Monday, September 12, 2016

Voluntary transfers and transition rules

UPDATE 9/18/16The board made some headway discussing this issue at last week’s work session. Follow-up discussion here.

One of the topics the board will be discussing in this week’s work session is the district’s voluntary transfer process. Earlier this year, I proposed that the board consider making some changes and clarifications to that process as we transition to new boundaries and to the opening of Liberty High. This post is to update and summarize that proposal and ask readers for input. (Warning: prepare for a long post.)

The proposals I’m making here are a little different from the ones I made in June, partly because I’m now assuming that the board will reinstate the secondary feeder plan that the previous board passed in May 2015. That plan would send students from the Kirkwood Elementary attendance area to Liberty High, not West. Kirkwood students would be assigned to North Central Junior High, but given the option of attending Northwest Junior High instead. The plan would also send kids from the Alexander Elementary attendance area to Northwest Junior High and West High. I do not support reinstating that feeder plan (for reasons I discussed here, here, here, and here), but it seems likely that a majority of the board will support it. One effect of reinstating that plan is that enrollment at North Central Junior High and Liberty High will exceed capacity sooner than would otherwise have occurred, which affects some of my suggestions below.

Transition issues like these (apparently the word “grandfathering” strikes fear into school districts’ hearts) put two sets of values into conflict. On the one hand, minimizing the number of times kids have to change schools (especially when it means going to a school where they don’t know many other kids) is a very important value for lots of people. There is also value in accommodating families’ preferences when it’s possible. On the other hand, grandfathering slows down the process of filling new schools and de-crowding overcrowded schools. It also makes it harder to predict enrollments and plan classes. It can also slow down efforts to create socioeconomic balance between schools.

If we don’t make any changes, the transition process will be governed by our existing voluntary transfer process. Here are the relevant features of that process as I understand them:

  • We do not allow voluntary transfers unless there are seats available in the receiving school. (The way the district decides whether seats are available differs at the elementary and secondary levels, but the basic principle is true at both levels.)

  • If more transfer applications are received than there are seats available, transfers are awarded by lottery.

  • Voluntary transfers are not automatically renewed from year to year. Instead, a student who gets a transfer one year must re-apply the next year, and will be subject to the rules in (a) and (b), above.

  • We do not provide transportation to students who voluntarily transfer.

  • We do not allow students to voluntarily transfer out of a newly-assigned school in the first year of that new assignment.  [Update: At our work session, the administration clarified that, at least under our current practice, this rule applies only to students who are redistricted into a newly opening school, not to all redistricted students.]

It’s my impression that our past practice has been to do relatively little grandfathering of students who are assigned to new attendance areas, and I can understand why there is a limit to how much of that we can do when we’re trying to populate newly opening schools and de-crowd existing schools. I do think we should at least consider changing our transfer rules a bit, though, and possibly making exceptions for certain particular circumstances, as I explain below.


Secondary transfers and capacity. Again, our current process requires transfer students to re-apply for transfer each successive year. If there is insufficient capacity at the school at the time the student re-applies, the student will not be able to renew the transfer. That’s a strong disincentive to transferring: no one wants their child to have to switch schools multiple times. The rule was apparently adopted to discourage transfers and give people an incentive to remain at their assigned schools.

I can understand the argument for the rule at the elementary level: seven years is a long time to guarantee a transfer, since it’s hard to know that far in advance whether there will continue to be seats available at the school. The rule seems a little harder to justify at the secondary level, though, and apparently the district’s practice is not to require students to switch schools between seventh and eighth grade or between eleventh and twelfth. I would want to make that rule explicit, and I would take it a bit further:
The district should not allow any transfer at the secondary level except to the extent that it determines that there is likely to be sufficient capacity in that building for that student to remain in that school through completion of that band (i.e., junior high or senior high). If the number of transfer requests exceeds the available capacity, transfers should be awarded by lottery, subject to any priority rules the district adopts (see below). Any student accepted for transfer would be allowed to remain through completion of that band without re-applying for transfer each year.

