COLUMBIA — Community members at Smithton, Lange and Gentry middle school forums during the last two weeks have been split over which redistricting priorities are most important.
This month's forums were designed to gather feedback for what the priorities are when redrawing attendance areas for Columbia's middle, junior and high schools.
The Intermediate Schools Steering Committee will be taking suggestions and community feedback for the new intermediate schools serving grades six through eight at three World Cafes in April:
- 6 to 8 p.m., April 7 at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, 201 Park DeVille Drive.
- 6 to 8 p.m., April 12 at Mill Creek Elementary School, 2200 W. Nifong Blvd.
- 6 to 8 p.m., April 13 at Derby Ridge Elementary School, 4000 Derby Ridge Drive.
At the forum Thursday night at Gentry, residents emphasized the potential difficulties with transporting students to schools across town from where they live. Parents were worried about travel times, as well as the safety of student drivers. At Smithton, though, the topic of conversation among parents was diversity.
Kent Welch, father of a fourth-grader at Lee Elementary School, said although he does not want to drive a "ridiculous distance" to get his daughter to school, he thinks diversity in schools is worth the time spent driving.
"Having one child, I was willing to drive her," Welch said at the Smithton forum last week. "It's that simple. I would still choose that for her high school. I wouldn't say everyone could, or should, but I will."
Parents at Tuesday's Lange forum said they didn't know there was such a disparity of poverty levels at the schools. The district will try to balance diversity among the schools by looking at the socioeconomic status of all the students in the district, said Don Ludwig, secondary enrollment planning committee chair.
"It seems like a very big job because I know that as much as we want to stay where we live, we have to balance the disparity out," resident Trish Epperson said.
For many parents, the safety of student drivers was a top priority. Of the about 25 people at the Gentry forum, more than half raised their hands to agree that travel time and safety were their largest concerns in the redistricting process.
Ludwig assured parents at all forums that members of the committee would be driving routes between the schools once boundaries are drawn to ensure the routes are reasonable.
At all three middle school forums, the importance of having children transition through buildings with the same group of students was also divided.
"I worry about those transitions for my son," Committee Co-Chair Darin Preis said at the Smithton forum. "He's probably going to be fine, no matter what."
Tanya Alberty, mother of a fourth-grader at Midway Heights Elementary School, said less transition is good for students because her son is shy.
"It's really important that they transfer as a school, or at least by a team," Alberty said.
In the middle schools, "teaming" allows students to take classes with the same group of kids. It lets them build closer relationships with each other and with teachers.
Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said at the Gentry forum that moving students by team might be a possibility as they look at restructuring intermediate school programming in April.
Parents who disagreed with the idea of moving kids together as a group said they think their children can handle the changes, even though it can be difficult at first.
Ludwig also said the committee would be reasonable when looking at how to balance diversity and travel time.
We don't want to have "4,500 kids changing to solve a 1,700-kid problem," Ludwig said at the Smithton forum. "So we'll be careful about that."
Now that the community forums are completed, committee members will meet to begin discussing options for how the boundaries can be drawn. They will then come back to the community in September to gather more feedback before the presentation to the School Board in December.
"I want to minimize the impact for my child as much as possible," Alberty said. "When it comes down to it, you're the only advocate for your kid."