Tough choices ahead for county school district

Beaufort County School Districts leaders are creating hard feelings among parents by their passage of two opposing policies. And the problem could grow in the near future.

Consider the two policies:

  • The first requires each school to offer at least one special academic program, be it Montessori, International Baccalaureate, arts-infused programs, language-immersion programs, etc. Schools that don't already offer one must do so by this coming school year or the next. Students who don't live near a particular school can still attend it if they're interested in the special program it offers.

    Such programs, called choice programs, are increasingly popular with S.C. parents and educators. The approach gives each school a chance to develop a niche (and increase its student enrollment) while giving families that long sought goal in public education -- the choice to participate in programs that speak to their students' specific needs and interests without enrolling in a private school and paying private school tuition. (In fact, S.C. public schools' embrace of the choice movement has arguably helped to stave off repeated political efforts to give state tax credits and vouchers to families who send students to private schools.)

  • A second policy prohibits out-of-zone transfers into any school already at 90 percent of its enrollment capacity. The rule makes sure there's room for growth within a school's zone so that there is a comfortable learning environment.

Both sound like solid policies, right? But they don't align. Take, for example, the Chinese language-immersion program at Hilton Head Island Elementary School. More than 10 students were denied transfers into the school next year despite nine open spots in the Chinese class for first graders. Several of the students were interested in participating in the immersion program, but they won't get a chance because the school is at capacity.

So the district is encouraging students to participate in choice programs -- even going so far as to require every school to offer one -- but turning eligible students away because of a second rule that limits overall enrollment.

And the problem could potentially get worse. As every school adopts a choice program, the odds increase that more students will be turned away from more schools.

We hope the school board won't wait to see if that happens. Instead, a frank discussion is needed now to single out one policy as the more important one. The other policy must assume a secondary role with additional flexibility given in the way it is administered.

We wish such a talk had taken place earlier this year as district leaders re-worked attendance lines. But, for some reason, that didn't happen.

One easy step could be taken to help alleviate the problem. The district could offer the most popular choice programs at more than one school. This would not only allow for more students to participate, but would also give the district a new tool to direct student growth to its least populated schools.

In fact, the district successfully did this at Beaufort Elementary School a few years ago. The school was about half full until it adopted its science, technology, math and engineering program in 2008 and a Montessori program in 2011. For the coming school years, about 150 students are transferring into the choice programs.

Duplicating popular programs is a start. But long term, the district must set clear policy on which is more important: Leaving room to grow in every school or offering families choice.

Let's hope that discussion happens before more parents discover they don't' have as much choice as they thought.