Valley Parents Rally Around Stillwater Schools, Offer Alternative Plan to School Closures

A group of Stillwater parents, teachers and community members has presented a community-driven marketing and outreach plan to increase enrollment in Stillwater Area Public Schools as an alternative to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD proposal to close three elementary schools.

The school board is expected to vote on the BOLD proposal on Thursday, March 3. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Stillwater Junior High School.

Choice 834, a group of community members who oppose BOLD, presented their plan to district administrators on Feb. 19. Group organizers have arranged meetings with most of the school board members before this week’s vote.

Despite requests from residents for the district administration to find alternatives to closing Withrow, Marine and Oak Park elementary schools, Pontrelli has not offered any alternative options to BOLD.

The Choice 834 initiative aims to:

  • Partner with all community stakeholders to increase enrollment districtwide;
  • Keep all schools open by focusing on what makes each school exceptional and unique; and
  • Rebuild the trust that “many in the community feel has been severely damaged as a result of BOLD.”

According to a news release from Choice 834:

In part, the BOLD proposal recommends the closing of three top-performing elementary schools in an attempt to save $1.26 million annually and fix a “capacity issue” within the district.

While acknowledging that there are many urgent and valid needs throughout the district, the Choice 834 initiative feels that BOLD is based on a problematic foundation and has too many unanswered questions for the community and the teachers affected. Stillwater has become a district divided, with schools feeling pitted against each other. Many parents and community members have asked for options and alternatives, but district administration has offered none.

Marketing for enrollment has been successfully implemented by Marine and Withrow as well as other districts throughout the nation, and delivers measurable results. Parent organizers are confident that it will boost enrollment and revenue district wide.

The main issue within the district is that Stillwater has an enrollment problem. The capture rate is currently at only 70 percent. The Choice 834 outreach plan addresses this, and because BOLD addresses only the cost-cutting half, Choice 834 is committed to finding solutions for the revenue-generation half of the equation. Increased capture rate equals increased funding, and approximately 10 more students per school would generate close to the $1.26 million projected savings, with the potential for a much larger increase in the near future.”

“We were really excited about a lot of the ideas they have,” Keister told the Board during Thursday’s learning session,  but there are concerns with the Choice 834 plan’s sustainability and source of funding.

One reason parents have said they left the district is programming, Keister said. There has to be more to a plan than just marketing — there has to be solid programming, students have to have a good experience and the marketing has to support it, she said.

McDowell said it was a “great meeting” with good conversation, but the marketing plan has to be able to promote an individual elementary school’s unique identity, while focusing on opportunities at schools districtwide.

The district is currently implementing many of the ideas of the Choice 834 plan, but the parent piece of their plan is powerful, Keister said.

“Word of mouth advertising is going to be the most powerful piece, but that’s difficult with budget cuts and all these negative messages out there,” she added. “There are some good ideas (in the Choice 834 plan), and it could help with long-term enrollment, but I don’t think anybody saw this as a quick fix. Marketing initiatives take time.”

Heidi Hickey, one of the parent organizers of Choice 834, said:

“If our 70% capture rate was your child’s grade in algebra, would you say, ‘We need a tutor to ensure future success so my child has choices?’ Or, would you decide, ‘Well I guess math isn’t his thing. I’ll just let him fail?’

“Investing in our district’s long-range health and growth allows you to keep options open down the road,” she continued. “Invest a little now, win BIG later. Let’s make this be a destination district, not one that just decides to quit when challenges are presented.”

The next steps, Keister said, will be putting together a group of people from across the district to try to talk about the marketing portion of the plan by mid-March.

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