CHARLOTTESVILLE — It never feels good to turn a student away.
When a prospective student came to Eastern Hancock High School last semester hoping to join the junior class, Principal Dave Pfaff had no choice but to tell him no. The 11th-grade class was full, he said.
It’s a message school leaders worry they might have to deliver to more parents in the future, as every grade at the high school is nearing its capacity.
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On Monday, there were 411 students attending the building, Pfaff said can house no more than 435. If the district continues to grow, school leaders will consider temporarily suspending the transfer student program, which now welcomes about 200 students district-wide.
The number of students enrolled in high school at Eastern has increased by 16 percent since the 2011-12 school year, leading to larger class sizes. Some classes see as many as 35 students per room, when school leaders say the ideal number — particularly for advanced courses where one-on-one instruction is critical — is 15.
The student who hoped to transfer last semester lucked out: when another 11th-grader later moved away, the school was able to accommodate the transfer request, but administrators say that won’t be possible if grade levels reach caps that have been approved by the school board.
Students from as far as Rush County schools and the Fishers area have enrolled as nonresident students at Eastern Hancock High School, Pfaff said. The nonresident student population at Eastern has increased for several reasons, from teachers who want their children to attend the district where they work to parents who prefer a smaller district than their home district, he said.
“With a small, rural community school district, some parents feel like the cracks are narrower, and teachers can give their children more individual attention,” Pfaff said.
Eastern Hancock High School senior Olivia Hayse said she transferred to the district her sophomore year because she felt like she didn’t fit in at her previous school district, Greenfield-Central, which has 1,000 more students at its high school than Eastern.
She felt welcome at Eastern, not only by students but by teachers. In such a small district, it’s easier to feel part of the learning community, she said.
Another senior, Dwight Duzan, transferred to the district as a middle-schooler after he attended one year at Maxwell Intermediate School, also in Greenfield-Central’s district, which boasts nearly double the student population as Eastern’s middle school.
Having just come from a fifth-grade class of about 55 students, the leap to attending school with more than 180 classmates at Maxwell was overwhelming, he said.
“I felt more comfortable at a smaller school,” he said. “I think you get a better education here.”
There are no plans for construction of new school buildings, said Pfaff, adding the district has no comprehensive plan that lays out options to accommodate future growth.
In the fall, school officials analyzed current facilities to see what is in need of repair and when, but the study stopped short of detailing future building plans.
“We don’t want to get to that point,” Pfaff said. “If we grow too fast, we may lose what people find attractive about us, so we want to grow in a controlled manner.”
Eastern Hancock Schools Corp. superintendent Vicki McGuire said there’s no guarantee all grades at the high school will reach capacity at once, so the school should continue to accept transfer students as it is able.
“As students move in and out, we continue to have room for more students at certain times, of course,” she said. “So we certainly encourage students to continue to attend Eastern Hancock.”
Eastern is the second county high school considering its options after increased enrollment strained school resources. Mt. Vernon High School late last year began an exhaustive study of economic activity, county birth rates and demographic trends in order to figure out what to do next after the high school’s 1,512 students exceeded the building’s 1,500-student capacity.
That study is not yet complete.