High open enrollment numbers driving Sioux Falls School District’s continued growth
The Sioux Falls School District typically gains between 500-600 students through open enrollment each year, driving home the district’s 8.6% growth in the past decade.
SIOUX FALLS — The Sioux Falls School District has grown at a steady pace over the past decade, and data indicates that high open enrollment gains serve as a major driver of continued growth.
Nearly 11,000 out-of-district students have opted to enroll into the school district since 2012, far surpassing the roughly 5,100 in-district students that ultimately decided to pursue their education in different districts.
Those incoming students have helped spur the district’s growth over the past decade, seeing roughly 2,000 more students enrolled in the fall 2022 semester than in the fall 2012 semester.
Created by statute in 1997, open enrollment allows parents to choose what school district their children will attend. Parents who live outside a desired school district can submit an open enrollment application before the school year begins. Those applications are then considered by school boards to determine whether a student will be accepted.
Jamie Nold, assistant superintendent of Sioux Falls School District (SFSD), said there are typically three factors to consider when determining whether to accept or deny a student’s open enrollment application.
“We go through and really base it off of three things. We look at building capacity first — for example, Memorial Middle School is closed, because we still don't have that building down to the number where it would be open for open enrollment,” Nold said. “The second thing is always class capacity. We start looking at the classrooms, and maybe even the grade level: Is a grade level too large? Is the class too large?”
Third, Nold said, is program capacity, where school board members and administrators will consider the prospective student’s needs, ranging from college-level courses to special education programs. Depending on the program, Nold said there’s a certain number of spaces that are usually reserved for already in-district students.
In addition to the destination school accepting a prospective student’s application, their home district must also be notified of the student’s departure.
Why are students open enrolling?
Parents and students have a variety of reasons behind their wishes to transfer schools. Nold said that SFSD sees a lot of applicants citing convenience as a major driver.
“Parents have the reasons that they have, and a lot of them say ‘Well, that’s where I work, and it’s much easier for me to take my child to school on the way to work,’” Nold explained. “The city of Sioux Falls continues to grow, but the boundaries of the Sioux Falls School District do not continue to grow.”
School district boundary maps from the South Dakota Department of Education paint the picture that many residents of Sioux Falls actually live in the Harrisburg School District, with 69th Street serving as a general border along the city’s south end. Similar overlaps exist on the city’s east, northeast and northwestern limits.
“A lot of parents will say ‘So, we live in the city of Sioux Falls, we want our kids to go to the Sioux Falls School District, even though our boundary may go into Brandon Valley or Harrisburg or West Central or Tri-Valley or Baltic or wherever it is,’” Nold said. “It’s proximity and location within Sioux Falls.”
Beyond the aspect of convenience, Nold touts SFSD’s Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, which offer students college credit at a significantly reduced price if they can pass an all-encompassing AP test on the class at the end of the term.
“We have the teachers right here in our buildings. Every one of our high schools teach a wide gamut of AP classes,” Nold said, estimating that SFSD offers roughly two dozen of the College Board’s 38 AP courses. “There's a lot of opportunity for some of those advancement tracks.”
The district also offers a wide array of specialty classes — ranging from carpentry and construction to media and culinary — at their Career and Technical Education Academy. Nold said those specialty programs and other extracurriculars can be difficult for smaller districts to offer.
“In a really small school, they may love to be able to offer something, but they may only have five or six kids sign up. They can't always economically run that class or that program with five, six or even 25 kids,” he said. “When [SFSD] sends that out with our number of high school students, we can offer those things because we have well over 6,000 high school students, so we're able to offer some specialized programs.”
Incoming transfers drive growth, push schools toward capacity
A Forum News Service analysis of a decade’s worth of enrollment data from the South Dakota Department of Education found two school districts in the Sioux Falls area that see a significant gain or loss of student population through open enrollment.
From 2012 until 2019, SFSD netted 500-700 students each year through open enrollment, according to annual enrollment data from the South Dakota Department of Education. That number dipped to a net gain of just 254 students in 2020, but is trending higher since.
On the contrary, the Harrisburg School District has experienced a net loss of 200-350 students each year in the past decade. Nold said students transferring into SFSD predominantly come from neighboring districts.
In the fall of 2022, for example, SFSD saw 976 students open enroll into the district while 546 students open enrolled out. Harrisburg saw the opposite, with 188 students transferring in and 366 transferring out.
Other nearby districts such as Baltic, Tea and West Central, gained 30-80 students through open enrollment, while districts such as Brandon Valley, Canton, Lennox and Tri-Valley lost as many as 100 to transfers.
Nold said that while those neighboring districts account for most of SFSD’s incoming transfers, he noted that some students travel from much farther districts to attend school in Sioux Falls.
A comparison of the number of incoming transfers and SFSD’s growth indicates that high open enrollment gains actually account for most of the district’s continued growth, as the number of incoming transfers is actually greater than changes in the school’s enrollment most years, meaning the district would otherwise shrink if open enrollment was closed.
Nold said the growth of the district had previously put middle and high schools at capacity, which triggered a cutoff for open enrollment to schools like Roosevelt High School. The opening of Jefferson High School and Ben Reifel Middle School in the fall of 2021 eased that restriction, but Nold forecasts more growth to come.
“Opening up a new high school and a new middle school relieved some of those space constraints,” Nold said. “On Feb. 1, we'll be giving an update to the board, again, on some areas that we're seeing some maybe more rapid growth than we had originally anticipated four or five years ago … because we're going to have to open another new elementary in two more years.”
Nold affirmed that one of his biggest goals as assistant superintendent is to monitor the capacities of each building to ensure that each student gets the attention they need to have a positive experience in SFSD, and while growth is a challenge, he’s confident he can do just that.
Currently, SFSD serves 24,275 students, 8.6% more than they did a decade ago. If the district continues to grow at the same pace, SFSD can expect to serve approximately 26,361 students by the 2032-33 school year.