SHIFTING STUDENTS: Transfer rates at county schools vary

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bmiddelkamp@greenfieldreporter.com

HANCOCK COUNTY — When Christie and Dan Murphy’s two youngest sons were preparing to attend public high school a few years ago, they had a choice: stay in district at Greenfield-Central or enroll elsewhere.

The Murphy boys, Sam and Jack, decided on Eastern Hancock High School. They liked that the student body was about a quarter of the size of Greenfield-Central High School, saying it made the small school feel like a tight-knit community where it seemed easier to get involved in extracurricular activities.

The Murphy family is one of hundreds of Hancock County families who choose to send their children out of district to other public corporations, private schools as well as online schools and charter schools.

A recent transfer report for fall 2019 released by the Indiana Department of Education shows Southern Hancock Schools has netted the most students from out of district at 400, while Greenfield-Central lost more students than it gained, giving it a loss of 250 students to other schools in the county and region.

Since school funding is tied to enrollment, having a net increase of transfer students can mean more money coming to the schools. Several years ago, the state legislature enacted school choice reform, making it so families could transfer their children out of district without paying a tuition fee or apply for a voucher to attend private and charter schools.

Most Hoosier students choose to stay in their districts, about 86.3% of students; 6.5% transfer to another public school; 3.8% transfer to charter schools; and 3.4% attend private schools, according to the report.

In Hancock County, the majority of families who transfer pick another public school. Eastern Hancock is second to Southern Hancock in the number of net incoming students, at 206. At Mt. Vernon Schools, 665 students transferred in during the fall, while 489 left, giving them an increase of 176 students.

Dave Pfaff, superintendent of Eastern Hancock, said many students who choose to attend EH schools do so because of the small-school atmosphere and strong academic performance. Eastern Hancock has been graded an “A” corporation over the past few years, according to the state department of education.

“When people decide they want to come to your school, that’s a compliment, we think,” Pfaff said.

About 20% of the student body are transfer students, Pfaff said.

When Sam Murphy, who was previously home-schooled, visited Eastern Hancock, he was welcomed there by Pfaff with “arms wide open,” Christine Murphy said. Sam, who graduated in May, was also able to be the manager of the school’s basketball team for all four years. Murphy said she doesn’t think her son would have that opportunity to be involved if he had attended a larger public school.

“That small community has been really good for us,” Murphy said.

Both Southern Hancock and Mt. Vernon schools have been growing over the past several years. The two communities have a vibrant housing market with hundreds of open subdivision lots.

Wes Anderson, director of school and community relations for Southern Hancock, said the 400 transfer students this fall equates to about an additional $2.24 million in funding — about $5,600 per student. Those transfer students, coupled with the growth of students moving into the bustling New Palestine area, means more money for teachers, programming, remediation and support services, he said.

At Mt. Vernon, administrators over the past year have focused on better managing the number of transfer students, said Jack Parker, superintendent. The Mt. Vernon School Board halted its transfer policy for most of the 2018-19 school year since the corporation’s enrollment was growing too fast for classroom space, Parker said. Last spring, the board instituted a new policy giving families from outside of the district a set window of time each May to enroll their students in Mt. Vernon schools.

Siblings of transfer students will always be accepted into the corporation through the “Once a Marauder, Always a Marauder” program, Parker added, regardless of the restrictions of the transfer policy.

As in-district enrollment is expected to increase by 2,000 new students over the next 10 years at Mt. Vernon, according to a demographic study commissioned by the corporation, Parker said he anticipates a lower number of transfer students, which is intentional as more families move into the district.

“Really, it’s about providing the best education to students,” Parker said. “Parents make many choices for many reasons. They will make the decision that’s best for their family, and if we’re a match for some families we would love them to be a part of our district.”

Harold Olin, superintendent of Greenfield-Central, said while he wants people who live within the school district to stay in G-C schools, he’s well-aware that some families choose other schools because of convenience factors, such as a family member’s job, or the larger student body size.

“Selfishly, I just wish all people understood the good offerings that we have here and would want their kids to experience those,” Olin said. “Clearly, that doesn’t work for all families.”

Greenfield-Central isn’t alone in county-seat districts losing more students than those who transfer in to schools. Out of Indiana’s 92 county-seat corporations, only 12 had a positive net number of transfers, said Nate Day, business manager for Greenfield-Central.

The net loss of students over the past few years has justified the corporation setting aside funding for marketing, Olin said. The district has paid for brochures, website maintenance and other advertising, Olin said. They mainly target families in the district, but they also reach out to all county residents.

Olin said school choice has seemed to create a reality of competition among schools. Parker added that he’s mainly seen schools compete for students when they have declining resident enrollment; he said Mt. Vernon officials aren’t looking to attract lots of transfer students since the district is growing organically.

Mt. Vernon and Southern Hancock both have community and media relations employees. Anderson, who works in that position for Southern Hancock, said his marketing strategy isn’t to draw in out-of-district students. He focuses on sharing stories of students and teachers to residents or future residents.

“We want our parents to see the great things that our kids do between 7:30 and 3:30 every day,” Anderson said.

Parker said he doesn’t view using social media, fliers and a billboard along Interstate 70 as marketing. He said it’s a way to reach out to the community about the “great news” of Mt. Vernon. The billboard, seen by thousands of people every day, is available to the district through a partnership with Hancock Health, said Maria Bond, director of community relations for Mt. Vernon.

At Eastern Hancock, Pfaff said the corporation hasn’t done much marketing. He said most of the transfer students learn about the district through word of mouth or family connections. Pfaff said the district plans to “be a little bit more aggressive in marketing” this school year, such as using social media and posting more content on the district’s website about the goings-on throughout the district.

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[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Net public and choice scholarship transfer students for fall 2019

Southern Hancock: 400

Eastern Hancock: 206

Mt. Vernon: 176

Greenfield-Central: -248

Source: Indiana Department of Education

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