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Schools of Choice snapshot shows some districts struggling

Published 10:57am Wednesday, January 13, 2010

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

Preliminary reports were released this week by the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) giving a glimpse at cumulative numbers in Schools of Choice students in the county for 2009-2010.

“Parents across Berrien County have the ability to choose which school district their child will attend through the Schools of Choice program,” said Jeff Siegel, superintendent of Berrien Regional Education Service Agency. “As we review the preliminary enrollment statistics, we can see that many families are taking advantage of this opportunity.”

The numbers, Siegel said are a “snapshot” of county districts as of Sep. 30, 2009. They do not reflect students who have made the move in 2009-2010 alone.

What the numbers show, bottom line, Siegel said is that Schools of Choice is a program parents find attractive regardless of whether for academic or personal reasons.

The question is, whether or not that is good or bad news for schools already focused on their finances – students being the bread and butter of their budgets.

Described as “a lever for raising student achievement” by BuildingChoice.org, a Web site dedicated to promoting school choice programs by the U.S. Department of Education, Schools of Choice was developed to benefit both parents and schools, giving parents the option to put their children in schools based on their own desires rather than proximity or district alone.

For school districts, the option could be used as a tool with many uses.

BuildingChoice.org states that districts utilizing the program could improve student learning, improve student attendance, increase district budgets due to an increased student population and average daily attendance and spur school improvement through competition.

So is that happening?

“We’re getting about as many as we’re losing,” Doug Law, superintendent of Niles Community Schools said Tuesday.

In area districts, preliminary numbers show Niles Community Schools lost 338 students but gained 255 for the reported year. Brandywine saw 146 of its students leave the district and welcomed 266.

In Buchanan, 178 students left the district while 208 moved to it.

While Law calls numbers like those pertaining to Niles as “virtually a wash,” there are examples of where that is not the case.

In Benton Harbor, 1296 students left the district. Only 11 new students were recorded coming in.
Berrien Springs lost 49 students in the reported year but gained 534.

Berrien RESA also reported a total of 267 students within the county come from neighboring Cass and Van Buren counties.

Law said research done by officials within his district show that two significant patterns emerge in looking into why parents choose to send their children to the districts they do.

In the case of elementary students, Law said, many parents make their decisions “for child care purposes.” For example, a parent’s childcare provider, be it a relative or outside service is located in another district. Parents sometimes choose to have their children go to school closer to those services.

When it comes to the secondary schools, Law said decisions are then based on specific situations within the district the home district.

“It’s a negative reaction to something that happened in their home district,” Law said.

Athletic and academic programs can also make a difference in a parent’s choice.

“Schools of Choice, I don’t believe, has fulfilled the promise that the state believed would happen,” Law said. “In that it would make schools more competitive.”

Instead, he added, the program “has created a barrier for schools to cooperate and work with each other.”

Though schools interested in marketing themselves aggressively can benefit from Schools of Choice, “is it making innovative changes to education? No,” Law said.

“I think that’s great for parents, sure,” Siegel said, adding, “it’s a double edged sword for school districts.

“Districts need to review why they are losing students or what successes they’ve had with attracting students,” he said.

Seeking out that information he added should be part of a district’s annual review process.

“I think you need to know why children are coming to the district and why children are leaving the district,” Siegel added. “If it comes down to curriculum components that’s powerful information for a district.”

District        Students leaving  New students
Benton Harbor        1296        11
Berrien Springs        49        534
Brandywine        146        266
Bridgman        28        284
Buchanan        178        208
Coloma            162        465
Eau Claire        125        294
Galien            247        75
Lakeshore        146        198
New Buffalo        8        166
Niles            338        255
River            26        68
River Valley        330        107
Riverside        29        40
St. Joseph        78        253
Watervliet        83        312

Source: Berrien RESA

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