School districts throughout Missouri have new directives from the state that provide leeway in how to handle a potential influx of students transferring from unaccredited school systems this fall.
The guidelines alleviate concerns that more teachers and classroom space would be needed if hundreds, if not thousands, of students from two failing north St. Louis County districts show up at higher performing schools across the region.
Instead, the guidelines say, school districts can call the shots on building assignments if crowding becomes a problem at any of their schools. If more students want to transfer into a particular school than space is available, districts must give each of those students an equal chance at the available slots, the guidelines say, potentially opening the door to lotteries.
The Missouri Board of Education reviewed the nine guidelines before the state education department distributed them Wednesday to school systems statewide.
They have taken a slight edge off the anxiety expressed by some area superintendents last week after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state's school transfer law. The law says students living in unaccredited districts may transfer to any school in the same or adjoining county at no cost to their families. The unaccredited district must cover tuition expenses, as well as provide transportation to at least one other district.
As a result, students in Riverview Gardens and Normandy would be eligible to enroll at any traditional public school in St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County this fall. Kansas City schools are also unaccredited. Children in St. Louis cannot take advantage of the law because the city school system has provisional accreditation.
The guidelines are nothing more than advice — schools are not required to abide by them. Some state lawmakers say that turning students away because of crowding would flout the part of the law that says transfer students may attend any school of their choice.
“They cannot shut the school house doors to these children for any reason,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, vice chairman of the House Education Committee.
How many students might transfer is anyone's guess.
So far, 51 students from Riverview Gardens and 10 from Normandy are on a waiting list to enroll in Hazelwood schools.
“Those are just names,” said Grayling Tobias, superintendent of Hazelwood schools. “We don't have specifics on grade level.”
Like most districts, Hazelwood is in the process of setting policies relating to class sizes and establishing tuition before enrolling transfer students. District officials will have to determine a process for checking residency claims. They're looking to Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis to centralize some of the enrollment logistics.
“The most important thing is that we are going to follow the essence of the law,” Tobias said. “We want to do what's best for kids.”
The Hazelwood district, which borders Riverview Gardens, will be preparing to accommodate every child who wants to transfer in, he said.
Most recent census figures show that more than 16,000 school-aged children live within the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts, though only about 60 percent of those children attend public schools there, according to East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
The rest may be attending private schools or are home- schooled and are just as eligible to transfer to public schools outside their school districts.
The uncertainty of how many might transfer has made planning for the 2013-14 school year difficult for Riverview and Normandy educators. Both districts will get new superintendents on July 1. Those superintendents will face figuring out how to put their districts on better paths while paying potentially hundreds — if not thousands — of tuition bills for students who've left their schools. They also could face hundreds of tuition bills for students at private schools who want the chance at a free public education at a high-performing school district.
“I'm worried about the private and parochial kids being involved in this,” said Don Senti, executive director of Cooperating School Districts. “Not for any philosophical reasons. I'm worried about who is going to pick up the tab.”
Normandy officials released a statement Wednesday concerning the high court ruling and its potential effects.
“This type of change in resources would impact any district that is in the process of planning and developing student programs, staff development, and all relevant support systems necessary to run the day to day operations,” the statement said.
The state guidelines recommend that parents notify Riverview Gardens or Normandy by Aug. 1 if they plan to transfer their children, whether the students are enrolled in public or private schools. If either school district regains accreditation before the end of next school year, the guidelines say the children should be allowed to finish the year at the school they've transferred to.
So far, nine parents have notified the Riverview Gardens central office they plan to transfer their children under the statute. Two of them have students in private schools. Hundreds more may be exploring their options.
“We'll take every day as it comes,” said Melanie Powell-Robinson, spokeswoman for Riverview Gardens.