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Students stream to Stewartville

Students stream to Stewartville
Stewartville kindergartner Kendan Grafe stretches with his classmates during a tour of Bonner Elementary school on the first week of class. Stewartville is experincing it's largest enrollment in 20 years.

STEWARTVILLE — Of all the issues that keep a superintendent awake at night, there is one that Stewartville superintendent Dave Thompson doesn't have to worry about: Attracting students.

When the school year began last week, Stewartville reported a headcount of 1,912 students, believed to be the district's highest enrollment in two decades.

Indeed, the district has had to consider capping enrollment in certain grade levels. It had to close kindergarten to open enrollment and was close to closing first grade because of capacity issues with those grades.

"We like to think it's good educational programming," Thompson said about the district's ability to draw students.

Thompson said Stewartville would likely be facing declining student numbers if not for open enrollment, a state policy that allows parents to send their children to schools outside their home district. This fall, 352 of Stewartville's more than 1,900 students come from open enrollment — more than 18 percent of its total head count. Of those 352 students, 212 of them come from nearby Rochester.

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Since state education funding is based on a per-pupil formula, that translates into a net gain of $1.09 million for Stewartville and an equal loss for Rochester.

Stewartville touts various programs that give it a comparative advantage to other districts. It offers all-day, everyday kindergarten, even though the state funds only 60 percent of an all-day program. The district also offers a one-to-one laptop program for students in the fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth grades that distinguishes its from many districts. Many parents are also drawn to the district's small school atmosphere, officials say.

"I think we're big enough to be small and small enough to be big," Thompson said. "The fact is that all of the kids in our classes, they knew each other. And I think people appreciate that a student here can be in lot of different (activities)."

Stewartville has little racial diversity in its schools — between 2 percent and 3 percent — and most of the students who come to Stewartville from Rochester are white as well.

The added revenue that flows to Stewartville through open enrollment puts the district in a position of expanding programs rather than cutting. Several years ago, the district added boys and girls soccer to its repertory of varsity sports.

When the district started offering all-day, everyday kindergarten four years ago, district officials worried that parents might pull their children from the district once they finished kindergarten. But that has not been the case, Thompson said.

"It has been a boon, because in most cases when parents send their child (here) for kindergarten, a lot of times they have more than one child," Thompson said. "So most of the time, they'll stay and the next one will follow."

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