Since September 2015, Brown County Schools has lost 96 students to surrounding public school districts, private education options or homeschooling.
District leaders aren’t told where those students are going unless their new school makes a request for their records.
The reasons they leave include financial strain, moving, disciplinary problems, a desire for more programs in athletics or arts and general dissatisfaction, district leaders say.
Regardless of why, continuously declining enrollment is hurting Brown County Schools.
A loss of almost 100 students will also mean a decrease of almost $300,000 in the school district’s general fund for fiscal year 2017. That fund pays the salaries of teachers and staff.
“We’re not just going to sit around and just be disappointed,” Superintendent Laura Hammack said. “We are very excited about several of our campaigns to try to turn this number around.”
A team of about 20 teachers and staff is working on how to market Brown County Schools to current families as well as families who live outside the district.
District leaders can no longer assume that every student will return next school year, so it’s important to “re-recruit” those students and their families every year, Hammack said.
Small class sizes; a strong focus on relationships; “world-class” opportunities like the national-title-winning Brown County Junior High School We the People program; and sports and arts programs that allow all students to participate are things the marketing team wants to highlight.
“For some reason, folks think that we’re small, we’re rural and we don’t really have that much to offer. And it couldn’t be more opposite the case. So it’s really on us to change that conversation to really empower ourselves to get the word out as far as the great things that are happening,” Hammack said.
The next step for the marketing team is developing the corporation’s “brand,” from the fonts used on district correspondence to the relationships students develop with teachers and staff that make them want to keep coming back.
Hammack doesn’t have a solid projection on future enrollment, but based on birth rates in the county, the trend isn’t likely to reverse on its own.
“We’re forecasted to be about stagnant as far as the number of students that are entering kindergarten for the next few years,” Hammack said. “Just having less residential students in the county is a concern.”
Boosting preschool and kindergarten enrollment is one focus.
From the 2013-14 school year to 2015-16, preschool enrollment at all three elementary schools increased. However, kindergarten enrollment at Sprunica and Van Buren decreased during the past three school years.
“The earlier we can get them to be a part of our team, the better, and hopefully they’ll make the choice to stay with us forever,” Hammack said.
Affordable housing is a barrier when trying to attract younger families to Brown County, Hammack said.
In August 2016, the median sales price of a home in Brown County was $230,758; in Bartholomew County, it was $171,500, according to the MIBOR Realtor Association.
“We’ve had several families where kiddos that have gone through Brown County Schools are starting their families, but are choosing to go to some of the larger districts to the east and west,” Hammack said.
“That just breaks your heart because they want to be here, but can’t afford the housing at this point. That’s a significant concern for us.”
To be financially healthy, the district would need 2,000 students, Hammack said. As of Sept. 16, the district had 1,875.
The last time the school corporation hit that mark was during the 2012-13 school year, when 2,035 were counted.
One goal is to get about 20 students back for the next four or five years, Hammack said.
“We could take more. If we have hundreds who want to come, we absolutely can accommodate that,” she said.
She believes the district could sustain — and has room for — 2,500 students.
“We could really enhance our programming with that number of students,” she said.
But right now, Hammack and the school board are evaluating every school job that opens to determine if it is feasible to fill it.
“At this point the board doesn’t want to, and I don’t want to, go through any kind of … firing or eliminating a position that people are currently in, but as a position becomes available it’s really our reality that we now will have to question each one,” Hammack said.
District leaders are also looking at other ways to boost the general fund.
For example, the district will receive about $169,000 in Career and Technical Education funding from the state. If the number of CTE courses can be increased, along with the number of students taking those courses, “we feel like we could get to $300,000 to $350,000 reimbursement pretty quickly. That would help us with half of our problem,” she said.