Consider this a memo to school board members. A major responsibility of school board members is to keep a district healthy on behalf of the citizens who elected them. A school district is healthy when it retains the students they have or when it gains new students—much like a business tries to retain and gain customers.
Parents opt to send their children to another school when a school doesn’t meet their needs for one reason or another. This may be fine for the student but it’s not good for the district. Losing too many students means losing dollars which means losing teachers and the loss of too many students means no school. One could say, “Enrollment is everything.” Business leaders say, “Customers are everything.”
The question then becomes, “How can a district retain or gain students?”
Years ago retaining students was not a real problem because enrollment was pretty constant. With the advent of open enrollment and alternative education programs and lower birth rates, keeping districts healthy with a stable enrollment is now a serious matter for every district. If you forgot, numerous school districts in Minnesota had to consolidate due to lack of enrollment. What can districts do to retain students?
Retaining students means ensuring that every day every teacher, regardless of grade level, makes a point to help every student feel welcome. Students need to be noticed. They want to feel they are part of something. We can’t take this for granted. It’s almost like treating each student as if they were the teacher’s own child.
Retaining students means reminding teachers about the magic number. This number is the number of ninth-graders in school. If there are 50 ninth-graders and all 50 graduate, the district has a 100% graduation rate, which should be the goal of every school. The lower the graduation rate, the less healthy the school.
Retaining students means offering new programs that help more students find success. If a district is not graduating 100% of their students, this means that some students are not finding success. Districts should seriously think about creating one or more district sponsored charter schools or alternative programs.
Retaining students means keeping track of those students who are not doing well. Every teacher needs to adopt one or two or three and be a personal advisor to them during their middle and high school years. Start with the least likely to graduate.
Retaining students means relentlessly reminding teachers that the health of the district rests on enrollment. Losing students means losing teachers.
Retaining students means engaging the total community in Beltrami County’s 100% initiative. Don’t leave any stone unturned to engage the community in helping schools. We are in this together.
When students leave the district, how do you gain them back?
Gaining students means writing letters to the families of the former students inviting them to return and telling them about some new programs you are designing for them.
Gaining students means asking parents/students/teachers to be part of a group that is exploring a new and different type of school to help more students find success.
Gaining students means creating a new high school (charter or alternative program) that is very different than what is currently offered. Every district needs more schools of choice because no district is graduating 100% of their students. Districts will never achieve a 100% graduation rate unless they adopt the 100% Project Graduate model and/or they create more schools of choice. Put an emphasis on “never.”
Gaining students means creating one or two non-graded classrooms at the elementary level. Obviously there are many elementary students who are not finding success and this may be the reason why a student might drop out. Many of these students would do better in a K-5 non-graded classroom personalized to fit the way they learn.
Gaining students means opening up the Alternative Learning Centers to all students. Why should a student first have to fail or not do well in order to attend an ALC? Many students would benefit from this type of school.
Gaining students means opening up the ALC and/or all school programs so they meet all day every day. Why do we assume that all students learn best just from 9 to 3 o’clock and only on weekdays?
Gaining students means offering those who do not have permanent housing special learning options. (They have the lowest graduation rates.)
Gaining students means school districts in this area need to be relentless about hiring Native American personnel. Districts need to find other ways to employ Native Americans in schools in addition to certified teachers or paraprofessionals.
Gaining students means promoting a 100% graduation goal. Parents want to know that when they send their child to a particular school, they can expect their child to graduate. If I were a parent the first question I would ask an educator is, “What is your graduation rate?”
If you are a board member, thanks for serving. How to gain and retain students should be a primary focus. Begin by asking, “How’s our enrollment and what are we doing to raise it?”
Riddle: If you have two coins that total 55 cents and one is not a nickel, what are the two coins? (A half dollar and a nickel. One coin is not a nickel.) There is no trick when calculating enrollment. Making valiant efforts to gain or retain students is the key to a healthy district.
When school districts adopt a 100% graduation goal and work hard to engage the community, enrollment will rise.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.