published Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Irate parents want out-of-zone students policed

A big crowd of parents and students gathered at East Hamilton High School last week for a meeting to discuss a new zoning plan.
A big crowd of parents and students gathered at East Hamilton High School last week for a meeting to discuss a new zoning plan.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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WHAT'S NEXT?


Officials say the Hamilton County Board of Education likely will take up the rezoning proposal at either its regular March 15 or April 19 meetings. The board also could call a special meeting to vote on the issue. Superintendent Rick Smith has said he wants to see a decision soon so parents have plenty of time to make plans for their children.

Before their students are rezoned for other schools, many East Hamilton Middle/High parents want the school system to make sure that out-of-zone students aren't attending the school illegally.

Parents brought up the issue several times during a pair of public meetings last week on rezoning proposals. Many said they believe that students who live outside the zone, and in some cases in Georgia, are attending East Hamilton and exacerbating its overcrowding problems. And one school official said he agrees that a crackdown on such cases is needed.

Whether the action is for academics or athletics, reports of out-of-area students changing or falsifying addresses so that they're within a preferred school's attendance boundaries have been commonplace across the county.

But the proposed redrawing of attendance boundaries for East Hamilton and several area elementary schools brought new attention to the issue as hundreds of parents -- some stunned, some angry -- looked for anything that might help keep their kids where they are.

School leaders say they have safeguards in place and usually can detect when families are shopping for school enrollment, but they acknowledge that parents find ways to cheat the system.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt said he wants to see what can be done to combat the problem, if it's needed. He said some people are "selling addresses," taking a payment to put their utility bills in other people's names.

"There are just lots of ways to beat the system," he said. "People will do anything."

One of his ideas is to have school social workers be more vigilant about checking out residences and even make trips in the evenings to verify where students live.

"Basically, they have a right to say, 'I want to see where this kid sleeps at night,'" he said.

He said such a change would require more effort by the school system -- a tough task when staffing levels are low.

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith told parents on Tuesday evening that students shouldn't be blamed if they're attending East Hamilton illegitimately.

"The adult is the problem, not the kid," Smith said.

He told parents that if they know of out-of-zone students, they should turn those families in to school officials.

"We need your help to fix that problem," Smith said.

But even if 100 students -- or about 5 percent of East Hamilton's student body -- were attending illegally, Smith said getting rid of them wouldn't solve the growing problem of East Hamilton's overcrowding. With about 2,000 students, the school is well over its projected capacity of 1,650 students.

"This is not going to be the solution to tonight's dilemma," he said during one of last week's meetings.

But some parents weren't satisfied with that answer. Robert Holt, whose children are proposed to be rezoned for schools in Ooltewah, said he thinks many students from out of the zone attend schools in the East Brainerd and East Hamilton areas.

"I don't buy that," he said. "That's a sizeable amount of people. I think it is a problem."

Holt said he sees Georgia license plates each day he takes his son to Westview Elementary, and his daughter knows of Georgians attending East Hamilton.

But sometimes there are explanations for out-of-zone students attending, said East Hamilton Assistant Principal Eddie Gravitte. Faculty members of East Hamilton or one of its feeder schools can send their children to East Hamilton legitimately even if they live across the state line. And sometimes children of divorce may split their time between two residences.

Gravitte said the school's registrar checks residency of all new students, requiring two pieces of documentation, such as a lease agreement, closing papers or utility bills. That's a process used all across the county, he said. If someone is unable to produce documentation, as is the case for those living with relatives or significant others, they're required to sign an affidavit with the central office.

Still, some parents find ways to get around the rules. He recalled instances of parents using Wite-Out to change dates on lease agreements and using business addresses at some of his former Hamilton County schools. But he said parents who turn in others for crossing zone lines have proven to be an effective safeguard.

"I think we have a pretty good system of oversight. And I think the community provides a pretty good level of oversight," he said.

Gravitte said the school takes the issue of zone boundaries seriously, because illegal students can cheat others out of opportunities.

"It's not fair for a student to take up space in a classroom or an athletic team when they don't live in an established school zone," he said.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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