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A billboard on the east side of Wadena invites parents to send their kids to Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools.

Open enrollment costs WDC

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When Becky Huhta moved to Wadena from Verndale in 2010, she decided to keep her six school-age children at the smaller school to the east.

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"I wanted that stability for them - that's huge for a child," the single mother of 10 said. "The teachers there had done so well with them, I didn't want to rock the boat ... I'm trying to do the best I can for my kids."

Huhta's among scores of area parents who use Minnesota's open enrollment law - on the books since 1988 - to send their children to school districts other than Wadena-Deer Creek. This year, 292 students within the district boundaries went elsewhere for their education, while 120 students from other districts (30 from Verndale, 26 from Bertha-Hewitt, 21 from Henning, 19 from Sebeka, 14 from New York Mills, six from Staples-Motley, three from Perham and one from Browerville) open enrolled into WDC, where total K-12 enrollment was 975. That's a net loss of 172 students.

The Verndale Public Schools drew 124 students from the WDC boundaries, the most of any district. Other destinations: New York Mills (71), Bertha-Hewitt (53), Sebeka (20) and Henning (15). Nine students went to other districts.

Each time a student leaves WDC without being replaced, WDC loses between $8,000 to $9,000 in revenue, Superintendent Lee Westrum estimated.

"That's probably being conservative," he said.

'No overarching theme'

Earlier this year, WDC mailed a questionnaire to parents of open enrollees in hopes of figuring out how they decide where they send their kids to school.

"I was trying to find a pattern," said Westrum, who just completed his first school year at WDC.

Instead, he said, the results yielded "no overarching theme," but rather a "variety of reasons," including preference for a smaller school setting, convenience and anecdotal negative experiences with teachers, administrators or other students.

"It's pretty complex, to be honest with you," Westrum said.

New York Mills Superintendent Blaine Novak said some WDC parents might send their kids to his district because they work at factories in New York Mills or Perham, though he doesn't have any hard evidence to back it up.

"We don't really have a handle on why it's happening," Novak said. "It's a weird phenomenon. Wadena's a great school."

The 704-student New York Mills district gained a net 123 students this year from open enrollment, including six seniors from WDC.

In Verndale, about half of the 500 students are open enrollees, mainly from WDC, Staples-Motley, Bertha-Hewitt and Sebeka.

For students on the eastern fringes of the WDC district, the Verndale school is closer to home, which might factor into enrollment decisions, said Verndale Superintendent Paul Brownlow. Other students come to Verndale because their parents work in the district, he said.

Brownlow also credited "our small class sizes and very responsive and very strong staff that make students a priority ... Other districts do the same thing."

Open enrollment growth created the need for an addition to the Verndale school, which is slated to open in the fall. It's also helped the district's bottom line, allowing it to add more courses and activities, Brownlow said.

The "small school experience" is what led Wadena City Councilwoman Gillette Kempf to send her two children to Verndale when St. Ann's Catholic School closed a few years back, she said.

Kempf said she shopped around before choosing Verndale.

"This is what open enrollment does for (parents)," she said. "It allows parents to select the academic environment that's best for each child."

Positive signs

Westrum said the district is poised to slowly grow over the long-term.

Last week, 66 seniors graduated from WDC High School. But there were 87 students in the kindergarten and first grade classes.

"When your biggest classes are in your lower elementary, that's a good sign," Westrum said.

He said investment in the top-rated WDC preschool - located in the K-4 building - has paid off.

"(The preschoolers) get used to everything," Westrum said. "It's just a rational next step for them to go into kindergarten."

The superintendent said small elementary class sizes should help draw families to the district. Next year, there will be five sections of kindergarten for an estimated 85 students.

"Those are very nice sizes for kindergarten," Westrum said.

Although it wasn't the best fit for her children, WDC is an "excellent school with marvelous teachers," Kempf said.

Westrum's own children have prospered in their first year at WDC, he said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more from the teaching staff."

The challenge is "projecting the positive image," Westrum said. "We have so many good things that are going on here. We have tremendous students, staff, great facilities and programs for kids."

One promotion tool is the district's website, wdc2155.k12.mn.us, which is updated daily.

"We understand that we have to promote what is going on here," Westrum said. "It's very intentional ... We are constantly putting out the positive things that are happening here."

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