Up for the count: Vassar, Millington welcome student gains

STUDENT COUNT GRAPHFor years, Vassar Public Schools officials have bemoaned declining enrollment, decrying an annual loss in state aid in a system that awards a specific amount of money for every pupil.

Those days are gone.

Vassar was among the area leaders in enrollment gains following the Oct. 5 count day, seeing student population rise by 1.7 percent via a gain of 20 students from last fall.

Enrollment increased in only four of 14 area school districts, according to an Advertiser survey: Deckerville, Vassar, Frankenmuth and Millington. Enrollment increases mean added revenue for area school districts, as $7,511 per pupil in state aid is provided to those districts.

“The Vassar community right now is experiencing a very positive renaissance,” said Dorothy “Dot” Blackwell, superintendent in Vassar, where student numbers increased from 1,145 last year to 1,165 this year.

“The community is really involved in what’s going on,” Blackwell said. “Downtown, we have super business owners.”

Blackwell, hired to start as Vassar’s new superintendent July 1, teamed with staff members weeks before that to prepare grant applications that saw Vassar High School receive a $3.2 million federal School Improvement Grant to better academics. The money, arriving during a five-year period, can’t be spent on facilities but can be spent on instructional technology and curriculum resources, and also funds jobs such as school improvement grant coordinator, school improvement grant coach and school improvement grant parent and family liaison.

Vassar students this fall received 288 Google Chromebook computers, purchased with grant funds. When asked if she believes the grant helped spur the enrollment increase, Blackwell said “I couldn’t provide you with any evidence to prove so.”

She described the Vassar school district as “stabilizing,” adding that “Obviously, our goal is growth.” Blackwell is promoting voter approval of a $19.7 million bond issue to improve school facilities, a proposal coming before voters in May of 2017.

“There is just a positive momentum going on in Vassar right now and we at Vassar Public Schools are just partners with all the good things that are happening,” Blackwell said. Part of Vassar’s enrollment rise is due to an increase in students at Wolverine Human Services Inc. facilities in Vassar, where student numbers rose from 162 last year to 173. Students are ordered by courts to attend the Wolverine facilities, and students there are counted as part of the Vassar school district’s enrollment.

Deckerville in northern Sanilac County, by percentage, led area districts with a 2.2 percent enrollment increase, going from 598 to 611 students. The largest decrease, by percentage, occurred in Mayville Community Schools, where Tuscola Intermediate School District officials said the count fell from 644 to 612, a 5-percent decline.

Caro Community Schools lost 38 students from one year ago, falling from 1,750 to 1,712 students.

That equates to a $285,418 revenue drop when considering the amount of aid the state provides per pupil. School districts use the enrollment count from October, and another enrollment count in late winter, to determine an official enrollment that the state uses for distributing aid.

Though Caro lost 2.2 percent of its enrollment from last year according to count day statistics, Caro Superintendent Mike Joslyn said “the good news about it is I was predicting enrollment at 1,698 students (this fall) and that’s how we budgeted.”

Wolverine Human Services
Chuck Fabbro, principal at Wolverine Human Services Inc. facilities in Vassar, assists a student. Vassar Public Schools enrollment increased this fall from last fall, due partly to an increase in students at Wolverine, where students are counted as part of Vassar Public Schools. (Photo by John Cook)

Caro “historically” has lost 30 to 50 students per year, Joslyn said. 

“As to why that’s occurring, there aren’t jobs in the Thumb,” Joslyn said. “There are tons of reasons that you can talk about as to why the numbers are where they’re at. I think unemployment is going down, but I also think that we’re losing population, so I think that’s what part of the (economic) rebound is.

“We’re all just making a guess, but if people leave and our population drops, that means there is potential for more jobs for the people that are here.”

Joslyn, citing statistics in the 2016 Kids Count In Michigan Data Book published by the Michigan League for Public Policy, stated Tuscola County’s child population – from ages 0 to 17 – fell by 13.1 percent from 2006 to 2013. The data book states that in 2006, the county had 13,554 young people in that age bracket, but had only 11,773 in that age bracket in 2013.

