Declining District Enrollment? Here’s a No-Brainer: Ask Why Families Left — And Listen When They Answer

Do you want to know what happens when you pull your child out of Minneapolis Public Schools?

Nothing. That’s what happens.

No first-week phone call from the school office or the enrollment center. No social worker wondering if things are okay. Not so much as a multiple-choice survey asking what prompted you to leave.

The bus cards continue to come. And good luck stopping the robo-calls, which are hardwired to survive death and taxes.

No, the vacuum you’re left with is to be filled only by your imagination. Which, if your departure involved any degree of tension between family and school, is likely to be a pretty shamey blamey place.

I’ve experienced this and it’s remarkable. No one in any position of power says, What could we do to change this situation for the better?

To be clear, this isn’t just my problem. Over the years I’ve spent as an education reporter I’ve heard, over and over, what is at its core a remarkably similar story. In it, a child whose needs are big, messy or inconvenient is accused of failing to fit the profile of the student a school is equipped to serve.

I raise it now because there has been a lot of hand-wringing in these twin towns of late over the number of students leaving traditional district schools for what their families hope are greener pastures. And a lot of the talk about this is phrased, essentially, as a process wherein an interloper steals kids and the per-pupil tuition dollars allotted to meeting their needs from Minneapolis and St. Paul schools.

Kids leaving translates to dollars lost. There’s an urgent desire to get those dollars back. But seemingly zero interest in the reasons for the departure.

(The briefest aside: Ever notice how the hand-wringing mostly centers on charter schools? Why no commensurate concern about students who open-enroll into other districts? This is a rhetorical question, by the way, involving adult interests.)

The anxiety-making talk about dwindling pie is going to be at a fever pitch for the next couple of months, with both districts grappling with yawning budget shortfalls, at the bargaining table with their teachers’ unions and hyper-aware that the Legislature is not going to ride to the rescue.

There’s a shit-ton of posturing going on, and not much real talk about the structural changes that would stop this budget-healing from being an annual event. Which if we’re honest it has been for a long, long time.

So if we’re going to blame the budgetary bloodletting on enrollment declines and the loss of state and federal revenue that means, how is it we have zero interest in why families are leaving? How hard would it be to take last year’s roster and contact those who don’t appear to be coming back?

Some presumably would tell tales of instability in which the schools could actually be helpful. I mean, how many homeless families that end up couch-surfing in a succession of municipalities know that there is a body of law designed to ensure their children can have the grounding presence of the same school, no matter the chaos?

Some would talk about being disappointed in the academics. And if it’s tempting to write them off as a privileged few, consider for a moment that creating alluring alternatives might be a two-fer: Affluent families come back from suburbs and impoverished ones have quality in-district alternatives.

The things others would say would be hard to hear with truly open minds and hearts. They would talk about feeling disrespected, their children seen as walking constellations of deficits. They might question why aspirations for children with disabilities can be so low that special ed ends up being more about behavior management than reading and writing.

Some would say the departure was suggested by the school, subtly or not.

And some would say their experience wasn’t bad, that they’d moved away, or wanted siblings at one school or decided their child would benefit from a different type of school. Maybe after it heard from a few dozen families who all wanted the same kind of alternative, a lightbulb would go on and someone down at district HQ would say, “Gee, it sounds like there’s a lot of interest in engineering….”

Some years ago, a woman by the name of Jackie Turner was in charge of the chunk of the Minneapolis bureaucracy that placed students in schools. Said office has changed organizational homes a jillion times since then and Turner has gone on to be a top officer in St. Paul schools.

With fully half of North Minneapolis’ school-aged African American children enrolled somewhere other than MPS, Turner one summer gathered her staff and they walked the north side. They knocked on doors and ducked into businesses and asked, “What would it take for you to want to come back?”

Just asking the question and being willing to listen to the answer, she found, actually opened the door.

And a change-oriented school board in place for several years repeatedly asked for families to be canvassed. And attempted to boost arts and other enrichment classes and to meet other requests in some of the districts most impoverished schools.

But the brave experiments didn’t last.

Not long ago MPS presented the results of a survey in which a laughable, credulity-stretching super-majority of families professed uniform enthusiasm for their schools. No one asked about the third of families that have left.

Here’s my bottom line. For all the insinuations and conspiracy theorizing about privateering in education, traditional district schools and many of the adults in them are actually pretty concerned with market share. As in, why don’t we have more of it? Why are those upstart alternatives poaching “our” enrollment dollars?

Yet contrast that with the actual level of concern when it becomes clear a student may leave. If the student is challenging or needy, the reaction is often relief. When the student has left for a private school and its rigor, no one shrugs – quite likely because of the size of the waiting list for his or her seat.

Schools talk a lot about the importance of family engagement. Maybe it’s time to reassess what that means. I have never interviewed a parent – or for that matter a teenager – who could not articulate a vision for what they want for their child. Maybe that is precisely the discussion engagement needs to start with.


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