The end of summer can bring a mix of dread and hope to young hearts. Some kids in Santa Fe’s public schools also face the added anxiety of not knowing where they’ll ultimately attend school because they’re on the waitlist for the district’s inter-zone transfers.
At the old Walmart on Cerrillos, a mother named Amber shops with her daughter, an incoming kindergartner zoned for the Aspen Community Magnet School. Amber is trying to have her transferred to Nava Elementary.
Her daughter is number two on the waitlist for Nava, but she might not know whether she's been accepted until the 20th day of the school year. "I didn't know the process was that you enrolled them the year before," she tells SFR.
In her view, the district didn't do enough to notify parents that the timeline for accepting school transfers begins in January of the previous school year, or that the student lottery starts before March 1. Amber submitted her daughter's application to transfer long after the close of the application window, meaning it was not considered for the student lottery and was instead put on a waitlist in the order it was received.
Another parent, Jessica Keelin, says she knew to submit her son's application to transfer to Carlos Gilbert Elementary School last year because she'd already gone through the process with her older son.
"If I didn't have him, I wouldn't know it was coming. That could have been better," Keelin says.
Some students on the waitlist get priority over others, including those zoned for schools rated "F" by the state, or with family attending or working at another school.
Moving the application window back to January was actually supposed to make it easier for families to get a head start on the enrollment process. The district made the change during research by a grad student who did a 10-month professional residency at SFPS during the 2015-2016 school year.
However, April Bo Wang, then a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote in a 2016 academic report that moving the enrollment period up did not succeed in boosting the number of inter-zone transfers. The number of applications for student transfers has hovered around 2,000 the last three school years. Over half of the applications were denied last year. So far, for the new fall semester, which begins Aug. 16, there were 607 applications that had been approved and 719 on the waitlist as of Aug. 11, according to the district.
Although the theory behind open enrollment is to create an equal playing field for parents to have their choice of high-quality schools, data gathered by Wang suggested that the process in SFPS gives more advantage to families who are wealthier, whiter, and English-speaking.
For example, only 35 percent of Carlos Gilbert Elementary students in the 2015-2016 school year were zoned for the school, which is on Griffin Street. Of those students who transferred in, 1 percent of students spoke English as a second language and 31 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch, bringing the school's totals to 2 percent ESL and 36 percent low-income. In contrast, 94 percent of students attending Sweeney Elementary on Airport Road were zoned there. Forty-nine percent of students at Sweeney are ESL and 63 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch.
In her report, Wang suggests two changes that could encourage a more equitable inter-zone transfer process: for the district to provide free bus transportation for all students to the school of their choice (rather than just their in-zone school, as is current policy), and free after-school programming at all schools, which could help struggling parents more easily send their kids to schools outside their zone.
Neither suggestion has been implemented. SFPS Superintendent Veronica Garcia tells SFR the funds aren't there. "We've seen cuts in transportation. We're not offering what I believe are even optimum services," Garcia says.
SFPS is a plaintiff in a multi-party lawsuit against the state alleging that it is inadequately funding New Mexico's schools.
Another way the inter-zone transfer process frustrates families is when parents decide to send their kids to their "home" school at the last moment. Those students receive precedent over waitlisted students.
"It's a very dynamic and unpredictable process, and we don't know which families are going to choose to go back to their home school right before the beginning of school," says Garcia. "That creates uncertainty and difficulty for students and I completely empathize with them."
That isn't much comfort to parents who still don't know where their kids will end up attending school this year. Amber, the parent shopping at Walmart, says about five of her friends with children in SFPS are experiencing a similar dilemma as her.
"They should communicate better with parents, because I've been telling my friends to start doing the transfer now because it takes a while," she says.