As metro areas grow, school lines shift. Several districts are in the midst of redistricting, and the process is rife with emotions, recriminations and strife.
Many homeowners contend that they bought their homes because of the local schools and rebel when they’re told five years later that their fifth grader will now be leaving friends and the familiar to journey to a new school.
My mailbox is full of e-mails from parents across metro Atlanta telling me about proposed redistrictings that they feel send their children to either a less successful school or a school where the kids won’t know anyone. Some of the parents have maps to show how their small area is being carved out to attend a new school while everyone around them is staying put.
They often report that the school board members carefully drew the maps so their own kids or grandkids or constituents have the least turmoil. (Such accusations are common in DeKalb where most changes are perceived to have a political subtext.)
The overriding questions that has to be asked in redistricting is whether there is overcrowding and whether shifting lines alleviates the problem. If the answer is “yes,” then the next question is how to make the shift in a way that makes sense and disrupts the fewest neighborhoods.
I would like folks here to consider whether it should be important for school boards to preserve feeders or take into consideration preserving intact neighborhoods. I understand the issue for parents, although I would argue that neighborhood friendships matter most in elementary school when proximity often determines after-school playmates and less in high school when teens have greater mobility and can easily get to a friend’s house four miles away.
When I attended the DeKalb hearings on school closings and later on redistricting, I thought the school board was facing an impossible task as no parents wanted their children moved to a new school, even if the school was three miles away.
Someone is going to have to move in redistricting. How do school boards decide? Is there a better way?
And should socio-economics play a role? Increasingly, schools are looking for a balance of incomes among their student bodies, as too much poverty concentrated in a single school can set it on a track for failure. So, while districts no longer jerry-rig lines to balance race in schools, they can diversify schools by socio-economics. (See this blog on effort to do so in one North Carolina district.)
Take a look at this good AJC story today on the redistricting angst in Gwinnett:
Here is an excerpt:
Gwinnett Schools is redistricting to relieve overcrowding at Peachtree Ridge High, which has 3,226 students, but room for only 2,800. Hull Middle, which is 700 students over capacity, has reached an enrollment of 2,409 – more than many small colleges.
The district’s initial plan to balance enrollment sent some of Peachtree Ridge’s poorest neighborhoods, in the shadows of Gwinnett Place Mall, to Duluth schools.
“I don’t think the original split 10 years ago was done in a way that would balance the demographics,” said Mayor Nancy Harris who served as principal of Harris Elementary, a school in Duluth named after her father. “It caused Duluth High to really have to regroup.”
About half of Duluth High students qualify for free or discounted lunch compared to 32 percent of Peachtree Ridge High students. Duluth feeder schools have a Title I campus that receives federal aid, Chesney Elementary with an 81 percent poverty rate. No Peachtree Ridge feeder schools have that designation. Yet 290 of Peachtree Ridge’s Mason Elementary students are slated to be moved to Chesney, a poorer, slightly lower performing school. Mason is only 13 students over capacity, according to Gwinnett Schools.
Like most metro Atlanta school distrcts, Gwinnett does not consider socio-economics when school boundary lines are drawn to relieve overcrowding.
“We don’t sort students,” said Mary Kay Murphy, the board member who represents Duluth and parts of Peachtree Ridge.
But national experts say that socio-economics should play a role.
“It creates a burden on resources on a school when you have a greater population of poor students … than others in a community,” said Michael Zuba, a senior planner with Milone & MacBroom consultants which advise schools on redistricting. ”You want to spread it out a bit.”
The drain of wealth from Duluth has led to flight and disparities in school programs, though academically Peachtree Ridge and Duluth feeder schools meet and exceed academic expectations on standardized tests and rank among Newsweek magazine’s top 1,000 high schools. Duluth High’s average SAT score is 1556 compared to 1549 for Peachtree Ridge. Peachtree Ridge has a 92 percent graduation rate compared to the Duluth’s 88 percent.
Participation in the Duluth High band dropped from about 100 members to 60 members since the split. “The dues are $500 a student, people can’t afford it like they used to,” said band parent David Lowry.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled