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Changing demographics, changing schools: Delavan-Darien deals with open enrollment

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Catherine W. Idzerda
April 22, 2012
— The Delavan-Darien School Board will have three new members Monday facing an old problem: parents pulling students from district schools.

In 2011, almost 10 percent of students in the Delavan-Darien School District chose to attend school elsewhere.


That 10 percent translated to 214 students and $1.49 million in lost funding.


Why are those students leaving, and what can the district do to bring them back?


It's a question the district and the board have been struggling with since 2003, when open enrollment numbers shot up.


The problem festered among feelings of general discontent with the district.


In August, more than 200 people attended a meeting to voice complaints about school safety, discipline, test scores and a variety of other issues.


By October, two school board members had resigned.


During the campaign for spring election, five of the candidates worked together assiduously, campaigning for change and a more responsive school board. Many of them said that the leadership of Superintendent Wendy Overturf was the problem, and they called for her immediate removal.


Those five candidates will be sworn into office Monday, joining an incumbent whose seat was not up this year. One of their first orders of business will be to start the process to find a replacement for long-time board member and current president Steve Carlson, who resigned at the last meeting.


Also on their agenda? Tackling the open enrollment problem.


"We'd like to form a task force to address open enrollment," said Dr. Jeffrey Scherer, one of the returning board members who campaigned for change.


Earlier this year, the district formed a "community connections" group, but Scherer said the issue needs to be elevated to "crisis level."


"The current plan is not getting it done," Scherer said.


He said he'd like to make it clear that he supports the concept of open enrollment, but he wants his district to be able to compete.


Survey results

In 2009, the district hired a consultant to find some answers about why so many families were pulling their children from Delavan-Darien schools.


In a parent survey, consultants found:


-- Reasons for leaving the district were often "situational." The schools they chose outside the school district were more convenient to their daily work and childcare routines. Only 11 percent cited a "superior perception" of the other district.


-- About 15 percent said they were "not comfortable" with the school environment, and 12 percent said they had a poor perception of the district.


-- More than 50 percent of those leaving never had any experience in the district.


"Transfer families report little exposure to Delavan-Darien schools with over half identifying their inability to provide ratings on detailed attributes."


In other words, they didn't know enough about the district to comment.


Even so, they took their children elsewhere.


The consultants concluded: "Perceptions seem more important than experience" and suggested the district work to improve perceptions related to school environment, discipline and safety.


In addition, the consultants said, the district needed to provide "better service" in preparing students for careers and show its "commitment to college-bound preparation" through gifted or advanced programming.


Survey response

The school board dove in.


It hired Mike Heine to be the district's school-community relations specialist.


Overturf went to work on a curriculum overhaul.


Heine revamped the district's website and tried to keep the public informed about positive school programming. He worked to increase communication between the school and the community.


A new "code" of behavior was established, and disciplinary visits to principals' offices declined.


At the same time:


-- The habitual truancy rate dropped and was below the state average in 2009 and 2010.


-- The number of expulsions dropped.


-- Graduation rates increased.


-- This year, a record number of students took advanced placement classes.


-- The focus of the high school curriculum shifted to more "real life" problem solving skills.


In some years, test scores showed signs of improvement, but in others they declined.


Despite the positive news, open enrollment numbers continued to rise.


Survey results, part two

Last fall, the school district started a strategic planning process involving community members, teachers and other staff. They'll be looking at test scores, school environment and, of course, open enrollment.


As part of the process, demographic information was collected about all aspects of the school community.


Here's what they found:


-- In 2011, the district was 44 percent Hispanic, but 86 percent of students leaving the district were white or non-Hispanic.


-- Between 2008 and 2010, between 87 and 95 percent of the students leaving the district were white or non-Hispanic.


-- In the 2009 survey, 64 percent of families leaving disagreed with the statement: "Staff and students are a lot like my family." An additional 56 percent of families leaving disagreed with the statement that students in the district: "Are a lot like my children's friends."


No one is willing to talk about whether the district is suffering from "white flight"—at least not publicly.


Scherer is an exception.


When asked about the issue, Scherer said, "That's clearly one of the things that's going on. One of the things that we have to realize is that the Hispanic people are part of our community."


When Overturf was asked about "white flight," she was silent for a moment and then said, "When they did the survey, many people said that that students at the schools were 'not a lot like me.'"


But she moved on briskly: "I truly believe that whatever our demographic makeup, if we met or exceeded the average on state test scores, there wouldn't be a problem with open enrollment."


How can the district realistically expect to meet those goals? More than 67 percent of students are listed as economically disadvantaged and more than 26 percent not proficient in English.


"I'd be the first to admit that the district faces challenges," Overturf said. "But there are other school districts that have done it, and I guess I keep thinking, 'Why can't we?'"


Overturf pointed to "turnaround schools" that remake the school environment and demand excellence.


"It's not going to be done in a year," Overturf said. "That doesn't mean that I'm blaming anyone that we're not there, it just means that's our goal. We're here to educate all children."


Nor should state test scores be the sole indicator of school success, she said.


"Do students get in college? Do we have any national merit scholars?" Overturf said.


It's crucial, too, to be able to measure a child's progress throughout the year. Steady progress is a sign of successful teaching, she said.



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