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News Update

Districts Differ on Merits of Enrollment Caps

Districts across the country have implemented enrollment caps to prevent class sizes from becoming too large in schools with swelling enrollments.

When registration opened at 7 a.m. on Feb. 23 for kindergarten at the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, about 120 parents in the suburban Chicago K8 district were already lined up, as if waiting for tickets to a hot rock concert.

The reason: They knew the school board was poised to suspend enrollment policies to allow the district to transfer students out of three popular but crowded attendance-area schools. The board indeed suspended those policies on March 2, with the stipulations that this was a one-year trial for managing enrollment, that siblings would be given priority for remaining at a school, and that after siblings, it would be first-come, first-served.

Nationwide Strategy

Districts across the country have implemented similar policies to prevent class sizes from becoming too large in schools with swelling enrollments.

"Reducing class size is a good strategy because it keeps kids engaged in learning," says Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing class size around the nation. "Benefits of smaller classrooms are seen in every way one can measure success."

Barbara Worth, director of strategic and private development for the Council for Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., says she believes anecdotally that more districts are facing this situation. "Particularly in urban, high-density areas, where there are some great schools, of course everybody wants to go there," she says.

Managing Local "Blips"

Enrollment caps are typically used to manage "blips" at certain schools, where longer-term solutions like redistricting, increased class sizes or capital projects are not necessarily warranted, says Paul Brinson, chief information officer at District 65. Sometimes capital projects are in the pipeline but not yet finished.

"What we're trying to do here is manage in the short run a situation that has come up and that we feel, in time, will resolve itself," Brinson explains. "We are aware of how committed parents are to their local school."

Some districts use capping more frequently. The Laramie County (Wyoming) School District this year transferred about 250 students out of eight elementary schools, said Ted Adams, superintendent, and sometimes parents grumble. "They're very frustrated that they moved across the street from an elementary school, and their kid can't go to it. We don't like that, either," he says. "But they come to understand that that [lower] class size - even though it may not be their neighborhood school - helps us improve student achievement."

The four-elementary-school Forest Park School District 91, just south of Chicago, discontinued its enrollment capping policy this year, says Louis Cavallo, superintendent, who spoke with officials in Evanston. Forest Park has switched to grade-level centers, with two schools for grades K-2 and two for grades 3-5, ending the need for capping.

"The purpose for doing it, to keep class sizes small and have those small learning communities, was the right decision," Cavallo says. "But the way of doing it didn't work well." Cavallo says the centers haven't been popular with everyone, since children previously able to attend a school one block away will now have to go elsewhere for three grades. But, "in the end, it was definitely the right decision," he says.

Remaining Optimistic

According to Brinson, the Evanston/Skokie district might not have to cap enrollment for 2010-2011 after all due to the number of parents from the three affected school areas who asked for placement in either one of two magnet schools or another attendance-area school through a "permissive transfer," Brinson says. "I feel pretty optimistic about it—at least at this stage of the game."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill.