Changes to the State of Wisconsin’s School Open Enrollment regulations mean, basically, that a student can transfer to any public district in the state without having to pay tuition. However, while that changes may be a good thing for students, transferring across school districts can mean a gain or loss of millions of dollars in state funding for local school districts. With the majority of school districts across the state facing funding and budget crunches, the changes to the regulations mean that districts are now competing with alternative education programs, and each other, for students.
“Schools are operating much like a business would,” said Kim Swisher, the School District of Rhinelander’s Community Education Coordinator. “We are constantly looking at new ways to ‘sell’ our district to students and their families.”
During the enrollment period, which kicked off Feb. 6, students can apply to any school district in the state. Last week, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill to extend the open enrollment deadline to April 30, giving students three months-instead of the traditional three weeks-to complete the application process.
Statewide, $196.2 million was transferred among Wisconsin school districts last year because of open enrollment. Under Wisconsin’s revenue control law, the amount of money a school district receives is based on student enrollment and directly tied to each student. When a student transfers, the amount they garner in state aid is collected by the new school district. Swisher said that students often decide to transfer for personal or family reasons, but they can also be swayed by the promise of new and different educational opportunities that they wouldn’t receive in their old district. Swisher believes that idea, at least in the case of the School District of Rhinelander, is incorrect.
“It’s important that students know that this district offers virtual learning opportunities that equal or exceed almost anything you’ll find in this state,” said Swisher. “This isn’t your parents’, or even your older brother’s school district any more. We’re on the cutting edge now.”
Swisher explained that the district’s virtual program gives students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 the opportunity for flexible schedules, along with curriculum choices. She said that where Rhinelander’s program differs from others around the state is in its ability to give students access to the same educational resources as traditional students.
“Students in the virtual program get educational assistance from licensed teachers,” said Swisher. “The student stays enrolled in the district, but takes an active role in determining their education.”
She said that students who are successful in the virtual world are those who are self motivated, can manage their time wisely, and are able to work independently.
Where the district’s virtual program benefits the student is in its flexibility. It allows for participation in traditional classes, field trips, access to school library resources, including subscription services, co-curricular activities including WIAA sports, access to guidance counselors and other district professionals and state standardized testing.
Swisher also pointed to the district’s outreach programs, including those with Nicolet College and the industrial and business community through the Partners In Education program, as benefits.
“At the end of the day, home schooling and other virtual school options have a hard time recreating many of those opportunities,” said Swisher. “As someone who is still relatively new to this district, I am amazed by all the options we can offer families.”
Swisher said that administrators for the district project a more than $1.5 budget deficit for the 2012-13 school year. The revenue loss likely means the school district will spend less on new staff members for student support and educational programs. “There isn’t much left that can be cut without seriously affecting educational programs,” said Swisher.
The district’s open enrollment page on its website touts the small class sizes at its elementary schools, with a guarantee of a maximum of 18 students in grades K through 3. There are also details about the district’s three charter schools, Northwoods Community Elementary School (NCES), Northwoods Community Secondary School (NCSS) and the Rhinelander Environmental Stewardship Academy (RESA).
“I really think what sets the district apart is the multiple opportunities we can offer,” said Swisher. “The district is constantly changing and evolving to suit the needs of our students.”
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