Chester debates school choice

CHESTER -- Chester County school leaders are considering allowing parents to enroll their children in schools outside their local attendance zones.

Board members discussed the interdistrict transfers this week but didn't vote on the matter.

"Unfortunately, we have parents who will go to any length to enroll their child in the school of their preference," Chairwoman Denise Lawson said.

Some parents lie about where they live, leaders said. Others write letters begging for permission to send their children to another school.

Under the current policy, students must attend their designated local schools. Thus, Great Falls students can't attend Lewisville schools, and Lewisville kids can't go to Chester.

One exception is for district employees who have children and work at schools outside their local attendance zone. They can enroll their children at schools in the area where they work.

Another exception is for students who attend schools with a high percentage of pupils living in poverty and a history of failing to meet federal academic standards. By law, the district is required to offer children who attend those schools the option of going elsewhere.

The Chester school-choice debate comes at a time when the district faces issues of declining enrollment and the possibility of explosive growth in the future.

Leaders expect a population spike in the Lewisville area, which is where Lawson said she sees the most requests for transfers. That area, where several residential developments are expected in the next few years, "couldn't be a worse place" for additional students because some schools are full or nearly full, Lawson said.

Lawson said school officials must make a choice.

"Either we support the policy and we say, 'Absolutely no.' Or we change the policy," she said.

Superintendent Larry Heath said some districts allow interdistrict transfers but don't pay for outside students' transportation.

Leaders discussed a plan along those lines that would allow students to attend schools in other zones as long as there was sufficient space and local students got the first opportunity to attend their hometown schools.

Board member Jean Westbrook said she wants to offer more options to parents.

"Some of these students are going to private schools because they don't have a choice, and I personally am for choice," she said. "It opens the door and gives them another choice and perhaps some of the people that we've lost to private schools we can pull back in. And frankly, we need the student enrollment."

On Wednesday, Heath said he doesn't get many requests for transfers. He also pointed out that the district already offers some parents a choice with Chester Park Complex on S.C. 9.

Parents can choose among the site's three elementary schools: a year-round inquiry school that focuses on everyday life situations where students do their work independently or with classmates, and two schools that operate on traditional schedules and have their own themes of technology and the arts, respectively.