attended Holy Trinity from first through fourth grades, Melanie Fiecke said. The Holy Trinity tuition increases, however, were straining the family budget, so the Fieckes looked to the public school system.
A Howard Lake-Waverly graduate, Fiecke “loved” the school, she said, but looked east when it came to her children.
Five years ago, she saw HLWW and Lester Prairie as unsettled districts in the midst of consolidation talks, building issues, and financial woes.
“I just went where I felt it was more stable,” Fiecke said.
Several other reasons factored into her decision.
Watertown-Mayer offered more classes and more sports, she said.
Bussing was simpler. Her children would go together, rather than one off to Waverly and the other to Howard Lake.
More importantly, Fiecke works in Watertown. “It’s easier for me to get to school if I need to be there,” she said.
According to some area superintendents, where the parents work can play a major role in where their children go to school.
The Fieckes now have a second-grader at Watertown-Mayer and their youngest daughter attends Winsted Elementary preschool. When she reaches first grade, she, like her older brother and sister, will go to Watertown-Mayer.
Why open enroll?
The Fiecke children are among the almost 300 kids in the HLWW district who have opted to go to school elsewhere.
Since 1988, Minnesotans have been able to choose where their children go to school.
Last year, more than 30,000 students statewide attended a school out of the district where they lived, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
HLWW Superintendent George Ladd said “not one good reason” exists as to why students attend the schools they do.
“It’s a family choice,” he said. “People don’t always choose schools for education. It’s often other reasons. If it was based on education, we would be turning them away.”
One reason Ladd traced to developing before the Howard Lake-Waverly district consolidated with Winsted. Winsted was one of the last districts that didn’t have a high school, he said.
“So, every student that did go to public school, once they reached seventh or eighth grade, had to choose a high school,” Ladd said. “Many of those same families kept that tradition after consolidation.”
For some families, geography dictates where they go, Ladd said. When families live on the district’s edge, some choose the neighboring district.
“Parents may choose Lester Prairie because, for whatever reason, they want their kids in the same building,” Ladd said.
They’ll choose DC because they want their kids at a middle school environment, rather than mixed among high school students, he said. “They may choose Watertown-Mayer for gymnastics, or Buffalo for skiing.”
Ladd is pleased to see the gap closing between the number of students leaving and the number open enrolling in HLWW. “The numbers coming in are much better,” he said. “Certainly, it’s a better scenario than three or four years ago, but we need to attract more families.”
Students open enrolling into HLWW increased from 33 two years ago to 53 this year.
Two years ago, Watertown-Mayer had 100 more students come into its district than leave, but that gap is closing, too.
This year’s numbers showed 217 students coming and 169 leaving.
Superintendent Karsten Anderson didn’t have an answer as to why so many students come from HLWW. “I really don’t know, to be honest with you,” he said. “But, we lose kids to the east, as well.”
Almost 150 Watertown-Mayer students open enroll to Westonka, Waconia, Delano, and Orono.
Fielding parents’ open-enrollment questions, Anderson will tell them they can’t make a bad decision. “It’s more a matter of fit,” he said. “We’re surrounded by quality school districts and quality private schools within those districts.”
Lester Prairie also has more students coming than going, though its numbers are smaller than Watertown-Mayer. Of the 71 open enrolled, 44 students are from HLWW and 24 from GSL. Of the 61 leaving, the bulk go to Watertown-Mayer and GSL.
Superintendent Joe Miller said most students are open enrolling for what aren’t “legitimate” purposes.
Students should open enroll because they have an interest in a particular program that his school can’t offer, Miller said. “For example, a student that really wants to be involved in an FFA program can go to Glencoe or Howard Lake.”
Many open-enrolled students rely on their own transportation for getting to school, however, it’s not uncommon for school buses to cross district lines.
Lester Prairie and HLWW cross one another’s district lines, and about five years ago, Watertown-Mayer began sending a bus into those two districts.
Anderson said the district contracts with two bus companies, both of which have “considerable leeway to go where they want to go to pick up kids.”
When the decision was made to enter Lester Prairie, it was because “the need came first,” Anderson said. “We made a concerted effort not to publicize it.”
Lester Prairie’s superintendent saw no problem with that. “As a practical matter, if they’re willing to come and get (those students), what’s the big deal?” Miller asked.
For the most part, districts try to be “pretty respectful” of district lines, DC Superintendent Don Hainlen said.
Buses will go to another district’s edge, but Hainlen said his district’s buses won’t go out of their way for one or two kids. “You lose efficiency,” he said. “We want to fill buses as quickly as we can.
What other area school districts see
Open enrollment affects most school districts to some degree. The following is a brief summary of what districts in the region see.
• Dassel-Cokato typically has a “net gain” of 150 students through open enrollment, DC Superintendent Don Hainlen said. “That will be pretty standard.”
The district has 242 students open enrolled there, while 73 students leave.
More than 110 students come from Litchfield, 66 from HLWW, and 26 from Hutchinson.
The reason cited most is “quality academics,” Hainlen said. “Sometimes, it’s a specific program a student is looking for or an older brother or sister goes to school here.”
Hainlen also sees personal or social issues, sports, or geography as reasons for coming and going, he said.
• Maple Lake has 147 open-enrolled students, many of whom say they want a small school atmosphere, said Mary James of the Maple Lake district office.
Where parents work, day care, and “shared neighborhoods” are also cited reasons, James said.
Neighborhoods bordering the district are often split among more than one school district. Neighbors, however, prefer going to the same school, she said.
• Glencoe-Silver Lake has 97 open enrolled students versus 170 who leave the district. The majority of open-enrolled students are from McLeod West, Lester Prairie, and Hutchinson. Of the students leaving, most go to Hutchinson, Sibley East, Lester Prairie, and Norwood Young America.
• Norwood Young America has 68 students open enrolled in its district, more than half from GSL and Sibley East.
The district has 120 students leaving, with 76 of those heading to Waconia and 15 to Chaska.
• Waconia School District closed its open enrollment the past spring, so now the district has about 200 students leaving and 150 coming. Of those 150, the bulk come from Norwood Young America and Watertown-Mayer.
• Hutchinson, whose 2,900 students is similar to Waconia’s student population, has little open enrollment activity, in comparison.
The district has 36 students coming in and 59 leaving, with most attending Dassel-Cokato, McLeod West, and Glencoe-Silver Lake.
• Buffalo has also closed open enrollment despite 437 district students enrolling elsewhere.
Open enrollment is closed at Hanover Elementary for kindergartners at Montrose and Hanover, first grade at Montrose, second grade at Tatanka and Buffalo elementaries, fourth grade at Hanover, and fifth grade at Parkside and Buffalo elementaries.
The district has 293 open enrolled students, most of whom come from Maple Lake, St. Michael-Albertville, HLWW, Rockford, and Monticello.
Those students leaving go to Rockford, Delano, Osseo, Watertown-Mayer, Maple Lake, Monticello and St. Michael-Albertville.