Full-day 4K, virtual options help keep students in district, officials say

By Jason Arndt

Staff Writer

The Burlington Area School District in the 2020-21 school year experienced a net loss of 327 students to open enrollment, according to figures from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

While the district accepted 104 transfers in, another 431 students left the district, but school officials believe most of the reasons families open enrolled their students out of BASD are out of their control.

Superintendent Stephen Plank, who acknowledged open enrollment is an issue for the district, said the district has worked diligently to change the trajectory through the launch of new programs and offerings.

According to preliminary numbers, Plank said open enrollment has improved for 2022-23 school year, which he found encouraging.

When Plank first started in the district, he conducted a survey of parents, who said they open enrolled their students out of the district because of simple geography.

For example, according to Plank, parents have open enrolled their students to Waterford or Union Grove area schools because their children are closer to those districts.


New programs

The district, meanwhile, has worked to change the trajectory of parents who have open enrolled their children to other districts through the introduction of three key programs to meet the needs of students.

In 2021-22, the district unveiled a full day 4-year-old kindergarten option, which 82% of families selected for the children, according to figures from BASD.

Additionally, the district also added before and after school care, running from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. in order to accommodate parents’ schedules.

Both options, Plank noted, could reverse some of the trends because neighboring districts have offered similar programs in the past.

“Once you take your kids some place, you will probably not come back,” said Plank.

Along with new programs, Plank noted many parents have decided to open enroll their children to other districts, citing many factors.

While parents recently moved to the district, they decided to allow their children to continue at their previous district, and others opted for open enrollment because of work matters.

In some cases, according to Plank, parents who work in other communities, such as Waukesha, or Muskego, decided to open enroll their children as a matter of convenience.


Going virtual

The district isn’t only competing with neighboring districts, according to Plank, who noted virtual schooling has become a trend in recent years.

The Elkhorn Area School District, which has seen a net gain of 576 students in the 2020-21 school year, the largest among K-12 districts within the Southern Lakes Conference, has a virtual schooling option.

But, according to Plank, Elkhorn offers a virtual option, which allows students statewide to open enroll into the district.

During the 2019-20 school year, when the district collected data, 15 total students from BASD open enrolled to Elkhorn Area School District.

The McFarland School District in Dane County, which offers an online virtual school, has a similar program and accepted a grand total of 4,901 transfers in 2020-21 while only 37 departed the district.

According to numbers from the Burlington Area School District, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state, six students from the district open enrolled at McFarland during the 2019-20 school year.

In response to the virtual school uptick, BASD launched WisCo Virtual, which essentially replaces previous online platform JEDI.

WisCo Virtual, according to Plank, allows better flexibility to meet the needs of students compared to JEDI.

“We are excited to be able to offer a virtual choice to parents,” he said.


Other issues

Plank stressed open enrollment shouldn’t be considered the main issue for districts such as BASD.

Issues, he said, include how the state funds special education, diverting funds to private schools via vouchers, and frozen revenue streams while the consumer price index continues to increase.

Private school vouchers, according to Plank, costs districts more than open enrollment.

“(Open enrollment) is not THE big problem,” he said. “All I want to convey is there are bigger issues.”


Small districts gaining most open enrollees

In the 2019-20 school year, when the district saw a net loss 281 students, most of them open enrolled to smaller and neighboring K-8 schools districts.

While 65 attended Waterford Grade School District, according to the district’s number, another 42 open enrolled to Wheatland Center School in Kenosha County.

Additionally, on the east end of the district boundary, 27 students went to Brighton School and another 25 went to Dover in Kansasville.

Other open enrolled students attended schools outside of southeast Wisconsin, including Prairie du Chien (five), Grantsburg (three) and Waukesha (two).

The introduction of full-day 4-year-old kindergarten as well as before and after school care programs could change the trajectory, according to the district, adding retention is critical.

Meanwhile, according to preliminary numbers, the district reported open enrollment has improved within the district for the 2021-22 school year.