Lack of STEM was big factor for one family
by NATHANIEL NELSON
On Thursday, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will face some bad news: enrollment has dropped once again. In the first enrollment update of 2019, new numbers show that another 17 students left the district since the end of November, bringing the grand total up to 169 below projections and signaling that WAPS’ issues with student loss may be far from over. While the district has been sending surveys to learn the reasons behind the exodus of families, early responses only show part of the problem –– at least one family left because of the elimination of the STEM magnet program at Jefferson.
Stemming declining enrollment is easier said than done, however. In November, board members called for district administrators to come up with a plan to figure out why families were saying goodbye. “We can’t remedy the situation until we know why [families are] leaving,” former board chair Ben Baratto said.
Winona resident Lisa Clifford said her family decided to remove their daughter from WAPS because of the lack of STEM curriculum after the closure of Jefferson. Though WAPS administrators promised that STEM would be offered district-wide this year after its magnet program at Jefferson was disbanded, Clifford said her family noticed right away that the aspects of STEM that attracted them to WAPS are now missing. “Up until this year the curriculum was STEM-based at Jefferson,” she said. “This year it’s not, and not all of the teachers are STEM trained. We specifically enrolled her there for the STEM program. We decided to leave WAPS, because we found a better fit for her. Not having STEM curriculum like her previous three years was a large factor in us leaving [District] 861.”
Clifford noted that her family is thankful for Jefferson teaching staff and does not blame them for the change, but explained that the board and administrators’ decision to spread the district’s STEM program across all schools was the impetus. “We appreciate the Jefferson staff and teachers. This was a board/administrative decision that impacted the STEM program,” she added.
It is unclear whether the survey sent to families who chose to leave WAPS queried them about the changes to STEM. Only 72 of 232 families responded, according to preliminary data shared by administrators last month. Of those, 17 said they left due to the recent closure of Madison and Rollingstone schools, 16 said they were dissatisfied with the school learning environment, 15 said they were dissatisfied with the control of behavior issues in the classroom, and 12 said they were dissatisfied with the responsiveness of teachers and administrators. Eleven said that their child did not feel safe in the district, and 11 said they were looking for different experiences or a different atmosphere for their child.
WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman stressed that the district should not take the survey responses lightly. While initiatives such as referendum-funded security upgrades are expected to make students feel more safe, he called for teachers and administrators to focus on student behavior and communication with parents and families.
“Those are things we need to address,” Dahman said at the meeting last month. “It’s very important for us to work on [these problems] as a team so that we can make sure we are giving a positive learning environment for all students.”
Surveys will continue to be sent out to families of students who leave the district, he added, with updates to be shared with the board periodically.
These new numbers come at an increasingly stressful time for the School Board –– on Thursday, board members will begin the budgeting process for the 2019-2020 school year. Each student brings $9,422 in per-pupil funding each year, so as enrollment continues to drop, the district will continue to take a financial hit that compounds year after year. The district has a precarious four percent of annual expenditures left in its reserves, so if WAPS is to build its war chest, the board is expected to have to make more painful budget reductions for the next year.
WAPS Finance Director Sarah Slaby has previously stated that the district is anticipating a need to make $1.5 million in budget cuts for the upcoming year, but that number could increase as enrollment continues to dwindle.
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