WESTERLY — Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau calls it the "challenge of choice."

School district spending on tuition for local students who choose to attend public schools in other districts is expected to increase in the next school year from the current $1.66 million to $2.65 million — nearly 60 percent. The increase stems from student decisions about where they want to learn, and from a change in how the state regulates tuition charges.

"A very large part of this is the out-of-district tuitions, the changing formulas, and that challenge of choice is putting significant pressure on us," Garceau told the School Committee Tuesday while explaining his 2019-20 budget proposal.

According to Garceau's budget presentation, 54 Westerly students attend charter schools, 50 are home-schooled, and 77 attend Chariho High School for vocational programming. The number of students who attend private schools, whose tuition is paid by their families, was not available on Friday but Garceau called it a "low" number.

Garceau, who started his current position in July 2017, said the number of home-schooled students caught him off guard. "I'm surprised, that's high," he said. In December, Garceau called some of the parents of home-schooled children to talk about why they choose not to send their children to local schools. "I reached out before Christmas because I wasn't here so I don't know what happened, and let them know I would welcome having a conversation and getting their feedback," he said.

Alica Storey, the district's assistant superintendent, recently told the School Committee that administrators routinely speak with the parents of home-schooled children, and Michael Hobin, Westerly High School principal, said his staff also speaks with students who choose to leave the Westerly public school system.

Hobin and Garceau hope to make the high school more attractive by adding to the course offerings. The high school recently applied to the state to offer new career and technical education programs in criminal justice, education, business accounting, arts design, information technology, multimedia communications, crafts and fine art, and art education. A proposed music program that had been envisioned is on hold.

The new programs would boost the high school's  career and technical education programs to 13. The school currently offers cosmetology, culinary arts, technology, construction, and medical programs. 

Garceau said he faced a similar challenge while serving as superintendent in Oxford, Massachusetts. Students and families there, he said, cited a variety of factors, including "course offerings, quality of instruction, and athletics. We worked really hard to shore up the quality of what we were doing so that we were the obvious choice."

Within a three-year period, Garceau said, the trend started to change and more students were staying in Oxford. Similar efforts in Westerly and better communication will produce results here, too, he said.

"We need to do a better job of celebrating what we do well," Garceau said.

The situation has the attention of School Committee members.

Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, the chairwoman, said, "I would like to see increased outreach to those students who have already chosen home schooling or other districts to ascertain their reasons for departure from Westerly Public Schools. We also need to more effectively communicate to our students, families and community all the choices currently available at Westerly High School; those choices will be greatly increased in the future as well."

While Bowdy said she would prefer that all Westerly students attend Westerly schools, she said she understands that it may not always be possible or practical. "Regular education students and families choose home schooling and out-of-district education for many different reasons. There are often personal circumstances that lead to choosing to home- school. Charter schools and other districts provide specific programming or niches that attract students," she said.

School officials are trying to strike a balance, Chiaradio Bowdy said. "We have many ongoing endeavors that we'll implement as practicable. When looking at new programming we need to assess costs versus benefits of implementation. We aim to not only retain our own students but attract students from other districts as well. Over time this will help reverse the flow of tuition dollars moving out of Westerly."

School Committee member Christine Cooke said that "School choice fosters competition among districts to be the best they can be, and we see that happening here in Westerly. The fact that more students from Westerly Public School are choosing to go elsewhere has forced us to take an honest look at ourselves, step up our game and improve the experience and outcomes of our students. In the end, that is only going to benefit us as a district."

The district must be focused on academic excellence and "exceptional outcomes for every student starting with pre-K all the way to the graduating student. To me that needs be our primary mission above all else," Cooke said.

Cooke said she believes the district is heading in the right direction.

"Dr. Garceau has achieved excellence in other districts and I am confident that he and his team working together with the School Committee will achieve excellence here. It is going to require a lot of time, energy and effort on all of our parts, but I am confident if we commit to and stay focused on the path we are on, we will get there," Cooke said.

Committee member Mary Adams said she is concerned that Westerly is not always the choice of students and their families, but added, "I applaud students, and their families, for taking an active role in their education by weighing the options and making a choice that best meets the needs of their child. When students and families have a choice, I believe they are more likely to be engaged in their learning."

Adams, who was elected to her first term in November, said she is hoping to gain an understanding of why students and their families are choosing different options.

"In my experience, Westerly has primarily focused on college as the 'next step' after high school, without always making the connection as to why college should be the next step. With new leadership in the district, and at the high school, we are seeing more student-centered programs and paths that are built to engage students in their learning and where there is a career connection," Adams said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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