Families now have a longer period of time to open enroll their children into a school district other than the one where they live.
On Feb. 1, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that expands the open enrollment application period from three weeks to three months.
The open enrollment period for the 2012-13 school year began Monday, Feb. 6 and runs through the end of April.
“This bill makes a lot of sense. Three weeks is just not enough time for parents to make decisions about their children’s education,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who authored the legislation.
Olsen is chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and also worked on Wisconsin’s original open enrollment bill.
He remembers instances during his tenure on the Berlin School Board when parents, living on the edge of the school district, asked to detach from the district so their children could attend a neighboring school district.
Often, the family had a connection to the other district or actually lived closer to the schools in it, he said.
Under Wisconsin’s open enrollment program, families can apply for their children to attend school in up to three other districts.
The program began in 1998, and last year, about 35,000 students took advantage of it.
The legislation signed by the governor requires schools to determine the number of open-enrollment spots they will have in every grade in January, so that when the open application period begins, districts know how many spots are available.
In addition, the bill also allows students to move to a new district in the middle of the year – under certain circumstances.
“If a student is the victim of harassment or bullying, or if they are not thriving at their current school, parents can apply to leave the district in mid year,” Olsen said. “Both districts have to agree to a mid-year switch, but parents can appeal a denial to the state Department of Public Instruction.”
He said the state spends a lot of money per student and wants students where they will get the best education, whether that is in their home district, a neighboring school district or a virtual school.
“The legislature worked on this bill for a year, with a number of amendments and discussions between legislators. In the end, we made meaningful changes to the open enrollment law that will make the program more workable for parents and students,” Olsen said.
The administrators of the school districts in Waupaca County say many parents decide to open enroll their children into or out of a district for convenience.
David Poeschl , district administrator of the Waupaca School District, said the district’s open enrollment numbers have been consistent and do not reflect a change in any trends.
The percentage of students who open enrolled out to a virtual school appears to be statistically unchanged from last year, he said.
“The School District of Waupaca understands parents can make choices about where and how their child is educated. The district will continue to do what we do best – to offer a high quality education giving students a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular choices designed to meet their needs as part of the total learning experience,” Poeschl said.
Of the changes in the open enrollment law, he is concerned about the new option to open enroll out of a district during certain circumstances.
“We think a student needs to be in a stable environment,” he said. “We think school districts need to be given the opportunity to address things.”
In the Waupaca School District, families often choose to open enroll in or out of the district for convenience, whether it is work schedules or proximity to a neighboring district.
Over the years, there have been some families who open enrolled into the district so their children could participate in hockey. It has not been a large number, he said.
“We treat is as parental choice,” Poeschl said.
It is a free marketplace, and it is his hope that people make good choices and select the type of education that best suits their children.
“Obviously, we’re on the receiving end, with more coming in than going out. Our main mission is to do what we do well,” he said.
Poeschl said that for some students, a virtual school is the best fit.
Of open enrollment, he said, “Each district suits that person. Overall, I don’t see choice as a bad thing, as long as it’s being made for the right decision.”
Scott Bleck is the district administrator in the Weyauwega-Fremont School District, and he said that 10 of the 53 students who open enrolled out of the district, did so to go to virtual schools.
With there now a longer period for open enrollment, he said it will give families more time to evaluate their choices. and virtual schools more time to advertise.
In the W-F School District, “We actively promote our district and what we have to offer,” Bleck said.
Last year, Fremont Elementary was named a Blue Ribbon School, which he said is a testament to the quality of education in the district
Bleck said that smaller districts have to maintain their class offerings and evaluate them annually to stay current with educational trends while meeting the needs of all students, whether they are going directly into the workforce, to a technical college, four-year college or into the military.
Five new classes are being added at W-F High School for the 2012-13 school year.
“Our philosophy in Weyauwega-Fremont is if a student chooses to enroll, we will do our best to accommodate that request and to create a learning environment for them. We don’t want to turn anyone away,” Bleck said.
Typically, open enrolled students go to a neighboring district, he said.
Facilities and extracurricular offerings can play into the decisions of some families.
Last year, the W-F district completed its track project. “I think our track will only help us in offering a quality experience for kids that want to participate in track and field. There have been a lot of area districts maintaining or upgrading their facilities,” he said.
He said some families find the smaller campus appealing for its teacher-student relationships.
