Carroll County residents approach Board of Education member Marsha Herbert everywhere from high school games to the grocery store, she said, and they’re fired up about athletics.
The board vice president said people have been voicing concerns about what they feel might be abuses of the Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) transfer policy, which for the most part lets students choose freely between county high schools. Herbert passed on some community members’ fears of certain county teams stacked with transfer talent while non-transfer student-athletes sit on benches, plus smaller programs struggling to recruit players.
During a work session earlier this month, the board discussed the CCPS school choice, or out of district, transfer policy. It was overhauled in 2016 to loosen restrictions on students moving between schools, partly in the hopes of drawing students back in the public school system from private schools and home school. Other favorable outcomes, board members and staff said, have been the ability to transfer into a school because of academic programs like foreign languages or out of a school to get a fresh start after a social or mental health struggle.
The question is whether an “unintended consequence” of the policy had been an abuse of the system related to athletic teams.
The board asked CCPS staff to look into how many transfer students participated in high school athletics at their transfer schools.
They will also prepare a list of potential actions the board could take to present at a future meeting. They will list pros and cons, and try to predict “unintended consequences” that could result from any change to the policy.
Board of Education President Donna Sivigny said, “Let’s take the anecdotes out of it and actually look at the numbers,” before declaring there is abuse of out-of-district transfers.
The board chose to focus on athletics because of community passion surrounding the topic and because the selective nature of sports teams limits the number of students who can participate.
“I hate recruiting. But I do think kids and families need to have free choice, too," Board member Ken Kiler said. "If they want to go to something better and they want to do the driving? Maybe they should. But in our public schools, we have students within their schools sitting on the bench because this is happening. And that’s upsetting.”
Board members agreed that they did not want to go back to the pre-2016 policies.
Herbert said she does not want to close the transfer opportunity to students with a legitimate reason to transfer, but with the potential athletics issue, “I see it hurting the communities. School is a community and we need that,” she said.
Superintendent Steve Lockard asked the board to keep in mind that causation does not mean correlation. Not every out-of-district student who plays a sport transferred for that sports program, he said.
The board saw a presentation on the pre-2016 policy versus the current one. CCPS is one of eight Maryland school systems with school choice.
Schools can be classified as “closed” or “open” due to their enrollment capacity numbers. Freedom Elementary, Sykesville Middle and Manchester Valley High schools were closed at the beginning of the transfer application process this year. East Middle and Runnymede Elementary closed by June.
The only factor needed for a student’s family to transfer them into an open school is the ability to provide transportation.
It is possible to transfer into a closed school, but only under specific circumstances laid out in the policy. At Manchester Valley, the only closed high school, 41 students were approved and transferred in during the 2018-19 school year, according to a CCPS graph. The school had 36 students transfer out.
Winters Mill had the most students utilize the open transfer policy with 85 last year, but also had 79 transfer out. Westminster had the most students transfer out with 115 while 74 transferred in. South Carroll saw the least open movement, with 26 students coming and 15 leaving.
For the past few years, it has been optional for families to provide a reason for transfer when moving into an open school. The board asked Wednesday for staff to add that question back into the application. It would not affect the decision of whether to allow the student to transfer into an open school, they said.
The previous policy required “exceptional” staff time and resources investigating transfer applications, according to Karl Streaker, director of student services. It could lead to staff having to ask students to prove things like whether they were legitimately being bullied, said Cindy McCabe, chief of schools.
Jason Anderson, chief of academics, equity, and accountability, spoke about virtual learning opportunities, which CCPS hopes to focus on in the coming years. They hope these will bring a greater range of academic opportunities to students even when they are faced by commuting distances or limited staff sizes that would normally prevent them from taking a certain course.