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Minnesota students head to Iowa for school
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Lake Mills is six miles from the Minnesota border. This year 60 students from the Glenville-Emmons district have enrolled at the Iowa school. As a result, Lake Mills is one of the only growing rural school districts in either state. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
Declining enrollment is a fact of life for rural schools across the state. But this year, the tiny Glenville-Emmons school district in southern Minnesota took a major hit. Almost 60 students left and are now attending school in Iowa.

Glenville, Minn. — Balls fly across the gym at the Lake Mills High School girls' volleyball team practice. Students race through drill after drill.

School superintendent Daryl Sherman watches smiling. He says this year is off to a great start.

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Image Daryl Sherman

"So I'm walking and there's all these little kids all around me and there's little boy and he's just clutching on to me," says Sherman. "I said well you're having a great day and he said I just love this school. That was such a great feeling I just loved it."

The little first grader was from Minnesota. Sherman's school is in Iowa. This year 60 Minnesota students cross the border each day to attend school Lake Mills. The overwhelming majority of students come from the tiny farm community of Emmons. It's just six miles away, up a road lined by withering cornfields.

Daryl Sherman says the migration from Minnesota means his district is thriving.

"We're growing as a district, which is a real anomaly in this day and age when many are declining in enrollment and as I said we would have declined had we not had this influx of students," he explains.

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Image Todd Nelson

But the Minnesota school district the students left behind hasn't faired as well. Declining enrollment prompted the two communities of Glenville and Emmons to consolidate their schools back in the late 1990s.

Last year, a shortage of students forced the school board to close a middle school, which was the only school in Emmons. It was a controversial decision that caused deep divisions within the community. Ultimately it inspired a lot of parents in Emmons to take advantage of an open enrollment agreement with Lake Mills.

Todd Nelson farms in Emmons. He has three school-aged daughters, and not too long ago he was the head of the Glenville-Emmons School Board. But he says tension over the closure of the local school prompted him to resign. Now his kids are enrolled at Lake Mills.

"Me and the kids and my wife Melanie sat down many nights and said we've got to look at this as a positive thing -- look at this as a new beginning," says Nelson. "We are going into a wonderful situation and it has been. This first week has just been wonderful."

Nelson says he wishes the Glenville-Emmons district the best. He has only nice things to say about the teachers and administrators. But Nelson says, leaning on his dining room table, its unlikely his children will ever return.

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Image Emmons, Minnesota

Under the cross border open enrollment Glenville-Emmons pays Lake Mills the Iowa per pupil fee of more than $4,500. The Minnesota per-pupil funding is slightly more, and Glenville-Emmons gets to keep the difference.

While Glenville-Emmons may have hit challenging times, some remain optimistic.

Bob Krier works at a Glenville bank. His two young children attend school in the district. Krier says the community should focus on the positive. As a result Krier helped to design a pamphlet listing the finer points of the Glenville-Emmons system.

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Image Bob Krier

Krier says local schools are known for their academic excellence, and high scores on state achievement tests.

"As you go through the building look around and look at the lockers. There's no graffiti on them. There's no locks on them," says Krier. "There's you know the building itself you can tell there's pride amongst the kids."

Krier plans to campaign on behalf of a November school referendum. While the district has a balanced budget, it needs an infusion of cash. That's something that hasn't been helped by the loss of students.

Krier says he'll keep his fingers crossed on voting day. He hopes his neighbors will look beyond trouble in the farm economy and lingering anger over the closure of the middle school, by voting to allocate more money to local education.

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