A growing number of Colorado students are enrolling in schools outside their home districts, a trend fueled by the rise of statewide online and charter enrollment.
Nearly one in 10 students this fall are attending a school either not located in, or not run by, the district in which they live, according to state figures released last week.
That includes thousands of students flocking to online schools based out of faraway districts and to nearby schools operated by the state Charter School Institute.
This fall, 66,296 students are “choicing out” of their home district. That’s 8 percent of the state’s 843,316 pupils; in 2001, the comparable figure was 3 percent.
Colorado law allows parents to enroll their children in any public school with available seats so long as they can get them there. That’s led some to call the law unfair to poor families unable to provide transportation.
But increasingly, distance doesn’t matter as national online programs set up shop in rural communities such as Julesburg, at Colorado’s northeastern tip, and draw students from as far as Alamosa in the state’s southwest corner.
Julesburg had the highest enrollment growth of any Colorado district this fall, with a surge of 45 percent. The breakdown: 260 students attend classes on site in district buildings and 1,527 take classes through the online Insight School of Colorado, run by the same company that operates the online University of Phoenix.
Most of Insight’s online students live in Front Range districts. This fall, 150 are from Jefferson County, 120 live in Denver and 118 have Aurora addresses.
“It’s not the small-town, rural school districts that are losing all their kids to online schools,” Julesburg Superintendent Shawn Ehnes advised wary neighboring superintendents when Insight opened three years ago and began growing at a clip of 500 kids a year.
“That’s what I told them at the time—your fear of losing kids is, in my opinion, ridiculous—and that’s exactly how it turned out.”
In a state where student counts determine state funding, enrollment is far more than a popularity contest. Most of Julesburg’s state education funding this fall—or $10 million of the total $12 million—is following the online students.
After passing a percentage to Insight and covering expenses, the superintendent said the arrangement nets Julesburg about $500,000 annually for extras such as hiring a second music teacher. And Julesburg students can select from Insight’s array of elective offerings.
“When we decided to go online, it was with the realization that small rural communities are dying and slowly losing kids and jobs and people,” Ehnes said. “We wanted to begin the process of identifying alternative, outside-the-box ways of generating revenue and maintaining curriculum resources here.”
There is a cost. The state’s new rating system gives high marks to Julesburg’s on-site schools but a failing grade to the online program. So the district was placed on “priority improvement” status and must submit an improvement plan for state approval.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” Ehnes said of the on-site and online programs, noting most online students have been unsuccessful in traditional schools. “But we’ve kind of put that in perspective … truly without the curriculum options and the additional revenue, as a brick-and-mortar district, we’d be crippled.”
Impact of Charters
Colorado’s total online enrollment grew 14 percent this year to 15,429 students, meaning they’re a small, if rapidly growing, fraction of students choicing out of district. In contrast, overall statewide enrollment grew 1.3 percent.
The majority of families choosing to leave their home districts are still physically traveling, typically to a nearby district as they seek a particular program or a more convenient or desirable location. Nearly all Colorado districts lose some students, and welcome others, each year.
In some cases, the trade is fairly even—Denver lost 826 kids to Aurora this fall but pulled in another 1,020 students for a net gain of 194. In other cases, it’s far more lopsided—Denver lost 2,536 students to Jefferson County and only attracted 1,114 kids in return, for a net loss of 1,422.
By the numbers, the single biggest beneficiary of the open-enrollment law is the state Charter School Institute, which enrolls 7,981 students in the schools it supervises across Colorado. Students enrolled in CSI schools are categorized as leaving their home district, even if the charter is within its boundaries.
That’s because CSI charters are supervised by a statewide board, not the local district, and their state per-pupil funding flows first to CSI, rather than the local district, before being passed on to the school.
For some districts, the rapid growth of CSI enrollment—up 21 percent this year—combined with the lure of online programs and high-performing neighboring districts mean stiff competition for kids.
Consider Colorado Springs District 11, which serves that city’s urban core and which closed eight schools in 2009 after years of enrollment declines.
For years, the Springs district’s chief rival for students was Academy District 20, its affluent northern neighbor. And Glenn Gustafson, D-11’s chief finance officer, blames “suburban flight” for much of the district’s enrollment loss in the 1990s and the early 2000s as the student count dropped 10 percent.
But starting in 2005, state choice records show D-11 increasingly losing students to CSI, which now supervises six charters with Springs addresses, and to online programs. This fall, D-11, which enrolls 29,459 students, is experiencing a net loss—those entering the district vs. those exiting—of 3,548 pupils. It’s the district’s biggest net loss number since at least 2003.
Where are D-11 families going? State records show 1,377 students are enrolled at CSI, 1,306 pupils are in Academy District 20 and 606 students are attending six statewide online programs.
Gustafson doesn’t disparage school choice and he doesn’t see bolstering D-11’s own online program as a real solution.
“Online enrollment is a mask that covers the challenge,” he said. “The bigger challenge is, why are people leaving D-11? Why are they not satisfied with their neighborhood school?
“I think that’s the root question we have to ask ourselves. Sure, we could try to attract kids back through online enrollment. But that doesn’t solve the problem, kids are leaving the district.”
Winners and Losers
Among sizable Colorado school districts, those with at least 5,000 students, D-11 is among the districts hardest hit by exiting families—its net loss of students is equal to 12 percent of its total enrollment.
Others include Adams 14 Commerce City, with a net loss equal to 16 percent of enrollment, and Adams 50 Westminster, with a net loss equal to 26 percent of enrollment. This fall, 2,734 students are exiting Westminster, with a total enrollment of just over 10,000, and only 90 are entering.
At the other end of the spectrum is Littleton, which gains three times as many students as it loses, and Adams 12 Five Star, home to the state’s largest online program, the 5,304-student Colorado Virtual Academy, known as COVA.
And then there’s Mapleton, the small Adams County district north of Denver, which reported the state’s second-highest growth rate this fall. Enrollment spiked 32 percent after the district added an online school, Connections Academy, and the New America School charter, which serves recent immigrants.
“We try to meet the very diverse needs of the kids in our community,” said Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. “These two schools serve a population of students that we haven’t previously been able to serve.”
The change quadrupled the number of students from other districts enrolling in Mapleton—from 394 last year to 1,648 in fall 2010. Instead of neighboring Adams 12 providing the most out-of-district students to Mapleton, it’s now Colorado Springs District 11.
Most of the new out-of-district students were already enrolled in Connections Academy, the online school which previously contracted with Denver Public Schools. Connections serves 1,372 students.
Ciancio pointed out both new schools were already operating with students last year via contracts with other districts. She also said her district values local control of schools and keeping Mapleton students in Mapleton schools.
“We also are advocates for, and believe in, choice for families,” she said. “We know that there are some families who choice out of Mapleton Public Schools to options we can’t provide, like a large comprehensive high school, and yet there are kids who choice into Mapleton because we offer small schools.
“So I think when you are a state that really promotes and values choice, you have to appreciate and value the choices that don’t necessarily match your schools.”
Republished with permission from Education News Colorado. Copyright © 2011 Public Education & Business Coalition. For more information, visit www.ednewscolorado.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Growing Number of Students Choose Out-of-District Schools