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A Long Way To School

Published on: November 3rd, 2007

When Jarrod Phelps, a seven-year-old Adams 12 district resident, waits for the school bus each morning, dozens of other kids his age can be seen in the background, running around the playground of another school that is just steps from his home.

But his mother thinks its best he attend Pinnacle Charter School, which is on the other side of Thornton (Federal Heights, actually). Colorado’s flexible open enrollment rules allow for that, and Charlotte Phelps, Jarrod’s mother, considered a number of elements when opting to enroll her kids in schools outside her neighborhood.

Phelps didn’t like that Coronado Hills Elementary—within shouting distance from her home—featured dual-language education.

Meanwhile, many other parents see that type of teaching as beneficial for their children, opting to send them from miles away to the school Phelps scorns.

This is life in Colorado’s open enrollment system, with kids traveling across town, over district lines and into other communities to receive the education parents’ desire. It’s a dream for most moms and dads since they can avoid lagging schools or find niche educational institutes to meet different needs.

“There’s myriad reasons (parents choose open enrollment). Sometimes they are practical, such as childcare, convenience, location of relatives,” says Connie Spenko, chief of staff for Adams 12 Five Star Schools. “There’s some very practical reasons why parents will choose a school, and then there are the emotional reasons like that they went to that school and have an attachment.”

While parents love the choice, open enrollment causes frustration for some districts. Schools with an emphasis on intensive math and science programs, such as IB and Gifted and Talented curricula, generally receive more students. Tax dollars follow students, leaving schools with declining enrollment fighting to make ends meet. Each October, schools count the numbers of pupils in their seats and receive roughly $6,000 per student.

Those who lose students miss out on key educational dollars; those with top resources see more gains. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Rob Schmidt, a member of the St. Vrain Board of Education, says that in many cases, open enrollment works, but there has been fall outs from the system.

“The educational system today is a competitive one, and the district in the past has not been as proactive to meet the needs and demands of the students and the parents,” Schmidt says. “If you look at where we’re losing students, we are losing them to districts that have a lot more money to spend on programs. If we want to compete in today’s environment, we must have curriculum choices that meet their needs.”

St. Vrain schools lost about 200 students in 2006-07 to open enrollment, translating to roughly $1.2 million less in state funding. For Kathy O’Donnell, a principal at a soon-to-be-opened St. Vrain school, lower enrollment forces her to make staffing cuts—moving a full-time position to part-time—meaning fewer course options for students.

Arts programs are usually the first to be sacrificed.

“We decided to move from a full-time art person to a half-time art person,” O’Donnell says. “Those are the decisions you have to make.”

O’Donnell is one of many principles across the state that has to balance school budgets with changing enrollment numbers each year.

That wasn’t the intent when Colorado State Board of Education began open enrollment as a way to develop new learning opportunities for students.

“Parents…see open enrollment as a choice they can exercise, like charter schools, private schools or home schooling,” says Pamela Hines, the program assistant for the Colorado Department of Education’s School of Choice Program. “Parents call me about the choice options in Colorado, and their main questions are how and where they can get the best education for their children.”

To enroll a child via open enrollment parents must contact the district of their chosen school and follow the application procedure. Most districts require applications by mid-January for priority status and notify parents of acceptance by March. Waiting lists are commonplace in wealthier districts, such as the Boulder Valley School District, which put 47 percent of priority applicants on waitlists for the 2008 school year.

So it would appear Boulder Valley is happy, as are the 53 percent of students who made it into the resource-rich district this year. The districts that lost those students probably lost something else: perhaps a music class. ?

Options in Education

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