‘A very last option’: Harris to revamp Limited Choice program


Photo courtesy of Terry Harris via Twitter.

Director of Student Services Terry Harris sits during an event at the Rockwood Administrative Annex in Eureka.

By Alex Rozar, Lafayette High School

After years of existence with little change, Rockwood’s Limited Choice program is being overhauled, Executive Director of Student Services Terry Harris said.

The program, which allows Rockwood students to transfer to another school within the district free of charge, has been around for a long time, Harris said.

“I think that Limited Choice has been, probably, part of Rockwood forever. I don’t know that anybody knows the exact start of it,” he said.

There does not appear to have been much official change to the Limited Choice policy in recent years. Policy 2236, which governs Limited Choice, was adopted in 2000 and was only reviewed by the Board of Education one time since in 2012.

Now, Harris, who took over the program this year, plans to make major reforms to the system to ensure students use Limited Choice, which he called “a very last option,” in an appropriate manner.

“I’m in the process of, right now, rewriting the process of Limited Choice. I’m literally trying to figure out a better approach to Limited Choice,” Harris said.

Harris explained his reasoning for the move, citing what he feels are lax requirements in the application process.

“Right now, the process basically is, you can go online and fill out an application for Limited Choice, then come to my office. I’ll send some things to both schools, and then the schools reveal if there’s room,” Harris said. “We’re in the middle of looking at ‘Is that the correct way to allow for Limited Choice to exist?’ And right now, we don’t think so, so we’re trying to re-examine what that may look like.”

Lafayette senior Jake Sherman, who attended Marquette High School as a freshman, recalled a simple process to apply.

“It was really easy, actually,” Sherman said. “[My mom and I] got the form somehow. I forgot how we got the form. Toward the end of my freshman year, me and my mom filled it out one day. And then a week before finals, I think, I found out that it went through. And then, so, I was like, ‘Alright.’”

Sherman said he was not interviewed before the transfer took place.

“I just had to write down why I wanted the transfer. And then we just put, I think, peer pressure or something,” he said.

Junior Savanna Wilson, who lives within Lafayette’s school boundaries, said she chose to apply Limited Choice to Marquette her freshman year after most of her friends from Crestview Middle School went there. However, she chose to attend Lafayette beginning in her sophomore year.

“When I was in 8th Grade, I know that we had to fill out a form and say why I didn’t necessarily want to go to Lafayette first, and then we just turned that into our principal,” Wilson said.

Since taking over the position, Harris said he has taken a more active role in vetting students.

“Now that I’m over at Limited Choice, I ask a lot of questions,” Harris said. “Part of that is because I’m me in the role, and I’m doing that, and the other piece is because we want to know.”

Currently, 986 students in Rockwood use Limited Choice, according to Harris’ administrative assistant Regena Buehler. The majority of those students are in elementary or middle school, Harris said.

At the high school level, Harris said a top concern with the program is achieving equity within the schools’ curricula.

“My belief is that we need to create, and we should have—and I really believe that we do—equitable schools in the Rockwood School District,” he said. “So whatever you get at Marquette, you should get at Lafayette, you should get at Summit, you should get at Eureka.”

However, Harris stressed that “Limited Choice is not an indictment on a school.”

“The reality is, we need to look at schools like jeans, or shoes, right? Every pair of jeans or shoes don’t fit great on every person or everybody,” Harris said. “And so some schools work better for whatever reason than other schools, and that’s OK.”

Senior Grace Martin was set to attend Eureka High School but transferred through Limited Choice to Lafayette for her freshman year. She then chose to enroll at Eureka beginning in her sophomore year, but nonetheless said Limited Choice “changed my life.”

“Although Lafayette is a wonderful school, it was not the place for me personally,” Martin said. “I personally believe that I found my experience at Eureka to be better because I felt that at Lafayette, I had started off on the wrong foot, and so having this ability to start over at a school and make the best out of my high school career was really great.”

Junior Mahmoud Safi attended Marquette but transferred to Lafayette after just one semester. He said that since transferring through Limited Choice, his high school experience has been better.

