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The open enrollment hustle: Why isn't Perham winning hands-down?

What motivates parents to send students to a neighboring school--better sports programs, teachers, facilities; a better financial condition?

The Perham-Dent school board had an engaging discussion about open enrollment at the August 13 meeting.

"Considering all the success we've had, our variety of unique offerings like gymnastics and orchestra...and all we've done over the last ten years to offer college-level programs and quality teachers...Why isn't our enrollment up (further)?"

That was a question posed by board member Dave Schornack.

As recently as five years ago, there were twice as many students leaving Perham for other districts. Now, the trend is reversing. In other words, there are more students from outside who choose Perham-Dent, as those from within the district who choose a different district. Based on the most recent report, Perham is attracting153 students--while 132 are leaving Perham for a different district.

Nevertheless, open enrollment numbers don't appear to match the alluring qualities of the Perham-Dent school district to the degree some would like to see.

Here are just a few of the successes Perham-Dent has had in recent years:

---Awarded the state "Challenge Cup" this year. It is the first time that a non-private school, within our enrollment category, has ever won the challenge cup.

---Perham's Heart of the Lakes was named to the prestigious "Blue Ribbon School" list two years ago.

---Vocational-ag instructor Carl Aakre was named Teacher of the Year through a Wal-Mart program.

---There have been state titles, or at least strong finishes, too numerous to mention here--in sports ranging from cross country to gymnastics to wrestling.

---As far as I know, Perham High School offers more college level, advanced placement classes than any school in the region.

To top it off, Perham is prosperous compared to most school districts. Hundreds of jobs have been created over the past couple years. Some communities are losing jobs at the rate?Perham creates jobs.

Why isn't the open enrollment into Perham double...triple over the enrollment out of Perham.

"Puzzling," is how one described it at the August 13 meeting

"Intriguing," said another.

"Disappointing," was another comment.

Finally, "embarrassing" is how one board member described it.

One factor is fairly easy to recognize: Perham housing and rental prices are higher than virtually every neighboring community.

Still, there are border-area families who are choosing other districts.

It's not like nobody's tried to recruit students in this competitive, open enrollment environment. Perham has probably been more aggressive than most districts.

The tailgate party coming up August 29, celebrating the Challenge Cup--not to mention the related billboard and signage that you'll be seeing--is an example of Perham's marketing initiatives.

I commend school officials for tooting the horn and delivering the word about Perham-Dent school's merits.

But I'm somewhat skeptical that the free enterprise model and competitive marketing is going to reap enough new students to significantly tip the financial scales for most Greater Minnesota school districts.

In Perham's case, it almost appears that difficult financial discussions had been tabled or at least de-emphasized because we were banking on open enrollment growth take care of revenue shortfalls. Now, we're seeking a levy increase that probably should have occurred before the million dollars in cuts of the past year.

Do you recall that worthy Perham-Dent experiment in setting up a school readiness program in Ottertail--with the strategy of drawing open enrollment kids into the district? Because of low participation, it was quietly abandoned by the school board in less than a year.

In the Twin Cities suburbs, where that sense of school and community connection is non-existant or completely superficial, maybe the recruitment hustle works.

For sports-obsessed parents, which rather unfortunately has become a sizeable minority, they'll send their kids across district lines, even across state lines. Hell, they'd probably send their kids to the Al Queda Prep School of Radical Islam if the kid had a good chance of making the starting line-up.

But you know what?

Maybe most parental decisions about where to send their kids to school are really more simple than all of this--especially in rural areas and smaller towns.

Maybe it's about daycare situations...about working or single-parent families who really aren't in a position to run their kids half-way around the county... about simple logistics and geography.

Maybe it's about playmates down the block...about those same playmates becoming classmates...maybe it's about the local business district....maybe it's about those classmates feeling safe enough to walk to the corner grocery for a treat after school, rather than ride a bus for an hour...maybe it's about neighborhood.

Maybe it's about the fellow 4-H members in the township...the buddies in the town Cub Scout Pack...maybe it's more about the sandlot ball diamond on that vacant lot next door than the slick facilities at the school district ten miles away...maybe its about the church down on the corner...about the Sunday school classmates who live around the block.

Maybe some parent enrollment decisions are more apt to involve that intangible synergy of neighborhood, school and community...And, maybe sometimes, it has a little something to do with town loyalty.