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Enrollment option program helps local school districts grow

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Parents have the option to choose what school they want to send their kids to thanks to the enrollment option program that was implemented into Nebraska’s legislature back in the ‘90’s.

School choice and enrollment option is something thousands of families have been utilizing.

For some, it was especially helpful this past year as they looked for safer learning options due the pandemic.

“It’s one of the great things that Nebraska has on the books to put the power and the rights back into the family’s hands of where they want to send their kids to school," said Nebraska Department of Education Public Information Officer David Jespersen.

Grand Island Northwest Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Edwards added, "you obviously have your resident district, you can option into another district there’s several parochial schools that you can choose from or you always have the option of homeschooling so Nebraska has great options for kids and parents and basically it’s finding where they fit in."

Students can only use this option one time throughout their K-12 school career, according to Jespersen.

Families have to complete an application, among other qualifications for that district, before being accepted or denied.

"Capacity at that district is the only reason that a school can say 'no I’m sorry we can’t take that student'," stated Jespersen.

He said there are other small exceptions, like for individual learning plans that the district is not equipped to handle.

In talking with Grand Island Northwest Public Schools and Elba Public Schools, they say there are a variety of reasons why students may be opting in or out of their district.

“We have a very strong fine arts program, we have a lot of options academically across the board and then any extracurricular activity and being where we max our high school classes at 200, you get smaller class sizes in certain courses," said Edwards.

Elba Public Schools Superintendent Allison Pritchard added, "we have a few that opt out but those are for different reasons; sports, or they want to be under a certain coach, or maybe they haven’t met our expectations on our discipline guidelines so they’ve exhausted that and need to look for a new place to go."

Pritchard said there may be an academic benefit of going to a smaller school.

"I do feel that some students are misunderstood and if you get the student one-on-one and get to know them as an individual and the things that motivate them, we seem to be able to get more out of those students than maybe a larger district would," stated Pritchard.

To help combat this, G.I. Northwest implemented a Freshman Academy a few years ago to keep all freshman with the same core teachers.

The goal is to get them off on the right foot because we are meshing students that have come from our 8th grade feeder schools and a lot of option in students," said Edwards.

He said for the 2020 school year, they had about 980 students option in and 190 option out.

Elba saw a similar exchange but on a smaller scale.

"I feel that since we have guidelines in place that it’s been a positive impact. I like meeting the different kids from the different areas and also what they can bring to the classrooms," said Pritchard.

The enrollment option program was recently in jeopardy after an amendment to a bill was proposed in this year's legislature.

LB538 aims to make some changes to education statutes and Amendment 1190, introduced by Senator Justin Wayne on April 29, proposed terminating the enrollment option program on July 1, 2022.

This would drastically change enrollment for schools like Grand Island Northwest or Elba, who rely on this option to keep their schools at their current populations.

“There’s several districts around, a couple in the metro area, Columbus Lakeview, us, Adams Central, that have a large enrollment population. Obviously it would have a tremendous, drastic economic impact on us," said Edwards.

Edwards said if Northwest operated on only resident students, they would drop from an enrollment of about one thousand four hundred fifty to about five hundred students.

Superintendent at Elba Public Schools Allison Pritchard said it would have a big impact on them because a major portion of their current 120 student enrollment are option students.

“It would definitely hurt our school district. I would have to relook at how I’m going to manage the budget, but for little districts that have option enrollment it would have a big impact. If a bill got passed to do away with net option funding, it would have a huge impact on small districts," said Pritchard.

Pritchard said officials would also have to re-examine school funding if this were to happen.

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Amendment 1190 has since been withdrawn but has the potential to be reintroduced in next year’s legislative session.

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