School board wants consistent rules for school choice

Kevin Patterson’s third-grade daughter has found success in the Indian River School District, and he looked forward to sending his son to kindergarten this fall. But, living outside the district, the boy isn’t guaranteed a spot, and the school has recommended that the school board reject his school choice application. After all, the Kindergarten Center is filling up faster than usual, and they haven’t even entered the heavy enrollment period of August.

“We have our daughter in the school system now, and she’s been there since kindergarten. She’s scheduled to go into third grade,” Patterson said. “If our son doesn’t get approved, we have to pull her out of the school system and return to the home school.”

The Pattersons are just one family that won’t know if their child is attending a school in the Indian River School District until August. The school board at its most recent meeting tabled discussion of their application.

Although they consider it an honor that so many students want to leave their home districts for IRSD schools, the Board of Education is floundering to decide just who can come. The board has been questioning school recommendations because of school capacity concerns and perceived issues with fairness to students.

At the end of their most recent discussion, the board members agreed they would like to form a School Choice Committee to explore the issue in depth, without repeating the same conversation at each board meeting.

School-choice applications have traditionally been cut-and-dry. Principals review student applications and make a recommendation to the school board. Students are either accepted or rejected, based on building capacity, attendance or discipline history. The board has typically confirmed a principal’s recommendations in a matter of seconds, no questions asked.

But for the past several months, with growing populations and shrinking budgets, the board members have more closely examined those would-be students.

The IRSD currently has a school-choice policy with 14 levels of student priorities, including whether they live in the district, whether they already have siblings attending a district school and whether their parents are employed by the district.

But the policy doesn’t provide for consistency across all schools. Once a school population reaches 85 percent of the building’s or program’s total capacity, state law allows schools to reject school-choice applications. But it’s not required. So, some schools are still welcoming students when they’re past 85 percent capacity, or even when the school is completely full, since the individual program isn’t full.

“How can we reject people due to capacity?” asked Board of Education Member Heather Statler, saying she was frustrated that a policy isn’t being applied uniformly across the district. “The board needs to work on refining that clarity to better make those decisions.”

Although no formal vote was taken July 24 to create a committee, the idea was well-liked, and Preston A. Lewis — administrator of student services, who oversees student choice and has borne the brunt of the board’s recent questioning — said several school administrators had expressed an interest in serving by the meeting’s end.

“My opinion is that we should all be … on the same page,” agreed Lewis.

The timing fits, since the 2018-2019 school-choice application process opens this fall, giving the district time to make changes before applications open up. It is not expected to be a speedy process. The committee and board need to deliberate exactly how to balance the State’s requirements with local desires and school programs.

Board Member James “Jim” Hudson admitted that his opinions of school choice keep changing because of new information and situations each month.

“We’ve got siblings in the district, and now we’re telling them, ‘Now you can’t bring your younger kids.’ … It seems to me we have not gotten enough information as we go through this to make common-sense decisions,” Hudson said.

For instance, some rising freshmen who live outside the district were recently rejected from attending an Indian River School District high school after attending the Southern Delaware School of the Arts (grades K-8) on school-choice for eight years, Hudson said. “It doesn’t seem quite right if they’ve been with us.”

Board Member Rodney Layfield said he understood that frustration, but he also believed school principals know what’s best for their school, so the board should trust their recommendations each month.

The board should trust principals, but they also need consistent rules for each building, concluded Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr.

“I couldn’t honestly sit here tonight and honestly say that we follow those guidelines [consistently],” Hudson mused.

Special programs also throw a wrench in the works — especially as, overall, the northern schools are growing far faster than southern schools.

The Georgetown Kindergarten Center only serves one grade, so it’s the only kindergarten program that doesn’t guarantee out-of-district children access to an IRSD school through fifth grade. Sussex Central High School’s acclaimed International Baccalaureate program practically needs more students, but the building is over capacity by 135 students.

“I still have difficulty explaining to anyone in the public why that building is so crowded and we keep taking more and more students,” Statler said. She said she is proud that the IB program is attracting distant students, “but I’m struggling immensely with balancing that with that building being so filled.”

The board accepted principals’ recommendations for most of its schools but tabled discussion of the Kindergarten Center and Georgetown Middle School (where capacity may have changed after some rooms were switched around).

Meanwhile, because they have chosen a school through school choice, the Pattersons said they hold their daughter to a higher standard and feel she’s accomplished that level of success.

“We’d like to keep our kids in this district. … The most important thing to us is that they go to a good district,” Patterson said. “We’re hoping they can find some room for our son.”

Indian River’s school choice policy is titled JECC-A “School Choice” and is located online at (click “Parents & Students” and then “Policy Manual, then “Policies – J – Students”).

The next IRSD Board of Education meeting is Monday, Aug. 28, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.