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Todd Olson used to notice groups of students at Richfield High hanging out around the gates at home games, never venturing inside.

The knots disappeared, though, when the district began free admissions last year.

“Kids who loitered at school events didn’t have money to attend,” the athletic director said. “And now they come to games.”

Suburban poverty is soaring, and schools are discovering that a $5 entrance fee that means little to middle-class families is a ticket to exclusion for many — with effects that can spill into the classroom.

Richfield was among the first metro districts to let all high school students into home games free with an ID. That policy remains this year, and the practice is catching on. Shakopee, the leading suburb adding affordable housing since the mid-1990s, just began letting all K-12 students into any event, including plays and concerts, for free.

“Honestly, it saves us so much money,” said Shakopee sophomore Rose Poland, who was hanging out with fellow cheerleaders. “Everybody has that one friend that can’t really pay … it gets hard to loan them money when you don’t have money yourself.”

In the past 10 years, the number of students receiving free lunches in suburban schools has more than doubled, to roughly 83,000. Districts like Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale have seen 30 percentage-point jumps in the share of students receiving free and reduced lunch.

“To me, it does make sense,” said Peter Demerath, a University of Minnesota education professor. “I think for these districts, it may be part of an effort to cultivate school belonging in students.”

Increasingly, educators are researching how “noncognitive factors” affect students’ academic success. Early results show that a sense of belonging has positive effects, and it’s a factor schools can influence if they try, he said.

Some suburban districts, however, say they can’t afford to let kids in free. Burnsville relies on ticket sales, activity fees and fundraising to subsidize 50 percent of its athletic budget, said Jeff Marshall athletic and activities director.

Opening up opportunities

In Shakopee, officials have high hopes for the new policy.

The school board wants to remove all sorts of barriers for students with limited income, said board member Scott Swanson.

The “whole goal here is to provide opportunities and access for students,” he said.

The district is hoping the admission policy will boost participation and increase student camaraderie. Students who go to a swim meet or play will have new experiences, making them more well-rounded, he said.

Beth Loechler, director of FISH, a Prior Lake-based nonprofit that connects the needy to community resources, said she has received more requests from suburban families for help paying for extras like football pads or band instruments.

“At first we asked ourselves if they were truly needs,” she said. “We really reached the conclusion that in schools, inclusion is central to the vitality of those students.”

Virtually all districts have a policy related to students who can’t afford activity fees, said Howard Voigt, spokesman for the Minnesota State High School League. The league’s foundation offers grants to districts to offset the cost of those fees.

Other districts

Other suburban districts have implemented versions of the free-admission policy, or are considering doing so.

North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale has discussed the idea, though no action has been taken, said spokeswoman Jennifer McNeil

Columbia Heights, where 81 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, has a program that lets students into events for free if they have a moderate GPA and good behavior and attendance, said Matt Miller, activities director.

This year, Prior Lake-Savage, a relatively affluent district, decided to make all events free except for football and boys’ hockey. Those events are the biggest moneymakers, and proceeds help fund other activities, said Eric Rodine, activities director. A musical and a concert still cost money, too.

The concern was that teams like volleyball and soccer “were playing in front of very small numbers,” he said.

Even there, Rodine said he believes it will help students whose families are struggling financially participate more.

Like a few metro districts, Eastern Carver County allows students signed up for any activity to get in free to home events, said Austin Tollerson, athletic director at Chanhassen High. The goal was “to get more students, more fans, more support,” he said.

There are also event passes, usually $75, available free to needy students if they ask, Tollerson said.

But struggling families often don’t request help. They think, “Because we have less, we just can’t participate,” Loechler said.

A budget bite

The new policies have a cost. In Richfield, “it’s been a little bit of a burden in that the district is losing some money,” admitted Olson.

The Shakopee board decided the financial impact was worth it, Swanson said, though it could amount to half a percent of the district’s annual revenue.

But income from concession sales and parent attendance — students in kindergarten through grade 8 get in free but must bring a paying adult — could provide a boost.

At Prior Lake High, Rodine said, there seem to be more fans in the stands this fall. He predicts the numbers will really jump for basketball.

The move may even keep kids out of trouble. Students who come to games are “not out doing things they’re not supposed to be doing,” said Rodine.

In Shakopee, the district won’t know the policy’s impact until the year’s end. But “the general murmur through the grapevine is that it’s been a very good thing,” Swanson said. There were 1,160 more fans at this year’s homecoming football game than last year.

Sadie Smith, a ninth-grader at Shakopee’s East Junior High, said that in addition to saving money, the change has pumped students up. “We have more people at games to cheer everyone on.”

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283