La Crosse Health Science Academy

La Crosse Health Science Academy students, left to right, Rose Vang, Kablia Her, Brittney Foster and Grace West identify bones on a model of a skeleton during a class at the Health Science Building at UW-La Crosse.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

La Crosse School District staff have turned to social media platforms to get their message out to students and their families. And it’s not a coincidence that the interest in telling the district’s story comes as more and more students take advantage of open enrollment.

La Crosse, like many area districts, uses social media to highlight the work of students, faculty and staff. Being able to get the message out is important, Superintendent Randy Nelson said, as the educational landscape changes to include more options for students and their families.

Randy Nelson mug

Nelson

“Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years,” he said. “Expanded choice puts more pressure on school districts to be more strategic.”

Parents have the option to open enroll their students at other districts or participate in Youth Options or Course Options for high school or college coursework beyond a district’s offerings. Families that meet income limits and other eligibility guidelines can also participate in the state’s choice programs, which provide up to $8,176 per student to attend a participating private school.

Parents are taking advantage of these options. More than 126 students from La Crosse County school districts received a voucher this year, and the La Crosse district saw 333 students open enroll into the district compared with 268 who open enrolled out, for a net gain of 65 students.

Other districts lose students, such as Holmen, which saw 408 students open enroll out compared with the 170 who came in. Onalaska had 446 students come in and 172 leave, resulting in a gain of 274 students, while West Salem reported a net gain of 71 students. Bangor did not provide headcounts but reported a net loss equivalent to 5.8 full-time students, a measure by which some students spend less than a full day at school count count as a fraction of an FTE.

Responding to these changes, La Crosse began branding itself as the “school district of choice” more than a decade ago. La Crosse offers more than 10 charter or themed schools such as Summit Environmental School, North Woods International School or the La Crosse Design Institute.

More than 1,300 students are enrolled at these schools, some of which also serve as neighborhood schools, totaling more than a fifth of the district’s population. The district also offers special programs, such as a Health Science Academy geared towards high school students interested in careers in health care.

“We believe in choice with our district,” Nelson said. “The future of education is about choice and an individualized model.”

This is what attracted La Crosse residents Scott and Amanda Erpenbach to Coulee Montessori for their daughter Addyson. An independent eight-year-old, their daughter enjoyed the additional responsibility the school puts on its students as well as the freedom they have to learn at their own pace and control their own learning.

“I think charter/choice school is an amazing thing,” Amanda said. “We would probably have to home school if it wasn’t for the charter/choice option.”

Along with educational options, school choice has financial implications as well. La Crosse spends $35,000 each year to market the district to prospective parents; Onalaska spends about $35,000 on Youth Options students’ college courses. And students leaving one district for another mean lost revenue — which might be more significant for a district with fewer students.

Conservative and free-market groups say school choice is a good thing, as increasing competition will make districts act more like businesses and improve their offerings to attract students and parents. Others, including many educators, argue this can result in districts taking resources away from the classroom in order to compete, or dilute limited education dollars as private schools siphon those funds away from districts.

“I go back to the voucher programs,” Onalaska superintendent Fran Finco said. “When you start paying to more than the public schools, there is less support to go around.”

Onalaska doesn’t do any dedicated marketing, Finco said, relying more on the reputation of the schools and programs such as show choir, football and other activities. Onalaska High School was named a national Blue Ribbon School in 2015, and the district is known for performing well on statewide tests and annual report cards.

In Holmen, social media are primarily tools to reach out to students and parents, said district administrator Kristin Mueller. Posting updates on the football team or upcoming fundraising events is a way for the district to reach its audience on another platform.

That doesn’t mean the district is ignoring the need to sell itself. Mueller said Holmen has worked to get the word out on its award-winning agriculture program and teachers among other district strengths.

Recent voter-approved referendums have also allowed the district to address needs and issues parents value. For instance, the technology referendum provides a 1:1 Chromebook program in the middle school and high school, while another referendum addressed safety and security concerns.

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Kristin Mueller

Mueller

Mueller also pointed out that local districts have taken a more collaborative approach than a competitive one. La Crosse’s Health Science Academy is a strength of that district, while agriculture is the equivalent at Holmen. Instead of throwing resources away fighting for students, this approach allows districts to specialize and focus limited resources on a few key areas.

“Our goal is to keep providing the best education options for our students so they stay in our district,” Mueller said. “All of the districts in the area have great programs.”

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Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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