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School District looking at student assignment options

By Staff | Aug 17, 2011

The School Board of Lee County will continue to evaluate School Choice.

After many hours of discussion following a presentation of student assignment by school board staff, the consensus by the board was to hold additional meetings, along with getting input from the community to see if they are happy with the existing plan.

Superintendent Dr. Joseph Burke began the workshop Tuesday afternoon by telling the board that there are many issues that must be addressed in any school assignment plan. He said the three alternative models to be presented do not necessarily exhaust everything the district can do to improve things for the students, but rather, provide some options.

Overall, Burke told the board that he did not want to make a decision that could potentially have an impact on how the district does academically.

“Our students are really at stake here,” he said. “There are significant challenges in front of us.”

Mike Smith, director of planning, growth and student capacity, said the district cannot talk about methods of student assignment without addressing exceptional education.

Before the three models were presented, a history of student assignment was provided to the board to give them some background information of how the Choice method began in the district.

It traces back to a 1964 lawsuit, Rosalind Blalock vs. Lee County Schools, which led to the desegregating of the school system in 1969-1970 by implementing a boundary system. From 1970-1995 the district addressed issues of boundary changes and long bus rides for minority students. In 1996, the school district adopted a new policy that would provide school choice during the 1998-1999 school year. In 1997, the final boundary changes were made for the district.

The mobility rate between schools during the 1997-98 school year was 20.9 percent, which decreased to 10.8 percent during the 2010-11 school year due to parents having a choice of where they want to send their children. Approximately 84 percent of students assigned to a specific school remain there for the entire school year.

With the current student assignment plan, students are”grandfathered” into the school of their choice to the highest level. In other words, a kindergarten student can stay at the same school through fifth grade.

Smith told the board that he is not suggesting that the options presented were the only plans that might be available, but rather some scenarios they could study and consider. He did not bring any recommendations to the board Tuesday.

When the reduction of boundary sizes are taken into consideration, Smith said the more complicated and costly the operations would become for student assignment. He said that the board would probably have to form a long-term, permanent standing committee to continue looking at boundary changes because frequent boundary changes would be required for anticipated growth change.

The first potential modification at the elementary level that was presented to the school board included 48 “boundary” schools.

Smith said this scenario would be one continuous boundary for each school that included every square foot of the district. Although it has some advantages, under this model the district would lose diversity in the schools, he said.

“Without any reservation, we would be moving elementary boundaries every year in some place,” he said. “Under this system of 48 boundaries, more than 23,000 students would have to change schools to fit into this configuration. The vast majority of students assigned to elementary schools are not accommodated in this structure.”

Another model included modified zones of 15 clusters that would include 12 zones with three barrier island boundary schools and a 12 cluster model with eight zones and four boundary schools.

Smith said the 15 cluster plan is a very tight utilization pattern and the 12 cluster plan provides parents with fewer choices of schools.

“It takes away choices,” he said. “Anytime you reduce size of assignment area you reduce diversity that you can assign to these schools.”

Once the presentation was over the district expressed how pleased they were with the information-packed presentation. A popular theme amongst the board was to go out to the community and receive input concerning what parents want for their district.

Board Member Don Armstrong said the district needs to do some type of survey to judge what the public believes and thinks about school choice.

“It is important that we engage their opinion,” he said. “We can go out there and see what the public wants.”

Armstrong said he also wants to hold another workshop in the near future, so the board can have another chance to look at research. He said this is not a decision they can make over night.

Board Member Jane Kuckel said she learned a lot from the presentation. She said student assignment is a very complex problem that she does not believe the public completely understands.

Kuckel said she would like to look into modifications of the current assignment program that is in effect right now before diving into the models.

“We need another workshop now to kind of go back and look closely at what we might modify here to make it cost neutral or cost saving,” she said.

Board member Mary Fischer agreed that the information presented was very informative and she learned a lot about student assignment.

“Having it presented really brought it home,” she said.

Board Chairman Tom Scott said the focus of the presentations Tuesday was about elementary schools.

“We need to take small steady steps,” he said. “We need to take this a little bit at a time and move it along the way.”

Scott agrees that they need to get information back from their “customers.” He said a survey would help them determine what the community understands and does not understand, along with what they like and do not like.

“I recommend we have another workshop not too far down the line to come back with some of the issues we are talking about,” Scott said.

Burke said the comments that were made Tuesday afternoon made a lot of sense to him. He said the current system is not broken, but there is transportation costs associated with the choice plan in place.

He mentioned that there are a few things they can do to address some of the issues the district is facing.

“There are some things we can do in the immediate future that might be helpful to us,” Burke said.

The first option the district has, he said, is aligning the opening of the new elementary and middle school next year.

“It is worthwhile for us to consider the possibility that they might open with a theme that replicates one of the programs that is a popular program,” Burke said. “Consider that as a possibility for no other reason than it meets a community need and decreases transportation costs further by providing shorter routes.”

They should also engage some outside agency to help the board design and implement a survey of the community in regard to the student assignment issue, he added.

The next workshop concerning student assignment will take place in September.