School-choice program evaluated by Mehlville

Before 2007, school choice was granted ‘carte blanche’

By BURKE WASSON

Faced with concerns and questions from parents, Mehlville School District officials have outlined typically acceptable conditions to be approved for the district’s school-choice program.

Established by the Board of Education in 1994, school choice was initiated as a way to allow parents to request that their children be transferred to another school within the district.

Typically approved situations recently identified by officials are child-care issues, siblings attending the same school and a family moving within the district when a pupil already attends one school.

“If a child has been going to Wohlwend Elementary for three years and then the parents move within the district and they feel a real connection to that school, we always make every effort possible to try to grant that to them if they choose to finish out their elementary career at that school,” Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Brian Lane recently told school-board members.

But before 2007, school choice was granted virtually “carte blanche,” according to Lane. This created overcrowding in some schools.

District officials also identified situations not subject to approval, which include athletics, friends and a “perception that one school is better than another.”

Despite these exceptions, 426 pupils currently take part in the school-choice program and an estimated 75 percent of school-choice applications were approved for the 2008-2009 school year.

Superintendent Terry Noble said a recent report done by Lane substantiates that the district is reasonably using the program.

“The information presented in the report confirms that we are implementing the school-choice program as well as we can under the circumstances,” he said. “You can talk about schools’ imbalance in enrollments and the fact that we don’t have a perfect feeder system with an equal number of schools. We’ve got 10 elementary schools feeding four middle schools.

“You know you’re not going to be able to send every kid from every elementary to the same middle school. And then that just perpetuates later at the middle school when you don’t have equal-size middle schools. You can’t just say well, we’re going to take these two and send them to Oakville and send these two to Mehlville. You can’t do that. They’re not equal.”

Mehlville’s current policy is to grant school choice only in “situations based on extreme hardship.” Mehlville also follows state standards of utilizing a maximum of 25 pupils per class and has required “acceptable academics, attendance and behavior” as well as the condition that parents are to provide transportation to school.

Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, school choice is required if a school is “identified for improvements or identified as persistently dangerous,” a pupil “has been the victim of a violent criminal offense” or if a pupil has needs due to a disability.

But some district parents still view the school-choice policy as unfair. Parent Tim Parker told board members at their most recent meeting that his son has already been separated once from his friends and will be again when he is of high-school age.

“The situation some kids at Bernard (Middle School) are in, it’s just kind of heartbreaking,” he said. “A lot of these kids went to Bernard Elementary. In third grade, my son was taken away from a lot of friends with others and put at Oakville (Elementary). Some kids went to Blades (Elementary). Now these kids are all back together.

“And for the second time, a handful of them are looking at being taken away from their friends and sent to Mehlville versus Oakville. My son on Friday nights, he’s not at Mehlville High School. He’s at Oakville High School watching football with his friends. Our neighborhood is in Oakville …

“I know Mehlville’s overcrowded and Oakville’s overcrowded and the situation at Oakville is worse from what I understand. But I just don’t understand why these kids are being treated merely as numbers. It’s just kind of wrong on a real base level. We haven’t moved. Yet my son is going to be torn away from his school population twice.”

Lane told board members that the district will not grant school-choice requests based on friends or “the perception that one school is better than another.”

“That is a huge issue that we deal with in terms of that disparity,” Lane said. “… I think many people are knowledgeable enough that they no longer put that in their request … But I think it’s hard to dispute that we’re still dealing with perception among certain schools that one is offering something that another is not perhaps.”

Lane characterized the school-choice program as “workable” and noted that the vast majority of applicants are accepted.

“School choice is an effective program,” he said. “I’m not saying it works for every community member. But currently, it works for 426 families in our district that makes life, in many cases, considerably easier for them … I think there’s a perception out there in the community that we have clamped down to the point of we’re not approving school choice. And I want to dispute that. Just this last year, 75 percent were approved.

“That worked for the majority of those people who applied. And the ones that weren’t approved were those kinds of situations where I talked about where it is not in the best interest of schools, class sizes and buildings. These were not decisions made lightly. We know how this impacts families.”