‘Outliers’ catch a break
High school district policy change allows outlying middle schoolers to attend same high school as their classmates
Eleven-year-old Steven Phemester approached Trustee Kevin Brown after the Oct. 23 El Dorado Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting and thanked him for “letting me stay with my friends when I get to high school.”
“I was touched,” said Brown the next day. “I mean, that’s what it’s all about, making things better for individual kids, but I haven’t had one come up to me and say thanks like that. It was great.”
Steven is a sixth-grader at Marina Village Middle School. His friends will attend Oak Ridge High School in a couple of years. Thanks to Brown’s 95-5 policy, approved unanimously by the board that Wednesday night, Steven will go with them.
Steven is an “outlier.” His family lives in the “Serrano finger,” a northwesterly jutting peninsula of the Ponderosa High School boundary carved out of the Oak Ridge High boundaries in 2005 to keep enrollment within the growing school’s capacity.
Serrano’s Greenbriar, Toll Brothers and Shea Homes subdivisions weren’t built yet, so sending those future families to Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs was the path of least resistance in 2005.
Most buyers of those new homes assumed their kids would attend Oak Ridge. When they realized the situation, some applied for transfers but encountered an inflexible district transfer policy, actively enforced by Assistant Superintendent Steve Volmer.
Former El Dorado Union High School District Superintendent Sherry Smith and her board stood by policy as written, citing the need to balance school enrollment.
Steven’s mom, Catie Phemester, saw the writing on the wall three years ago and started exploring options, but said she hit the same resistance as her predecessors.
She backed challengers Todd White and Kevin Brown for board seats contested in 2010. Both were victorious. Brown took up her cause, cobbling together a proposed policy change that would address outliers like Steven without incurring a district-wide boundary realignment.
The 95-5 policy applies to students in “feeder” middle schools, those with at least 95 percent residing within one high school’s boundaries.
The balance of students who reside in outlying areas will be allowed an intra-district transfer to attend high school with their peers, unless the target high school has reached 99 percent of capacity.
Superintendent Chris Hoffman replaced Smith, who retired. He brought the matter to the board’s attention informally in 2011 and again in May 2012, then agendized it in July, asking the board to take a fresh look at school boundaries and the intra-district transfer policy based on how the housing market has unfolded, with an eye to several related attendance issues.
Hoffman trod gently, begging Phemester’s patience, promising a proposal by year’s end. He met that commitment and then some, ferrying the 95-5 policy change through the approval process over the next several months, avoiding crossfire from a board led by Board President Tim Cary whose business and personal demands left him rarely able to attend a full meeting, despite being the only board member allowed to add an item to the agenda.
Hoffman balanced the three senior board members’ reluctance to soften the transfer policy with the frustration of his two junior trustees over their board’s seeming reluctance to act, period.
White said at the July 2012 meeting, “We’ve been talking about this since I got here.” He then beseeched his board to “present something that’s real, not just say we care but actually put a step forward and do something about it,” inciting a brief verbal flap with Cary.
Hoffman also saw the patiently determined Phemester at most board meetings, often with friends who she’d organized as the Community for Educational Alignment.
Phemester backed 95-5 after confirming its consequences. She examined the projections and capacities in the December 2011 demographic analysis and predicted that her neighborhood would send 10 freshmen to Oak Ridge annually, on average, well within capacity.
Local press reported Phemester’s plight and related enrollment issues in late July.
The board warmed to a softening of the transfer policy in August, following a presentation from Volmer that confirmed a negligible impact of 95-5 on enrollment for the next couple of years, with a slight increase in outliers during school year 2014-15.
In September Volmer presented refined projections and outlier maps to the board. His final data showed eight potential transfers to Oak Ridge in 2013-14, 12 in 2014-15. Those are partially offset by three potential transfers to Ponderosa in 2012-14, seven in 2014-15.
The board changed the percentages to 94-6 starting in school year 2015-16 to head off an anticipated bump in outliers, and also added wording to allow the transfer if a student meets the requirement in seventh or eighth grade. Carey suggested that the policy be periodically reviewed as student population changes.
Brown later conjectured that the largest threat to 95-5’s effectiveness lies in the next demographic study, due out before the end of the year. If student projections show a dramatic increase in outliers or indicate Oak Ridge’s enrollment is approaching capacity, 95-5’s provisions won’t hold.
The board also included a provision in the policy to balance enrollment between schools by allowing transfers from schools close to capacity, or “impacted,” to less impacted schools.
The list of transfer-eligible schools will be posted by year end, based on enrollment and projection data in the new demographics study. It appears likely, according to board discussion, that for school year 2012-13, Oak Ridge and Ponderosa will be considered impacted. Union Mine and El Dorado will be less impacted.
Complicating matters, despite record high test scores just published, enrollment recently opened in both Union Mine and El Dorado high schools under contested provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. That means that any student in those schools can transfer to Ponderosa High School or Vista Continuation School in Placerville.
Contact the school district for details on open enrollment at Union Mine and El Dorado.
The board unanimously accepted the final Administrative Intradistrict Voluntary Transfer Policy language during the Aug. 23 meeting.
Steven Phemester greeted the press afterward. “I’ve always known that high school is a big change,” said the sage sixth-grader, “and if I kept my friends from middle school I would have a better change.”
There’s nothing wrong with Ponderosa, but, he added, “It would be harder for me to get to know people because everybody else already has friends from middle school.”
Steven’s mom said she worries that her actions might be interpreted as disrespect for Ponderosa. “These are all great schools,” she said. “This whole thing is about friends, sports and transportation.”
Beyond the social implications, Phemester said that having friends with the same values is a huge factor because, “Kids totally influence each other.”
Steven enjoys a clutch of level-headed friends that have all passed her muster, a vetting she defends as an essential part of good parenting. “We encourage the friends we like … in a thousand ways while they’re growing up.”
But it only works when they’re young. It gets difficult in middle school and by ninth grade, “It’s all over,” Catie said.
Brown called his board’s action “a good temporary solution,” alluding to the eventual requirement to address school boundaries directly. “It was the right thing to do for now.
“It’s taken 11 months and represents a lot of work and a lot of negotiation, he continued. “It was nice to see everyone agree.”