School Choice Changes Mean District Switches

Posted: June 16, 2013 at 5 a.m.

New state rules opened school choice opportunities to more students in Northwest Arkansas.

New state rules opened school choice opportunities to more students in Northwest Arkansas.

Act 1227 went into effect April 16 of this year, redefining school choice and repealing the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989.

Under the old rules, students transferring between districts couldn’t upset the racial balance of their new district. Minority numbers in the school district were to mirror those of the county, leaving some students without transfer options. Board-to-board transfers — where a student had to be released by his or her resident district and accepted by their district of choice — were the primary option for school choice, and transfers could be denied.

Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas education commissioner, said in a meeting Thursday board-to-board transfers are still an option.

Twenty-two districts in south and east Arkansas, around Little Rock and outside Memphis, have filed as exempt from school choice, because of a desegregation clause, according to the Arkansas Department of Education, but race no longer plays a part in school choice transfer in Northwest Arkansas.

Even with the school choice deadline pushed up to June 1, school districts took in many transfer applications this year. Districts have until Aug. 1 to notify families if they have been accepted.

“There haven’t been a lot of substantive changes. The big change was the racial component,” said Brad Reed, Bentonville director of student services.

Bentonville administrators look at each case individually, Reed said, but the 67 students who requested to transfer out will be approved. The one elementary student who applied to transfer into the district was refused because of capacity issues, Reed said.

“We have no reason to stop anybody from leaving. It’s up to those districts they applied to,” he said.

A demography student in the Bentonville School District estimates elementary schools in the district will grow by an average of 25 students next year and predicts nearly 800 new students will arrive in the school district this fall.

Springdale administrators think they will have 600 more students this fall than they did last year. Fifteen of those new students could come from transfers, said Kelly Hayes, Springdale comptroller. Eighteen students applied to leave the district, but 33 want to transfer in. Those numbers are higher than in the past. Fewer than 10 students transferred into the district last year, Hayes said.

All of the transfers were approved, Hayes said.

“We can’t promise them that they’ll attend a particular school, but we’ll find them a place at their grade level,” he said of students coming into the district.

Springdale opened an elementary school last year and will be opening a new middle school this year and a new junior high school the next year, said Rick Schaeffer, Springdale communication director.

“We’re OK on growth,” Schaeffer said.

Parents want their children to go to school close to where they work and live, and Springdale will accommodate that, he said.

“We have some neighborhoods in our district that are really in Fayetteville,” Schaeffer said.

Fayetteville sent out provisional acceptance letters June 1, said Ginny Wiseman, associate superintendent.

The law allows districts to refuse a transfer if it would require additional staffing at the district.

Fayetteville administrators will look through transcripts and other records for each of the students who applied to decide if adding those students would require hiring more personnel to accommodate them, Wiseman said. She estimated final notifications will go out in mid-July.

Rogers School District officials will also review individual applications to see if adding those students will require more teachers and classrooms, said Ashley Kelley Siwiec, communications director. A timeline hasn’t been set, but administrators will meet the Aug. 1 deadline set by the law, she said.

“In between now and then, we’ll be looking at our enrollment. If we have the capacity we’ll accept them,” she said.

Eleven students applied to transfer into the district and 20 applied to go elsewhere.

Some of the students leaving the large districts are transferring to smaller schools. Both Gravette and Pea Ridge had applications from more than 30 students. A staff member in Pea Ridge said most of the transfers in were from Rogers and Bentonville.

Small districts in Washington County are trading students.

This year 48 of the 69 transfers out of Greenland are Winslow residents transferring to West Fork, said Charles Cudney, Greenland superintendent. Greenland closed Winslow High School a year after annexing it in 2004, but Winslow was almost annexed by West Fork.

The problem for small school districts is a 3 percent cap in the number of transfers allowed out of a district. Some of the Greenland students will not be able to leave because of that cap which leaves room for about 32 transfers, Cudney said.

A family counts as one transfer, but it was unclear how many of the 69 students who applied for a transfer were related or related to students already in West Fork. Cudney estimated 25 of the 69 may be unable to transfer out.

Greenland officials will give preference to transfers if the applicant student already has a sibling in West Fork, Cudney said and he is working with West Fork Superintendent John Karnes to review each application. West Fork received 57 applications for transfers into the district.

Rose Ann Pearce contributed to this report.

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