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Location, diversity, sports: Reasons vary for open enrollment in and out of Willmar School District

A bus from the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School District drops off a group of open enrollment students Tuesday at the Willmar Public Library. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Location, diversity and sports are some of the top reasons students leave or enter Willmar Public Schools through open enrollment.

At the end of February, the district had 347 students who had left for other districts and 205 students who come from other districts.

Minnesota statute allows public school students to apply via the open enrollment process to attend school outside of the school district where they live. State funding follows the student to the new district.

The Willmar School District recently conducted a survey of families who were moving between districts.

Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, the district’s communications coordinator, outlined the results for the Willmar School Board recently.

The number of people enrolling out of the district increased in 2008, when neighboring districts began sending buses into Willmar to pick up students, she said.

Board member Liz VanDerBill asked why Willmar wasn’t offering to bus students from other districts.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the board has historically not done it.

“We didn’t want to be seen as the big bully,” said board member Mike Reynolds. “We have talked about it.”

Board member Linda Mathiasen suggested the district at least test the idea to see if families would be interested in it.

Kjergaard said he believes Willmar does not brag enough about its class sizes and other offerings. “We work very hard to keep those down,” he said, and Willmar has smaller class sizes than some smaller districts.

Lighthizer-Schmidt said the district should see its diversity as a strength. “We are a global marketplace,” she said. “Our children sit in a diverse classroom, and that’s how they’re going to work in the world.”

About 30 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic, and another 12 percent are black, many from east Africa.

Board Chairman Mike Carlson said the public has some “long-held misconceptions about our district.” He said he has been concerned that real estate agents in the area may help spread misinformation, too.

Lighthizer-Schmidt agreed about misperceptions. Many comments to her have begun with the phrase, “I heard,” she said.

Willmar Senior High Principal Paul Schmitz addressed that issue about his school in his May report to the board.

“There is a perpetual myth that Willmar Senior High is a dangerous, difficult place,” he wrote. But a 10-year study of the school’s discipline record shows a drastic reduction in incidents in recent years, he said.

Schmitz said every high school has some problems, and he didn’t want to minimize problems students may have encountered with bullying or other matters.

However, the school has had no gang-related student citations and only three citations for fighting in the current school year. Ten years ago, the school issued 42 citations for student fighting.

Surveys were sent to 165 families that enrolled their students into the district and 257 families enrolling their students into other districts.

Each group had a return rate of about 40 percent, which is considered good for mailed surveys, Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

In both groups, nearly all the families were Caucasian and spoke English in the home. Students enrolling in and out were in every grade, and in each case, about one-quarter of them were high school seniors.

In their comments, many families said they enrolled into Willmar because one or both parents worked in Willmar, she said. Those who left Willmar most often said they wanted a smaller, rural school and wanted a school that was less diverse.

The top reason listed to enroll in Willmar was the location of the school, with 51 percent listing that reason. Families could choose more than one reason. Others were sports activities, 31 percent; special education, 18 percent; child’s friendships, 18 percent; level of diversity, 15 percent; and non-sports activities, 14 percent.

The top reason listed for leaving the district was a desire for smaller class sizes, with 58 percent listing it. Other reasons were level of diversity, 36 percent; wanting to attend a rural school, 21 percent; teaching style of staff, 12 percent; and disciplinary problems at Willmar, 12 percent.

When the district learns of a family leaving the district, a counselor contacts them to discuss the reasons, Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

“Some things are beyond our control … but we think it’s important because we have the opportunity to communicate to the family,” she said.

“Now that we have this data, what can we do,” Reynolds asked at the meeting.

“A lot of it comes down to messaging,” Lighthizer-Schmidt said. “We need to show people the quality of what you get when you come to Willmar.”

Lighthizer-Schmidt, who has worked for the district since January, said she is developing a communications plan to let the public know about opportunities in Willmar. The plan should provide “consistent messaging” for the district and its staff to use in talking about Willmar’s schools.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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