Open enrollment: Phoenix-Talent will be stronger

and Ben Bergreen

The Ashland School District recently announced that more than 100 students from neighboring districts had applied to transfer to Ashland under the state's new open enrollment policy. There was little surprise in this as Ashland was the only district in the region to embrace open enrollment and it has aggressively pursued new students and their parents for some time.

Open enrollment allows students to transfer from one district to another without the formal permission from their home district required in the past. Other local school districts, including ours, have taken a more measured approach to the issue than Ashland. While we can't presume to offer Ashland advice on the wisdom of courting outside students, there are many facets to this concept it would be helpful for the community to understand.

Parents and students might pick another district for dozens of reasons and only a few relate to perceived quality of education. Transportation and after-school care are huge factors. If a parent works in one town but lives in a community with more affordable housing, it can make sense for the student to commute with Mom or Dad. In the continuing weak economy, families often face changes of residence and students have to switch schools on short notice. Because of academic or peer-group problems, some students require a fresh start in a new environment. Sometimes, law enforcement officers want their kids to attend schools in another district to provide a measure of anonymity.

This school year, 111 students transferred into the Phoenix-Talent district from around the valley. But the media coverage of open enrollment focused solely on the 54 who expressed interest in attending Ashland schools. Yes, the financial impact of losing any student is real, and no school district can take that lightly. But we genuinely believe Ashland's recruitment efforts will make us a stronger, more resourceful district in the long run. A little competition, especially if it's done in an open and respectful way, makes every organization better.

Demographics are certainly in our favor. The areas we cover — including the cities of Phoenix, Talent, parts of Medford and of unincorporated Jackson County — have lots of young families, and we aim to keep as many students here as can be served effectively. We'll do that because Phoenix-Talent is the definition of a district in transition. Today's parents think of us as "The Big Small": a district with schools that are big enough to offer a range of opportunities but small enough that students don't get lost in the shuffle.

There are core elements here that appeal to students already, and we're constantly adding more. A high percent of the Phoenix High School student body is enrolled in Advanced Placement courses and they score well on the national exams. More than half of those AP students qualify for free and reduced lunches but still manage to excel academically. Two other key data points: Last year 92 percent of exiting seniors reported they felt "safe at school" and 90 percent said they had "at least one teacher who knew me well and was aware of my personal goals."

The Outdoor Discovery Program, created in 2010 by a group of dedicated local parents who wanted their kids to have a different type of learning experience without resorting to forming a charter school, has a long waiting list. The innovative English-Spanish language/culture immersion programs at Talent Elementary and Phoenix Elementary are models for many others in Oregon. Our three-fourths-day kindergarten compares favorably to schools that offer only half-day kindergarten. Research shows that 5-year-olds here learn by January what it takes half-timers to learn in a full school year.

The Phoenix High School Future Farmers of America chapter is one of the most active in the state, teaching life skills to the next generation of young leaders from both farm and nonfarm families. Orchard Hill Elementary fifth-graders stage a serious Shakespeare play every year, without ever giggling or fluffing a line. Coaches of our sports teams and teachers in music programs maintain an "everyone plays" philosophy, so youngsters with widely varying abilities get to perform together and learn more about themselves. And in this district, scholar-athlete isn't an oxymoron.

Without question, Ashland has good schools. Fortunately, the Rogue Valley is blessed with many others as well. For the student, guided by his or her family, the ultimate question is: "Where will I really fit in best and have the greatest opportunity to learn and succeed?"

Laura Lotspeich is a member of the Phoenix-Talent School District Board of Trustees and Ben Bergreen is the district's superintendent.

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