For first time in 6 years, Richfield Schools attract more students than they lose

For the first time in six years, the Richfield School District is keeping more of its resident students through open enrollment than it loses.

That was among several findings outlined by District Business Manager Michael Schwartz on Monday, Jan. 7, during his annual enrollment presentation before the Richfield School Board.

The district saw a net gain of 119 students due to open enrollment this school year, with 454 district residents opting to attend school elsewhere while 573 students living outside the district chose to attend Richfield schools. The gain represents a rapid improvement over last school year, when the district had a net loss of 28 students due to open enrollment. In the past 10 years the district has had net losses of as many as 104 students.

Elementary school students accounted for most of the net gain from open enrollment. Grades kindergarten through fifth are the primary entry point for non-resident students entering the district, explained Supt. Robert Slotterback. The goal now, he added, is to keep those students.

“If we do our job they’ll stay with us,” he declared.

Slotterback credited a diversifying set of options within the district for the net gain, including all-day kindergarten and the two “choice schools” that have been established in recent years — Richfield Dual Language School and the Science Technology Engineering and Math School. It also helps keep students in the district, Slotterback said, that free transportation is provided to those schools no matter where in Richfield a student lives, a feature many districts do not offer.

Statistically, however, there is not a clear explanation for the net gain because the data has not been parsed deeply enough, Schwartz explained.

Slotterback said he was not surprised to see the net gain in open enrollment numbers. “We’re pretty confident here we’re doing a good job and we think it will just continue,” he said.

Making open enrollment work in the district’s favor has been one of Slotterback’s priorities as superintendent. “When I first came here one of the goals was to attract and retain Richfield resident students,” he said.

Slotterback brought with him some principals of capitalist thinking in that aim, introducing the term “market share” to the district. Dividing the number of resident students in Richfield Public Schools by the total number of students in the district’s territory, the district’s “market share” has increased from 72 percent to about 76 percent.

The term aptly alludes to the cutthroat business world. “It’s hugely competitive,” Slotterback said of different districts’ efforts to attract students from outside their borders while holding on to resident students.

To illustrate, Slotterback estimated there are 30-40 elementary schools within eight miles of the center of Richfield. The most successful districts keep around 90 percent of their students, Slotterback said, noting that an expanded selection of types of schools lures students away from their home district.

Continued growth

The Richfield School District’s student population increased by 106 students this school year, beating a projection of 75. The district educates 4,388 students based on the 2012 Oct. 1 enrollment count.

Elementary schools are welcoming 94 more students this year than last year. STEM School was the only elementary school to see a drop — of 51 students. Richfield Middle School increased its population by 57 students, while Richfield high School lost 29.

Part of the reason for the High School decline is students moving out of the district, Schwartz said, expecting the number to grow based on projections.

“We’re having this bubble move through that hasn’t gotten to the high school yet,” he said.

Elementary and high school class sizes are up, with an average of 25 for kindergarten through fifth-grade. In recent years, class sizes were as low as about 21 — in 2005.

The average class size for the high school is 28, a number that has increased each year since 2009, when the average class size there was 25.

Average class sizes at the middle school held at about 26. That category has been up and down in recent years at RMS.

Keeping class sizes from being higher yet, the district uses compensatory funds it receives based on the number of district students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price school lunch, a statistic commonly used as an indicator of a district’s wealth. That number has increased over he past several years, but remained at about 65 percent from last school year to the current year. In 2008, about 56 percent of students qualified for free-and-reduced lunch.

Meanwhile, the number of students with limited English proficiency declined from the previous school year. Thirty-one percent of students are classified as such, down from 33 percent. A change in the way English proficiency is evaluated was a main factor in the change, Schwartz said.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]