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Schools of Choice to reach middle schools in 2014



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December 04, 2013 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

Parents from outside the Lake Orion School district could drop off about 175 students to Lake Orion elementary and middle schools next year under a new Schools of Choice program.

The LOCS board passed a new Schools of Choice (SOC) program for fiscal year 2014-2015 at the special board meeting Tuesday, November 26 with a 5-2 vote. The decision will extend the current kindergarten through second grade program to additionally include third through eighth grade next year.

SOC is reviewed and authorized by the board each year.

The board determined that the amount of students admitted per school will not exceed five percent of the school's total population. The board recommended about 30 kids to each middle school and about 75 students divided between all of the elementary schools.

The middle schools were included in the program for next year simply because there is more space in classrooms.

Although the program is expanding to include additional grades, the SOC approval for next year offers practically the same availability as this year's.

About 175 slots were obtainable for 2013 as well and fifty four students enrolled for the current school year, bringing in about $420,000. Potentially $1.4 million could be brought to the school district next year if all 175 spots are filled.

According to Superintendent Marion Ginopolis, the main purpose to continue and expand the SOC program is to curb the amount of instructional programs that could be cut to help offset an approximate $2.5 million budget deficit predicted for 2014/2015.

"What the concern is if we don't do this, we're going to lose those kinds of things that we have for our own 8,000 kids. So that's what I'm really worried about," Ginopolis said.

Art classes, music classes, athletic programs, physical education, as well as teaming concepts at both the middle schools and high school could all be considered for future cuts.

SOC in other districts

Brandon School District began their SOC program in 1996 with six students. Today about 450 students are enrolled from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Many of their SOC students enroll in eighth and ninth grades.

Brandon Schools District Superintendent Lorrie McMahon said the $3 million that SOC students add to the district (with about a $7,000 per-pupil allowance) makes up a decent chunk of their revenues.

"We'd have a really hard time now cutting $3 million out of the budget," McMahon said, "especially with all the reductions we've had in the last several years as the funding has gone down. We've had some loss in students all around."

Brandon's declining enrollment is buffered by maintaining a SOC program, she said, something Lake Orion schools hopes to achieve as well.

Around 260 kids came from Pontiac School District last year to Brandon, or around half of the SOC kids. The other half were from everywhere else, with Holly, Goodrich and Oxford community leading the way.

Some of the concerns with expanding Lake Orion's SOC program address education gaps in incoming students.

"Any student that comes in from somewhere else may not be exactly where we want them to be," McMahon said.

"Our job as educators is to catch those kids up, that's what we do, so that's not something we consider to be harmful."

She would not omit the SOC program in the future as it is a good way for Brandon to grow among other reasons.

"We have over 400 now and they're good kids. We've had no reason not to keep [SOC]. W've had great students come in and we enjoy having them here," McMahon said.

For Oxford Superintendent William Skilling, the educational gaps between Oxford's incoming SOC students and current Oxford students were too great, leading to an SOC reduction.

Three years ago Oxford set limitations for the SOC program, offering an unlimited program to only kindergarten through ninth grade and to sixth grade through eleventh grade in the Oxford Virtual Academy. Only high academic achieving students for tenth and eleventh grades are accepted in their International Baccalaureate, Bio-Medical, Engineering and Arts Conservatory programs.

Oxford has been a SOC district since 1997.

"Academically they weren't prepared and we couldn't change it around in time such that it was adversely affecting test scores for those students," Skilling said. "It impacted their scores at the high school, so that's why we decided to limit our SOC."

To the same tune, Skilling also said how SOC generates revenue to help sustain existing programs and add new opportunities to the curriculum. If new opportunities are provided, he said, the funding will follow.

"During the recession we were not cutting programs like other districts. We were not laying people off. We were adding staff, programs and opportunities and that happened because we were growing as a school district each year.

Part of that growth came from SOC and part of that came from families moving into Oxford," Skilling said.

Last year Oxford district housed 875 kids for Schools of Choice, and this year a little over 1,000 joined. The Virtual Academy brought in many of the extra students this year. Around 250 kids came last year from Pontiac, with around 145 from Lapeer and Lake Orion in third with close to 100 transfers. The rest were scattered in and outside of Oakland County.

SOC in Lake Orion

The important thing to remember about the Lake Orion SOC, Ginopolis said, is that it will only be used in class sizes that have additional spaces. No new teachers are being hired, and only available slots in classrooms that are not at their maximum could be filled.

The reason the middle schools were included in next year's program is because there is more space, she said, and the board did not include the high school because of the lack of space.

"In the sixth grade alone we could get 186 kids. But we are not recommending that high," Ginopolis said. "You're only adding about 30 kids. We have kids move in and out of the district all the time.," she said, "So it's not any different than what we have with our own regular students."

Those numbers could change as well, depending on the trends in enrollment over this year.

Other board members and community members have addressed students who might be academically behind Lake Orion students coming in next year.

Ginopolis said there are many programs in the middle schools that offer additional support, including a learning support staff, which would "resoundingly" address that issue.

This year's SOC students come from Avondale, Rochester Hills, Pontiac, Brandon, Oxford, Chippewa Valley, Romeo and Waterford.

Lake Orion does not offer transportation services, therefore parents are responsible for getting their students to and from school.

Ginopolis said the advantage to including the middle schools is the potential with larger families.

"If I have a second grader or even a fifth or sixth grader, I wouldn't want one kid in one school and one in another. So that's another reason it makes sense to open it up. Because I know we turned away a lot of people as a result of them having kids in different grade levels," Ginopolis said. "The biggest thing is to maintain our instructional programs for our own 8,000 kids. That's my goal," she said.

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