Current school attendance boundaries, however, will remain intact for the upcoming school year, school board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said.
A unanimous vote by the Board of Education during a seven-hour Saturday work session will freeze, for at least a year, transfers to popular programs of choice, including Beaufort Middle School's humanities program and Lady's Island Elementary School's arts-infused program.
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The vote allows only those schools with specific admissions criteria for their special offerings -- such as the Advanced Math, Engineering and Science Academy magnet programs and Hilton Head Island High School's International Baccalaureate Diploma Program -- to continue accepting students from outside their attendance boundaries.
This year, about half the district's schools accept out-of-zone students to programs that cater to a range of interests. Among them are arts-infused, science-focused or International Baccalaureate curriculums.
Cynthia Hayes, the district's student services chief, said the district received more than 1,500 transfer requests for this school year and approved nearly 95 percent.
More than 500 were for program choices, with the most popular being Beaufort Middle School's humanities program and Lady's Island Elementary School's arts-infused program.
ARE PARENTS 'CHERRY-PICKING?'
Most of those programs do not require students to meet any admissions requirements. That has essentially allowed some parents to select the public schools they want their children to attend, regardless of attendance boundaries, district officials said.
"Some people will cherry-pick just to get their kids to go to a particular school," Washington said.
Much of that has occurred in northern Beaufort County, where students are distributed unevenly. Some schools -- such as Beaufort High and Coosa Elementary -- are over capacity, while others have hundreds of unused seats.
"When you leave programmatic transfers open, with few restrictions, you create an imbalance," superintendent Valerie Truesdale said.
A few parents of Lady's Island Middle School students have sent letters to board members expressing concern about the number of Lady's Island students choosing to go to Beaufort Middle. The parents say those students represent an "above average" group with high test scores, and few of them qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs available to low-income students.
School board member Bill Evans said demographic data also suggest most of the students leaving Lady's Island Middle for Beaufort Middle are white.
Truesdale recommended the board limit programmatic transfers for a year so the district can get a better sense of which students really belong at which schools.
That information will be important for the board to consider before it changes attendance zones and disrupts traditional boundaries to alleviate overcrowding at schools such as Beaufort High, board members agreed.
"We're closing these loopholes," Washington said. "We've got to get people to where they should be."
General transfer options unrelated to program differences will remain available at most schools next fall.
For instance, the district allows transfers for health reasons or to allow students assigned to schools where their race is the majority to attend schools where their race is in the minority. The district also allows employees to send their children to schools near where they work.
The district already has received about 1,000 transfer applications for the upcoming school year.
About 360 are for program choices, and Truesdale said the district will review them to determine if any also meet the general transfer guidelines. If not, they will remain at their home school, she said.
IN OTHER ACTION:
The board voted: