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Duluth schools boundary study raises questions

Schools on the eastern side of Duluth are either reaching or over capacity, while schools on the western side are underutilized.

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Students hang out and pass through the cafeteria at East High School at the start of the school day Tuesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

There are always many questions regarding school enrollment: When can a district close open enrollment? How do they verify addresses? What’s the difference between open enrollment and transfer? These questions are all answered by state law and school district policy.

Many of these questions came up after the Duluth school district announced it was conducting a boundary study as a way to balance out enrollment, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton said.

Currently, schools on the eastern side of town — Lester Park Elementary, Congdon Park Elementary, East High School — are either reaching or over capacity while schools on the western side — Stowe Elementary School, Lincoln Park Middle School, Denfeld High School — are underutilized.

According to district data, Stowe is the least-utilized school in the district at 50% and Congdon Park is over capacity, at 108% live-in utilization. Superintendent Bill Gronseth has said many times that the district couldn’t hire an additional teacher for Congdon Park even if the district wanted to, because there is no physical space left in the building to add another classroom, which is why the school has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the district.

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Duluth schools assistant superintendent Jeff Horton speaks about enrollment Friday, Jan. 24. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Open enrollment vs. transfers

Open enrolling means a student is choosing to attend a school district other than the one he or she is assigned to. In the 2018-2019 school year, Duluth Public Schools had 137 students open enrolling into the district from other districts, with a majority of them, 62, coming from Lake Superior School District, which encompasses Lake County.

The forms for open enrollment ask the person filling them out to list three site preferences in order.

“Even though somebody open enrolls they may not get their first choice. So if somebody wants to come into Congdon, for example, and we might say we can't do Congdon but we can do Stowe,” Horton said. “We welcome students into the district and we're excited when people want to be part of our school district, so we don't want to deter people from doing that. But we do have some flexibility in terms of where they go (within the district).”

The district gets more than $8,000 in funding for every student who open enrolls into the district.

Open enrollment is mandated by state law and can only be closed for two reasons:

  • The percentage of open-enrolled students in a grade is more than 1% of its enrollment (Duluth’s policy).

  • The number of students open-enrolling into the district equals the number enrolling out of the district.

Open enrollment can only be closed by school board action. The Cloquet School Board took action in September to close open enrollment for all grades. The Hermantown school district has currently closed enrollment for kindergarten through sixth grade as well as ninth and 10th grades.
Transfers are students who attend a school within the district other than the one they are assigned to. Transfers happen in districts that have more than one elementary, middle or high school. This school year, 544 students within the Duluth district attended a school different from the one they are assigned.

To transfer to a different school within the district, a transfer request form must be filled out. The form is then submitted to the assistant superintendent for approval. Horton said he looks at the reason for the request and either approves it or denies it based on the guidelines set in the school district’s policy as well as using the district’s tool for equity accountability.

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The assistant superintendent will take into consideration teacher/student ratio, class size and classroom space when making transfer decisions. If a transfer is denied, there is an appeal process.

“That goes to the transfer appeal committee, which consists of a school board member, a district administrator other than myself, and two community members. The parent would usually have about 15 minutes to share their story as to why they have an extenuating circumstance,” Horton said. “Because it's really hard to write a policy to catch every little life event that could happen we have to have some flexibility.”

Transfer requests for the upcoming school year must be submitted prior to April 30. Second semester transfer requests must be submitted by Dec. 1.

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East High School students crowd a hallway as they head to class Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Address verification

When registering for school, parents or guardians must provide a proof of address. Approved documentation includes:

  • Property tax statement

  • Signed lease

  • Purchase agreement

Special considerations are taken into account for homeless students. Horton said the district accepted utility bills as proof of address up until two years ago.
“The reason we accepted utility bills was because we were trying to be inclusive and take down barriers to enrollment,” he said. “But that changed because we learned that people could go onto utility websites and actually change their address, print that off and bring it in to us and then go back in there five minutes later and change it back. So we were finding situations where people were abusing that.”

Horton did say once a student is in the district they do not require address verification again unless a student moves and an address needs to be updated with the district.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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