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Many questions, no easy answers

Why is T-S Elementary enrollment dropping?

Jodi Summit
Posted 11/2/16

TOWER- Is the lack of a “traditional” high school the main reason behind falling enrollment at the Tower-Soudan Elementary School?

“A traditional high school is what I grew up in,” said …

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Many questions, no easy answers

Why is T-S Elementary enrollment dropping?

Posted

TOWER- Is the lack of a “traditional” high school the main reason behind falling enrollment at the Tower-Soudan Elementary School?

“A traditional high school is what I grew up in,” said Tower Mayor Josh Carlson at a community meeting he assembled this past Thursday, Oct. 27, to discuss the decline in enrollment. “It’s what we are comfortable with. It’s what a majority of us would like to see returned.”

The idea of returning a high school brought some enthusiasm to the crowd of almost 100 who gathered at the Tower Civic Center, but the process would be complicated, in part because Carlson acknowledged it would almost certainly require a break-up of ISD 2142 to restore Tower-Soudan’s independence. That process would require special legislation, which would be challenging, and the financing of a new school would be complicated by the fact that Tower-Soudan taxpayers are responsible for the current school bond payments for the next 15 years.

When asked if he truly thought it was possible, Carlson said “I think with this community we could do anything…but we need to start turning our K-6 enrollment around.”

Carlson urged the 25-45 year-olds in the crowd to stand up and take the lead.

“We can’t count on our parents to lead this fight for us,” he said. “The future of this community is on our shoulders. I will always identify myself as a Golden Eagle. The students now don’t have that luxury.”

Others agreed that the closing of the high school left a major void. “We are missing our sense of community pride,” said Greg Dostert. “People feel a distance from Tower and Soudan. There is no loyalty.”

Dropping

enrollment

Carlson had called the community meeting in hopes of learning why the parents of nearly half of the area’s elementary-aged children were opting for open enrollment or homeschooling.

Tower-Soudan Elementary currently has 72 children in grades K-6. Carlson noted that the school is located in a newly-renovated building, and boasts some of the highest test scores for Title I schools in the state, being recognized as a Reward School the past three years. It has class sizes ranging from three in grade five to 18 in Kindergarten, and is overseen by a stable and experienced teaching staff.

“Why did students leave?” Carlson asked. “What is missing here, other than the obvious, our high school?”

Carlson did his best to keep the meeting positive and focused on finding solutions to make the elementary a more attractive option for area parents, but the hurdles were obvious. He noted there has been no talk at the board level of closing the school, and noted the district does have some financial incentives for keeping the school open because of special dedicated funding for Tower-Soudan.

“We don’t know what the bottom enrollment figure will be,” he said. “But I for one do not want to find out, because by then it will be too late.” Carlson said the drop in enrollment threatens the local economy, just as Tower, in particular, appears poised for economic growth. “It threatens the future of our community,” he said.

Close to 100 attended the meeting, including students, parents, community leaders, seniors, and others. Many were graduates of Tower-Soudan.

While the missing high school was a focus for many, others pointed to a lack of jobs in the area, lack of day care for working parents, and the perception that other area schools were superior to what was available locally. Carlson asked people to think about why they choose to live in Tower-Soudan, and wondered why they wouldn’t want their children to attend school here.

Open enrollment

The loss of a high school combined with the ease of open enrollment to neighboring school districts has left Tower-Soudan as a ready market for school districts across the Iron Range, a number of which send buses each day to pick up students choosing to leave the community.

Buses from Virginia, Ely, and Mesabi East all pick up students in Tower-Soudan, along with the district, which buses high school students to either Northeast Range or North Woods.

While most of those leaving are high-school aged, a sizeable number of elementary students are riding the bus out of town as well. A Soudan high school student who attends North Woods said her school bus is full, with students three to a seat by the time they get to school, and that most of those students are from the Tower-Soudan area.

The creation of a grades 7-12 charter school, the Vermilion Country School, didn’t replace the community’s high school in the eyes of many, since the charter school does not have sufficient students to field competitive sports teams. The school does offer arts, drama, music, and a wide variety of life sports. The school has explored pairing and sharing agreements with the St. Louis County School District, with limited success. The charter school, which currently has enrollment in the low 40s, gets about half of its students from Tower-Soudan, and the rest from neighboring communities. With higher enrollments it would be possible to field athletic teams,VCS administrator Kevin Fitton noted. VCS students are very active in the T-S community, volunteering for the city and many community organizations.

Others spoke out to explain the positive school culture at the elementary, and gave reasons why they were keeping their kids at Tower-Soudan.

Jodi Reichensperger noted how devastated her daughter was after graduating from the elementary school last year. The sense of belonging and caring is something she wants her fourth-grader to experience also, she said, even though it would be more convenient to have him at NER, where she is a teacher.

Amanda Koivisto, who works as the Indian Home-School Liaison, noted the school provides much more than academics to the students. Carlson noted that teachers offer sports, volunteering both during recess and after school, to provide additional opportunities. The school also boasts an active community education program, with unicycling, art classes, and fun nights.

Parents who are sending their children elsewhere gave some reasons for their decision. Many work outside of Tower-Soudan, and are sending their children to the school in the town where they work. Others, with young children, are bringing their children to daycare in the community they work, and then once the children are school age, deciding to enroll their children with the friends they have made in daycare.

The elementary school started a before- and after-school day care program this year, and this program has encouraged at least a couple of parents to keep their children at Tower-Soudan.

“The only reason I was able to keep my daughter at T-S this year was the after-school program,” said Charity Ross.

But others with young children said they were reluctant to enroll their child at Tower-Soudan when they worked in Cook or Virginia. Some said the lack of any day care in the area was a factor, others noted that driving their children to Virginia, for example, to drop them off at day care saved several hours of day care charges each week.

The need for affordable and flexible day care is an important need, Carlson noted, and said it was something the city council would set as a priority.

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Shaking my head

Because they gave away the high school. We were duped. Lied to. Etc. Marshall tried, to no avail, to beat city hall and Johnson Controls. What a mistake we made by not voting. 2142 is shameful. I'd send my kid to Virginia too. We blew it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016