As word began to circulate through Hamilton County's coaching ranks that schools superintendent Rick Smith planned to do away with all transfers, the responses ranged from nervous curiosity to downright excitement.
The proposed change, made possible by a Feb. 9 announcement that Tennessee has received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, is expected to go into effect next school year and will prevent students from transferring to any school outside their zone.
Students would have to attend their zoned school unless they were admitted to a magnet school or received a special hardship transfer, which the school system grants on a case-by-case basis for those with issues such as medical problems. Any other student wishing to transfer would have to provide proof of a change of address into the zone of the school where he or she plans to enroll.
"I think it should have gone into effect years ago," Brainerd basketball coach Robert High said. "There's been too many kids crossing zones for years. I've said for a long time that the county needs to either do something like this or just do away with zones completely.
"Don't let anybody fool you. A lot of the transfers have to do with athletics. That's with the No Child Left Behind rule or just in general. Kids are being recruited away from inner-city schools to go play sports at programs with more money and newer facilities. I know of several kids who live two blocks from Brainerd but go to a different school.
"There are other coaches who aren't going to like it because now they have to play with the kids in their zone and not rob us of the better athletes."
High has coached Brainerd basketball for 36 years, winning more than 970 games and three state championships in that time. But while the Panthers continue to be competitive locally, they have advanced past the first round of the state tournament just once in the last 14 years, and High attributes the drop in statewide success to the number of athletes Brainerd loses to other area programs.
Brainerd's overall enrollment is currently around 660 students, which is down by nearly 300 from just five years ago. The Panthers football team, which competes in Class 4A, played last season with fewer than 25 players on the roster, a number comparable to most 1A programs.
"I know for a fact that there are at least 50 athletes zoned for Brainerd that are playing at other programs in the city, and not just at Ooltewah," Brainerd football coach Stanley Jackson said, referring to Brainerd's sister school under the No Child Left Behind law. "I know this because I know where those kids played middle school and where they still live.
"This proposal would be a step, but there will always be kids who find a way around any rule if they want to go to a school outside their zone. And there are plenty of coaches who know how to get around any rule to make sure they get the best athletes out of any zone."
Under the current No Child Left Behind law, students who attend a school with low academic performance can opt to transfer to that school's partner school. For instance, at the high school level, students at Brainerd were allowed to attend Ooltewah and Howard students could attend Signal Mountain. Also by law, Hamilton County provided bus transportation for each of those students who wished to travel to and from Brainerd/Ooltewah and Howard/Signal Mountain.
That bus service, which has been shuttling around 500 students this year, cost the county school system $830,000. Cutting that cost is the primary reason for Smith's proposal.
According to Hamilton County NCLB records, Ooltewah High had 118 total transfers from Brainerd and Signal Mountain had 47 who were being bused from Howard. Coaches on both sides disagree on how many of those transfers were athletes.
"I've got about two transfers on our roster, and neither one is on the varsity," Ooltewah basketball coach Jesse Nayadley said. "Most of the transfer kids that I know of are not athletes. They're the ones more inclined to change schools for academic reasons, not for sports."
While Ooltewah football coach Shannon Williams said he wasn't sure how many athletes on his roster had transferred from Brainerd, he admitted the new rule would affect not only the Owls' program.
Signal Mountain football coach Bill Price said while he recognizes the perception that his team has benefited from the No Child Left Behind law, the Eagles have never had an NCLB transfer to start in the four-year history of the program. He added that, like all other coaches in the county, he is just awaiting word on the specifics of Superintendent Smith's plan.
"We'll go with whatever the superintendent tells us the rule is," Price said. "I don't think it's a real big deal. At least I don't see it making much of a difference in our program. We've had a couple of kids move in on the mountain that have been starters for us, but none from the No Child Left Behind rule.
"My concern would be for the kids who are already enrolled in another school and want to finish out there instead of having to go back. I would hope they get to finish where they are established. But I know that might be tough for some of them not having transportation anymore."
School board members have told the Times Free Press they will begin discussing the issue soon, and Smith has said he doesn't want to end the transfer program abruptly but would rather see if phased out quickly. Students should be allowed to finish out this year at their current school before moving back into zoned schools, he said.
Once the proposal goes into effect, the biggest issue will be verifying that students actually live at the addresses they provide when they enroll. For years students have gotten around zoning rules by using addresses of relatives living in the zone of the school they want to attend, while not actually living there. Policing such steps is nearly impossible unless those students are turned in for investigation by an outside party.
And according to several local coaches, who say they are fed up with having the better athletes in their zone recruited away by rival coaches, they are ready to begin doing just that.
"I'm not one to cry over this type thing and haven't made it an issue in the past, but it does frustrate you as a coach when you lose so many kids," Howard basketball coach Walter McGary said. "For a long time I've felt like the No Child Left Behind rule was just a way for other coaches to take our better athletes. They can make it sound like they're taking them in to provide better academics, but they aren't fooling anybody. It's purely athletic in so many cases.
"They want the better black athletes to help them win games, and that's the bottom line. And once those kids are done playing, a lot of these coaches are done with the kid and they dump them back on us, back into our neighborhood not having taught them anything but how to play sports."
McGary said his team has faced four opponents with players who he knows are in his school's zone, not including Howard's partnered school, Signal Mountain.
"It hurts me to see all the kids on 38th Street, Alton Park, 4th street or East Lake that are wasting away, loitering on the corner after their athletic career is over," McGary said. "Those coaches that swooped in and took them to help their own teams aren't anywhere around to help them stay off the streets. So maybe this new rule will keep those kids at their neighborhood school where the coaches know their background, what they're facing outside of school, and can help them learn to be good citizens and fathers and change those neighborhoods in a positive way once they're out there."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...