From posting recruitment videos on social media to manning a booth at the Scandia Farmers’ Market, Marine Village School officials are making a last-ditch effort this week to attract students to Marine on St. Croix’s new charter school.
In order for the school to open on Sept. 6, the school must have 30 students registered by Sunday.
As of Wednesday, the school had half that number.
Principal Kim Kokx, who started her job on July 1, said 29 students have enrolled in Marine Village School, but only 14 had submitted official registration forms as of Wednesday afternoon. She and other school officials have been calling, texting and emailing families to remind them of the deadline, she said.
“I live on the side of optimism,” Kokx said. “As far as I’m concerned, we are full steam ahead, and Sept. 6 is going to be a beautiful, fabulous day of kiddos laughing on the playground. We’re going to push forward.”
Marine Elementary School was one of three elementary schools that the Stillwater school board voted in March 2016 to close. After the closures of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, parents protested, lawsuits were filed, and board incumbents were challenged in elections.
The city of Marine on St. Croix bought the former Marine Elementary building for $910,000 in 2018 and is leasing it to the Marine Village School and the Marine Folk School; the folk school uses the space on nights and weekends.
The Marine Village School board set a budget for the school year based on a projected enrollment of 86 students and planned to pay the city more than $87,000 a year in rent for the fiscal year running from July 1 to June 30, 2023, said Board Chairman Win Miller.
But numbers came in lower than expected and dropped even more after it was announced that the school did not have enough students enrolled to provide transportation; the cutoff number for busing is 80 students, Kokx said.
Because of the low enrollment numbers, the board recently asked the Marine City Council to cut their rent in half – to $43,800 a year. The council agreed.
Mayor Kevin Nyenhuis said the council feels it is important to have a school in Marine. “This is the building’s intended purpose, and we have kept the faith,” he said. “The council is in support of the school board, and we have partnered with them as best as a government body can.”
But, Nyenhuis added, “at a certain point our job is to protect the assets of our citizens. We hope we don’t have to come to a harder conversation. The seats that we fill, it’s not always easy. We still have a bond payment to make.”
Not receiving expected rent money from the school “cuts into the city’s ability to do road work, public safety and other things,” he said.
ECOLOGY AND COMMUNITY
The charter school, which will have a focus on ecology and community, has attracted students from Marine, Scandia, Forest Lake, Stillwater, Oak Park Heights and Bayport, Kokx said.
Among the attractions: small class sizes, an outdoor classroom, STEM space, maker space, before- and after-school care, and “Spanish taught to every student every day,” she said.
Plans call for three classrooms – Kindergarten, grades 1-2, and grades 3-4 – with an average classroom size of 10 to 12 students. The school day is expected to run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. “It’s basically a private-school education with a public-school price tag,” she said.
Added Miller: “There’s no better place to teach ecology than in the forest and streams of Marine on St. Croix.”
Last week, the school hosted a free weeklong theater camp for 42 kids in the hopes of attracting students. It culminated in a performance of “Willy Wonka” on Friday night that more than 200 people attended, Miller said.
“It was just like the good old days,” Miller said. “The energy was there in the school with the kids and parents and families really enjoying themselves and doing a wonderful job of putting on a show. We’re very encouraged.”
Minnesota state law requires an authorizing body to ensure a charter school abides by its charter contract and follows all state laws. The Marine Village School’s authorizing body is the Minnesota Office of Charter Authorizing. Authorizing bodies such as MOChA usually charge the schools small percentage fees based on state per-student aid; the Marine Village School expects to get about $10,100 per pupil per year in funding, Miller said.
If the Marine Village School fails to register 30 students by Sunday, MOChA’s board will meet next week to decide the school’s fate, said Dave Peterson, chairman of MOChA’s board of directors.
“They are working diligently to meet that number,” he said. “We are very hopeful that the enrollment goals will be met, and that the school will open.”
Miller, the board chair, said he believes that MOChA will let the school open even if they don’t reach the magic number by Sunday.
“I believe they will look at the data that we have and the probability of getting to 30 and take into account the substantial financial support that we have in the community and that we therefore can open,” he said. “I believe that we can convince them to let us start with less than 30.
“This start-up year is difficult because it’s hard to get kids to change schools,” he said. “We believe we will build on our start, and in a period of three to five years, there will be over 100 kids in the school and maybe approaching 150, which is the maximum that we can have.”