In the Cass City district, where enrollment fell from 1,017 to 987 according to count day statistics, Superintendent Jeff Hartel said it’s hard for younger people who have received college degrees to come back to the Thumb area if it doesn’t provide decent-paying jobs.

“We have low- to moderate-paying jobs here,” Hartel said, adding that the situation causes adults to leave the area as well.

“When they leave, we lose the kids,” Hartel said. “Until we get better-paying jobs around here, we’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle.”

While last week’s count showed Cass City losing 30 students from one year ago, Hartel said district leaders budgeted for a loss of 25 students. Hartel also said he sees a larger group of parents choosing to home-school their children, too.

“We generally lose about 3 to 4 percent of our kids every year, from fall to fall,” Hartel said.

Kingston Community Schools has shown “slow steady growth” during the past few years, according to Superintendent Matt Drake. But Kingston saw its student count fall from 650 last year to 625 this fall.

Drake said the district budgeted for about 633 students. The larger-than-projected enrollment decline creates a revenue loss of about $60,000 from the district’s projected budget.

When asked how Kingston might make up for such lost revenue, Drake wrote in a text message that he wanted to discuss the situation first with Kingston school board members. He noted Kingston’s class of 2016, 60 students, “was one of the largest in our district,” while Kingston has been registering 42 to 45 kindergartners each year.

“So we knew we would drop at least 15 (students) just on that swap,” Drake wrote.

In Marlette Community Schools, where enrollment fell by 2.4 percent from 902 students to 880, Superintendent Sarah Barratt said the number of graduating seniors in the spring outpaced the number of kindergartners.

Marlette saw 66 students graduate, but only 52 arrive for kindergarten. “My hypothesis is this is perhaps a lower birth-rate year,” Barratt said.

Terri Falkenberg, superintendent of Owendale-Gagetown Area Schools, said the number of children in the Thumb area continues declining annually. Owendale-Gagetown saw enrollment fall from 158 to 152, a 3.8 percent loss.

Falkenberg said 10 children enrolled in kindergarten at Owendale-Gagetown this fall, after 20 students graduated in the spring.

“There aren’t enough jobs in this area,” Falkenberg said. “People come back after they retire.”

Falkenberg expects the trend to continue “if we continue to close up everything around here – and I know in Cass City where the milk plant is, you’re hoping that will bring a few jobs back – but there needs to be more businesses opening back up, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon, unfortunately.”

Millington Community Schools saw its student count increase from 1,226 last year to 1,234. Millington’s count had fallen for at least the past two years.

The increase proved to be especially good news in light of the fact Millington leaders had budgeted for a loss of 47 students when preparing the annual budget before the start of the current fiscal year that began July 1, Superintendent Bruce Martin said.

“We’re excited,” said Martin. “We’re trying to be cautious, though, because we don’t know if this is just an anomaly – a blip on the radar – or if this is the start of a positive trend.”

Martin said Millington High School has adopted a national curriculum through “Project Lead the Way,” creating what Martin describes as “a pre-engineering program for students that might be interested in that.”

In addition, he said some parents may have become interested in sending their children to Millington after the district instituted “Cardinal College” this school year – providing free college classes to Millington High students, taught by Mott Community College faculty who travel to Millington to instruct students there during the school day.

The success of Millington sports teams also helps market Millington to the public, he said.

“Frankly, when your football team is a winning program and your softball team goes to the state finals, you get a great deal of publicity from that,” Martin said.

The student count in the area’s most populous school district – North Branch Area Schools – dropped from 2,370 last year to 2,347 this fall, a 1-percent decline.

North Branch Superintendent Jim Fish – who became superintendent earlier this year but has worked at North Branch since 2000 – said North Branch has seen growth in general in the past 16 years.

“We did grow, but obviously in the last few years we’ve been losing students, like everybody else,” Fish said. “We’ve held steady and haven’t lost as much as the surrounding districts, because we have such a strong interest from students (attending North Branch) under school-of-choice (options).”

Michigan’s Schools of Choice laws allow non-resident students to enroll in a district other than their own.

Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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