More than 1,000 students living in the Columbia Heights district are attending public schools in other districts this year, and about 300 others are going to private schools or are being home-schooled.

This isn’t the first year a large number have gone elsewhere, and it’s something the district is working to change.

After surveying parents last spring, officials are making across-the-board curriculum changes in hopes of getting students who start in Columbia Heights schools to stay through high school graduation. They’re also tackling issues involving public perception.

The enrollment numbers do contain some positives: About 780 students came into the district through open enrollment this year, and each of its five public schools have had an increase in student numbers.

The district found through last spring’s survey that many students would open-enroll at other schools after attending Columbia Heights elementary schools. That prompted it to make a number of changes, many at the middle and high schools.

This year still saw similar numbers of students attend school outside the district, but officials weren’t expecting the situation to turn around overnight.

Instead, they’re preparing for the long haul, with a two-pronged approach: They’re focusing on people who move into the Columbia Heights district as well as on keeping those who are already in the elementary schools.

“We were hoping that as families move in … that they give us a second look and say ‘Oh, hey, there is good stuff. We’re gonna stay,’ ” said director of student services Nicole Halabi.

Rebecca Dickson, a longtime Columbia Heights resident, started the first two of her five daughters in an area parochial school. But they both have special needs and weren’t getting what they needed, so Dickson moved them to the public school.

She later switched her middle daughter to the public school, and her youngest two have started in Columbia Heights. Special needs or not, Dickson said she found Columbia Heights schools to be a ­better fit.

“They’re not afraid to say, ‘look how technology and science and art and math can all work together,’ ” she said.

Among the programming changes were increases to the number of AP and pre-AP courses, which teach college-level materials and offer tests that can translate to inexpensive college credits.

The district expanded other programs aimed at making its upper-grade students more prepared for college and added engineering to the offerings in the middle and high schools.

A more-favorable view

Along with the changes, officials say the perception of the district is improving.

“The conversation with alumni and community members [has] been more favorable,” Halabi said.

District officials heard some concerns about safety. As recently as a decade ago, crime rates in the city as a whole were at “unacceptable” levels, said Police Chief Scott Nadeau. That caused some parents to think crime might also be an issue in the schools.

But crime in the city has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2007, Nadeau said, and much of that decrease was in offenses typically associated with minors.

Halibi said some parents would see police cars in front of the high school and assume something bad was happening. But almost all the time, the police weren’t on a call and were just volunteering in the school or visiting.

“I think in the past, the reputation wasn’t the best,” Halibi said. “But reputations die hard.”

Officials now stress that the schools are as safe as any and Nadeau said crime in Columbia Heights is the lowest it has been in 25 years.


Cody Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.