Traditionally in education, students have attended the public school in the attendance zone where their family lived.
There were some exceptions and some specific programs, such as gifted or special education, where the students were set apart for a limited time or the whole day. But most students still were enrolled in the school designated by zones.
Today, parents and students have a variety of choices of schools and programs and can choose to attend school in other areas where there is space available.
More than 3,600 students attended schools outside their attendance zones during the 2016-17 school year in the Gainesville and Hall County districts.
“When you look at the push across Georgia and across the nation, school choice is one of the biggest topics right now because you’re putting that decision back into the hands of the parents,” said Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams.
“For me, I’m a little more traditional as far as sticking to an attendance zone where you live. I also know that when you have options it does allow a little more of that ownership and allow the school pride to increase. So what Gainesville’s had in place for years has been successful.”
House Bill 251, which passed in Georgia in 2009, allows students to attend school outside their attendance zones as long as there is classroom space available. Students can stay in the school until they finish the grades for that school, with parents generally responsible for transportation costs.
Gainesville and Hall County have offered school choice for more than a decade. Gainesville provides transportation for its students except those who want to attend the new Mundy Mill Academy from other attendance zones.
Numbers provided by the Gainesville district showed 1,710 of the 4,108 elementary students chose to attend a school outside their school attendance zone during the 2016-17 academic year. The number represents 41.6 percent of the elementary student population and 21.5 percent of the total enrollment in the district.
Gainesville schools breakdown
Gainesville has only one middle and one high school and therefore does not have choice options for students in grades 6 through 12.
Hall County had 1,947 students in the district, 7.1 percent, attending schools outside their attendance zones in 33 different schools during the last school year. The number is up about 100 students from two years ago.
“I think all of us, whether it comes to the kind of toothpaste we use or the education we receive, appreciate a choice in terms of what we believe fits the best,” said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see that the trend that we’re seeing continue to accelerate as we move forward and as we have more and more choices.”
Scofield added that “thousands” of other students are exercising choice through school-within-a-school programs, where the students are separated into a separate program and curriculum even though they may be based in their home attendance zone. Some of those include The Advanced Scholars Academy at Riverbend Elementary, The Da Vinci Academy at South Hall Middle and International Baccalaureate Diploma program at Johnson, North Hall and West Hall high schools.
Laurie Ecke, assistant director for innovative and Advanced Programs in Hall County, said 2,041 middle and high school students were a part of these programs during the 2016-17 school year. The number of elementary students involved in the school-within-a-school programs was not available.
”If you really started talking about the number of students/ families that are taking advantage of some sort of school choice, it’s pretty significant,” Schofield said. “It is one of the most robust choice programs for a district this size that I have ever seen anywhere and we certainly think that’s a positive thing for our families.”
Gainesville has been offering school choice for elementary schools for about 14 years, according to Priscilla Collins, chief professional services officer.
“It’s just a way of life in the city, so the parents know they have that option of choose whichever school they want their child to attend,” said Collins, who has worked in the district 25 years.
She added that each of the elementary schools in the district has a different emphasis, which allow parents and students to make choices based on a student’s specific interest. She added that each of the schools meets the same state standards.
The Gainesville school numbers showed that 61 percent of Fair Street International Academy students transferred to the school from outside the Fair Street attendance zone, the highest percentage in Gainesville. New Holland Knowledge Academy had 55 percent of its students from other district zones, but Collins said that was likely because New Holland houses all nine of the school system’s pre-kindergarten classes and parents often put all their kids into the school with their pre-K child.
Fair Street Principal Will Campbell credits his school’s tradition as the oldest school in the system with the high percentage of transfer students.
“There are a lot of families who went to Fair Street when they were children and they want their kids to go to Fair Street,” said Campbell, who has been at the school since 2006 and principal since 2008. “We have multiple generations of kids and who want to come back to their school that they went to growing up.”
Campbell added school choice offers pros and cons.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “It is great that parents get an opportunity to choose what school their child goes to, but another unintended consequence of school choice is we have self-segregated our schools.”
Williams said he understands Campbell’s concerns.
“It’s definitely a concern,” he said. “I don’t know the ethnicity makeup of the students who come from outside (attendance zones). I definitely see Will’s point and how that could happen.”
Hall County has been offering choice for 11 years. Lanier Career Academy (100 percent) World Language Academy (82 percent) are listed as the schools with the district’s highest percentage of transfers, but neither have true attendance zones, according to school officials. Martin Elementary is the next highest with 23 percent of its students coming from outside its attendance zone.
“I believe that the number of families choosing to transfer has increased because they find the school or program that best fits their child’s strengths and interests,” Ecke said, referring to the many schools and programs of choice in the district.
Allowing families to choose the school that best fits their child’s strengths and interests allows them to find the most powerful learning environment for each child.
“The only negative that I have heard from parents involves the challenge of making a choice,” she added. “Many years ago, parents simply sent their children to the zoned school; now they are making decisions about the optimal learning environment that fits their child starting as early as kindergarten.”
New Holland’s kindergarten classes are the only place where the district is at capacity and does not have room for choice students in the 2017-18 school year, according to Collins. Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Hall County, said six schools — Chestnut Mountain and Spout Springs elementary schools, Davis and South Hall middle and Johnson and Flowery Branch high schools — are at capacity for 2017-18.
Schofield has said Davis, South Hall, Johnson and Flowery Branch will have room for transfers from other attendance zones in the 2018-19 year when a new middle school and new high school are set to open in South Hall.