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A tale of two school districts: How open enrollment is playing out in Greater Minnesota

During the 2016-2017 school year, about 25,000 students open-enrolled into “rural” districts, a recent study found, while about 15,000 students open-enrolled into “regional centers.”

Ray Lassing
Ray Lassing, superintendent of the Round Lake-Brewster School District, outside the elementary and middle school in Brewster. It was formerly the high school.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

In 2013, enrollment in the Round Lake-Brewster School District, in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, had gotten so low that officials decided to close their school in Round Lake, which housed middle- and high-schoolers.

Round Lake and Brewster, which had been operating cooperatively, consolidated, added seventh- and eighth-graders to the elementary school in Brewster and gave their high school students the option of enrolling in four nearby districts.

While the arrangement allowed the district to cut the costs of running a high school and maintain one of its schools, the horizon still looked bleak; the fall after the high school closed, just four students were enrolled in the eighth grade. (Brewster and Round Lake have fewer than a thousand residents combined).

So why, on a quiet morning just after the Fourth of July holiday, was Superintendent and Principal Ray Hassing so busy?

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One reason was pinned to a wall in his office: the blueprint of an expansion project, wildly unlikely just a few years ago, that will add classrooms and a gymnasium to the Brewster school. Hassing was also monitoring the renovation of two floors of a 1916 building – which was Brewster High School in the days before the district partnered with Round Lake – that had been used as storage since the last class graduated in 1985. Oh, and he needed to find a half-dozen teachers for the fall.

“We went from nearly closing to thriving,” Hassing said.

The remarkable turnaround of this tiny district can largely be traced to open enrollment, the school-shopping arrangement that became law three decades ago, the brainchild of a governor who wanted to reinvigorate public education.

The elementary and middle school in Brewster.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The elementary and middle school in Brewster.
Indeed, the district has been growing by about 20 students per year for the past decade, with 57 new students enrolling last year, according to Hassing. Local residents seem to think it’s for real; in May, they approved a $2 million bond referendum for the expansion project. Seventy-five percent of the voters favored the plan.

“We’re very fortunate,” Hassing added. “For a small school like ours to have growing enrollment is unheard of. We are blessed to be in this situation.”

Haves and have nots

Students in Minnesota have been able to enroll in public school districts outside of the ones they are living in since 1988, thanks to a program championed by former Gov. Rudy Perpich, an Iron Range Democrat who had a lot of ideas about education. (He also supported a program called Post-Secondary Education Options, known as PSEO, which covers the cost for qualified high school students who take college classes for credit. That, too, is growing.)

Open enrollment has grown steadily since its inception, but especially so over the past decade or so. At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, according statistics compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 83,000 students, or 9 percent of the state’s students, were enrolled in districts outside their own – nearly doubling the number from 10 years earlier. About half of those students were in districts located outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development, a Mankato-based think tank, took a close look at open enrollment’s impact on Greater Minnesota in a study published last year.

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(The center placed Greater Minnesota districts into two categories: those in smaller “rural” towns with a few thousand people or so and those in larger “regional centers” like Brainerd, Willmar and Marshall).

During the 2016-2017 school year, according to the study, about 25,000 students open-enrolled into “rural” districts, while about 15,000 students open-enrolled into “regional centers” – numbers that have upended the balance in many districts. To wit, the study found that about half of the districts in Greater Minnesota fell into one of two categories: They were experiencing either an annual net gain of students or an annual net loss of students as a result of open enrollment.

Kelly Asche, a research associate for the center who wrote the report, concluded that these dynamics were having an impact on “how districts plan their programming, busing, and finances.” Furthermore, he found a “cordial competition” among districts that are now in the position of trying to take in as many students as possible while making sure as few as possible leave the district. Some districts are adopting new communication strategies to adjust to the competition.

The reasons parents send their children to districts outside their own are many, but the center found that one common factor is their desire to have their children experience a small-school atmosphere. Many parents, according to the report, think their children will have better opportunities to be involved in sports and other extracurricular activities in smaller schools. “Parents who hold these perceptions believe that sports, clubs, music, and other activities are ‘less competitive’ in smaller districts, giving their kids a better chance to join and participate,” Asche wrote.

Brewster, population 475, is in Nobles County.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Brewster, population 475, is in Nobles County.
Of course, the reverse can also be true, school officials say, as some parents send their children to larger schools that offer more electives or advanced courses.

While so-called “white flight” has been rumored to be a motivating factor behind some of the movement – especially from growing, multicultural districts to smaller, less diverse ones – Asche, in his report and in an interview with MinnPost, cautioned against such a conclusion, saying it is difficult to prove with the existing data.

Indeed, a different dynamic has played out in Round Lake-Brewster, where two-thirds of the enrollment is made up of students with Latino heritage – many of them open-enrollees from Worthington or other surrounding districts.

Carlton gains some, loses more

While small districts that are located around regional centers often gain students (New London-Spicer, near Willmar, and St. Clair, near Mankato, are two others), that is not always the case.

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Carlton — a town of about 1,000 residents in northeastern Minnesota, about 20 miles from Duluth — for instance, regularly loses students who enroll in nearby districts. In recent years, in fact, about half of the students living in the Carlton School District have open enrolled elsewhere – especially Cloquet, which, according to state statistics, got 171 students from Carlton last year. (Carlton also gains some students through open enrollment, including the 83 it got from Cloquet last year, though not nearly enough to make up for the losses).