Other times, parents open in or out because of their work schedule or because they actually live closer to a neighboring district, he said.
“Our key is knowing our students and spreading the word about what we’re doing,” Bleck said.
The School Board is vested in knowing the open enrollment in and out numbers.
“In a perfect situation, we would have just as many coming in as going out or having the number coming in greater,” he said.
The administration and school board do look at those numbers.
If people choose to leave, the board wants to know why and whether there is something it can do at the board level to address it, Bleck said.
“I think knowing the reason is critical. I’ll typically ask them (the parents). It’s their discretion, but I would like to know,” he said.
“Open enrollment has always been kind of a wash for the district. It’s been even or close to it,” said Joe Price, district administrator of the Iola-Scandinavia School District.
Of the 34 students who open enrolled out of the district this district, he said, “Eleven of those are kids going to virtual schools, and a bunch were homeschooled and were never part of our district.”
Price sees it as a positive that the students who were homeschooled and are now enrolling in virtual schools are counting toward their revenue cap.
“The virtual school is good for that reason,” he said.
Now that the open enrollment period is longer, Price suspects there may be more parents applying for open enrollment.
In past years, some parents missed the deadline.
He said virtual schools are actively advertising and will continue to do so.
The I-S School District has never surveyed families about why they open enroll in or out of the district.
“From what I hear, it was often work related,” Price said.
This school year, students from the Waupaca, Manawa, Tigerton, Tomorrow River and Rosholt districts open enrolled their children into the I-S district.
“All are neighboring districts,” he said.
Like O’Toole, Price said that many who open enroll out of the district moved into the district from a neighboring district and wanted to keep their children in the schools they gone to.
Tom O’Toole is superintendent of the Clintonville School District. He said the majority of the students who open enroll out of the district were homeschooled students who are now going to virtual schools.
Students who attend virtual charter schools are public school students who participate online from their homes.
Sometimes, students drop out of the virtual schools and enroll in the district, because they are not suited to a virtual education, he said.
There is a lot to be said, he said, for student interaction with their teachers and peers.
O’Toole says that in other cases, families who open enroll their children out of the Clintonville School District were never in the district, until a recent move.
They want their children to continue going to the school they had been attending.
Other parents open enroll their children into a particular district because they work there and want to be closer to where their children attend school.
“It’s much more of a convenience situation, of continuing education, than dissatisfaction,” O’Toole said.
Those who open enroll into the district are also not dissatisfied with their home district. They have a connection to the Clintonville School District, he said.
O’Toole said there are not a large number of students coming into the district for a specific program.
Ed Dombrowski is the district administrator in the Manawa School District, and he sent letters to the families who chose to open enroll either into or out of the district to find out why they did so.
In many cases, the decision is not about academics but about convenience.
Most open enrolled out of the district so that their children would be closer to where they work, he said.
Those who open enrolled into the district made that decision because they like the school district.
The Manawa School District has seen some open enroll their children out of the district so they can go to virtual schools.
Dombrowski says virtual schools are a good option for a certain segment of the population and that it takes a special type of student to do well in that environment.
Of the extended open enrollment period, he said, “I think we will have to take a wait-and-see attitude. We don’t know yet how it will affect our numbers. Some say it is an advantage for those making the decision. For the district, it delays the budgeting process.”
Dombrowski says that sometimes, the district cannot do anything about those who want to open enroll out of the district.
“We have to focus on who we have,” he said.
The Manawa School District is taking a balanced approach.
At the same time that a new activities complex is being planned, the district also seeks to build the necessary infrastructure for today’s technology and to do such things as resurrect its drama program, bring back its business program and add a new welding program.
Knowing that about 35 percent of their graduates go on to technical colleges, Dombrowski said the district and board are doing what it takes to prepare those students for the workplace.
The district is promoting its small-school education, where students get almost one-on-one attention, he said.
Dombrowski said as they move toward a block schedule at the high school level, that personal attention toward students will be promoted even more.
Manawa will do away with study halls, instead incorporating the study period into the classroom.
Dombrowski said there are some students who do not flourish in a larger school. In such cases, a smaller district may be a better fit for them.
Smaller districts can offer students more opportunities for extracurricular involvement than they might have in a larger district.
“We have to build on what we have,” Dombrowski said. “I’m a very practical person. Everyone talks about reducing that number going out. Maybe we can’t, but maybe we can look at it not going higher.”