Transfer rate: Are Charlottesville schools leaving city kids behind?

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Teacher Robyn Davis requested the city’s only trailer, aka learning cottage, for her preschoolers at Greenbrier Elementary, and says they can be a little louder and feel part of a smaller, age-appropriate community. Photo courtesy of Beth Cheuk Teacher Robyn Davis requested the city’s only trailer, aka learning cottage, for her preschoolers at Greenbrier Elementary, and says they can be a little louder and feel part of a smaller, age-appropriate community. Photo courtesy of Beth Cheuk

By Natalie Jacobsen

Recent Charlottesville City Schools data suggests a trend among its elementary schools: Non-resident students, typically from Albemarle County and colloquially referred to as “county kids,” are surpassing resident students in transfer rates across the school system. And that’s putting city kids in standalone modular classrooms to handle the excess capacity, says a former Charlottesville School Board chair.

Not so, says city schools spokesperson Beth Cheuk. “We have exactly one trailer.” Or “learning cottage,” as it’s known in educationese.

The enrollment of non-resident students is not new. “In 1983, enrollment for resident students was declining,” says Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins. School administrators calculated how a tuition-based program would boost the bottom line and the school board approved the enrollment of non-resident students.

For the 2016-2017 school year, of 292 transfer students, 210  paid tuition: $1,337 a year for K-8 students and $1,701 for high school students (additional siblings get a price break). The 82 children of city employees don’t pay tuition.

“One of our goals is to keep expanding, and that means accepting non-resident students,” says School Board Chair Juandiego Wade. “If out-of-district kids want to come to our schools and pay tuition, we will welcome them.”

Within the city, students may transfer to another school—if that school’s principal agrees.

“Most of the time, [transfers are requested] for child care reasons,” says Atkins. “Maybe their babysitter or after-school care is located in another school zone, and the parents want their child to stay with the same sitter or facility.” Transportation can be another factor in granting a transfer, and non-resident students do not have a city bus option, she says.

Last year, Greenbrier Elementary reached capacity—a maximum of 24 students per classroom—and installed a $70,000 trailer-like classroom outside of the school at the request of a preschool teacher, says Cheuk.

“The modular classroom is very modern, clean and even has a better bathroom than the school,” says Wade. “We are one of the fastest-growing districts in Virginia, and using these modulars is not uncommon.”

Seven classrooms in elementary schools were added this school year.

Former school board chair and city councilor Dede Smith says that was to accommodate the incoming non-resident students.

Cheuk puts that number at two additional classes to accommodate non-resident students, whose enrollment is flat. She says the school system’s 3 percent growth is fueled by residents, not non-residents, whose numbers are declining.

Smith contends the learning cottage at Greenbrier houses city kids, and not a single “county kid.”

“The preschool classes are held there,” she says. “They are isolated from the rest of the school. Even the school doors automatically lock, so the students stand outside after class, waiting for someone inside to let them back in so they can go home.”

Smith also expresses concerns for the in-district student transfers who were rejected.

“Last year, of the 65 resident transfer requests, 33 were by white-identified students, and nearly 100 percent of requests were granted. Of the 27 black-identified students, that acceptance rate dropped to under 50 percent.” The other five “Asian” or “unidentified” students were accepted.

“That is unacceptable,” says Smith. The city “is blatantly telling resident kids that they are not a priority, especially black students.” Of all city students, 42 percent are white and 33 percent are black.

“For what it’s worth, we do not ask a student’s race on the transfer application,” says Atkins. However, information on a student is accessible by any principal. “Last year was an anomaly in the acceptance rates,” she says. “In some cases, some families applied more than once, so some numbers are repetitive.”

“Saying we prioritize by race is disrespectful in my eyes and goes against everything I stand for,” says Wade.

In 2013-2014, 100 percent of black students’ and 98 percent of white students’ transfer requests were granted, and more recently in the current 2017-2018 year, 100 percent of white students were allowed to transfer, while 89 percent of black students were, according to the city.

“When you make decisions like we do, not everyone is going to like it,” says Wade. “I’m willing to take the hit. We do our best to reach every student.”

A lot of a student’s success depends on parents, says Wade: “Some economically disadvantaged homes may not be able to provide a quiet space or materials or parental help with homework.”

“More and more pressure is put on families, even though they may not be able to provide,” says Smith. City schools need to take responsibility and provide more resources for those who do not have it at home, she says. “But first, they need to return to prioritizing the resident kids, as their application policy suggests. They need to spend their budget on helping these students excel, not buy trailers to make room for non-residents.”

By the numbers

Charlottesville City Schools

Budget: $78.5 million

Resident students: 4,313

Annual spending per student: $16,840

Non-resident transfer students: 292

Tuition: $1,337 for K-8 , $1,701 for high school students

Learning cottages: 1

Courtesy Charlottesville City Schools

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