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Border battles: Schools win, lose students under Schools of Choice

Reese Public Schools closed and demolished one of its three school buildings several years ago, adding this new sign to a building now housing students from sixth through 12th grades. Superintendent Keith Wetters cites the decision to close Reese Middle School as a reason the school district offers a greater variety of classes – and attracts students under Michigan’s Schools of Choice laws. (Photo by John Cook)

Reese Public Schools closed and demolished one of its three school
buildings several years ago, adding this new sign to a building now
housing students from sixth through 12th grades. Superintendent Keith
Wetters cites the decision to close Reese Middle School as a reason
the school district offers a greater variety of classes – and attracts
students under Michigan’s Schools of Choice laws. (Photo by John Cook)

Enrollment in school districts in Michigan’s Thumb area generally has declined for years, but some districts buck the trend or even increase numbers by attracting students from other districts under Michigan’s Schools of Choice laws.
“Schools of Choice has been good for Reese Public Schools. However, I hope the parents and the students are coming to our district for the right reasons through Schools of Choice, and not leaving one district for a particular reason,” said Keith Wetters, superintendent of Reese Public Schools, which was among the area districts gaining the most students via the Schools of Choice program in the 2015-2016 school year.
“I just had a call today for a Schools of Choice student that was expelled,” Wetters said. “We’re obviously not taking that student.”
During the 2015-2016 school year, North Branch Area Schools and Reese Public Schools were the biggest magnets of non-resident students among 13 districts in The Advertiser coverage area, according to data from the state Center for Educational Performance, or CEPI.
When comparing the number of students leaving a district for other schools with the number of students arriving from beyond a district’s borders, North Branch gained 325 students last school year. Reese gained 194 students under Schools of Choice, while Frankenmuth Public Schools gained 173 and Caro Community Schools picked up 152.
Students living in the Mayville Community Schools and Vassar Public Schools, meanwhile, fled for other districts in the largest numbers: Mayville showed a loss of 270 students and Vassar lost 178 students via Schools of Choice. Akron-Fairgrove Schools lost 168 students and Owendale-Gagetown Area Schools lost 107 students under the Schools of Choice program, which lets students choose to attend public schools beyond the school district they live in.
The numbers carry significant financial consequences, as school districts receive an amount of state aid for each student. As $7,511 in state aid per student goes to districts, the 325 students gained by North Branch via Schools of Choice represents more than $2.4 million in state aid.
Wetters said students from outside the Reese district choose Reese because staff nurtures learning among students, and the district has expanded its variety of classes following the closure several years ago of Reese Middle School, which has been demolished since then.
“We’ve been able to be successful because we’ve made some hard decisions, but with those hard decisions we’ve been able to offer our kids more than ever before,” Wetters said. Following closure of Reese Middle School, the district has housed students from sixth through 12th grades at Reese High School/Middle School.
By housing students from sixth through 12th grades in one building, Reese takes better advantage of its teachers there, Wetters said.
“We have teachers now teaching classes in grades 6-12 that were only teaching maybe middle-school or high-school (classes) before,” Wetters said. “What we’ve been able to do is add choir as a middle-school class, add robotics at both the middle-school and high-school levels, and add astronomy at the high-school level.”
Several years ago, Reese also instituted a 15-minute advisory class at the start of each school day for students in grades 6-12, with a maximum of 15 students per advisory class.
“The teachers meet with them not only every day but on an individual basis and work with them, and talk to them not only about problems they’re having in the classroom but maybe elsewhere in school or at home,” Wetters said. “The teachers really get to know these students on a one-on-one basis and I think it’s done great things for our kids.”
Wetters added that “It really is the relationships that we have with our students and families that, I think, are the reason kids are going here.”
The Reese district has drawn out-of-district students from a variety of places: Under Schools of Choice laws, Reese has gained net totals of 44 students who live in the Vassar district, 42 living in the Bay City district, 34 from the Akron-Fairgrove district, 33 from the Saginaw district and 27 from the Bridgeport-Spaulding district.
The Vassar district, where Vassar High School was labeled by the state in 2014 as a “priority school” — in the bottom five percent of Michigan’s annual Top-to-Bottom School Rankings — lost a net of 69 of its students to Millington, 44 to Reese, 39 to Frankenmuth and 29 to Caro.
Earlier this month, however, the state announced it had removed Vassar High School from the priority-school list and revealed that Vassar’s Central Elementary School had been removed from a state list of “focus schools.” A focus school is one of the 10 percent of schools on the state’s Top-to-Bottom list with the largest achievement gaps between its top 30 percent of students and bottom 30 percent, based on test scores.
“It may be that — today — that you see those (Schools of Choice) numbers reflective of some things that sort of hung on from the past, but I’m here to tell you today, our present mindset is that we are going to become a school of choice for the area,” said Dorothy “Dot” Blackwell, superintendent of Vassar Public Schools, which received a $3.2 million federal School Improvement Grant in the summer of 2016.

School of Choice Graphic 2017

(Click on image to open graphic larger in new window)

The grant funds must be used for curriculum development, technology and professional development. Voters in the Vassar school district go to the polls May 2 to consider a proposed $19.7 million bond issue to finance school improvements to buildings and grounds.
“We hope people would see us as a positive place to put their students,” said Fran Peplinski, Vassar Public Schools business manager.
Blackwell hopes the Vassar district can become a winner under the state’s Schools of Choice framework.
“I want to bring families back, of course, that are here, and schools of choice activity for families — picking and choosing what stuff meets their needs — that’s what our state of Michigan has put in place for us,” Blackwell said.
“We’re trying hard to show all of the positive quality programming we have here and how we’ve actually sought out grants, and we’ve made improvements so that when you do generate your new list, you’ll see that we are off the priority and focus lists, so we’re actually a school that our neighbors can send their kids to if they want to.”
The largest single loss of students from one school district to another occurred in the Mayville district, which saw a net loss of 134 students to the neighboring North Branch district in 2015-2016, according to the state Center for Educational Performance and Information, or CEPI.
North Branch also attracted a net gain of 88 students living in the LakeVille Community Schools district but attending North Branch schools, and a net gain of 43 students from the Marlette Community Schools district.
Mayville, meanwhile, also experienced a net loss of 61 students to Caro.
Among other notable larger losses of students between two districts, the Akron-Fairgrove district lost a net number of 64 students to the Unionville-Sebewaing Area district. Owendale-Gagetown Area Schools saw a net loss of 53 students to the Cass City district.
“I think there are a lot of factors as to why parents choose to send their students elsewhere, whether it be a parent is a teacher or school employee of another district, or whether parents are reviewing (student academic test) data from the M-STEP (tests), or word of mouth,” said Carrie Haubenstricker, pupil accounting and school improvement coordinator for the Tuscola Intermediate School District.
While a top-notch sports program attracts some nonresident students to a district, Wetters doesn’t believe it is the No. 1 factor in Reese, a school district known for general success in a variety of sports. The Reese girls’ basketball team is ranked among the top 10 teams in its class, and Reese’s girls’ softball annually contends for conference titles and has made deep runs in the state tournament.
“I think we’ve been able to change that mindset here in Reese and I think students are coming here because it’s great toward the kids,” Wetters said. “Now do I think athletics plays a part in it? Absolutely.
“I think I’d be naïve to think it doesn’t. But the last three years our (varsity football team) has been 1-8, 1-8 and 5-4 (for overall season records).”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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