The impact of Oklahoma’s move to allow student transfers between school districts year-round has been a study in contrasts for two Tulsa area districts.
Senate Bill 783, which was enacted in January, resulted in at least 11,000 new transfers across the state before school began in August. Among the top five districts picking up new transfer students is Sand Springs Public Schools – a ranking that came as a surprise even to local officials.
“We’ve always lived on a lot of transfers, and I think we’re a well-kept secret,” said Superintendent Sherry Durkee, whose district has seen a 23 percent increase in transfer students compared with last year’s numbers. “There has been a big change in expectations with people wanting versatility to access education like they want it. We have made a concerted effort to maximize choice within the district because we have to get on board with the way of the future.”
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While the new comprehensive change in law allowing students to request a transfer to any district at any time within the school year opened up new channels for students and raised public awareness about this means of public school choice, the early outcome for Jenks Public Schools has been less than ideal, officials say.
The two first appeals by any Oklahoma students denied transfers to make it all the way to the State Board of Education made the Jenks district the subject of scrutiny and frustration with the legal limits of Senate Bill 783 by several school choice advocates that Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed to the state board.
Both of those transfer requests were denied on the grounds that Jenks classrooms are already bursting at the seams.
“We’re honored that families want to be in Jenks, and we have approved a number of transfers, but as a growing suburban district, we are trying to juggle the needs of our own residents and having to add facilities to accommodate them,” said Suzanne Lair, assistant superintendent. “We actually had more flexibility to look at other circumstances and accept transfers before this law was adopted, but now we are confined to the law and have to be consistent in applying this metric and these standards.”
Oklahoma State Department of Education data shows school districts approved about 80 percent of the 10,924 transfer requests made through the state’s new system between Jan. 1-Aug. 15.
But in September and November, the parents of two different students pleaded with the state Board of Education to make an exception and essentially force Jenks to enroll their children. The first student had attended Jenks previously but moved out of the district, and the second was a student who was reportedly facing unrelenting bullying at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa.
In both cases, the state board voted not to overturn their transfer request denials, saying Jenks had followed the law and was clearly already over its class size capacity limits – but not without several board members expressing misgivings.
“I echo my sentiment from two months ago – I hate this,” said Trent Smith, a board member from Yukon.
Another board member, Estela Hernandez of Oklahoma City, said it was her opinion that all too often the public school system simply “isn’t willing to budge.”
Local leaders from Jenks told the board they actually successfully advocated for the state law to ensure more students could transfer, including the allowance for students whose families relocate to remain in a school district as a transfer if they had attended there at least three years’ prior, and students of school district employees.
A win-win in Sand Springs
The ability to transfer into Charles Page High School in Sand Springs in the middle of spring semester was a godsend for 16-year-old Hope Hall and her family.
The Halls moved to Owasso from Spokane, Washington, in 2021, but Hope struggled being in a high school twice the size of her old one and lacking access to the four-year, pre-nursing coursework she desperately wanted to take.
“Not to say anything bad about Owasso, but I really didn’t feel like I fit in there because it’s a really intense, exclusive, competition-based school in terms of sports and academic teams. I was only taking on-level classes and not pushing myself because I wasn’t doing well — and that was affecting my whole family,” Hall said.
At Charles Page, Hall is now back in her favorite biomedical science courses to prepare for a career in nursing, as well as pre-Advanced Placement English, and got involved with student council and new friends who helped her find a local church group to join.
“It was really scary at first, being the new kid again, but I had teachers who cared about me and Sand Springs places a lot of emphasis on growing from where you’re at, rather than competing with my peers,” Hall said.
Superintendent Durkee said that’s not a coincidence.
“We’re big on individual plans for every student and we started a robust virtual academy 10 years ago – long before COVID – that offers a lot of flexibility for students. So, in addition to families that want the full virtual school experience, we have teachers onsite for in-person instruction and tutoring until 6 o’clock most days, and the flexibility for students to do a blended model with in-person and maybe two or three online classes if that’s what’s best for them,” Durkee said. “We were one of the first high schools to have internships with community businesses – half of our seniors are in internships, with many paid positions.”
Tahlequah Public Schools also made the state’s top five recipients of transfer students since Jan. 1, with the year-over-year comparison currently up 13 percent, according to Superintendent Tanya Jones.
“We’ve always had a large number of transfers from districts surrounding us, but we definitely have had some that wouldn’t have applied before,” she said. “Tahlequah being much larger than any other district in our county probably has more programs available than the other small schools around us, more athletic offerings. We have eSports and we have choir, show choir and jazz choir and small schools don’t have all of those opportunities, so that will draw people for sure. We also have a fantastic afterschool program at every one of our sites.”
Jones said it is important to note that district-to-district transfer requests were allowed under state law during a more finite window of time previously — and even outside of that window in districts with local school board policies that allowed them.
“There’s always been some school choice because transfers have been allowed in most places as long as I can remember,” Jones said. “We’ve allowed transfers throughout the year before — this change in law just gave us more hoops to jump through. We have reports that have to be done on (the state education department) website that take time and there are statistics we wouldn’t have done before.”
And even for the “winners” that have the space to welcome more students, there are significant practical concerns and considerations that come with adding students — and particularly non-resident students.
“If you don’t have the room or the teachers or the materials to do that it would be a poor choice, both for the child and the school,” said Jones.
Sand Springs’ previous policy already had criteria for good attendance and behavior now allowed by state law, and Durkee said one of those is of the utmost importance for transfer students — because they have to have strong attendance for the receiving district to get the most funding possible to support them.
“We have to be pretty picky about attendance. For one, we can’t teach them if they don’t come,” she said. “And you don’t get ad valorem (local tax revenue) for them, but you do get state aid for those transfers. Fortunately, local voters have agreed to foot the bill for our capital needs through bond issues.”
Another serious consideration is Oklahoma’s statewide shortage of teachers.
“That legislation did what it was designed to do, but I do feel for districts like Jenks that are at capacity and then some,” Durkee said. “Even for us, it is a balance and a management of resources and frankly, I do worry about the teacher shortage. This year, for the first time ever, we started the year two teachers short.”