Nearly one-third of Columbia Heights children do not attend their local public schools. That’s one of the highest departure rates in the north metro.

Now district officials are asking why.

Columbia Heights Schools sent a survey to parents who enroll their children elsewhere. About 1,100 of the 3,400 children who live in the district either open enroll in other districts or attend private school. About $11 million in state education dollars leaves with them each year.

The plan is to use the survey results to address issues raised by exiting families. It’s all a conversation starter, which the district hopes will make some families reconsider.

Officials did a similar survey by phone in 2007 and made some dramatic changes afterward. At the middle school, they ditched wood shop and started offering engineering, media arts, band and dance. They implemented a new student behavior policy and, with support from parents, required uniforms.

“We would really like Columbia Heights residents to stay here or come back and take a tour,” said Nicole Halabi, the district’s director of student services. “We want the opportunity to show current and new families all the changes and improvements.”

About 3,000 students currently attend Columbia Heights schools, a district that is sandwiched among five others. The student population is 36 percent black, 30 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian.

About 660 children open enroll into the district, mostly from Minneapolis. But that still leaves the district a net loser in the open-enrollment race.

The 1,100 students leaving Columbia Height Schools fan out to neighboring districts, with Fridley, St. Anthony-New Brighton and Mounds View absorbing the most.

Creating an academy

When superintendent Kathy Kelly was hired in 2007, she initiated the survey of 100 families leaving the district.

“One of the things I kept hearing over and over is, ‘We left after elementary school,’ ” Halabi said. “They loved the elementary school. They thought the teachers were high quality and they loved the curriculum. They were really nervous about the reputation of the middle school.”

The district’s three elementary schools, kindergarten through grade five, are all at capacity with more than 500 students each. In 2007, enrollment at the middle school, grades 6 through 8, dropped to 500. The high school is around 900 students.

District officials admit the sight of middle school kids spilling out of school and loitering on Central Avenue did not inspire confidence. Inside, students lingered in the hallways after class had started. Halabi said the overall impression to outsiders was “naughty.”

Mary Bussman took over as middle school principal in 2009 and led the transformation of the school into an academy. One of her first actions was a simple flip of a switch.

“Let’s turn the bells on,” said Bussman, explaining that the bell system had been turned off. “We will be less frantically trying to herd kids into the classroom.”

The district instituted a new positive behavior program and added uniforms.

Under the direction of the superintendent, Bussman retooled the curriculum, giving the middle school an emphasis on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math. She eliminated the shop class requirement and added new classes, including pre-AP math, science and English for advanced learners. Media arts, band, choir, dance and engineering were added.

“What are the needs of the future generation? They need academics, but they are going to have to be able to communicate in this world,” Bussman explained.

Staff members realized that more interesting, relevant courses also solved many of the behavior problems.

For children needing extra help, the school offers remedial math and reading classes in place of electives.

Since the changes were rolled out, enrollment at the middle school has climbed by 30 percent to 653 students.

The engineering class in particular has sparked interest among students and parents. About half the students elect to take it. It’s hands-on. Students are given a real-life engineering problem including building a chair or designing a future city. They brainstorm, design, build and present their results.

“I give them a challenge. It’s filled with math and science,” said teacher Angel Brown. “They are problem-solvers now. Before they were killing time.”

At a recent class, two small groups of eighth-graders showed off their assignments. They had designed futuristic cities that use emerging technologies to address power sources and water management. Both groups won honors at the state future city competition.

Across the hall, students were learning some new moves in a dance class.

“Wave to grandma. Wave to grandma. Drive the car,” called out dance teacher Molly Maher, playfully describing each move.

Changes elsewhere

Changes also occurred at other grade levels. The superintendent restarted the elementary band program. All 230 fifth-graders now play in the band. Kelly received the 2012 VH1 Save The Music Foundation Award for her efforts to bring music back to schools. The cable TV music network paid for the instruments.

District officials say they want to increase enrollment so they can continue to improve course offerings and programs. Still, they know it will take time to change perceptions.

“Reputations die hard,” Ha­labi said.

Columbia Heights native Scott Ocel and his wife pulled their two daughters from a Columbia Heights elementary school and open enrolled in the Mounds View district a few years ago.

“I am fourth generation in the city. My kids would be fifth generation. Making the decision to move our kids out of district wasn’t easy or one we relished,” Ocel said.

He worried that with the influx of Minneapolis students, the district was starting to skew more low-income. He said families in the middle get left behind.

“That takes a significant chunk of resources and moves the district in a different direction,” Ocel said. “So many resources are peeled away. Our kids in the middle just get passed along as long as they are performing at grade level.”

Still, it’s an uncomfortable subject, so the Ocels are not sure they’ll be filling out their survey.

“I think they feel the people who left the district are ­racists. That’s unfortunate,” Ocel said. “I am looking out of the best interest of my kids and the ­education they get, and it has nothing to do with who they are sitting next to.”

Now district officials are hoping the survey will help them identify these and other concerns and address them.