By The Gazette Editorial Board
Open enrollment losses from the Cedar Rapids Community School District raise a lot of questions. Unfortunately, getting at the answers is no easy task.
The district faces a net loss gap — between students open enrolling out and those coming in — of nearly 600 students this year. That gap has grown steadily over the last several years, from 195 students in 2006-07.
Last month, the school district released a survey of 499 families who live inside the district boundaries but enroll their kids elsewhere. Serious concerns about the district’s enrollment losses raised during last year’s school-closing process prompted school officials to finally look more closely at the problem.
Unfortunately, only 27 percent of families surveyed responded. The district also chose not to survey a large segment of families who moved into the district but continue to send their children to schools where they previously lived.
Among those surveyed who responded, 20 percent reported enrolling their children in the Marion School District’s growing home-school assistance program. Convenience, “size,” programming, safety, staff issues and other categories were mentioned. But the tiny sample sizes made the findings less than useful.
The survey was a good first step. School Board President Mary Meisterling has called for annual surveys, and for including all open enrollment families. “I think we need to keep a close watch,” she told Gazette reporter Meryn Fluker, who digs into the open enrollment issue in a piece published today.
We hope the district does intend to keep digging. Because, sometimes, we get the impression that district officials would rather dismiss this issue than uncover potentially uncomfortable blemishes. “I have a tough time getting a handle on anything that we could do to effectively address open enrollment,” said board member Gary Anhalt, reacting to the survey. He wasn’t the only one looking at the survey for proof that nothing can be done.
School officials still point to the 2008 flood when questioned about enrollment losses. But students who moved out of the district post-flood would not be included in open enrollment numbers. Reasons for the growing gap must be found elsewhere.
And finding answers is important, because the loss of students means the loss of millions of dollars in state funding. Last year’s school closings debate showed all of us the real consequences of tight school budgets. And more belt-tightening is likely ahead. Jobs, programs and important services are all hanging in the balance.
We think the district should hire a professional opinion research firm to do the sort of survey that provides clearer and more valid responses.
It might also be a good idea to conduct such a survey of all district residents to get a sense of how the district is perceived. Knowing those perceptions would be valuable in making any improvements needed.
If home-school assistance is being done better in a neighboring district, Cedar Rapids should re-evaluate its own efforts. It’s true home-school students draw only a fraction of the state per-pupil finding provided to other students.
But if the district’s mission includes providing an education to students living within its boundaries, doing more for home-schoolers fits.
Cedar Rapids has notable schools and dedicated educators, determined to help kids learn. District leaders should be more determined to learn why the open enrollment gap is widening.
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