Sam Aragon is one of more than 17,000 students missing from the Minneapolis Public School system.

Every day, Aragon, a first-grade student who lives in southeast Minneapolis, leaves the city to attend public school in Bloomington.

The number of Minneapolis students who don’t attend the city’s public schools has grown by 20 percent in five years, causing a $5 million budget shortfall this year and creating a growing sense of urgency among school administrators trying to stem the losses.

Minneapolis loses a larger share of its students to charters, private or neighboring public schools than any other major district in the state. Some neighboring school districts have seen a 40 percent to 50 percent surge in students from Minneapolis over the past five years. The outflow of students costs the Minneapolis district more than $200 million in state and federal funding each year.

Minneapolis school officials say the uptick in families opting out of the district is of “huge concern,” but they are confident that their new academic plan and other new initiatives will reverse the trend.

“We really take enrollment and our position in the market extremely seriously,” said Robert Doty, the district’s chief operations officer. “It’s absolutely concerning, but it also opens up the door for the work that we need to do.”

Over the past five years, the Minneapolis School District has seen a small increase in enrollment, but one-third of eligible Minneapolis students leave for charter schools or districts like Bloomington, Robbinsdale and Columbia Heights. Minneapolis’ enrollment now sits at 36,404 students.

“[Parents] are voting with their feet because they want something better,” said Eli Kramer, executive director of Hiawatha Academies, a network of charter schools in south Minneapolis. “If there was a great school for every kid, in every corner of the city, people would choose Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Influx makes up for decline

The students who are leaving Minneapolis come from all corners of the city and all racial and economic backgrounds, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

Public suburban districts that surround north and south Minneapolis have experienced the highest growth in enrollment from Minneapolis.

Robbinsdale and Columbia Heights enroll the largest number of Minneapolis students in their districts. Columbia Heights took in 570 students this school year, up 40 percent from 2010. Robbinsdale enrolled just over 1,000, up more than 50 percent.

Minneapolis students make up the majority of students going to Robbinsdale from other districts, the data shows.

“In addition to giving families options, the open enrollment program allows districts to fill open spaces in schools,” said Latisha Gray, Robbinsdale’s district spokeswoman.

The influx of Minneapolis students often allows suburban districts to mask their own declining enrollment, as younger couples are choosing to live in urban areas or their local population ages.

Hopkins had 538 Minneapolis students in its classrooms this year, up from 457 in 2010. That’s a growth of about 18 percent. Yet the district saw an overall 3 percent decline in enrollment.

Bloomington school officials say the boost of Minneapolis students has offset a decline in their enrollment. This school year, 10,315 students enrolled in Bloomington, its lowest enrollment in four years. Since 2010, however, the district has seen a 76 percent increase in the number of Minneapolis students.

Some Minneapolis parents say the district has not proven willing to help students who need it most.

At a recent community meeting, Rosa Aragon said the school district had failed her child, Sam, a special needs student.

Aragon said she begged the district to allow Sam to enroll in a different school, but district officials told her he had to say at his school.

He didn’t.

She took Sam to Bloomington, where she says he has learned to swim and enjoys karate, something she thought would never be possible. Aragon said that if she could speak to the mother of one of Sam’s former classmates, she would give her some advice.

“I would tell her take your child out of there. He is not advancing,” she said.

District officials say they have contacted Aragon and offered to enroll Sam in a special education program in the district.

Charter schools account for the majority of the district’s enrollment loss.

This fall, 112 charter schools enrolled nearly 11,000 Minneapolis students, compared with 8,590 in 2010.

Charter schools that have seen the largest increases include Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion school; Bright Water Elementary, a Montessori school; and Hiawatha Academies, which largely serves south Minneapolis Latino families.

Hiawatha enrolled 834 Minneapolis students this school year, the largest number for a single charter program.

Kramer, who leads Hiawatha’s schools, said they expect to grow even more next year when they open a high school.

“Our enrollment is up to 1,064 and our waitlist is also the best it has ever been,” Kramer said.

Last year, the school entered into an official partnership with Minneapolis Public Schools that will allow the organizations to share resources and ideas. Kramer said he doesn’t view people leaving Minneapolis as an anti-public school movement.

“For too long within the Minneapolis school system, some parts of the community have been doing well, but some have been doing really poorly,” Kramer said. “Over time, that doesn’t work for families who dream for better for their children.”

Vow to change

Doty and other district officials vow to do better and place their hope in plans to open new schools, offer new programs and beef up academic plans.

The district will open two news schools in the fall. Webster Elementary will be located in downtown Minneapolis, where district officials say the community was heavily involved in choosing the principal. There will be a new middle school in north Minneapolis that will have a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The academic plan will require every school in the district to increase test scores by 5 percent every year. For students of color, schools must see an 8 percent gain each year. Schools must also increase graduation rates by 10 percent each year.

Some schools have already seen those gains, Doty said. Washburn High School increased its graduation rate by nearly 15 percentage points last year. Patrick Henry High School, in north Minneapolis, has seen steady academic growth the past six years.

Minneapolis also is changing how it forecasts enrollment to better insulate itself against future shocks to the budget.

Last fall, the district expected to get 900 new students. Instead, enrollment remained flat, creating a $5 million budget shortfall that forced the district to enact a hiring freeze and suspended the approval of new contracts.

Doty said the district has changed the way that it makes projections. Next year the district expects a slight gain in enrollment.

The district will also be making a big marketing push to showcase its programs, Doty said. Part of that marketing will likely include a campaign-style door-knocking effort to make personal appeals to parents.

“We have taken a lot of steps to enhance the product that we have,” Doty said. “We believe we are working hard to make our programs more desirable and more competitive.”