DENVER (CBS4) – If your child’s public school is giving away ice cream on Friday, dishing up pizza or offering up a special event, there’s a good reason. Oct. 1st is “Count Day” for Colorado public schools, the day schools count their students and it’s determined how much money school districts get.

The more students in class, the more money allotted to that school district. Each student counts for about $6,500 in funding.

Schools have historically used different incentives to get kids to class on count day ranging from parties to pizza, to gentle prodding. Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, sent out an email Thursday to parents, reminding them:

“The state’s official count day for enrollment is tomorrow, Oct. 1, so — like every school day — it’s very important that our students are in attendance for a full day of instruction.”

On its website, Jefferson County Public Schools reminded parents that Oct. 1 is “the key student count day. Parents are asked to ensure that students are accurately counted by having their children in school that day.”

CBS4 learned that a Denver Charter School, Northeast Academy, has been dangling a much bigger carrot in front of parents, offering them $400 gift cards at Kmart, Target or Walmart for every new student they can get to the school by Friday.

“We have decided to go out and utilize a marketing incentive as a means of inviting families,” said Northeast’s George Sanker.

The school had hoped the program might lure 25 new students. Sanker said the gift card giveaway has resulted in between 10 to 12 new students signing up in the last couple of weeks.

“I believe this has met our expectations,” said Sanker.

According to a flier the school sent to parents:

“Earlier this week a mom recruited two students and so she will receive $800 in gift cards from us next week.”

The school says the money is being drawn from its marketing budget.

“It’s similar to selling a product,” said Sanker. “The work we’re doing here is focused on trying to bring as many families into an environment where excellent education can be delivered to their child.”

Northeast is a K-8 school with an enrollment of 420 students.

Critics say this kind of stunt ends up unfairly skewing school funding resulting in some schools being overfunded and others being underfunded.

School count day is “not reflective of true enrollment,” said Scott Groginsky, senior policy director of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which believes relying on a single count day is an oversimplified method of counting students that should be changed.

Colorado is one of 13 states determining education funding based on a single count day.

Other states use multiple count dates or average school attendance to determine funding. Groginsky says luring new students for count day with signing bonuses or other incentives is an “outgrowth of a poor policy system thats giving rewards for showing up on one day.”

He says a single count day removes financial incentives to retain students after that date, doesn’t account for students who enroll or return to school after the count date and does not create a financial incentive to enroll out of school youth who try to reenroll after the count date.

But Joseph Arlinghaus, the Director of Advancement at Northeast Academy, says its a competitive, entrepreneurial educational landscape where effective marketing can make a difference. He says adding more students via gift cards thus increasing the school’s funding is “more efficient. It means more income, same expenses,” said Arlinghaus.

Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers decided to look at potentially changing the state’s student count policy by studying other counting methods. An advisory committee is due to present findings and recommendations to the Governor and Colorado Department of Education by December.

— Written by Brian Maass

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