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Families Are Fleeing Cities & Moving To Lake Of The Ozarks, Enrolling Children In School

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Homes At Lake Of The Ozarks - Aerial

True or False? Classrooms across the nation will soon be filled with school children.

The answer is that third option you never had on True/False tests in school: "It Depends." In some parts of the U.S., like St. Louis and Chicago, public schools will meet exclusively online this fall. But schools at Lake of the Ozarks are planning to have students in seats within two weeks, and it’s not quite clear how many students will be in those seats.

At Camdenton R-III, the largest school district in the Lake area, enrollment began on Aug. 5. Classes begin on Monday, Aug. 24, and on Aug. 19, the district is holding a Virtual New Student Orientation for any families that are new to the district. There might be quite a few. A trend is emerging in which families are fleeing cities beleaguered by crime and Covid shutdowns. Some are finding refuge at Lake of the Ozarks and enrolling their children in Lake area schools.

"We have had inquiries regarding enrollment from second homeowners," confirmed Camdenton R-III Superintendent Dr. Tim Hadfield. However, Hadfield said, since the enrollment process has just begun, it is hard to know how many families will be part of an emerging trend: making a permanent move to the Lake.

School of the Osage Superintendent Dr. Laura Nelson suggested her district may be looking at a similar trend, though she too could not provide any more clarity on how significant of an impact this could have on the district. On July 8, in an update for the district, Nelson wrote that one of the biggest themes in topics of phone calls to the central office were people asking, "We have a second home here. How do I enroll my student(s) in School of the Osage for the coming school year?" (View Nelson’s updates here: SOTO News | School of the Osage)

The Wisecarvers are in this exact scenario.

Jason and Erin Wisecarver have (well, had…) a home in Chesterfield and a Lake of the Ozarks townhome on Horseshoe Bend. In March, after they realized their sons would not be returning to school for the rest of the semester, Erin packed their bags and headed to the Lake house.

She recalled, "I kind of packed the kids up and said, 'We’re going to the Lake house.' And we never came back!"

As Covid shutdowns worsened and violence continued to increase in St. Louis, it juxtaposed powerfully with life at Lake of the Ozarks. Erin stayed at the Lake house with the kids while Jason worked from Chesterfield and came to the Lake on the weekends. "This is the only normalcy that our kids can have," she said. "It’s so sad because the kids aren’t hanging out in St. Louis. It’s a different environment. You come down here and it’s like, nothing’s happened." Eventually the decision was clear: they weren’t going back to Chesterfield. Erin laughed, "My husband said, 'So you’re not coming home,' and I said, 'No.'" He took care of selling the house in Chesterfield, and they enjoyed summer on the Lake in their new permanent home.

"There’s so much to do down here," Erin said. "My kids are outside more than they ever would have been back home."

And while their children have attended a private school previously in St. Louis, Wisecarver said, "The education and attention is actually better down here, and it’s free!" They considered Camdenton and Osage school districts, and landed on the latter. "The superintendent [Laura Nelson] was amazing, the teachers that we’ve met are wonderful," Erin said.

Their son—a senior this fall, who will graduate in December—has already been accepted to the University of Illinois and will play football there on a scholarship. So Erin said her only concern about moving to the Lake was how football would be for him this fall. But, she said, since St. Louis schools will not play football this fall, even that concern was moot. (The Missouri State High School Activities Association had initially decided schools that do not offer in-person classes will not be allowed to practice or compete in sports. They reversed that decision last week, allowing schools that are online-only this fall to participate in MSHSAA events if they want to.)

"We’re gonna stay in Osage," Erin said. "It's a perfect fit."

How many more families like the Wisecarvers are out there? Real estate trends might be an indication: home sales have accelerated at a dizzying rate. According to information compiled by local real estate broker Helen Riggins, from the Lake of the Ozarks Board of Realtors and Bagnell Dam Board of Realtors, lakefront home sales at Lake of the Ozarks are up by 109% and off-water home sales are up by 58%, comparing July 2020 to July 2019. More market stats here: Helen's Monthly Market Stats

Additionally, some second home owners may be taking their houses off the vacation rental market and moving into them full-time. Russell Burdette, of Your Lake Vacation, said one of his clients took their property off the rental program last week so they could move out of Kansas City and live here full-time. That homeowner told Burdette it was "too crazy in the city" and they were retreating to their Lake home, permanently.

That’s the kind of trend that could spell record-high enrollment in local schools. But another force may counteract it. Some families say their children will not be in a classroom, as they are homeschooling for the first time this fall. 

Chris and Mindy Summers live in Eldon, and they plan to begin homeschooling their kindergartener and 3rd grader, this fall. "In March when the schools began closing I was nervous," Mindy said, adding, "We are so grateful for her teachers and the local school district!" However that time of homeschool helped the Summers realize this was something they could do, and wanted to do. "We are grateful that this trying season actually supplied a 'homeschool trial run' for our family!" Mindy said. Homeschooling is on the rise nationwide: by late-July, Nebraska’s Department of Education had already seen a 20 percent increase in the number of families filing their intent to homeschool, compared to a year before. In Vermont, by July 15, the state’s Agency of Education had seen homeschool enrollment filings increase by 75 percent compared to the previous year. (No homeschool filings are required in Missouri.)

Until enrollment closes, Lake area school districts likely won’t be able to say for sure how much it will be up or down for the coming school year. But either way, the Lake’s permanent population got a boost this year as families decide it’s not just a great place to play: it’s a perfect place to put down roots, too.