Archive for Sunday, April 14, 2002

April 14, 2002

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It didn't take long for Anne Patterson to fall in love with her East Lawrence neighborhood on Rhode Island Street.

It took longer when she went looking for the right elementary school for her two school-age children, Patrick, 10, and Ian, 8.

Though it was farther from the Patterson home than others in the district  New York and Pinckney schools were closer  Patterson chose Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive, she said, because of the school's academic standing and welcoming atmosphere.

"We love our neighborhood and we love this school," Patterson said Friday while picking up her sons.

"All my friends are here," Patrick said.

The ability of families such as the Pattersons to pick-and-choose the school they like could be curtailed if the Lawrence school board adopts tighter restrictions on student transfers to schools outside their neighborhoods.

DLR Group, an Overland Park company hired by the school board to develop a facilities master plan for the district, has recommended that the district study the possibility of limiting such transfers. The district has four times the number of transfers than in similar public school districts.

Assessing policy

"We're trying to get clear direction," said Brad Kiehl of DLR Group. "If the district is going to keep this open-transfer policy, we'll plan as much as we can to that policy. If there's consideration on changing that, we want to be able to give the board some recommendations and some thoughts."

Monday, the school board will convene a study session on facilities issues. Among other things, DLR Group will propose that the board assess transfer policy.

"We need some discussion about what 'neighborhood school' means," said Leni Salkind, a school board member.

Scott Morgan, board vice president, said he was interested in determining why parents were pulling their children out of certain schools. For example, East Heights School lost 47 children to transfers last fall. Four other elementary schools had more than 30 students transfer.

Unlike a majority of public school districts, transfer requests in Lawrence schools are approved on a space-available basis with the consent of the principal. Under-enrolled schools, especially the elementary schools, have embraced this transfer system as a way to maintain a viable enrollment.

425 transfer students

Anne Patterson said the policy has helped Hillcrest thrive.

"There are kids from all over town at Hillcrest," she said. "The school's alive with transfers. It would be struggling to be a two-section school without them."

This ease of movement among schools has created a situation in which 425 elementary students  more than 8 percent of the total  are enrolled in a school outside their neighborhood.

Hillcrest enrolled 71 transfer students  20 percent of its student body  when classes started in August.

Transfers at secondary schools are harder to come by, but principals did permit 131 junior high and high school students to switch schools at the start of the school year. That amounted to 2.6 percent of students.

The volume of transfers at the elementary level challenges the district's philosophy of neighborhood schooling, Supt. Randy Weseman said.

He said it also made it difficult for the district to manage student populations through boundary changes, school consolidation and building construction.

"It's pretty hard to have a neighborhood concept and plan for the future when every year you have this transfer of kids," Weseman said.

Why it happens

In past years, he said, transfers have been as high as 10 percent in the Lawrence district.

"A district our size should be between 1 percent to 1.5 percent," Weseman said.

He said details of any transfer policy change would follow extensive public debate among parents and district leaders.

Families request student transfers for many reasons, said Kim Bodensteiner, principal at Cordley School. And the fact a school has a large number of students from other parts of the city doesn't mean parents invest less of themselves in the school. In fact, Bodensteiner said, some transfer parents are among her strongest volunteers.

"I think parents at Cordley would tell you that one of the reasons they transferred is because of the neighborhood feel here," she said.

After Hillcrest, Cordley is the second most frequent destination of transfer students. There are 69 transfers at Cordley, 1837 Vt., which is more than one-third of the school's total enrollment.

Reduction of transfers in the district to 1 percent or 2 percent would have dramatic consequences at Cordley, she said.

"For this building," Bodensteiner said, "that would mean that we could lose up to 30 percent of our student population. There is no other answer. It would cut our student population quite a bit."

'Find a balance'

She said it would be a shame to limit the freedom of choice that parents in Lawrence have enjoyed for so long. Parents make the decision to send their children to a school out of their neighborhood for reasons that center on academic, social, employment and transportation issues, she said.

Tammy Becker, principal at Hillcrest School, said she appreciated the diverse student body that the transfer system has created at Hillcrest. However, she would welcome a school board examination of transfers.

Growth of the district's English as a Second Language program, which is based at Hillcrest and enrolls more than 100 students, and popularity of Hillcrest as a transfer destination has led Becker to conclude that a more limiting transfer policy might be in order.

"For us, we have to get some kind of handle on transfers," she said. "We have to find a balance in enrollment."

But Patterson said she would hate to see district policy altered, especially if it would mean pulling her sons from the only school they've known.

"I would be very disappointed for my children and probably try to fight it," she said. "Moving is not an option for us."

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