At their March 2 meeting, members of the District 65 School Board voted 7-2 to give the administration authority to use a “cap and transfer” policy to manage student enrollment for the 2010-11 school year. At this point, the authority is temporary; it lasts for one year. The two “no” votes were cast by Katie Bailey and Tracy Quattrocki.

As a prelude to the vote, administrators told Board members that they were now projecting, based on information gathered during the kindergarten registration process that took place Feb. 23-25, that it might not be necessary to transfer students under the cap and transfer policy in the coming school year. Superintendent Hardy Murphy nonetheless asked Board members to authorize the policy in case it was needed to manage student enrollment.

The Cap and Transfer Policy

Under the cap and transfer policy, class sizes would be capped at all schools, and students in excess of the cap would be transferred to other schools. Lora Taira, assistant director of Information Services for District 65, said the proposed policy would apply to incoming kindergartners and students new to the attendance area. It would not apply to students who are already attending their attendance-area school, she said. 

Under the latest version of the policy, when parents register their child for kindergarten, the registration forms are time- and date-stamped, which establishes a priority in position. Incoming kindergartners who have a sibling already enrolled in their attendance-area school would be given a priority if they were registered during the February registration.

If kindergarten class sizes at a school exceed 23 students (the number permitted under the class size guidelines for kindergarten), then requests for permissive transfer from that school or applications to attend a magnet school will be given priority in an effort to reduce the class sizes at the overcrowded school on a voluntary basis. If, however, class sizes still exceed 23 students after permissive transfers and magnet school applications are decided, then students who do not have a sibling priority and who registered last will be transferred to another school.

Parents of a child required to transfer will be given an option of either a magnet school or an adjacent attendance-area school if there is space in the school. 

The cap and transfer policy also applies to first through eighth grades, but only to new students. One significant difference is that the size of classes will be capped at the number of students permitted under the class-size guidelines, plus two. The number of students permitted under the current class-size guidelines at these grade levels is 25 at first grade, 26 at second and third grades, and 27 at fourth and fifth grades

Projected Impact on Schools

The District had initially projected that under current policies, classroom space would not be adequate to accommodate the kindergarten enrollment at Dewey, Lincolnwood and Willard schools. On Feb. 16, administrators projected that a total of 28 kindergarten students would be transferred from these schools in the 2010-11 school year to manage the projected enrollment: 15 from Dewey, 8 from Lincolnwood and 5 from Willard.

After the Board gave a nod to the cap and transfer policy on Feb. 16, many parents were concerned, and they lined up early to register their children for kindergarten in the Feb. 23-25 registration process to get a higher priority status under the policy. More than 120 parents lined up before 7 a.m. on Feb. 23, the start time of the registration process. Administrators said, “This year there were longer lines and wait times than in any prior year.”

Ms. Taira said 626 children were registered for kindergarten between Feb. 23 and 25, which she said is 81 percent of the total projected kindergarten enrollment. In prior years, about 65 percent of incoming kindergartners were registered in the February registration, she said.

She added that a high number of parents in the Dewey, Lincolnwood and Willard attendance areas applied to attend one of the magnet schools, to participate in the Two-Way Immersion program, or for a permissive transfer, specifically: 46 from Dewey, 20 from Lincolnwood, and 21 from Willard.

She said as long as the parents from these schools who submitted applications ultimately decided to enroll their kindergartner in a magnet school, a TWI program or a permissive transfer school, “We should not have any problem with the families that registered during those pre-dates being able to attend their attendance area school. …It’s all predicated on families accepting when they reply [to a notice that their application has been approved].”

Paul Brinson, chief information officer for the District, likewise said referring to Dewey, Lincolnwood and Willard schools, “In each of those schools, as we see it today and if the projections stand as we see them, if those who have indicated an intent in attending one of the other schools stay with that decision, then we very likely will move through this and nobody will be required to move.”

