Border Patrol

School systems get tough with out-of-district students

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To track down students illegitimately attending its schools, a New Jersey district has resurrected a practice from the days when outlaws roamed the Wild West: bounties.

A high school outside of Chicago, meanwhile, is relying on the tools of modern-day law enforcement to identify students who do not belong.

And elsewhere, school systems have put in place elaborate documentation programs to ferret out students who reside outside the district. The efforts are directed against students who use false home addresses to register—in some cases, inner-city youths who shift to affluent suburban districts in hopes of obtaining a better education.

The pressure to devise more inventive ways to uncover nonresident students has increased as budgets have grown tighter. Although the students in many cases would generate additional state and federal aid for the districts, the bulk of the costs of educating them must be borne by local taxpayers. “I think we're going to have to become more aggressive,” says Robert Milano, the principal of Proviso West High School in suburban Chicago. “You have to get more aggressive because tax dollars are very hard to come by. If you can reduce your enrollment, you are going to save many tax dollars.”

To do that, the Clifton, N.J., public schools have turned to bounty hunters. Because Clifton is one of the wealthier districts in New Jersey, state aid is being phased out for the 7,400-student school system under the state's school-finance-reform law.

Faced with declining revenue, the district decided that it was cheaper to pay bounties than to educate outside students. So, for every student a tipster correctly identifies, the school system pays a $100 reward. It is believed to be the first district in the nation to do so. This past school year, bounty hunters rooted out about a dozen students.

“It has the benefit of making people who might want to bring their child here think twice because they know there is a very elaborate system in place,” says Superintendent William Liess.

Once the district gets a tip, one of its part-time, $20-an-hour “residency investigators,” typically retired police officers or former teachers, begins to probe into a student's documentation. Although Liess declined to divulge most of the investigatory techniques, he says they do include home visits. If the tip checks out, the person who fingered the student gets the bounty.

Most of the students are returned to their home districts. One who was within two months of graduating was allowed to stay, Liess says, but the youth's parents were billed for tuition.

Proviso West High School, located about 15 miles outside of Chicago, has long attracted city youth willing to ride a bus or train for up to an hour and a half. “I sympathize with these kids because they want an education, but it is the taxpayers of this township who pay,” says principal Milano. “It's unfair to them to have outsiders come in and attend the high school.”

To catch those students, Milano several years ago began surveillance at the train station, watching students get off the trains that carried them from Chicago. That method was somewhat inefficient, though, because of the crush of riders getting off at the stop. So Milano turned to technology. He and his audio-visual expert videotape students at the train station and bus terminals. Then, back at the school, they can play back the tape and identify the students who do not belong at Provisio West. “The minute you show that videotape, all arguments of mistaken identity are dead,” Milano says.

Using the video camera, the school last year found about a dozen out-of-district students. As tales of the method infiltrated the student body this past year, it became less successful. “If they have any suspicion someone is right there looking for them,” Milano says, “they get right back on the train.”

The West New York, N.J., district, located directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, has become a mecca for students living in New York City. “It's not just West New York; it's all over,” says John Mirabelli, the chief attendance officer for the suburban district. “You get the urban innercity kids trying to get into the outlying area.”

To cut down on the number of youngsters attending illicitly, the district has begun to ask students for utility bills throughout the year, not just once at the beginning. Other districts also ask for apartment leases, letters from landlords, property titles, cabletelevision bills, birth certificates, and divorce decrees, among other documents.

In Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb with a highly regarded school system, students cross over from both the District of Columbia and from neighboring Prince George's County. At Blair High School, which is within walking distance of the area's commuter-rail system, school officials several years ago found about 200 out-of-district students in a total enrollment of about 2,200.

Officials concede that they made the discoveries only after the students generated extra paperwork. If they were tardy or underperforming academically, letters would go out to their parents. Returned mail triggered further investigation.

“Essentially, if a kid came to school, did a good job, and attended all of his classes, he or she probably wouldn't be discovered,” says Blair principal Phillip Gainous. “As soon as they start generating the computer work, that is usually what starts sending up the flags.”

Occasionally, a district finds that its definition of outsider does not square with the courts'. For example, a municipal court judge ordered the suburban Oak Park and River Forest high school district, located near Chicago, to accept a student whose parents, while living outside the district, had placed their names on the deed to a condominium in the community purchased by a relative. Larry Walker, the school system's associate superintendent for public services, concedes that “it is becoming more difficult to determine what constitutes residency.”

“It tears my heart out that every kid does not have access to every kind of activity we have here in this school,” Walker adds. “But I am smart enough to know that if we take in everybody, this school is not going to be any more than the [schools] they were trying to escape.”

Vol. 04, Issue 01, Pages 14-15

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