“Freshman year, first semester at Marquette did not go well for me at all, so toward the end of the semester, I transferred. The overall experience at Lafayette has been great for me since then,” Safi said.

Harris outlined some examples of how he feels the Limited Choice program would be used responsibly.

“There are three pieces, I think,” Harris said. “One: to help parents in their daily routines, and two: I think there is a social aspect and three: the academic, specialized programming aspect.”

He described an instance where he would accept a Limited Choice request in order “to help parents in their daily routines.”

“You may have a situation where mom works at a place that is closer to a school versus not. Right? So we’re really trying to make it easier for parents to be able to get their kids to school,” Harris said.

Harris also pointed to Lafayette’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) as a case where he might grant a request based on “the academic, specialized programming aspect.”

“There are some specialized programs that exist at certain schools that don’t exist at other schools. Prime example: Lafayette, you guys have ROTC,” he said. “Well, there’s no ROTC program at Rockwood Summit or Eureka. So you do have a kid that may say ‘Hey, I do really want to make the Army, and get that experience; therefore, I think it’ll be best if I try to do a Limited Choice option at Lafayette to get a head-start.’”

Additionally, Harris said he has seen the Limited Choice program used to compensate for larger class sizes rather than force Rockwood to redistrict, a procedure he said many people “don’t like the concept of.”

“There are some kids that have certain levels of anxiety, and Marquette High School has 2,400 kids,” Harris said. “There may be some kids that cannot handle that many kids in the hallway.”

Wilson said the large class size at Marquette factored into her choosing to attend Lafayette.

“At first I thought [Marquette] was [the right school for me], but honestly, it’s so crowded there, and there’s not as much one-on-one with the teachers and administrators as Lafayette,” Wilson said.

Senior Sam Nixon, who attended Marquette from freshman to junior year, also cited smaller class sizes as “a bonus” to his decision to transfer to Lafayette, which he said he likes “a lot better.”

“I just needed a change for senior year,” Nixon said. “I wanted a good senior year. I wasn’t liking it at Marquette.”

Martin said she chose to attend Eureka over Lafayette due to Lafayette’s larger student population and for social and academic reasons.

“The application process was very smooth because I was leaving a highly populated school and went to a less populated school,” Martin said. “My reasoning for transferring was more friendship and academically geared, so it looked better to the people viewing my application than some of my friends, who tried to transfer for sports and were denied.”

Harris said while there may be some instances to approve a request for “social” reasons, he believes it can be used irresponsibly.

“I think we have to be very careful with the social aspect,” he said. “It’s not, ‘I don’t like idiot teachers here this semester, so I want to Limited Choice to a different school.’ ‘This football team is horrible, so I want to Limited Choice to this school to play football.’ ‘The rules here are too strict, so I want to Limited Choice to go to this school because I heard the rules are more relaxed.’ I think those are the inappropriate uses of Limited Choice.”

Martin, however, said she views such “social reasons” as beneficial and said she does not think Rockwood should make the Limited Choice application more rigorous.

“I would like to keep [the application] how it is because, as of right now, it prioritizes kids that want to transfer for social reasons first and then will take things like sports into consideration,” Martin said. “I also really appreciated how easy it was to leave the program and go back to my district attendance school. I know some people have a hard time at a school, or old friendships change, so by keeping that exit plan available and accessible, it really made me feel like the Rockwood School District cares about their students on a social and mental health level, as well as an academic level.”

The document to apply for Limited Choice, Form 2025, notes that “Limited Choice is a privilege provided by the Rockwood School District to Rockwood residents” that “may be denied” if a student “is not successful in the Choice school.”

Still, Harris said he believes “in most situations, kids are using Limited Choice in a way that it is designed.”

“There are only a few, a small percent of kids, who are leaving one school to go to another school because they think it would be more fun or whatever crazy concept they may have about the different schools,” Harris said. “We don’t have cases where kids are really abusing the Limited Choice system.”

This story was originally published on The Lancer Feed on February 13, 2020.