Columbia Heights Schools leaders examine why so many students leave

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2013 - 2:31 PM

More than 1,000 of the city’s children attend neighboring or private schools. Officials ask exiting families why, hoping some will reconsider.

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Columbia Academy student Emma Walker worked with other students in the eighth-grade Media Arts class. The academy has drawn some students back to Columbia Heights Schools.

Photo: BRUCE BISPING, Star Tribune

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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.

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