Beaufort County Board of Education members say they want to provide more academic choices to parents and students by creating specialty programs.
But the board's schoolwide enrollment cap is preventing some students, who live outside the attendance zones of the schools where the programs are offered, from participating.
"Many families are wanting to take advantage of school choice for the coming years, but they are not able to do so because of the enrollments in those schools," board member Jim Beckert said, calling the situation "very unfortunate."
In recent years, the board and school district officials have broadened academic offerings to include more Montessori, International Baccalaureate, arts-infused and language-immersion programs, among others. About half of the district's 30 schools will have choice programs next school year, and most, if not all, will have one by 2015-16.
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But even as it expanded the number of choices, the board also decided to strictly enforce a rule that prevents out-of-zone transfers into any school already at 90 percent of its enrollment capacity.
The idea was to allow room for growth within the schools' zones and maintain a comfortable learning environment, Beckert said. Board members agree they don't want crowded schools, but they now find the cap is impeding choice.
"With that 90 percent cap, we could have a situation where there is space within a choice program, when the school itself is overpopulated," superintendent Jeff Moss said.
Such is the case, for example, with the Chinese language-immersion program at Hilton Head Island Elementary School.
More than 10 students were denied transfers into the school next year, even though there are nine slots available in next year's Chinese class for first grade -- the grade in which students must join the program, according to principal Jill McAden. It is unknown if all the students were interested in the program, but at least several were, she said.
"It doesn't make sense for the district to say they will allow these options and create these choices, but not give everyone an opportunity to take advantage of them," said Elizabeth Klein, whose son can't transfer into the Chinese program from Okatie Elementary School.
McAden said she is trying to recruit students within her school's attendance zone into the immersion program's empty seats.
Even if the programs are not full, the district is committed to offering the programs for those who want to participate, according to the district's head of student services, Gregory McCord.
"We're not trying to dissuade anyone from any particular school or from participating in any particular program," he said. "But if the school is full, we can't continue to add to it, because every little bit we add takes away from our level of effectiveness."
One way to stem the problem is to offer special academic programs at more than one school, McCord said, making it easier for interested students to find a place to participate.
The district also will attempt to strategically place popular programs in schools with the most vacant seats, allowing more students to transfer in, Moss said.
This has been considered for Battery Creek High School, which has more than 100 students transferring out of the school next year. The district plans to make it a hub for popular career and technical education.
A similar approach was taken at Beaufort Elementary School several years ago. The school was around half full before adopting a science, technology, math and engineering program in 2008 and Montessori instruction in 2011. For the upcoming school year, Beaufort Elementary has about 150 students transferring into its choice programs.
Red Cedar Elementary School principal Kathy Corley said both goals -- expanding choice and avoiding crowding -- are important, and the district will have to work at finding the balance. The Bluffton school hopes to implement a projects-based choice program in the 2015-16 school year.
"True choice is making sure that every child gets to the school they want to go to and participate in the program they want to be in," she said. "That is hard to make happen because of expenses and space, but I think we all are committed to making that happen."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.