Students open-enrolling out of Green Bay schools
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Area Public School District has been losing students to open enrollment steadily for several years, but it wasn’t a concern, according to administrators.
Now the district is seeing a steady decline in overall enrollment, especially over the last three years.
Lori Blakeslee, the district’s director of communications, said the topic is being looked at again and more closely.
“Now that circumstances have changed, we are looking at open enrollment again,” Blakeslee said.
According to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) website, during the 2017-18 school year (the most recent data available) the district lost 1,760 students due to open enrollment, 1,680 in the 2016-17 school year, 1,540 in 2015-16, 1,463 in 2014-15 and 1,230 in 2013-14.
“Now keep in mind that those numbers are cumulative – so if a student open enrolls for 4K, they will remain a part of that count through 12th grade,” Blakeslee said.
Since the 2013-14 school year, the district has lost close to 600 total students to open enrollment, because some families choose to open enroll in.
In the 2017-18 school year, the district lost $12.3 million in state aid due to students enrolling out of the district, according to the DPI website.
Much of the aid the district would receive from having those students could be used for services and teachers.
Though the district continues to see students choose open enrollment each year, the number has slowed over the last two years.
School Board President Brenda Warren said 62 percent of the students who open-enroll out of the district have never been a part of district, choosing to open enroll from 4K on.
“They have no experience with the district,” Warren said. “So they don’t know how they would succeed in our district.”
Warren said the open enrollment pattern the district is seeing is not unusual for an urban district surrounded by strong suburban schools.
Blakeslee said there is a wide range of reasons families choose to open-enroll out, but so far the district hasn’t seen any specific trends.
Last year, the district began partnering with K-12 Insight to survey families who have chosen to open-enroll out and ask them why they left the district.
Blakeslee said staff will look at this data and explore areas where the district can improve.
The information obtained through K-12 Insight will be shared with the school board when it’s made available.
School Board Member Eric Vanden Heuvel echoed the notion the reason families choose to open-enroll out of their home district varies greatly.
“While there are a wide range of reasons, it is not always easy to narrow down the true reason behind their decision,” Vanden Heuvel said. “I don’t feel comfortable speculating, but I also don’t trust that a survey would provide accurate information. I can say that my family returned to Green Bay Public Schools from a neighboring district because we wanted our children to experience the wide array of opportunities and experiences provided here. No other district in the area can match the educational and enrichment offerings of Green Bay.”
Warren also acknowledged there are perceptions out there about the district, which may contribute to families choosing to open enroll out.
“We need to continue to earn the community’s confidence,” Warren said.
School Board Member Rhonda Sitnikau said she has seen families choose to open-enroll because they are frustrated with the district’s customer service.
“Families are frustrated with the district,” Sitnikau said. “The commitment our frontline staff have with families does play a role. It goes without saying that our families need to be taken care of.”
Blakeslee said district staff is aware of some of the same frustrations Sitnikau is seeing.
District staff participated in intensive customer service training over the summer to give frontline staff more tools when dealing with families.
“The front office staff at schools and at the district are the people families meet first,” Warren said. “We want to make sure these people know the important role they play in that first impression with families.”
District Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said recently the district has approximately 1,000 open elementary seats in west side schools.
While Langenfeld said those spots aren’t completely attributed to open enrollment, it does play a part.
Vanden Heuvel said the district needs to change how it operates as a declining enrollment district and highlight what makes the district unique.
“Each family is an unique situation and has to evaluate what is best for their children,” Vanden Heuvel said. “In Green Bay, I believe our best course of action to combat the loss of enrollment is to highlight the opportunities that only exist within our district and make sure people are aware of the options available to support their student’s success. Green Bay is a great district, and we need to make sure people know why.”
Green Bay students looking to open-enroll out going forward might find it more difficult than in recent years due to enrollment growth in suburban districts.
Christine Thiesfeldt, formally with the West De Pere School District, said the district hasn’t accepted new open enrollment students in several years because of space limitations due to enrollment growth within the district.
The Ashwaubenon School District is also tight on space at the middle school level, with only five seats available for the 2019-20 school year.
Currently, roughly a third of students who attend Ashwaubenon schools open-enroll into the district.