Family's Facebook campaign balks at Beaverton district school rules

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Gabrielle Van Steenberg feels trapped at Sunset High School now that the Beaverton School District is refusing to let her transfer back to Portland Public Schools where she attended last year. She has launched a 'Free Gabby' Facebook campaign to gain support for her transfer back to Lincoln High.   A new rule limiting transfers between school districts between Portland and Washington County schools is causing grief for some families.

One, in particular, is a 16-year-old Lincoln High School student who — until this school year — has been living with her family in a downtown apartment and enjoying the school’s prestigious drama program.

Gabrielle Van Steenberg thought she was finally settled, having bounced between schools in Illinois and Arizona a whopping 12 times due to her parents’ job situations and housing changes.

This summer, however, after a year at Lincoln, she was uprooted again.

“Our apartment was assigned to someone else out from underneath us,” says her mother, Monica Van Steenberg. “We had three weeks to move.”

Steenberg says she scoured the city looking for someplace the family could afford. They needed a two-bedroom to accommodate herself and her husband, Gabby and her 9-year-old sister.

The only place they could find, Monica says, was in Cedar Hills, just across the city line in the Beaverton School District.

“We took it, hoping we could get Beaverton and Portland Public Schools to agree” to allow Gabby to remain at Lincoln, she says.

A year ago, there would’ve been a high likelihood of that happening. Beaverton approved three of four requests for transfers out of the district last year.

Now, however, Beaverton is one of seven Washington County districts that have cracked down on transfers.

The reason? Each student comes with about $6,000 in per-pupil funding from the state. The money follows the student to whichever district he or she enrolls.

Through a law adopted by the Legislature last summer, Beaverton — as well as Hillsboro, Banks, Forest Grove, Gaston, Sherwood and Tigard-Tualatin — have sole control of whether they’ll release any of their students to another district.

Gabby and her family found out about it after getting a curt form letter from Beaverton in response to an inter-district transfer request.

It didn’t matter that Portland had approved their transfer. Beaverton’s Department of Teaching and Learning, which handles the requests, makes the decision, and does not have an appeals process.

So Gabby started the school year as a junior at Beaverton’s Sunset High School, where she has classes of 45-plus students and a drama program that is not as specialized or focused as Lincoln’s.

Her family has launched a “Free Gabby” Facebook campaign to call attention to the issue.

“It’s just been a long road for us economically,” says Monica Van Steenberg, who ironically works as a transfer administration specialist at Portland State University.

Her husband has gone from job to job, including bouts of unemployment, although he currently works as a concierge in the Pearl District.

“This is totally not a war on the school district,” Monica Van Steenberg says, noting that her younger daughter is happy at her new school, Ridgewood Elementary School in Cedar Hills.

Both she and Gabby say they’re dismayed at how they feel the school district turned a blind eye to their situation.

“I feel like I wasn’t heard, I guess,” says Gabby, who wants to go on to study drama and business in college. “The sad truth is, it would’ve been easier to lie (about their address), and that feels crappy. Plenty of kids do that. But I’d rather we did it the right way. And it’s sad it’s like that.”

Boundary rules

Gabby isn’t the only student who didn’t get her hoped-for transfer. Beaverton denied 175 requests for transfer out of the district this year, according to spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler. Another 74 were granted because they were grandfathered in. And the district allowed 130 students to leave the district — only to attend other Washington County schools as per the agreement.

In Portland Public Schools, meanwhile, enrollment and transfer director Judy Brennan says she considers and tries to accommodate families’ extenuating circumstances whenever possible.

“Generally, once a student starts in a school, we do our best to allow them to remain,” she says. “Particularly midway through the high school career, students have made academic decisions, they’re set to do certain course work, they have really difficult life decisions they’re facing. Being in a stable situation makes sense. ... Having a stable group of peers, counselors, teachers that their family knows makes a difference in helping to face those challenges.”

One of her office’s biggest challenges, she says, is keeping on top of those address cheaters who think they can skirt the boundary rules.

She says district officials use what technology and information they can to double-check residency information.

“There aren’t a lot of human resources to do verification,” she says, “but you’d be surprised at how many anonymous tips we can follow up on.”

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