TOWNSEND — Since last fall, North Middlesex Regional High School has welcomed freshmen into “a school inside the school,” created to help them ease into a new academic life.
Students have found a range of elective classes, from robotics to Chinese. This fall, graphic-design students are learning desktop publishing in a new computer room while others are getting used to interactive white boards.
These are just a few examples of what the district has done in recent years to make the high school more attractive to prospective students. And Superintendent of Schools Maureen Marshall says it’s working. For the first time in years, North Middlesex has more out-of-district students coming in under the School Choice program than current district students opting to go elsewhere.
Marshall said at the School Committee meeting Monday night that the district has received 65 School Choice students for the new academic year, while 63 North Middlesex students have enrolled in other districts. While the difference between the receiving and sending students is small, the gain of two students is welcome news for a district that has long hoped to reverse the losing trend that resulted in a financial loss.
In fiscal 1996, for example, the district accepted 22 students while 72 chose schools outside North Middlesex, according to the statistics compiled by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The gap kept shrinking until fiscal 2003 when 54 students came in and 71 students left, but it began widening again the following year.
For each student coming in, the district receives about $5,000 from the sending district. When it loses a student, North Middlesex needs to pay tuition. Just three to five years ago, the district was losing as much as $1.3 million because of that, Marshall said. This year’s numbers are a big improvement from last year’s 51 students coming in with 66 students going out.
Marshall said she would not know exactly how many of the students are high-school students or middle-school students until school-by-school data becomes available on Oct. 1. But, the bulk of student exchanges happens at the high-school level, Marshall said. She said the district does not conduct an “exit interview” or has not taken any formal survey of parents who have their children participate in the School Choice program, but principals do try to talk to the parents.
Nissitissit Middle School Principal Michael Tikonoff said six or seven students each year move into Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens. Parents often cite their desire to send their children to a different kind of high school as the reason for School Choice, but more parents appear to have positive feeling toward the North Middlesex Regional High School, he said.
At-large committee member Michael Morgan of Pepperell said it’s important to know why parents are making the decision so that the district could come up with a game plan.
Pepperell parent Anne Adams said she has noticed some elementary-school parents in Pepperell are sending their children elsewhere, including private schools. An exit interview might help prevent people from leaving the district, she said.
“It’s not enough to say we have principals talking to parents,” Adams said.