The West Sonoma County Union High School District board meeting took a dramatic turn last week when the district’s attorney Elizabeth Mori announced that the district’s long-standing practice of discouraging intradistrict transfers was in violation of the State of California’s open enrollment policy.
“The current policy is not legal,” Mori said, noting that it violates the state education code. Her announcement shocked the room, overturning years of district practice and wringing a heart-wrenching speech from Matt Dunkle, the Principal of El Molino, who saw it as yet another setback for the struggling high school.
The ins and outs of who’s in and who’s out
An intradistrict transfer happens when parents seek to enroll their student at a school that is within their district, but outside of their “designated attendance area” — for example, when parents from Forestville seek to enroll their student at Analy rather than El Molino or when parents from Sebastopol seek to enroll their student at El Molino rather than Analy. (An interdistrict transfer, in contrast, happens when a student transfers from a different school district, say from Windsor or Santa Rosa, to WSCUHSD.)
According to the California Department of Education website, “California Education Code Section 35160.5(b) permits parents to indicate a preference for the school which their child will attend, irrespective of the child’s place of residence within the district, and requires the district to honor this parental preference if the school has sufficient capacity without displacing other currently enrolled students.” Moreover, the statute continues, all intradistrict transfers are supposed to be accepted before interdistrict (or out-of-district) transfer students are enrolled.
That’s not how it’s been working at West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD), where, according to the intradistrict transfer form, families wishing to transfer their student have had to prove that their student was a victim of bullying (or violent crime) at their existing school; that the family was moving into the correct attendance area; or that student or family had a verifiable hardship (not related to curriculum preference) which required a change of schools.
Like most districts, WSCUHSD assigns its students to different high schools based on their elementary school attendance areas. Students living in the Gravenstein Union School District, Sebastopol Union School District and Twin Hills Union School District attend Analy High School, while students living in elementary school districts further west attend El Molino. (Those districts include Forestville Union School District, Fort Ross School District, Guerneville School District, Harmony Union School District, Monte Rio Union School District, Montgomery School District and Oak Grove Union School District.) In between these two attendance areas is a so-called “Choice Area,” where students have a choice to go to either high school.
In fact, as the board has just learned, all students in the district have a choice of which high school to attend, especially since both Analy and El Molino are operating under capacity. Analy, which has a capacity of 1,350 students, currently has 1,100 students; El Molino, which has a capacity of 1,100 students, only has 570 students.
By the numbers
Despite its restrictive intradistrict transfer policy, a couple of dozen students manage to do intradistrict transfers each year. In the 2016-17 school year, 39 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 14 students transferred from Analy to El Molino. In 2017-18, 21 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 19 students transferred from Analy to El Molino. In 2018-19, 23 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 18 students transferred from Analy to El Molino.
But not everyone who wanted to do an intradistrict transfer was allowed to do so. Five students were denied intradistrict transfers in the 2016-17; 18 in 2017-18; and five students in 2018-19.
Board member Ted Walker noted that the intradistrict transfer numbers probably didn’t capture the whole picture. “The word on the street is that we make it very difficult to transfer,” he said, “so some families who may have wanted to transfer may not have bothered trying.”
At the same time that the school district was denying some intradistrict transfers, both high schools, trapped in graying districts and eager for more per-pupil ADA money, were accepting interdistrict transfer students from areas like Santa Rosa, Cotati and Windsor. There were 380 interdistrict transfers into Analy this year, and 80 interdistrict transfers in El Molino.
Superintendent Toni Beal was the one who discovered the district’s divergence from the state’s open enrollment policy. Earlier this month, she was reviewing the intradistrict approval process with the principals of Analy and El Molino — looking for a way to equalize the number of transfers between the two — when she discovered the discrepancy between the state regulations and the district’s current policy.
“That was when I contacted our legal counsel to assist with a proposed revision that complied with current education code,” Beal said.
What happens next?
Mori presented the board with a rewritten intradistrict transfer policy. The board will take it under consideration— Mori warned them that there’s very little wiggle room — and will discuss and probably vote on it at their next meeting on December 12.
Before finalizing the new policy, the district needs to reconfirm the capacity numbers for each high school and create a new timeline for applications for both intradistrict and interdistrict transfers.
Now comes the hard part: telling families who were denied an intradistrict transfer about the policy change. Several members of the board members were adamant out getting the word out to the community as soon as possible. The district will be contacting the families of students who were denied intradistrict transfers and informing them about the error. They will also be informing all families in the district about their right to do an intradistrict transfer if they so choose.
“I don’t think we can predict what will happen, but legally, it’s something that we have to do,” said David Stecher, president of the school board, referring to the change of policy.
What will happen to El Molino?
From the moment the district’s attorney made her announcement, the question of what would happen to El Molino, which has struggled with enrollment for almost 20 years, hung heavy in the room.
When El Molino principle Matt Dunkle got up to give his monthly principal’s report—usually a mix of good news and upcoming events— he delivered an impassioned cri de coeur.
“El Molino Night is November 29 at 6 p.m., which is going to be more important than ever for our school,” he began and then went off script. “This decision could be catastrophic,” he said, referring to the intradistrict transfer policy. “I’m proud of the people I work with. We work hard all the time,” he said, choking back emotion. “To spend all these years fighting our way back and to face another battle is a bit much. I hope there will be a serious discussion about this policy change. You can just look at the numbers and see it’s going to be a challenge.”
Superintendent Toni Beal is more sanguine about El Molino’s future. According to Beal, El Molino’s enrollment problems began back in the early 2000s in the era of No Child Left Behind, when poor results on two consecutive state tests caused the school to be listed as a Program Improvement school, which automatically allowed students to transfer to another school in the district. (California’s current open enrollment policy didn’t come into being until 2015, according to Beal.)
“It is my understanding that El Molino was close to capacity back in 2001 when the requests to transfer from El Molino to Analy began to increase,” she said.
Seventy students voted with their feet that first year, moving to Analy.
It’s been a slow bleed ever since, and the district’s ever stricter intradistrict transfer policy has been one weapon used to staunch the flow. The other defense has been a concerted effort to improve the program at El Molino, which, with a slew of innovative programs and rising test scores, seems to have been successful.
“Since that time, WSCUHSD and the El Molino administration and staff have made a conscious effort to stabilize enrollment by expanding and publicizing its innovative programs and practices,” Beal said. “Today, El Molino and Analy High Schools offer very similar programs and facilities and are supported by very active, involved communities. I am optimistic that our informed parents and school communities will see and understand El Molino as the school that it is today and not be influenced by the events of more than 10 years ago.”
The district will know whether that’s true or not soon enough. The current application period for existing intradistrict transfer students opened on November 12 (they have to reapply each year) and the period for new intradistrict transfers opens in January.