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October 04, 2010 10:14 PM

School Of Choice

Sioux Falls, SD

South Dakota students can attend any school they want, even if they don't live within the boundary lines. Open-enrollment is not only giving parents choice; it's also keeping some schools alive.

Second-grader Joel Christensen has been going to Mark Twain Elementary in central Sioux Falls since kindergarten. But then his family moved to another part of town, near a different elementary.

"Just a couple of blocks away is a school with a very good reputation,” mother Renae Christensen said. “It's a larger school, which is fine, but I've just enjoyed the small school experience here."

Joel told his mom he wanted to keep going to Mark Twain, even though they'd have to drive several miles just to get to and from the central Sioux Falls school every day.

"Because I have a lot of friends that go here," he said.

Renae Christensen was leaning that way, too. Her daughter had also gone to Mark Twain, and she wanted both her sons to attend, too.

"Having already put down roots here and established relationships with teachers and other moms, my kids' relationships with other kids, I wanted to continue that for them," she said.

A lot of families have similar stories. In fact, of the 260 students who go to Mark Twain Elementary, nearly half are open-enrolled."
"We get students here from all over,” Principal Mary Peterson said. “A lot are alumni, parents who want their kids to go to Mark Twain."

Principal Mary Peterson's own children went to this school, and her granddaughter is a prospective student. She's thankful for the families who choose to send their children here, because without the strong number of open-enrolled students, Mark Twain would have to turn to more blended classrooms, combining two grades into one room.

"It's a blessing we can get enough because we could end up being blended, a 1, 2, 3, 4, you know, all the way up," said Peterson.

Peterson says she sees families come to Mark Twain for several different reasons. Many like that it's smaller, and there's a large community of parents who help out at school, both in the classroom and in the office.

"I think we're a family,” Peterson said. “And I have to say we have some of the greatest teachers. Everybody's going to say that about their school, but I really feel like we have top-notch folks here."

Christensen says teachers and staff are just two more things that make this school special, and she's more than willing to make the trip to the heart of Sioux Falls every day.

"They know my kids and know me. If I walk in they call me by name,” Christensen said. “There's just a real community feel here."

And the family is glad to still be a part of it.

The school had to close open-enrollment for fifth grade, because they had too many students enrolled. Generally, Peterson likes to keep class sizes at no more than 24 students.

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