More and more, parents in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are taking advantage of the district’s open-enrollment policy to send students to other schools
For Sharon Vizzini, it’s not that there was anything wrong with the Cedar Rapids school district. When her family moved to the area from Washington state in January 2007, they just happened to find a suitable residence in Fairfax, within the College Community School District’s boundaries.
“It was just somebody advocating College Community because that’s where her kids were going,” Vizzini said. “But when we moved here in 2007, if we had found a house in the Cedar Rapids area we would’ve sent them to the Cedar Rapids schools.”
So when the family moved again, into the Cedar Rapids district lines, her children remained in their former home district. This is known as continuation.
“It would’ve been more stable for them to stay in the school that they’re used to,” Vizzini said. “The best choice is keeping them in College Community because they’re familiar with the people there and the kids there and their friends are all there.”
This year, Cedar Rapids school administrators are taking a good look at open enrollment, the process of families opting to send their children to schools in a district other than the one in which they live.
According to Iowa Department of Education certified enrollment data, which weighs student numbers based on funding classifications, 27,651 pupils are currently exercising their right to open enroll out of their home districts. That represents 5.81 percent of the state’s 476,245 total pupils.
“The purpose of open enrollment is to maximize parental choice as far as their educational opportunities,” said Sandy Stephen, executive administrator of instructional services for the Cedar Rapids district.
And increasingly, those parents are choosing not to send their kids to Cedar Rapids schools. Department of Education data shows that, after a 43.1 pupil drop between 2010-11 and 2011-12, open enrollment into the district increased by 1.2 pupils this year, a slight uptick when total certified enrollment descended by 126.5 during the same time frame.
Even though the Marion Independent School District and the Linn-Mar Community School District both have higher rates of students open enrolling out than Cedar Rapids, those districts both have more students open enrolling in. College Community allows continuation but otherwise does not have open enrollment.
In addition, Marion and Linn-Mar have both shown increases in total certified enrollment over the last two years, unlike the declines present in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s a fact that people move around the metropolitan area, and if they’re satisfied with their child’s educational placement and they’re just moving across an artificial line that’s a school district boundary they like, in many cases, to continue their child’s education in the school that they’re in,” said Dave Benson, Cedar Rapids district superintendent.
DeeDee Scaffidi had her pick of districts when her family moved from Massachusetts to Cedar Rapids in spring 2007.
“We had only heard that both (Cedar Rapids and Marion) were great,” said the mother of five home-schooled students. “Our understanding was that all the districts in town were good.”
After researching both systems’ home school assistance programs, Scaffidi settled on Marion even though geography dictated Cedar Rapids.
“The Marion program just met our needs better. They offer a variety of classes on several different days, which worked out for our family,” she said. “It didn’t seem like (Cedar Rapids) had as many things to choose from that the kids could be involved in.”
At 31.86 percent, Marion families represented the largest portion of the 499 queried for the Cedar Rapids survey. That may be responsible for why home school assistance programs topped the list of reasons respondents provided for deciding to leave the district. The Cedar Rapids district has had to cap enrollment and shrink its home-schooling program in response to reductions in state funding.
The state department of education does not have complete home-schooling data, though staff members are working on a more detailed analysis, but estimates that approximately 30,000 Iowa children are home schooled.
Continuations accounted for 37.78 percent of the Cedar Rapids district’s 2011-12 open enrollments. Those families’ reasons for not selecting the Cedar Rapids district were not included in the survey results.
After a short stint with home schooling through the Cedar Rapids schools, her family’s home district, Debbie Smith opted to open enroll her children into the Marion district nine years ago.
“We did like the Marion home-school program over the Cedar Rapids home-school program hands down,” she said. “If we were choosing one district over the other, that would be why.”
Data from the Marion Home School Assistance Program shows that 69 percent of its current students come from the Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar, Marion and College Community districts. Cedar Rapids is the largest contributor, supplying 35 percent of the program’s students, a proportion which has remained largely stable for the last few years. Since the 2009-10 school year, enrollment in the Marion Home School Assistance Program has ballooned from 775 students to 860 students, an uptick of almost 11 percent.
“I think that, through the process of open enrollment, has contributed some to that growth,” said Tom Ertz, director of the Marion program. “Marion has, for a number of years now, maintained strong support for the home-school community and as evidence of their support for the home-school program they have allowed us to develop a program to meet the variety of needs that home-school families have and I think they have appreciated that support.”
At 17 percent and 13 percent, the second and third most frequently cited reasons for families to open enroll out of the Cedar Rapids district were convenience and size.
Convenience covered concerns about other districts’ facilities being closer to parents’ workplaces or child care providers, while size included responses about dissatisfaction with elementary class sizes, middle and high school enrollments and overall district sizes being too large.
“When you get down to the number of concerns there were about that, as far as the size of the district, there’s obviously not a whole lot we can do about that,” said Stephen, who also attributed much of the district’s overall enrollment decline to the 2008 flood.
Only 27 percent of families responded to the survey, which Stephen called “really good.” Both she and superintendent Benson said they felt that the data accurately represents open enrollees’ attitudes.
Aside from evaluating the Marion Home School Assistance Program and reporting that information to the board, district administrators have not planned other initiatives or program changes related directly to the results.
Little can be done
Mary Meisterling, president of the Cedar Rapids school board, called for administrators to do the survey annually and include responses from continuation families, like Vizzini’s.
“There wasn’t anything anyone could’ve done,” Vizzini said about her decision to enroll her kids in College Community schools. “It was just whatever housing was available at the time. That was the deciding factor for whatever district we put our kids in.”
Vizzini also said that the Cedar Rapids schools couldn’t have done anything to lure the family to the district once they moved within its boundaries.
“I think people are making personal decisions that they believe are in the best interest of their children. Whether or not the district could make an impact on that, I don’t know,” Benson said. “Parents make those decisions on what they perceive to be the best interest of their child, and I think we should be respectful of that.”
Likewise, Meisterling feels the district “can’t really have an impact on” families who open enroll for certain size and convenience purposes, but she did suggest that better marketing might make a difference.
Meisterling wants to see the district work with local Realtors to make sure they have accurate information about the schools. She also mentioned potentially raising the district’s Internet profile to better reach people who are researching moves to the Cedar Rapids area.
“I think it’s more about putting a face on our district that is more distinguishable from other districts,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had to do that in the past.”