Seeking Students (Newton Daily News article)

posted Feb 7, 2018, 2:45 PM by Shane Ehresman

Seeking Students

Facing a dwindling population, school district looks outside its borders to attract students

By David Dolmage Newton Daily News


February 7, 2018

SULLY — As small school districts across the state face declining enrollment and the threat of mergers and closures, more and more are thinking outside the box to find ways to keep the doors open. At Lynnville-Sully, superintendent Shane Ehresman has boosted enrollment by encouraging students from outside the district to enroll.

Of the 505 students on the rolls at Lynnville-Sully, 84 of those students are open enrolled. In Jasper County Lynnville-Sully has the second highest percentage of students who have open enrolled from other districts. Baxter has the highest percentage, one out of every four of its students live outside the school district’s boundaries. At Lynnville-Sully, open enrollment has doubled in the last 10 years. Increasing the number of open enrolled students is a goal, Ehresman said.

“It is a goal because schools, especially small schools, need those enrollment numbers, otherwise there’s mergers and closures, and that’s a scary thing,” Ehresman said.

Convincing students to open enroll from a larger school district into a smaller district requires superintendents to make a convincing case. Both Baxter and Lynnville-Sully host an open house night for prospective students every winter, the deadline for students in grades 1-12 to apply for open enrollment is March 1. After making the choice to open enroll, students still have to be accepted by the school board they are open enrolling into. Ehresman said it isn’t a big issue, applications are almost guaranteed to be accepted. The facilities at Lynnville-Sully are nowhere near capacity Ehresman said, and the district would shift to a three-section model in the lower grades. Currently, there are two sections of classes at Lynnville-Sully.

At Lynnville-Sully, Ehresman has a unique point to pitch prospective parents, the district has been the recipient of numerous awards, including being named the Iowa Report Card’s top-rated high school in the state in 2016, and the top rated middle school in the state for 2016 and 2017. The Iowa School Report Card, launched in 2015 as part of a state legislative requirement, rates public schools on some measures of achievement. They include student proficiency rates in math and reading, student academic growth, narrowing achievement gaps among students, college and career readiness, student attendance, graduation rates, and staff retention. The elementary school didn’t score as high on the report card, something Ehresman attributes to students being unprepared to start school, something the district can easily turn around.

“We come on strong at the end,” Ehresman said. “The state report card has been a positive promoter for the school district, people are aware of how we’re doing academically because of that report card.”

Ehresman said the school’s success is due to a data-driven approach, with individual interventions if needed. This analytical method to track student progress, allows the school to make sure students are on the right track. Teachers at the middle school have been using the method to track students for more than a decade, and for Ehresman, the proof is in the pudding.

“I’d liken it to the medical field, If you went to a doctor, they would run a battery of tests on you instead of just making a gut-level decision,” Ehresman said. “We want to build data-driven assessments and tests and then make a decision. We actually have the data to drive our decisions.”

Students at the high school scored an average of 24.5 on the ACT, besting the state average of 21.9, Ehresman said including four students in last year’s senior class who scored 30 or above.

During a presentation on Tuesday night for prospective students and their families, Ehresman touted the benefits of the district. With many districts facing the possibility of cuts as they see shrinking supplemental state aid from a legislature grappling with its own budget issues, Ehresman made sure to point out Lynnville-Sully’s healthy financial outlook.

“We’re in the best financial position of any school in the state,” Ehresman said. “We’ve got $1 million, cash in the bank, we’re in a really good financial position.” Ehresman attributed the district’s financial health to their efforts to increase enrollment, excellent fiscal management, and a supportive community. Increasing outside enrollment also bolsters the district, with the state of Iowa supplying $6,664 for every student in the district. For small districts like Lynnville-Sully adding students outside of their borders helps the district stay solvent. In the district the school has been bolstered by a community that’s gone above and beyond to make sure students have whatever they need, Ehresman said. Community members have donated the school’s all-weather track, the wrestling room, an art gallery and a land lab. The land lab, a 55-acre farm is a place where students in the district’s agricultural program can get firsthand experience.

Despite Lynnville-Sully’s size, Ehresman said the district can compete with bigger schools in the area. Students have the opportunity to participate in DMACC’s Career Academy Program in Newton, and Ehresman estimated that more than half of all juniors and seniors in the high school have taken at least one college-level class. “A lot of our kids are walking out of here 15 to 20 credit hours when they graduate,” Ehresman said.

Parents who attended Tuesday night’s open house got a tour of the district’s facilities, and they also had a chance to ask questions. Ehresman fielded questions about early out dismissals and bussing options. Stacey Simbro, a prospective parent who plans to re-enter the school district next year said she was impressed by what she saw and heard Monday night. Simbro’s oldest son is currently in the Newton School District, and with her youngest getting ready to start kindergarten in the fall Simbro is looking at options. “It was very informative,” Simbro said.

This is the fourth year Ehresman has hosted an open house for the school district, he said it’s something parents have requested. This is Ehresman’s eighth year on the job in Lynnville-Sully, he and his family moved to the district to be closer to her family, who live in Grinnell. Coming from Washington Ehresman said this is the smallest district he’s ever worked in, and from day one he knew he wanted to do whatever he could to make sure it continues to grow. Ehresman sees his mission as maintaining the district, and making sure enrollment stays high enough to prevent the threat of a merger or a closure, something he said would be devastating to the community. “If this school goes away there’s many people that believe their town is gone,” Ehresman said.

Community members keep a close eye on school closures and mergers, Ehresman said. Despite the population of both Lynnville and Sully shrinking over the last decade enrollment has continued to rise in the school district. Ehresman said he believes students are drawn to the district by what it offers, not because they’re “recruited.”

“An open house, a flyer, a billboard, that’s not going to get people to come here,” Ehresman said. “Our best recruitment tool is our education programs, that will speak for itself.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or