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Wednesday, May 23,2012

Losing to schools of choice

Legislation from the mid-'90s has led to the steady exodus of students from the Lansing School District

by Sam Inglot

The number of students leaving the Lansing School District annually for other systems under the state’s schools of choice program has more than tripled since 2000.

Those departing students have contributed significantly to a 26 percent decline in the district’s enrollment in the same 11 years.

The large number of students leaving has hurt the district two-fold, said Myra Ford, president of the Lansing School Board. She said the district is missing out on the per-pupil funding for those students and the loss of students reflects poorly on the district’s reputation.

“Schools of choice has absolutely affected the population,” she said. “If we’re dealing with reality, people are choosing to send their kids to other districts.”

In 1996, schools of choice legislation allowed parents around the state to easily send their kids to schools outside of their district.

The trend has endured. From fall of 2000 to fall of 2011 the district lost 1,978 students to schools of choice. In 2000 the number was at 899 and for the 2011-12 school year that number was at 2,877 — which means a growth of 220 percent, a tripling of students. 

The growth has been a large contributor to the district’s overall population decline.

The total student population fell from 17,610 at the start of the 2000 school year to 13,066 by the start of the 2011-12 school year. The loss of those 4,544 students is a 26 percent decline in enrollment. 

Of the declined enrollment since 2000, nearly half of those students left the district through schools of choice. 

A good portion of the population decline was also due to an overall population decline in Lansing, but the city’s loss was just 4 percent. The 2000 population was 119,128, while in 2010 it was 114,297.

Even with such a consistent chunk of parents pulling their children from Lansing schools year-to-year, leaders of the district like Ford say many of their reasons are based on assumptions and rumors. Ford also says a disproportionate amount of negative media coverage has warped the view of the district for parents.

Bob Killips, the district registrar, said the reasons parents pull their kids out of a district range far and wide — including personal experiences and perception — and it’s difficult to provide a primary cause.

But Ford said the district’s new superintendent and new reconfiguration plan give her hope. 

In an interview, newly appointed superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul took a glance at the enrollment data. With 38 years of experience in public education, she knows what the numbers indicate. And she knows Lansing needs to make some serious changes.

The “instability” of the district over the years is a key factor in student-flight, Caamal Canul said, citing the turnover rate of three superindentents in the past 10 years.

The reconfiguration plan that Caamal Canul spearheaded calls for a holistic shift in the layout of the district, moving seventh and eighth graders in with high schoolers and emphasizing early childhood education. 

Caamal Canul glows like a proud parent when she talks about the direction of the district and what the plan will mean for Lansing students.

“This will stem that exodus,” she said. “I believe it will. When people understand what we’re talking about is a coherent, pedagogical, research-based education for their children. We’re not just cobbling things together. It’s not patchwork — there’s no patchwork about this.”

The reconfiguration plan received a thumbs-up from Mike Flanagan, the superintendent of public instruction for the Michigan Education Department.

Jan Ellis, Education Department spokeswoman, said Flanagan is very supportive of the research-based plan and the new superintendent. She said Caamal Canul was a “dynamic leader” when she worked with the department from 2001 to 2007.

The part of the plan that has Caamal Canul most excited is the early childhood, prekindergarten through third (Pk-3) aspect. She believes the shift will convince parents to bring their kids to Lansing.

“To transform an entire district with this as the foundation is really, really avant-garde,” she said. “It’s responding to the research that has been out there for years about the importance of a Pk-3 education. Very few people have responded in a district-wide initiative to go that route.”

The reconfiguration, which is well underway, converts 12 schools in the district to Pk-3 and closes four of them to save money. 

“I may be crazy but I think that once people understand that what Lansing is doing is so incredible in terms of educational vision that they’ll come,” she said. “I told board officers that they should expect in the next three to five years to probably go out for a bond to build a new campus somewhere.”

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