Carol Woodbury was a smiling, optimistic woman when interviewed by Cape Cod Today recently. The superintendent of schools for the Dennis-Yarmouth Region has reason to smile as she tells us that this year, “DY enrollment stayed the same for the first time since 1998.”
This is significant in a district where enrollment has declined by almost 30% since 2001. Indeed, no Cape district has suffered more than Dennis-Yarmouth with the triple challenge of declining population, school choice and the rise of charter schools.
While a superintendent can’t control the population of kids living in her town, losses to school choice and charter schools have devastated DY’s finances. “We have budgeted $2M for choice in FY14 and $1.8M for charter. I don’t see them as much different in terms of loss of funding for DY”, Woodbury reports.
In the current fiscal year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows the DY region losing $1.58M to school choice, an increase of $227,800 from last year. 340 students from DY attend other districts under school choice this year, while only 83 students from other towns chose to attend DY. About 1,000 students Cape-wide participate in school choice, so DY represents a third of the area’s transient school choice population.
To illustrate the drastic “trade deficit” of students leaving DY, one need look only as far as the second-largest financial loss to school choice, which is found in Mashpee’s $181,729 net loss.
Still, with all these challenges, DY managed to hold its own this year. Many feel it is because this is the year Dennis-Yarmouth started to “fight back”. On that topic Ms. Woodbury is strident, “I think that we realize that we are in a very competitive market and as such have to really listen to the ‘features’ that our customers value. It is not just administrators that have to be involved in the ‘sales.’ Every employee must understand the ‘product’ and work to ‘sell.’”
It’s no accident to hear a school superintendent use business and retail terms to describe school competition. DY has spent considerable time in the past year focusing on their “customer interface” with parents and students. Woodbury looks forward to teachers helping the administration to identify parents and students who have concerns before those concerns become reasons for the family to choose a different school district.
For a successful turn-around, Woodbury must instill a top-to-bottom “customer satisfaction” commitment from the district office right down to the classroom, the cafeteria and the custodial staff. In her words, “I would say we are also working hard to retain the students that are with us. We are working to prevent families from becoming dissatisfied.
"This is what we have come to call “retail education” – and we say that in a good way. In bygone years, public schools were a virtual monopoly. Your kids were assigned to a school, placed in class with a teacher and that was that. If a family was unhappy and the school unresponsive, the only option was for the family to move to another district. All that changed when school choice and charter schools were introduced to Massachusetts in the 1990s.
One big challenge the district faces is to build awareness of their programs among parents of younger children. Too often a family will “choice out” their kindergartner “without ever setting foot on DY soil”, as Woodbury describes it. To prevent this from happening, the district will continue to grow its outreach to young families in Dennis and Yarmouth in hopes of convincing them to keep their children in-district.
Woodbury is not a fan of charter schools and the less than level playing field on which they compete. “One of the biggest hurdles we have is related to all the state and federal rules we have to follow that are not the same for charters.” The superintendent mentioned school lunch programs and expanded on physical education requirements that we cited by Barnstable’s superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski, who was interviewed jointly with Ms. Woodbury. (Dr. C’s interview will be published separately.)
Woodbury continued, “What role do those rules play? If they are good for us, why aren’t they good for all?”
The superintendent’s “biggest complaint with the charters” is that charters do not answer to town governments or voters in the way they expend taxpayer money. A traditional public school administrator can’t just do something because “it is right for the students” – they must sell the idea to every voter in the region. That means playing every decision in front of the media, finance committees, selectmen, and town meetings.
Currently, DY competes with the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School for grades 6-8 and Sturgis Charter Public School for grades 9-12. Now a group is working to open a grade K-5 charter school somewhere in the Mid-Cape area, which will no doubt cause additional challenges for both DY and Barnstable’s schools.
A Brighter Future?
Carol Woodbury is optimistic about her district’s future. Pushing back against the challenges of school choice and charter choice, she proudly reports “Our high school as rated as a level 1 school this year. It is rated such not for its averages, but because we are successfully closing achievement gaps for all students. That is something we are very proud to say. We pride ourselves on doing well with all students.”
When asked if the level enrollment is a sign the district is “fighting back”, the superintendent responds, “I wouldn’t say we are fighting back, but we are a learning organization. We are learning how to better address the needs and concerns of our customers while adhering to all state and federal requirements. Most importantly, we realize that we need to tell people what we are doing. Schools are often filled with humble people. We don't brag enough about what we do. We didn't choose this profession for a pat on the back that comes quietly every day when you watch your children succeed. The education of a child is so much more complex than most people realize and there are so many factors that contribute to the successes.”
Dennis-Yarmouth Regional Schools did not fall into a school choice deficit overnight, nor will it recover in fewer than five years. Woodbury’s focus on customer satisfaction and retention of resident families is correct and, from recent enrollment numbers, appears to be enjoying some success.
When the history of school competition on Cape Cod in this era is written, 2013 may well be marked as the year Dennis-Yarmouth started its turn-around.