Students who transfer into a junior high would not be guaranteed of receiving any transfer when they reach ninth grade, but would be subject to the usual voluntary transfer rules at that time.
What effect would this rule have when Liberty High opens? Liberty is very likely to have seats available in its first year and possibly in its second year, because juniors and seniors in the Liberty zone as of 2017-18 will have the option to continue on at their previous high school. As of Liberty’s third year, though, it will have four full grades in the building. At that time, there is a strong likelihood that Liberty will be over capacity, as you can see from this chart (click to enlarge):

(The chart is an “age-progression,” showing how many students we can expect at Liberty just from having our current students advance through the years. It does not account for likely growth in the North Corridor, so very likely undercounts how many students will be in the Liberty zone in future years. Source here.)

Because Liberty is likely to have seats available in its first year, it make sense to allow seniors to transfer into Liberty in 2017-18. The district may also determine that there are enough available seats expected in 2018-19 that it could allow some juniors to transfer in in 2017-18 as well.

However, it will be hard to justify allowing freshmen and sophomores to transfer in to Liberty in 2017-18, or to allow freshmen, sophomores, or juniors to transfer in in 2018-19. We have every reason to think that there will not be room for those students once there are four full grades at Liberty (in 2019-20). Allowing those transfers will just worsen the overcrowding problem that we know is coming at Liberty. (The overcrowding problem is one of the reasons I voted not to assign the Kirkwood area to Liberty.)


Juniors and seniors. Since students who will be juniors and seniors in the Liberty attendance zone will be given the option of staying at their former high schools in 2017, the same rule should apply to any students who are juniors or seniors when their neighborhoods are rezoned into a different high school. Juniors who exercise that option should not have to reapply for voluntary transfers when they become seniors. This may already be our practice, but if so I think we should explicitly write it into our voluntary transfer rules. Any students exercising that option would have to provide their own transportation.

The effect of this rule would be to allow students from the Alexander area who will be juniors and seniors in 2017-18 to finish high school at City High. There could be a counterargument if it looks like those students would push City over capacity (though I don’t think it looks that way). That counterargument would apply equally to juniors and seniors in the North Lincoln area who wish to finish at City High rather than transfer to Liberty.


Seventh and eighth graders. Students whose neighborhoods are districted into a different junior high school between their seventh and eighth grade years should be allowed to finish junior high at their previously assigned school. Again, this may already be our practice, but if so I think we should explicitly write it into our voluntary transfer rules. Any students exercising that option would have to provide their own transportation.


Sixth graders. Similarly, students who are sixth graders when their neighborhoods are rezoned into a different elementary school should have the option of finishing elementary school at their previously assigned school (though they would have to provide their own transportation). So, for example, our current plan takes a portion of the Horn attendance area and assigns it to Weber as of 2017-18. Under this proposal, students who are sixth graders in that area would have the option to finish elementary school at Horn. I believe this is already our practice, but I think we should explicitly write it into our voluntary transfer rules.


North Lincoln. Under our current elementary school boundary plan, the North Lincoln area is redistricted into a different elementary (Grant), junior high (North Central), and high school (Liberty). Some students from that area, though, voluntarily transferred into South East because the current plan assigned Lincoln-area students to City High. I think we should consider giving those students the option to continue through graduation at City High, not subject to the usual restrictions on voluntary transfers, but assuming they would provide their own transportation. These students voluntarily went through one transition away from their classmates for the sake of adjusting to a new high school cohort, so there’s at least an argument that they should not be asked to do so a second time. I would apply this exception to any North Lincoln student who voluntarily transferred into South East for the 2016-17 school year or earlier—which means that only three years would be affected: those who would be eighth, ninth, or tenth graders in 2017-18. I’m assuming this affects a very small number of students, and so is unlikely to have much of an effect on enrollment planning.


Van Allen. A small portion of Van Allen has been redistricted into Wickham and so will be assigned to different secondary schools (Northwest and West) than the rest of their Van Allen classmates (who will go to North Central and Liberty). The number of students is so small that I think we should consider giving them the option to continue on with their Van Allen classmates through North Central and Liberty, not subject to the usual restrictions on voluntary transfers (but assuming they provide their own transportation). I would apply that rule to any child in that area who completed sixth grade at Van Allen before 2020-21. I would use that as the cutoff because the new Van Allen boundary will go into effect in 2019-20, and (under my suggestion in paragraph 4, above), students who are in the sixth grade that year should be allowed to finish their elementary school experience at Van Allen.

