For the past several years, Stoughton Area School District officials have hoped to learn how to attract and retain young families to Stoughton, with the idea of increasing enrollment and ensuring financial sustainability.

Monday night, they got 146 pages worth in a new study that offers ideas, but also raises new questions on the area’s diversity, housing and means to connect with a younger demographic.

The school board-sponsored study, “Gaining and Maintaining Young Adults and Young Families in Stoughton, Wisconsin,” was conducted by UW-Extension researcher Amanda Jane Hoffman in collaboration with the district. She had worked with lead researcher Randy Stoecker last year on a larger scale project, “Gaining and Maintaining Young People in Rural Wisconsin Communities.” Stoecker presented his findings to board members last summer, including data showing only around 15% of Wisconsin communities are gaining and maintaining young adults.

The Stoughton study seeks to address school enrollment decline by asking why young adults stay in Stoughton and why others choose to not live here.

Hoffman, who said she’s had hundreds of conversations with young adults in Wisconsin over the last couple years for the statewide project, interviewed 24 people for an hour each for this study. In the past few months, she’s included feedback from board member Kathleen Hoppe, who leads the committee commissioning the study, and SASD superintendent Tim Onsager.

The study lists five takeaways:

  • More awareness about and access to city and school resources is needed;
  • Stoughton is liveable, though housing is tight;
  • The city celebrates diversity but tolerates discrimination;
  • There is no average Stoughton resident;
  • There’s tension between people who want to protect the city as it is and those who want to grow.

Yolibeth Fitzgibbon said the study shows the need for the community to work collaboratively to solve the challenges facing them.

“This is a job for all of us,” she said. “We need to get together with the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, different institutions and organizations in Stoughton and work together. It needs a change in mindset.”

Steve Jackson said the study showed the need for a “community discussion” on race.

“It’s so disturbing to me the number of times that the inequity issue and racism came into play,” he said.”I know that as a school district, we’re doing so many things to try to address that, (but) that’s something that we have to look to as a community to engage with the school district on and have that discussion.”

Hoppe said the district needs to adapt quickly to connect with a younger generation that has grown up in a digital world, with different expectations on how to communicate.

“We need to really go where people are having these conversations,” she said. “As the study pointed out, people aren’t just hanging out in coffee shops on the weekend, they’re on their phones, they’re on their computers.”

Board president Frank Sullivan thanked Mayor Tim Swadley and other city officials who were in attendance.

“This is not just a school board issue, this is not just a city issue, this is a community issue or series of community issues,” he said. “For me, that recognizes that what this is is a start; we have not solved anything tonight… but we have identified and laid out some of the issues we need to talk about.”

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