New state law changes open-enrollment rules for public schools

2013-09-22T00:00:00Z 2013-09-23T00:22:07Z New state law changes open-enrollment rules for public schoolsCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

The School City of Hammond is among a growing number of districts across the state that have opened its enrollment to boost student numbers.

The district is facing continued competition as a result of the growth of school choice. Families can use a school voucher to send their children to a private school using public tax dollars, or to a public charter school, which operates with fewer restrictions and more flexibility than a traditional public school. 

Opening enrollment to a student who lives outside its borders is one of the few ways a district can grow.

Public schools that open enrollment beyond their district are governed by a new state law. That law, which took effect in July, does not allow a school to deny a student's request to transfer for any reason except capacity. That means even a student with poor grades, test scores or behavior issues must be accepted.

Superintendent Walter Watkins said Hammond's school district has been losing about 100 students a year for the past couple of years. He said the district estimated this year's loss at about 135 students, with a current enrollment of 13,100 students.

Watkins said administrators also will look at those students who transferred out and determine where they went.

"Interestingly, we did not lose any students at the middle and high school level. We also have students who have come back to the district, mostly at the secondary level. We have had students transferring back to get into the Performing Arts Academy at Morton," Watkins said.

Highland Superintendent Brian Smith said Highland officials decided the district would not accept transfer students before he began July 1.

"When I was in North Newton we accepted transfer students," Smith said. "The new law is such that it doesn't allow districts to cherry-pick. In the past, districts would only take students who had a certain grade point average, no behavior problems and no attendance problems, giving them only the best and the brightest.

"I think the lawmakers decided they were not going to allow public schools to cherry-pick -- yet that's exactly what private schools do."

Earlier in the summer, Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko announced the district no longer would accept transfer students as a result of the new state law.

In the past, transfer students were required to have a B average and have passed ISTEP-Plus. Transfer students also could not have any major discipline problems. Sopko said the new law took away "local control."

Four years ago, Whiting's School Board approved an open enrollment policy to boost enrollment when Senate Bill 521 called for school districts with fewer than 1,000 students be consolidated with a district in the same county. Whiting Superintendent Sandra Martinez said the district plans to "continue its open enrollment policy."

East Porter County School Corp. Superintendent Rod Gardin said the district has had open enrollment for nine years or more. The district has 2,400 students, with about 100 transfer students.

The Metropolitan School District of Boone Township in Hebron, which depends on transfer students to grow the district, has 85 transfer students, Superintendent George Letz said.

"We're following the law and showing capacity. We do look at the student's discipline record, but we are fulfilling the requirements of the new legislation," he said. 

Duneland Superintendent Dave Pruis said the district has accepted transfer students since the 2009-10 school year. The current enrollment is estimated at a little more than 5,700, down 35 to 40 students from last year.

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