Board looks at policy to bring in students, tap dollars now going to other districts

The Lake Oswego School District is considering opening enrollment to city residents who live outside the school district's boundaries, such as students in the Mountain Park area who now go to Portland schools.

No decision has yet been made. The school board is weighing a number of factors, including the appeal of its elementary language immersion offerings and a successful special education program, along with the upcoming closure of Uplands and Bryant elementary schools.

In addition, Lakeridge families are hoping the board will soon iron out some equity issues at the high school level - something that could be partially addressed through an open enrollment policy.

The board is scheduled to make a decision by early February.

Legislation approved last spring aims to give students flexibility in transferring between schools, including those in districts where they don't reside.

Currently, if students want to attend another district, they must get the permission of their resident district or pay tuition to transfer. Under the new law, the state would transfer the funding to the student's new district. The new rules apply within a specific window, which would open next spring.

School districts can choose whether they participate and can specify the number of students they will accept at each of their schools. If Lake Oswego opts for an open enrollment policy, the district would then be bound to accept students on a first-come, first-served basis during that window.

'It may be just golden for us, and then again it may not be,' district Superintendent Bill Korach told the board at a work session last week.

For a majority of students, the district receives about $6,500 apiece in state funding.

At last week's meeting, the school board considered opening enrollment to high school students while excluding out-of-district elementary and middle level students.

'For us to accept students at the middle level and elementary … would run contrary to what we're trying to do in Scenario B,' said Korach, referring to the planned school closures. Lake Oswego has already shuttered one elementary school and plans to close two more at the end of this school year.

But board member Teri Oelrich asked for information about how much space will remain after those buildings are closed and students are redistributed to the six remaining elementary schools.

If, for example, there is some room to enroll students at Hallinan Elementary, the school could be opened to any West Linn students interested in attending, Oelrich said.

She also suggested researching how many youths live in city limits but outside of the school district's boundaries, as well as parents who work in Lake Oswego and could drive their children to school here.

Korach added that the district's own teachers might be interested in driving their kids here every day.

Special education interest: A blessing or a curse

Administrators speculate that the district's special education programs, and specifically the high school ACCESS program, which is one of a kind, may have a particular draw for out-of-district families. The program, which serves students diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome, is unmatched by those in neighboring districts.

According to special education director Patrick Tomblin, the district gets two out-of-district calls a week about the ACCESS program. 'The high-functioning autism is very underserved,' he said.

However, because of the way special education is funded in Oregon, a boom in ACCESS program enrollment could be either a financial blessing or a curse.

The state funds each special education student at about $12,000, but the Lake Oswego program's costs exceed that because of its low student-teacher ratio. Currently, the district supplements special education funding with money from other sources.

'It's not the kids that are the problem; they're great kids,' Korach said. 'It's the way our state funds special education.'

Under special education law, the district would also be required to pay for transportation for any special education transfers.

Elementary language program could attract outside students

After board members Bob Barman and Oelrich returned from visiting a language immersion program in Minnetonka, Minn., the district began exploring the benefits of using the program to attract out-of-district students - something Minnetonka schools have been quite successful with.

But board members worried opening the doors too widely for out-of-district elementary students could create a capacity issue after the district closes two more schools at the end of the school year.

'If you really do commit to the language immersion, you have the ability to do a magnet option,' Korach suggested casually. 'It would not require you to move everyone around if you magneted it.'

However, he added, any conversation to implement a magnet program is one 'we need to have as we look down the road.'

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