Columbia high school forums focus on transfer policy, school equality

Friday, March 4, 2011 | 7:37 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 a.m. CST, Sunday, March 6, 2011
In the 2013-14 school year, a new high school will open in Columbia. That same year, middle school and junior high will be combined into intermediate school for grades 6 to 8, while high school will cover grades 9 to 12. The chart shows what this will mean for students in the school system now.

COLUMBIA — Before school boundaries are rearranged in the next few years, district parents, teachers and community member say they want changes in the high schools.

The transition facing Columbia's school district is now under scrutiny because nearly all boundaries will be redrawn to accommodate a new high school opening in 2013.

Forums last week at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools were the first opportunities for public comment. 

During the next three weeks, similar sessions will be held at junior high and middle schools so members from all areas of the district can consider the proposed changes and provide feedback.

So far, concerns have centered around these issues:

  • Whether the district's transfer policy is too lenient among the high schools.
  • Whether student demographics are skewed against Hickman.
  • How the elementary schools will feed into intermediate schools and eventually into the high schools.
  • How far students must travel to reach a designated school.

When Muriel Battle High School opens in fall 2013, all ninth graders will be housed in the high schools and the middle and junior high schools will become six intermediate schools serving grades 6-8.

The district's transfer policy seems to be at the heart of the concerns already raised by the community. The common sentiment is that it is too easy to obtain permission to transfer.

Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education, agreed the current transfer policy is relatively lenient, and few requests are rejected.

“This year we had 40 individuals who wanted to transfer from Hickman to Rock Bridge, and we had 32 that wanted to transfer from Rock Bridge to Hickman,” she said at the Rock Bridge forum Thursday.

Some parents and teachers at the Hickman forum labeled the district’s policy as too accommodating. Because students can transfer easily, high school demographics can become skewed.

Community members said this puts Hickman at a disadvantage because it has a higher poverty rate than Rock Bridge, according to the data from Free and Reduced Lunch. This affects pride and reputation, they said.

“One of ways we can control school demographics is really tightening up and limiting transfers,” Tony Gragnani,  social studies teacher and soccer coach, said at Hickman's forum Tuesday. “Every year I have to worry about kids transferring to Rock Bridge.”

"We don’t want Hickman to be an inner-city school," said Darin Preis, the secondary enrollment planning committee co-chair.

"That has been on the top of our minds from the beginning — balancing things out so we don’t have that perception of one school being worse."

Arnel Monroe, special education teacher at Hickman, argued at the Rock Bridge forum that transfers will continue until the community decides to create an equal playing field for all district students.

“If we’re not going to move people around to demographically make things equal,” Monroe said, “then we’re going to have to foot the bill to pay to make those educational areas equal.”

Jan Mees, a member of the board, said balancing demographics is a priority when considering attendance boundaries, but it could affect transportation costs and time spent on buses.

"It's going to cost us more as a school district, perhaps, to transport them farther," Mees said Tuesday.

Parents also wondered whether moving students into new schools as they progress from kindergarten to high school would be a benefit or detriment.

Darlene Grant, an assistant principal at Smithton Middle School, said she "encourages the schools to create opportunity for those students to mix. They're resilient; they’re going to make friends wherever they go."

The next forums will be held Tuesday at West Junior High School and Thursday at Jefferson Junior High School.

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