Open Enrollment: Does It Hurt Or Help Iowa Schools?

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It may be Iowa's worst kept secret.

Open Enrollment -- the opportunity for students to choose which school they want to go to based on preference rather than address.

"There might be specific programs that are offered at one school that's not available at yours," says Brad Oates, Athletic Director for the Davenport Community School District.

However, the "programs" commonly focused on are not academics, but athletics. Are there some students who choose their school based on teams rather than teachers or coaches, and rather than courses?

Oates says yes.

"Over the years, I would say all three high schools benefited and also suffered from this kind of choice."

Davenport's three different high schools mean three different mascots, where most others in the area - like Oates' hometown - have only one.

"I grew up in Moline so I knew all along that elementary on that I was going to be a Maroon. Well, that's not necessarily true in Davenport."

Oates says while there's a choice for student athletes to basically choose which field they want to play on, there's also an effort between coaches so there doesn't need to be one.

"As a coach, if you're not involved with your feeder programs - whether it's your middle school or junior high or even touching base and being somewhat involved in club sports -- if you're not out there, if you're not visible, not making those connections, you're going to be behind."

And not just behind other schools in the district.

Jimmy Casas, Principal of Bettendorf High School, says they and their neighbor - Pleasant Valley - usually benefit from Open Enrollment.

"We've always open enrolled more students into Bettendorf than open enrolled out of Bettendorf," says Casas.

He says two school districts in one city provides some challenges as well, but with more students coming than going, the pros usually outweigh the cons.

"Both schools are very good schools, both academically and athletically in terms of their co-curriculars," says Casas.

However, while some schools succeed, others suffer - making some question if Open Enrollment hurts more than it helps.

"My job was to educate kids," says Steve Overton, who recently retired from Davenport North High School ."It wasn't just to win basketball and football games."

Overton was with Davenport North for 16 years - five were spent as Head Coach of the Basketball Team.

"We could have won some more games, so could the football team or anybody else at North, but at our school we didn't bend the rules," says Overton.

But he says those who did - and do - see Open Enrollment as a window to recruit. He's seen it himself at Davenport North's feeder school - Wood Intermediate.

"We had five kids in basketball at Wood. They went to West because West had a great run one year and I'm not saying it was the coach who did the recruiting or if the winning did the recruiting for him or whatever, but it's a pattern."

However, it's not seen that way by everyone.

Oates says it's not recruiting... it's building relationships.

"This is really what we're encouraging our coaches to do," says Oates. "To get into that level, work with those coaches, get out, meet those athletes, those students, their families, making that connection, that relationship that is so important so that they do start to identify with that high school."

At Bettendorf High School, Casas says if there is recruiting, it's happening between the students... not the coaches.

"I don't know of any administrator or any principals or coaches at other schools that are purposely going out and saying - 'Hey. Come to my school because if you come to my school, I could get you to play more.' That just doesn't happen," says Casas. "As far as real hard selling recruiting, that to me is coming more from families and the kids themselves saying - 'Hey. It would be great if we could play together.' Or they've experienced some success in travel ball and want to continue that success and think - 'Hey. If we stay together and continue to play together, maybe we can be successful.'"

Whatever and whoever it is, Overton says he's doesn't agree with it and wants to know why Open Enrollment is even around anymore.

"I think we need to take a look at it and see exactly where we are. Did we accomplish our goals or are we still shooting for these goals and what are these goals?"

Overton believes that goal should be more about academics and less about athletics.

"This is not college," says Overton. "We're setting you up to get to college by giving you a great education and every school in Davenport will give you the great education."

"I know our coaches certainly work hard not at just developing better athletes, but better people as well," says Oates.

In the end, all three of these school officials agree that it's the student's choice and their future is their own.

"If they feel they can go to another school, have a better overall experience, then why wouldn't any educator or anybody support that decision," says Casas.

Some schools districts in Iowa have opted out of Open Enrollment, but by doing that they will lose some state funding. However, some school districts say it's less than what they would lose by offering Open Enrollment and losing students.