LUMBERTON — Several elementary schools in the Public Schools of Robeson County are currently operating at or over their capacity, yet additional students pour into their classrooms because of the Board of Education’s accommodating transfer policy.
During to 2011-12 school year, 1,747 parents or guardians have requested that the school board transfer their son or daughter to a school outside of the district that their address designates; of those, 1,560, or nearly 90 percent, have been approved by a majority vote of the board.
Critics of the policy say the schools do not have enough classrooms to seat these students nor does the system have the money to hire additional teachers for the nearly 65 additional classes that have been created.
Prospect Elementary in Maxton, which already had about 900 students, added 153 transfer students so far this school year. Tanglewood Elementary in Lumberton has added 130, or nearly 25 percent of its population, through transfers.
Prospect Elementary’s kindergarten classes average about 23 students, while the state averages about 20; its fifth through eighth grades average about 26 students per class while the state average is 21. Each grade level at Tanglewood, which teaches grades kindergarten through four, averages about three to five students more than the state.
At Union Chapel Elementary, students begin eating lunch about 10:30 a.m. and end about 2 p.m. because there is not enough room in the cafeteria to seat all the students. But Prospect and Tanglewood consistently have the most student transfers of any in the system, according to school board members Robert Deese, who represents Prospect Elementary in District 4, and Dwayne Smith, who represents Tanglewood in District 8.
Deese said that capacity problems at schools like Union Chapel can also be linked to the growth of the community.
“It has been our policy to accommodate a parent’s request,” Deese said. “But where it’s overcapacity, we need to back off.”
Smith said that this accommodation on the part of the board has “gradually gotten worse and worse.”
The issue prompted a letter to The Robesonian’s editor by Sarah Rich, the president of the PTA at Tanglewood Elementary.
“Tanglewood presently has four kindergarten classes with an average class size of 25 students,” Rich said in her letter. “This average exceeds the state’s limit of an average of 21 students per class.
“The growth in Tanglewood’s student body is due largely to the fact that the School Board has approved a large number of out of district transfers,” she wrote. “Currently, over twenty percent of our students live outside of the Tanglewood District. Even in the face of our overcrowding, the School Board at its meeting on Tuesday, December 13 approved additional transfers to Tanglewood (including another kindergartener) overriding our principal’s recommendation.”
Smith worries about the effect on educating students.
“I’m not against the transfers,” he said. “But you can’t expect to get the same results at the end of the year with less money, more kids in the classroom and teachers assistants sent home.”
Rich said that the school board should consider capping the number of transfers or it should provide additional resources to the schools that are receiving the additional students.
Smith suggested adding a transfer fee in order to pay for additional teachers or infrastructure improvements to add more classrooms.
A fee of $300 would have earned the school system more than $450,000 this year.
According to Dr. Walter Jackson, assistant superintendent of administration and technology, a parent must apply for a transfer with the desired school’s principal, who then makes a recommendation to the board based on the space available in the child’s grade level. The final decision is left to a vote by the board, which sometimes overrides a principal’s recommendation.
Jackson said that reasons for the requests vary from having the child go to a school closer to a parent’s work place to a desire to place that child in a better-performing school.
“Every school should be made desirable,” Smith said.
Deese said many parents have requested transfer to a school near a grandparent so that child can be dropped off at a home with a secondary caregiver while the parent is working.
“I’m very aware of people’s need to work in this economy and their need to keep a job,” he said. “When they go to work, they need to feel secure that their child is taken care of. A child should never have to go home alone.”
Deese said the board is going to have to start making hard decisions.
“My sole concern is that we get the resources to accommodate the students we have,” Rich said. “I’m not against transferring, just not to the point of overcapacity. This issue will hit hard next year for our third-graders.”
She said that the school currently has five third-grade classes, one of which was added at the beginning of the year and meets in the music room, but there are only four fourth-grade classrooms.
Rich said in her letter that a mobile unit had been promised Tanglewood to accommodate the influx, but after thousands of dollars were spent toward that effort, the state Department of Instruction didn’t approve the unit.
“Where are they going to go?” she said. “We’re putting our kids at risk of not getting the education they need to succeed.”
— Reach staff writer Ali Rockett at 910-272-6127 or email@example.com.