I would probably not apply a similar rule to that part of the current Wickham zone that will now be assigned to Northwest, since a much larger portion of the school would be moving as a group into Northwest. Similarly, I would probably not apply a similar rule to the portion of Twain that will become part of Alexander, because it’s more than just a very small number of kids who will be affected.


Socioeconomic balance. Some board members raised the question of whether our voluntary transfer rules would undermine the district’s efforts to achieve socioeconomic balance at the secondary schools. For example, after Liberty’s first year, students in the Kirkwood area (which has a high rate of free-and-reduced-price lunch “FRL”) will be free to apply for voluntary transfer into West (where there will probably be seats), rather than go to Liberty. If enough Kirkwood students transferred, it would increase the FRL disparity between West and Liberty, undermining one of the board’s reasons for assigning Kirkwood to Liberty in the first place. The same argument would arise about transfers from the Alexander area into South East and City.

My first inclination is to think that we should cross that bridge when we come to it. Since transfers will not come with transportation, we don’t know whether we’ll see large numbers of transfer requests from Kirkwood- or Alexander-area students. Moreover, I can’t see any good way of dealing with the issue, if it does arise. It does not seem right, for example, to allow well-off kids to transfer into a high school but prohibit kids who receive free-and-reduced-price lunch from doing so.

This issue could also arise in the discussion of issue (2), above.


Siblings. In any discussion of transitions to new boundaries, the subject of siblings comes up. Suppose I live in the Liberty zone. Suppose one of my kids will be a senior who takes the option to finish high school at West High. Suppose I have another child who will be a freshman that year. The basic rule is that if you’re a freshman or sophomore assigned to Liberty, you cannot transfer out of Liberty in its first year. Should my younger child get an exception to that rule, so I won’t end up with kids attending two different high schools? There are a lot of variations on this basic scenario, in which kids end up on different path than their older siblings.

My initial feeling is that giving younger siblings an exception to redistricting decisions would be so broad that it would make it too hard to fill our new schools and decrowd our overcrowded schools (though I’m willing to listen to counterarguments). At the very least, though, I would give some level of priority to voluntary transfer applications that come from younger siblings, in situations where voluntary transfers are allowed (see below).


Priority rules. When voluntary transfers are allowed and available, I would give priority to (1) kids who are asking to transfer into a school that they attended the previous year, and then to (2) kids who will have an older sibling attending the school that they want to transfer into.

The first category would catch, for example, a student who voluntarily transferred into an elementary school when she was in third grade, and then has to re-apply for transfer when she becomes a fourth-grader. (It would not, however, catch a Liberty-zone sophomore in 2017-18 who wishes to transfer back into West, since it would not trump the rule that you can’t transfer out of a newly-assigned school in the first year of that new assignment.)


Transfers for cause. None of this should preclude the administration from granting voluntary transfers for cause in situations where a student’s particular circumstances (for example, if the student has been the victim of bullying in his or her assigned school) merit it.


I don’t feel any confidence in my ability to foresee all the transition issues that might arise, or all the arguments and counterarguments about the ones I’ve identified. Please chime in in the comments with your thoughts.


Amy said...

Here's my fundamental question, and apologies if you've answered this often elsewhere.

We seem to have been redistricting like madmen for at least the last six years. We talk about it all the damn time. We then spend zillions to build and open schools that we expect will be over capacity in a matter of three or four years. What is the problem in the forecasting models the district is using? Why do we not seem to be able to look ahead ten years, say, "this is likely where we'll be populationwise, and these are the areas that the municipalities intend to develop", and plan from there?

Anonymous said...

In agreement with Amy, why build Hoover II when Hoover I could have filled that need? Instead Hoover II should have been built where existing capacity was not already adequate. And now the district wants $190 million more dollars? Vote no on the bond.

Anonymous said...

If Liberty and NCJH will have too many kids, keep the N. Lincoln students on their current path to SEJH and City. They can go to one of IC's elementary schools.