Gwen Carman
Gwen Carman
Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said some larger districts like Cloquet can offer course electives at the high school that are not available in Carlton, but she counters that her district offers a competitive array of courses, especially in the middle school, in addition to small class sizes.

Whatever the reasons, all of that movement in and out of districts, in Carman’s view, erodes local support for schools and erases the identity that schools can create for communities. “One of my core tenets is that education is local,” she said. “It’s about the local community and how it is part of public education. With the initiation of open enrollment, giving a choice has really eroded confidence and support for public education.”

It’s a sentiment that seems to have seeped into Carlton. In 2017, for instance, the district proposed a project to build a middle/high school and to renovate its elementary school – moves that would have modernized the district and put all of its buildings in one location. A referendum asking voters for permission to borrow about $23 million for the project failed lopsidedly, 72 percent to 28 percent.

Last year was particularly difficult as the district lost about 20 more students than it had anticipated. “That had a significant impact on our budget, which is why we needed to make decisions in a short amount of time,” Carman said. This year, she anticipates the district maintaining its enrollment at about 430 students in grades K-12.

Carman questions open enrollment on many grounds. First of all, she said it doesn’t make sense that districts must pay most of the special-education costs for students who enroll into other districts. (The Legislature provided some relief to this formula this past session, as explained in this MinnPost story).

Nor, she said, does it seem quite right that some parents pay taxes in one district, which might have a certain set of goals or aspirations, while sending their children to another district that has its own distinct mission. “If the state is going to continue to advocate for parent choice, it needs to align property tax statutes to open enrollment,” she said. “Families choose a school district and are not paying taxes in that district – that just makes it all the more difficult for districts to grow and improve.”

Many ideas for retaining students have been discussed, Carman said — everything from working with nearby schools to offer workforce education to advertising the district’s strengths on a billboard. “It’s an ongoing process to try to promote ourselves,” she said. “What we do know is that the best kind of marketing is by word of mouth.”

‘Deep rural’ losses

Fred Nolan, the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said that, to some degree, open enrollment has fulfilled one mission when it was started, which was to “energize public bureaucracies.”

Brewster, Carlton
Brewster, Carlton
The association hasn’t taken a public stand on open enrollment, Nolan said, noting that it represents districts that gain students from the system and others that lose students. But after three decades, he said, the general trend seems to be that districts near regional centers are thriving with open enrollment while “deep rural districts” – those far away from larger towns – are suffering. “We advise districts to build up their school and market it and be attractive to families,” he said.

Nolan offered one proposal that he believes could help districts: earlier deadlines for families to declare that their children will enroll in a district outside their own – May, perhaps – so that districts can plan their budgets, which includes deciding how many non-tenured instructors will be needed to return to teach.

A workable model

Brewster is just a six-mile drive from Worthington on Highway 60, which continues, to the northeast, past a soybean processor just outside of town and on through Windom, St. James and Mankato.

Today, the three-story brownstone that once served as Brewster High School is surrounded by one-story classrooms, green space and sidewalks. The city’s tree-shaded park, which includes a veterans memorial, stands between the school and a small business district, which includes city hall, TC’s Tavern and a grain elevator.

For the upcoming school year, the Round Lake-Brewster District is projected to have about 400 students – a significant increase from about 250 during the 2012-13 school year, when the high school in Round Lake was closed.

The source of much of the district’s growth is nearby Worthington, the region’s largest city with about 13,000 people.

In recent years, the Worthington School District has sustained a net loss of about 350 students to open enrollment, according to Superintendent John Landgaard. The district has more than made up for that, however, through its online school, which drew about 700 students last year, many of them home-schooled, from across the state. The district is also growing – fueled in large part by new immigrants – and is expected to have about 3,400 students this fall, Landgaard said. (In February, Worthington voters narrowly turned back a school request for $32 million for a new school. It was the district’s fifth attempt to pass a referendum in six years).

In 2018-19, Round Lake-Brewster enrolled 205 students from Worthington, according to state statistics, while seeing 50 of its own students enroll in Worthington. Round Lake-Brewster has a student-teacher ratio of 15-1. It also began offering all-day pre-school nine years ago, the beneficiary of state funding for the program. That has also helped to fuel the school’s growth; many parents who come to appreciate the small setting for their preschoolers, Lassing said, end up keeping their kids in the school for kindergarten – and beyond.

For Hassing, though, it’s less about competing for students and more about stewarding the system as it has evolved. While he stresses his district’s setting and class sizes, he also understands that some parents value larger districts and what they have to offer. “John (Landgaard) likes to kid me that I get all of his kids,” Hassing said with a smile. “I remind him that he gets some of mine, too.”

Lassing went to school in Jackson and once taught and coached basketball in Fairmont. He knows this region well. So he’s gratified to see his small district thriving, even though it has no high school. It has found a sustainable model, buoyed by open enrollment. “A school – it’s the heart of the community,” he said.

When the students in Brewster finish the eighth grade, they have their pick of four high schools, of various sizes, to attend under a secondary tuition agreement: Worthington, Heron Lake-Okabena, Fulda and Harris-Lake Park, IA. That eighth-grade class that was down to four students? In recent years, it’s had between 22 and 28.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.