For Some Schools, State Border Is Academic

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Before a bridge was built in the 1950s, some students from western Pennsylvania's Beaver County rode a ferry across the Ohio River to schools in West Virginia and Ohio. High school athletes would row small boats back home after late-afternoon practices.

Years ago, informal agreements between neighboring districts in the adjoining states allowed students and their families a choice of schools, which they made based on proximity to their homes or a parent's workplace, or for a preferred curriculum or program.

These days, there are far fewer options for students in Midland, Pa., about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Although there are more than half a dozen high schools within a 10-minute drive inside Beaver County, where the small steel town is located, 120 Midland students must travel the six miles across state lines to attend classes in East Liverpool, Ohio. And this spring, officials hope to extend that arrangement for another two decades.

Such agreements between districts in different states appear to be rare, according to Kathy Christie, the coordinator of the information clearinghouse for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

But some tiny border communities around the country are finding them more cost-effective than operating their own schools or sending students to more-distant districts within their own states. Sometimes, too, transporting small groups of children to larger districts beyond their borders ensures their access to a wider array of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities.

At the same time, though, the practice raises difficult questions about local control, state pride, and school traditions. Midland, for example, which has won five Pennsylvania state basketball championships, now sends its best players out of state.

Steel-Town Woes

A dozen years ago, Lincoln High School, which had served generations of Midland residents since 1920, was closed after the steel industry faltered and enrollments dipped.

Students would have preferred to stay local, but the district in nearby Beaver Falls, which took them in for a few years, failed to renew the contract several years ago. The 13 other districts in the county assert they have no room for them. Offers to merge with some of the smaller districts, which have also experienced dwindling enrollments in recent years, were rejected.

For Midland school officials, and those in some other districts, the opportunity to go outside their own state has been the best option. Even so, exporting students, and state and local tuition dollars, across state lines makes some folks uneasy.

"Our board is pleased that we have a good neighbor in Ohio," said Superintendent Nick Trombetta of the 500-student Midland district. Midland and East Liverpool, its Buckeye State neighbor, share working-class struggles and values, Mr. Trombetta said, and have long sent their citizens over state lines to work. And the arrangement, for which Midland pays $4,400 in tuition per student, saves some $3,000 over the cost of the contract with Beaver Falls.

"But it is a bittersweet feeling. We're still a guest in someone else's house," Mr. Trombetta added. "There are empty seats in this county, but people don't want to share the decisionmaking. It's an embarrassment to Pennsylvania that we could not [educate] these students in this state."

Beaver Falls school officials did not return calls for comment.

No Boundaries

Still, in Midland and other places, geography, similar demographics, and a desire to provide the best education available all bridge the divide between states.

Districts in Emmons, Minn., and Lake Mills, Iowa, have been swapping students since 1991, allowing more academic choices for parents and students. The combined enrollments of the two districts is barely over 1,000 students.

"Why should we let a state boundary limit educational opportunities for kids?" said Superintendent Daryl Sherman of Lake Mills, which has 820 students compared with the Emmons district's enrollment of 200.

When Cloudland Elementary School in Carter County, Tenn., was flooded last year, the natural inclination was to turn to neighboring North Carolina to find temporary classroom space for the more than 200 students displaced by the damage. The school is leasing a vacant school building from the 2,400-student Avery County, N.C., district north of Asheville.

And in Alpine County, Calif., the 15-minute drive to a high school and middle school in Nevada is far less treacherous than the snowbound mountain passes that lead to those within the Golden State. The district buses 50 or so of its 200 students each day to Minden, Nev., where many Alpine County residents work, shop, and spend their free time.

"Until the 1960s, you could not get to Alpine County from California," said Alpine Superintendent James W. Parsons. "In terms of community, we are more Nevadans than Californians."

Yet there are some challenges in such arrangements. So as not to wear out their welcome, home districts generally run their own alternative schools for students with discipline problems. Students who take driver's education at an out-of-state school may also have to take tests in their home states.

And, while students end up earning diplomas from their adopted states, the trend in creating higher state standards and assessments hasn't seemed to disrupt such pacts. Although Pennsylvania officials were concerned with the Midland arrangement, the state auditor determined last month after an exhaustive study that Ohio's high school curriculum met Pennsylvania's academic standards as well.

Local standards in the Lake Mills, Iowa, district closely match those in Minnesota, and those in California and Nevada are also quite compatible, officials say.

Despite the solution Midland has found for its educational woes, officials there say the pact with its cross-border neighbor is not a permanent fix. There is always the fear that a change in political or educational leadership could jeopardize the arrangement.

"Although things going well," Mr. Trombetta said, "we are only one politician away on either side of the border from saying either come home or go home."

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