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Assignment: How to best address School Choice

By Staff | Oct 8, 2011

Before the Lee County School District implements any major changes to student assignment, they are waiting for a consulting service to survey the community to hear any concerns regarding the plan.

Superintendent Dr. Joseph Burke said the district first needs to have a community survey done so the district can get a true sense of how the community is looking at the whole issue of student assignment before moving forward.

“We are one step closer to getting on board with a reputable company outside of the district, potentially outside of Florida, that will do a comprehensive survey for us with the opinion of the community,” he said.

The survey will address topics such as school choice, current method of student assignment, programs the public wants to see in grades K-8, along with the perception of graduates’ readiness for college and careers and parent involvement.

The school district released a request for proposals from interested consulting services on Sept. 15, with proposals due to the district no later than Oct. 7.

The recommended RFP for consulting services will be voted on at the Oct. 25 board meeting. Once the contract is awarded the firm will be responsible of conducting the surveys, analyzing, interpreting and reporting the results, along with presenting the findings.

School Board Chair Thomas Scott said before they have the opportunity to save money, streamline the system and allow students to get into schools closer to home, they have to get a reaction from the entire community about student assignment.

“We will be looking at the following school year, if we determine there are some things to be done,” Scott said about implementing changes.

The school board also received a 13-question survey on Sept. 16 that asked for members’ thoughts on student assignment.

Eighty percent of the board’s goal regarding student assignment dealt with reduction in transportation costs, 60 percent was for reduction in bus ride lengths and 60 percent was to create neighborhood schools.

Transportation Director Robert Morgan said when they shorten the routes for bus drivers, they do not accomplish anything concerning labor.

“The bus operators have a longer time between the runs to get to the next school,” he said. This means they have to go somewhere and sit before heading to their next run.

Morgan said to save money they have to strategically plan for buses to do runs for three schools instead of two.

“Change the middle tier, so the bus has the opportunity to do a third tier,” he said. “I am not advocating all bus drivers doing three routes.”

Morgan said the three-tier plan would not accommodate all of the buses, but instead a select group of schools that are close to each other.

For the three-tier plan to work the bell times would have to be in accordance with the transportation department for efficiency.

Burke said they will begin to make some strategic decisions with bell schedules to position the district in a better posture next year.

The change in tiers, Morgan believes, could save the district $2 million the first year.

Chief Administrator Officer Alberto Rodriguez said it is a smarter, more strategic way of using existing resources for lower cost, which is not taking one minute of instructional time away from the schools.

Board member Jane Kuckel said she thought the idea is worth a try, but would cautiously phase it in.

The board members also voiced their opinions on what degree of choice parents should have for elementary, middle and high school in the survey.

According to data the district collected, Board member Mary Fischer wants all schools to be limited to current zones; Board Member Jeanne Dozier would like elementary and high schools to be in limited to current zones, middle be limited to current zones with restricted schools in an area; Kuckel would like all three to be limited to restricted schools within an area; Scott would like elementary schools to boundary only, middle limited to current zones and high schools unlimited; and Board member Don Armstrong would like elementary and middle school to be boundary only and high school limited to current zones.

Because of student assignment, parents are faced with proximity preference 1 placements for their children. The first placement is for students who live within zero to approximately a two-mile radius from the school, which are typically those who walk or are dropped off. Bus transportation is typically not provided to these students unless there is an unsafe circumstance.

Student choice falls into proximity preference 1 because parents are ranking schools. The schools that are up to a two mile radius from their home are more likely to be granted that school during the first batch application period because it is closest to their home.

Burke said they are planning on putting a number of changes into place for student assignment for the 2012-2013 school year, which includes a second proximity.

Student Assignment Director Leila Muvdi said they are proposing proximity preference two (P2) to the batch one process for the 2012-2013 school year, which will give parents another ranking preference. The second proximity would provide transportation for students.

She said P2 is under way now, due to investigating what number would be ideal, regarding the radius a student’s home is located from a school.

“We are researching what that magic number is,” Muvdi said, adding it will most likely be between a 3.5- to 5-mile radius from the student’s home.

She said P2 will get people closer to home, while allowing shorter bus rides. In addition, P2 will provide more than one school option due to the number of schools located within that radius.

Again, marking P2 as a first choice during batch one will allow a greater chance of being assigned to that school.

Students who live beyond the P2 radius from any school will not receive a proximity preference.

Rules need to be established by mid November to implement P2 for batch one in January.

Due to school choice, there are currently 318 students who are riding the bus for more than 90 minutes. Of those students 236 are attending their first choice school; 53 were assigned in years prior and have not re-applied for a new school; 20 are not in their first or second choice; 31 are ESE students and it is their only option, and 24 are assigned to magnet arts or IB programs.

Charter schools also plays a role in student assignment.

Burke said charter school assumptions have changed since August when the last board workshop concerning student assignment was held.

“Our assumption is students currently attending charter schools will continue to attend charter schools,” Burke said. “Many of those charter schools can make an independent decision of increasing their enrollment of as much as 15 percent.”

The district expects the charter school enrollment to increase over the next several years.

The FY12 enrollment for public charter schools in Lee County is 11,207 students. There is a capacity enrollment of 18,606 students for the 25 approved charter schools, which accounts for 7,399 vacancies.

There are a total of 11 proposed public charter school requests for FY13 that have a capacity of enrolling a total of 8,001 students.

Burke said another issue the district is faced with is equity of access to programs.

“There are more options for arts and art magnets in the south zone than there are in the east and west zone,” Burke said. “It is an issue and it is something, quite frankly, that we need to address long term no matter what we decide on neighborhood schools.”

According to the board survey, they either wanted students to have access to programs in the current zone, every school, or in every small zone.

A new factor that affects student assignment in the is the class size amendment.

“It is currently driving a tremendous amount of decision making of student assignments and where they need to go,” Burke said. “We have to meet that class size requirement at the class level.”

Scott said it will be easier to make a decision about student assignment due to solid information that was presented to them.

“We are doing it to make opportunities for students that come through our system to meet their personal potential,” he said.

Kuckel agreed that the more data they are presented with the better their decision will be about student assignment.