Letter from the Editor

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Traitors and open enrolling

There has been a good bit of discussion lately on the issue of teens open enrolling to new districts in order to gain an advantage in sports.

A former area coach feels that such actions show a lack of loyalty that should not be rewarded. Parents of students who have changed schools say they are just doing what is best for their children. The term "traitor" is even thrown around.

If you enroll up at the Iowa Great Lakes to land a starting point guard position, I guess that would make you Benedict Arnolds Park.

Right or wrong? It's an interesting debate, and perhaps one that needs to be aired out. Open enrollment exists for a reason in Iowa, but the reason is not sports.

The positive side of open enrollment is that choice breeds customer service. Schools have re-sharpened their efforts to meet the needs and wishes of families. Poor or abusive educators, outdated technology or second-rate extra-curriculars can't be tolerated by a district that wishes to stay competitive.

The bad side is that open enrollment saddles districts with heavy paperwork, makes it difficult to plan because schools may not know how many students of a particular grade they are likely to have in the next year, and budgets can be crippled by students fleeing for reasons that are not the original district's fault.

While many think of open enrollment only in terms of sports, I would hope that is rarely the reason, or at least the full reason, for such a move.

I'm guessing that most open enrollments, especially with younger children, are more a matter of transport and proximity - a parent perhaps taking a job in a new town and finding it is easier to take the student to a school near the job.

Some prefer to move a student into a larger school, where there is access to more specialized staff and programs. Is landing a position as first trombone equally as traitorous as one at starting defensive end?

Some choose to go to a smaller school, where perhaps they feel they will receive more personal attention and more safety from issues like gangs and drugs. Trying to isolate a child from real-world issues only goes so far, of course; it is not a replacement for the family teaching them right from wrong.

In some cases, a student may find themsleves at odds with the rules, staff or fellow students to such an extent that the only solution seems to be to change schools. This is troublesome too - without addressing the causes for such conflict, both the student and the original school may well continue to have those same issues arise after the open enrollment split.

There are countless issues at work in open enrollment decisions - students who want to stay near friends who live on the other side of a district line, or to spend more time with a boyfriend/girlfriend. Sadly, racial issues. A divorce or ill family member. Going back to a district where a family lived in the past.

Charter schools will probably add a new one. As word gets around that Storm Lake students can get a free college degree through Iowa Central, I would expect open enrollment to perk up to take advantage.

Sports undoubtedly plays a role for some. In a few cases, parents may feel that a sports scholarship is their child's best chance to graduate from college, and if they truly believe it is that important, it becomes hard to debate their decisions. It would be equally hard to blame a parent for moving a child from a district with a poor art or drama program to one that is more successful if that child plans to major in one of those disciplines in college.

Open enrollment was brought to Iowa - one of the first states in the nation to take that progressive step - to provide parents with more power and make schools more accountable. Families who go that route are violating no law or policy.

It was not created to win state championships in sports (thus the 90-day sit-out policy for transfers). For that matter, I don't think open enrollment was intended for parental driving convenience or to foster romantic relationships.

Open enrollment is meant to allow families an option to pursue academic opportunity. Arguably, the best possible situation would be for a child to grow up in the school system that nurtured them, to learn and play alongside their consistent peer group, to feel that they belong and are connected. The real world is sometimes not so simple.

I'm not sure anything at all is gained from calling names like "traitor" at a teenage kid, or insulting parents for doing what they feel is right for their child.

But open enrollment should be taken as a very serious matter, at the same time. It shouldn't be a matter or convenience, or an easy route to more playing time.

Hopping schools to dodge any uncomfortable situation or to save a few minutes of drive time for a parent or to dodge a class we fear is too hard or because we think it provides a momentary better shot an an all-conference certificate isn't teaching a child a very valuable lesson. If it is possible, it is better to address and try to resolve the issues - and learn from them - than walk away.

In no case should any family opt for open enrollment without looking into the academic ramifications. I would certainly hope that this is the case, even for standout athlete cases.

Open enrollment serves a purpose in Iowa, and I believe there is more good to it than bad. It should improve all schools.

We can call "traitor," or we can work to address the issues that cause students to leave, while at the same time work to instill school pride. This is not an issue that begins and ends with the football, basketball or baseball season.

* Reach the editor at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com