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February 17, 2013

Schools criticize proposed rules

‘Cherry-picking’ bill would regulate schools’ acceptance policies for transferring students.

LOGANSPORT — Local school administrators said a recent Statehouse proposal changing how schools can admit students from other districts places too stringent limits on local leeway.

Legislators this month proposed to ban schools from “cherry-picking” their transferring students, or refusing to enroll transfer students based on special needs, low test scores or minor disciplinary problems. Instead, schools would have to accept students first-come, first-serve or by lottery selection.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, has said its purpose is “to ensure that students choose schools [and] schools aren’t choosing students.”

However, local superintendents say the bill could create strained environments in the classroom.

Superintendents at Logansport, Southeastern, Pioneer and Caston school corporations said administrators at those schools typically considered a variety of factors when deciding whether to permit a student from outside the district to transfer in. Those factors included students’ classroom behavior as well as academic record and some less measurable factors, like whether a school’s programs suited what a student was looking for.

All also reported having accepted several transfer students this year, partly because the rural districts have had dwindling student populations for some time.

“I would be a little concerned about the requirement to accept all students,” said Pioneer superintendent Dave Bess. “I think it’s important that when the option is there, that it’s good to have a good match between the student, not only the way they perform as a student but also the things that are important to them, so they fit into our environment. It could be a struggle for all involved if that doesn’t exist.”

Pioneer admitted 13 new transfer students into its classrooms this year, part of the “ebb and flow” of each year’s unpredictable transfer rate, Bess said.

Having a few new students beef up the classroom numbers benefits a school, Bess said — but not if it’s at a greater cost, if a given student requires extraordinary remediation.

And if schools that accept transfer students will have to do so on a first-come, first-serve basis, Bess said the Pioneer school board may revisit the entire idea.

“I would anticipate them wanting to revisit that,” he said.

A transfer student’s negative impact on a school’s overall performance also concerned superintendents.

“I’m really opposed to that bill,” said John Bevan, superintendent of Southeastern School Corp., because he wouldn’t want to accept a student with a terrible academic or attendance record since those would then reflect on the Southeastern school’s report to the state Department of Education.

It’s an unfortunate aftereffect of recent school accountability methods, he said.

“That’s the reality of the situation,” Bevan explained. “You’re telling me you’re going to grade me on my attendance, my academics — why would I want to take somebody with a track record that’s going to hurt me?”

At the Caston schools, where a total of 59 new and returning transfer students are attending this year, academics factor into principals’ decision to approve or deny a transfer request, but no student has been denied based solely on that factor, according to superintendent Dan Foster.

“We look at [test scores] and say, what are their other grades in the classroom?” Foster explained. “How close are they? Is this somebody that’s going to take a little bit of work or a lot of work?

“But we have also accepted students who have not passed the ISTEP exam,” he said.

Disciplinary issues usually are a bigger factor, said Foster, since the  one principal at each of the corporation’s two schools wouldn’t be able to devote enough time to disciplining an extra unruly student.

“If we take on a child that has had 32 disruptions at another school, there’s a good chance that a principal’s going to be dealing with that student quite a bit here,” Foster said. “And we just don’t have time to do that.”

Mostly, though, poor academics and behavior problems go hand in hand, according to Logansport superintendent Michele Starkey.

“We look at academics, but probably behavior is the biggest thing we look at,” Starkey said. “We don’t want to bring somebody who’s been a behavior problem … into our school corporation.”

However, a Logansport school will work with another school corporation on occasion to accept a transfer a student who’s misbehaving mainly because of a poor peer group or other factors specific to a particular environment, she said.

Since the city schools admit many of the students who apply for a transfer, she didn’t figure the proposed legislation would affect them much.

“We’re not out cherry-picking kids. Nobody’s out doing that,” Starkey said of Cass County schools.

“We’ll comply with whatever the rules say, but I think we still should have some say,” Starkey added. “If a kid’s a big discipline issue and they don’t live within our district, they’d be a detriment to our school environment. We shouldn’t have to take them.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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