Transfers aren’t the issue — declining enrollment is

February 25, 2019

Creating a transfer preference for parents who want their children near them while they work is not necessarily a bad policy for Santa Fe Public Schools. That’s what happened last week when the Board of Education voted 3-2 to change the district’s interzone transfer policy.

But board member Maureen Cashmon, who along with Lorraine Price voted against the measure, makes an excellent point. The more preferences allowed, the fewer choices for average parents. “I think we’re making it harder and harder for people to apply for interzone transfers,” Cashmon said.

Currently, the district allows a preference for students who want to leave an F-rated school, attend school with a sibling or go to a school where a parent or guardian works. Of course, since the state is working toward eliminating the A-F school grading system, we’re not sure what an “F” will mean come transfer time.

With the new adjustment, children whose parents work downtown would have a leg up at getting accepted at schools in the area that are in demand by parents who live outside the school zones. What’s more, the policy as approved leaves wiggle room; parents who work near a school would have priority over transfer applicants who do not — but there’s no specifics in the policy defining what “near” means.

To be applied equitably, the policy needs an amendment. We’d suggest something like this: Parents who work in the school zone of their preferred transfer target should get priority. That makes the preference apply equally to all applicants.

Kate Noble, who proposed the policy change, believes E.J. Martinez Elementary School could benefit from a policy favoring children of parents who work near a school. The midtown elementary school is near medical facilities, including Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. But it’s not clear that the new policy would turn around a trend of declining enrollment at E.J. Most transfer requests would be accepted there, even without the preference.

E.J. has been targeted for closure in recent years because of the declining enrollment and concerns about the condition of its facilities.

The preference will make it harder for parents to win slots at schools like Carlos Gilbert Elementary or Wood Gormley Elementary, both near major downtown workplaces. That’s why Cashmon was worried about it: Giving first dibs to parents who work near a popular transfer target could squeeze out other parents. There are only so many slots open, after all.

Still, we don’t disagree that it is a good thing for parents to be able send their children to schools near their workplaces. Anyone who has to leave work to pick up a sick child would rather go a few blocks than five miles.

However, health care workers — right now, anyway — aren’t rushing to the school nearest the hospital; this policy may not help redistribute students from crowded facilities to those with ample space.

We’d like to see school administrators and board members do more brainstorming — involving parents, teachers and others in school communities — to see how best to attract students to schools with empty seats. Start by surveying parents of school-age children who work at Christus, or at nearby clinics and doctors’ offices. Find out where their children are going to school. What would attract them to a school near their work?

Gather more facts to not just shore up the policy, but to adopt strategies that will boost enrollment at schools that need more students. The transfer policy, while a good one as it affects E.J. Martinez, only addresses a symptom. The malady is that too many parents don’t feel great about their neighborhood schools, whether the issue is academics or something else.

The tough challenge for Santa Fe Public Schools, which faces urban district problems in a medium-size city setting, is how to make people feel better about the schools nearest their homes. As leaders deal with that broader problem, they still must deal with attracting students to schools like E.J. Martinez, with declining enrollment.

Given that the entire district is losing enrollment — at 12,350 students, it’s down about 240 from last year — looking for innovative ways to attract students is essential. Schools such as the tiny east-side Acequia Madre Elementary, another popular target for parents who seeking transfers, years ago added art and music to the curriculum. Over the years, such extras drew parents.

Since 2014-15, school district enrollment has declined by around 750 students — not as many children were born during the recession, so kindergarten classes are smaller. There is competition at the middle and high school level from charter schools, and Santa Fe has a number of private schools as well.

Losing enrollment means losing money; the 240 student decline could mean a loss of $2.5 million in the 2019-20 budget. In a district where every penny counts, that is worrisome. Meanwhile, the school shuffle that is a part of Santa Fe educational life continues. Transfer, anyone?