Board Comments and Reasons For Votes

Several Board members said they felt more comfortable with the cap and transfer strategy after hearing that administrators felt they could manage student enrollment next year without having to require students to transfer to other schools under that policy. Some Board members, however, were skeptical, postulating that some parents may have applied to attend a magnet school or to participate in the TWI program to hedge their bets and keep their options open in light of the cap and transfer policy.

Ms. Bailey said, “My concern with doing this capping is it unfairly punishes neighborhood schools and doesn’t come up with a long-term solution.” She pressed for details on how the cap and transfer policy would be implemented, including when parents would know for sure that their kindergarteners would be able to attend their attendance area school. She said she was voting “no” on the policy because “I don’t think there are clear procedures in place for follow-up.”

Ms. Quattrocki said she was voting “no” on the cap and transfer policy. She said, “I believe this measure will disproportionately impact those students who tend to register late in the process, which has historically been our low-income and minority students.” She added, “I do not believe this option offers the best long-term solution to our enrollment problems, and I do not agree with how this decision was reached.” She said the option should have been considered in the context of a thorough analysis of other alternatives, such as consolidating TWI at the magnet schools and a limited redistricting.

Kim Weaver said she was supporting the cap and transfer policy because it was a one-year solution. She said, “Magnet school development and program development is a long-term solution.”

Board President Keith Terry said his preference would be to add classrooms to some schools, but said that would not address the overcrowding issues for the 2010-11 school year, and he was concerned about the cost in the current economic climate. He too said the cap and transfer policy was a short-term solution.

While many Board members said they wanted to develop a long-term solution on how to manage projected increases in student enrollment, no decision has been made on when they will begin discussions on developing a long-term plan.

At the Board’s March 15 meeting, it appeared a majority of the Board wanted to defer the discussions until after a budget for the 2010-11 school year was prepared. The Board decided by consensus that Ms. Bailey and Ms. Quattrocki would put together a list of the potential options to manage overcrowding, together with an assessment of the information needed to evaluate those options. It is anticipated the Board will decide how to proceed after reviewing that information.

Potential Impact on Low-Income, Minority Students

School Board member Tracy Quattrocki raised a concern that the cap and transfer policy would “”disproportionately impact those students who tend to register late in the process, which has historically been our low-income and minority students.”” She also expressed concern that if a disproportionate number of low-income, minority students were required to transfer out of Dewey School, it would impact the demographics of Dewey School.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said he thought this was a “”legitimate”” concern. He said one solution would be to set aside a proportionate number of kindergarten spaces at Dewey School for students who reside in the Fifth Ward and who were in Dewey’s attendance area. “”I cannot think of another way to address that issue of providing an insurance policy for diversity at Dewey,”” said Dr. Murphy.

This approach would be similar to a provision that ensures students in the Willard Island (a non-contiguous geographic area in the Fifth Ward that is part of Willard School’s attendance area) with 20 percent of the kindergarten slots at Willard School.

On March 2, the Board did not vote on whether to include a geographic set-aside with respect to Dewey School.

Dr. Murphy subsequently told the RoundTable that the District’s attorney advised against using a geographic set-aside for Dewey School, on the basis it may be construed to be a set-aside based on race. He said, though, that the attorney advised that a set-aside could be made for low-income students. Dr. Murphy said, however, that implementing a set-aside for low-income students would be problematical because the District would not be able to determine which students qualified as low-income until August. This, in turn, would delay the time parents would know for sure where their children would be going to school, and impact staffing assignments, he said.

Dr. Murphy added that staff analyzed the demographics of students who have registered for kindergarten at Dewey, Lincolnwood and Willard Schools, and based on this data he said, “”It doesn’t appear a disparate impact pattern will emerge.””

According to data provided by Paul Brinson, chief information officer, on a composite basis about 12% of the kindergarten students who have registered for those three schools are African-American, and 13% are Hispanic. This year, the kindergarten classes at those schools are 15% African-American and 10% Hispanic.