By Kelsey Parkinson
Williamston Post staff writer
While Michigan is recovering from the economic downturn over the past few years, the state’s schools are still suffering – but not from funding. From declining enrollment.
Williamston Community Schools’ student enrollment has gone from 1,884 students during the 2009-10 school year, to 1,799 students this school year, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
“Statewide, we went from 1,623,000 in 2009-2010, to 1,523,000 this year,” Ciloski said. “There’s been about 20,000 students a year that the state has been losing.”
What has been causing this downward trend? Williamston School Board Trustee Rhonda Coon thinks that it might have something to do with a kind of “baby boom.”
“The largest graduating class was in 2010, with 191 students graduating,” Coon said. “There was a small baby boom, I guess you could say, in 1991 and 1992. Those kids graduated in 2010.”
Coon herself moved to Williamston at about the time her own son was starting kindergarten. He graduated in 2010.
“There was a lot of growth at the time I moved to Williamston,” Coon said. “We’re now seeing that boom affecting us.”
Graduating classes will naturally grow and dip with each grade moving through the school system, Coon said. Ten students or so is natural for the classes.
It becomes an issue, however, when you have 191 students graduating – like in 2010 – and approximately 120 children entering kindergarten that year.
“It’s not so much that we have people moving out of the area, the numbers that are coming into kindergarten are less than the ones who are graduating,” Coon said.
Explorer Elementary School Principal Adam Spina said that he does see a slight decrease in enrollment in his building, but enrollment isn’t just down in kindergarten.
“The lessening enrollment is dispersed over the whole district, not just at the elementary level,” Spina said. “I might see a slight decrease but it’s usually not very much. When you multiply it over the whole district, then there’s an issue.”
This year’s graduating class has 163 students, not far down from the numbers in 2010. However, the kindergarten class only has 130 enrolled, and it’s probable that the numbers will continue to decrease.
“We foresee less students next year again,” Coon said.
Williamston Community Schools is not the only local district facing declining enrollment. Ciloski said Holt’s schools have gone from 5,926 students in 2009-10, to 5,786 students this year.
Okemos and East Lansing schools, however, have maintained enrollment numbers.
“Some of these districts have done really well with getting information out to parents in different communities, which might have helped them keep their enrollment somewhat stable,” Ciloski said.
How can Williamston solve this problem? Coon said one new important tactic to help boost enrollment is school of choice options for students.
School of choice is offered as an option from the Michigan Department of Education to help boost enrollment, according to Ciloski. Schools have the option between an agreement between districts, or registering under legislation.
“If I’m District A, let’s say I’m not willing to opt into school of choice, but District B and I have an agreement to exchange a certain number of students, then that could be a form of some choice,” Ciloski said. “That’s an agreement, not working under the legislation.”
The legislation for school of choice includes two options: 105, or 105c. 105 allows districts to take students from other districts in their intermediate school district, while 105c does not.
“Districts can opt to take students through both forms or either or,” Ciloski said. “It’s popular for districts to be 105c because it doesn’t do any harm by taking students away from others in their ISD.”
Along with the options between 105 or 105c, districts have the option to become limited or unlimited schools of choice.
“Limited choice sets the cap of students you can take,” Ciloski said. “You can determine that by grade, building or program, and that option is available with both 105 and 105c. Then unlimited allows schools school districts to take as many as necessary.”
Ciloski also said that with limited choice, if there are more applications than there are seats available, those applications then enter a lottery to decide who is accepted.
“The 105c option for school of choice is probably the best option for the overall health of the ISD,” Ciloski said. “But schools often do a combination of 105 and 105c so they can take in as many students as they can.”
All of the schools within the Ingham Intermediate School District accept students for school of choice, according to the district’s website. Most districts – including Williamston – have limited choice, while Dansville, Lansing, Leslie, Stockbridge and Webberville have unlimited choice.
For the 2013-14 school year, Williamston is accepting between one and five students for grades 1-12, and accepting 15 students for kindergarten.
“We do everything we can to accept kindergarten kids,” Coon said.
Schools publicize their accomplishments and programs to help draw in more students. Coon said Williamston has been promoting programs, such as national recognition for student achievements in science.
“We had a team of students get a grant from MIT a couple years ago for creating a prototype for an invention that was presented at a conference in Boston. Those same students were invited to be in the science fair on the White House lawn,” Coon said. “Those are the types of things the school will promote.”
While schools look to attract more students, they “can only do so much,” according to Coon.
“We’d love to recruit from other schools,” Coon said. “But at the same time we respect other schools.”
Schools can also boost their numbers by doing shared-time programs that focus on providing educational services to non-public and homeschool students, and non-public schools, according to Ciloski.
“Non-public students are separate from non-public schools,” Ciloski said. “You can have students that are not enrolled in your district, not just enrolled in private schools. These extra students can be counted as part-time and boost enrollment.”
Ciloski said shared-time is where the MDE has seen the most growth.
“Originally, these students wouldn’t have been counted anywhere,” Ciloski said. “Districts have done very well by offering those programs.”
Though Williamston wants to boost enrollment, Coon said they must keep in mind funding and budgets when setting limits on accepting non-resident students.
“We do everything we can to shift things around, use retirements, to keep our teachers on the job,” Coon said. “Part of our mission is to try to keep a good class size, but we have toned back on some programs.”
Coon said they cannot completely cut any programs out because those are what will help draw people to the district.
“To totally cut a program… I would be very apprehensive to do so,” Coon said. “That could really hurt our students and we could lose students to other schools of choice.”
There has been movement that Coon said she noticed from the rural areas, which helps boost enrollment as well.
“We bring a lot from Perry, some from Webberville and Dansville,” she said. “We do get some from Lansing as well, but with school of choice they don’t get buses.”
The lack of busing for school of choice students, Coon said, may affect the number of students that apply. This mostly affects elementary and middle school students because high school students are able to drive themselves to school.
Coon said there is work within the schools to also improve programs to help maintain students.
“Whenever we see a weak point, we look to fix it, and we see results,” she said.
Along with the constant development within the schools, the city has put out its 2014 Master Plan survey through McKenna Associates to help make improvements in the community.
Laura Haw, who works for McKenna Associates and community planning and development within the city, said they are preparing the master plan update that was proposed in 2013.
The survey covers a lot of issues, including housing, economic development, transportation and recreation, according to Haw. McKenna Associates will then use this information to update the master plan from 2007.
“Basically from the survey we’re trying to pull out what the residents like in the city, what’s working, what isn’t working, and what their aspirations are for the future,” Haw said.
The population of Williamston has been steadily increasing, according to Haw. Population from the 2000 census showed Williamston with 3,441 residents. In 2010, there were 3,857 residents.
Despite the population growth, there has still been a decline for enrollment. Haw said that the growth is coming from artists and other business owners looking for space in the downtown area especially.
“There has been interest in the art culture, and there are studio spaces available for artists here in town,” Haw said. “I think the city is trying to establish business and make it a great place to come for entertainment and dining.”
Williamston Community Schools will continue to work on improving programs and drawing students to the district to help boost enrollment, according to Coon.
“It’s not so much that we have people moving out of the area,” Coon said. “But we’re doing everything that we can. We advertise school of choice to make them the best they can be.”