A Look at Open Enrollment

This is the time of the year when our Student Services, Teaching and Learning, and our Human Resources Departments all begin looking at in-District student enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. A review of these numbers helps us to determine our budget and staffing for the 2015-2016 school year. Reviewing these enrollment numbers is also critical in helping us determine the number of open enrollment students we will accept into the District.

As we reviewed a parent survey from last spring, and in conversations I’ve had with parents throughout this school year, I’ve discovered that District families have a lot of questions regarding our open enrollment process. I wanted to spend some time to share information with you, and to clear up any questions or misinformation that may be out there regarding open enrollment.

In 1989, the Nebraska Legislature initially authorized option enrollment, allowing students from other school districts the choice to attend classes in another school district. State law required that all Nebraska public schools participate in the Nebraska Option Enrollment program. The law also prohibited school districts from excluding students based on disability, English language proficiency, or previous discipline issues. I’m told Westside Community Schools initially had concerns about the option enrollment law, given many unknown variables, including the cost of educating these students, and whether state funding would sufficiently cover these costs.

Instead, option enrollment proved to be a lifesaver for Westside Community Schools. In the mid- 80’s, enrollment began to significantly decline in the District from a peak of 10,000 students in the early 70’s. The District had to make tough decisions to close some of its schools. As a result, two of the District’s junior highs, Westbrook and Valley View, closed its doors. Seventh and eighth grade were consolidated into Arbor Heights Junior High, which eventually became Westside Middle School.

Then, in 2007, as a result of the One City, One School issue, the Nebraska Legislature established the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County, the state’s Nebraska’s first political subdivision for education. The open enrollment process for the metropolitan area was launched two years later. Similar to option enrollment, the open enrollment law requires Learning Community school districts to accept students from other districts, provided that they are not at capacity within their buildings. However, open enrollment also requires districts to place students within individual schools based on their socioeconomic status. This means that students with a lower socioeconomic status receive first priority to attend schools with higher socioeconomic status. The idea is to balance socioeconomic diversity within all Learning Community schools. Given that Westside is in the center of the city, and we draw students from a variety of districts, we have been able to do this successfully.

Today, one-third of Westside’s students, roughly 2,000, come to us from neighboring districts. We welcome their enrollment in our District. Open enrollment students bring economic and racial diversity; the families of open enrollment students are often highly motivated and engaged, because these parents have made a conscious decision to send their children to our schools. Open enrollment students are a mirror or our in-District student population, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and ability. Open enrollment also generates approximately $15 million annually for the District’s general fund budget.

Open enrollment has helped us to maintain our District enrollment to an optimal size of 6,000 students. It has allowed us to keep our neighborhood elementary schools open, especially those neighborhoods that still have a high number of empty nesters and residents who don’t have children. Keeping our enrollment numbers stable helps to keep our teachers and support staff employed.

Westside Community Schools would not look like or operate like the District it is today without open enrollment. For example, at the high school, a third of our total students taking AP or honors classes are open enrollment students. In some AP classes, half of the enrollment comes from open enrollment students. Because of our total student enrollment at the high school, we are able to offer a greater number and a wider variety of courses. Without open enrollment students, the high school might be force to reduce or even eliminate these or other course offerings.

As I mentioned earlier, open enrollment helps us to balance our enrollment numbers, not to fill our buildings beyond capacity. I have heard several rumors that the District will continue to arbitrarily accept open enrollment applications, even when buildings are full. Those rumors are simply not true. We are starting to see an increase in enrollment of students who live within the District. A recent demographics study by RSP confirms this. As the number of resident students continues to rise, this will impact the numbers of open enrollment students we accept.

However, even with the internal growth, the need for future open enrollment remains necessary, since we can continue to enroll students into buildings where space is available. By every measure, Westside Community School has embraced and benefitted from open enrollment. We will continue to welcome these students as a vital part of the ongoing health of our District.

Supporting School Choice

I wrote the following OP-ED, which appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

School choice continues to be at the forefront of education reform, specifically charter schools.  I, along with the other Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium (MOEC) Superintendents, expect charter school conversations will take place during the upcoming legislative session.

My colleagues have asked that I share my experiences with school choice. These experiences include charter schools, voucher systems, open enrollment, dual credit options, choice-driven desegregation plans, and private/parochial schools.  What I have learned from my involvement is that the factors driving the success of any choice program are similar to what drives the success of a public school.  Achievement in any educational setting begins with highly qualified and committed teachers who engage students in a rich learning environment.  The governance of a school or school district rarely influences student achievement by itself.  Yes, structure is important, but to transform schools, we must set high expectations for students. We must provide comprehensive, readily available systems of support. We must develop and implement best learning practices that deepen students’ understanding of content and strengthen their ability to be independent life-long learners.

Recent studies at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, along with results in Michigan and Wisconsin, indicate that charter school outcomes are mixed at best. Last year, a Detroit Free Press investigative series highlighted that more than a billion dollars paid into charter school opportunities had not resulted in increased student achievement.  The Free Press also found that Michigan’s charter schools, as a whole, fared no better than traditional public schools in educating students in poverty.  Just as troubling, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that during a ten-year period, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $139 million dollars to schools that were ultimately terminated from a voucher program for failing to meet expectations and state requirements.

In my experience, the most successful charter schools were created by existing school districts and university systems.  My former district embedded a successful charter school within its high school. In contrast, I have not seen positive results when municipalities or outside agencies, not regulated in a similar fashion to public schools, were allowed to create charters. Too often charter schools syphon away both funding and students from an already cash-strapped public school system.

When charters were first created, they were designed to be incubators of educational innovation.  The hope was that the best ideas discovered at charter schools could eventually be replicated in public schools, leading to transformation throughout an entire system. Unfortunately, this original concept was weakened and charters instead ended up competing with public schools.  Sharing best practices, while a noble intention, simply did not occur in either direction. Further, charter schools have frequently failed to change the basic model of educating students.

However, through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a vehicle exists – called the Focus School concept – that allows Learning Community Districts to collaborate and develop innovative ideas. Unfortunately, only one focus school has been created since the Learning Community came into existence and is now supported by OPS.

Other choice opportunities also exist locally beginning with Omaha Public School’s many magnet programs as well as an OPS partnership with University of Nebraska-Omaha where students earn dual credit while they prepare to attend the University. Further, Millard and Papillion-LaVista operate student academies such as the Zoo School housed at the Henry Doorly Zoo.  Lastly, several districts collaborate and enroll students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center during their junior and senior years of high school in preparation for careers in medicine.

With the proper nurturing and funding mechanisms, additional focus schools and student academies could be created, and charter schools, as defined in other states, would be unnecessary.

Furthermore, I believe the concept of Innovation Zones, which are now in use in multiple states, is a concept worth examining. All schools within Innovation Zones are more likely to be transformed by implementing rich learning environments and not by creating additional governance structures. By collaborating with the Nebraska Department of Education and by removing regulatory obstacles for all schools, not just charter or voucher schools, all schools are encouraged to innovate and achieve excellence.  This kind of freedom sparks the best new educational ideas to transform learning.

Encouraging the transformation of learning through technology is also a factor. It helps to personalize education by encouraging academic engagement, by promoting deep learning, and by allowing students to learn at their own pace.  This kind of learning helps every student, but is especially galvanizing for students living in poverty.

Creating learning settings that encourage students to follow their interests and passions in a flexible environment is the type of choice that will lead to improved results. Rich learning environments in all schools, not just selected ones, will nurture our next generation. These young people will have the capacity to solve the complex issues facing our society in government, the economy, and at home.

Rich, customized learning approaches provide the ultimate educational choice.