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District transfer policy dominates Smithton forum discussion

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 | 11:12 p.m. CST; updated 9:04 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 16, 2011

COLUMBIA — The attendees of the district’s sixth of eight public forums on reorganizing school boundaries focused on the how the district will handle the transfer policy between high schools once a plan is chosen.

Discussion at previous forums has addressed issues such as balancing enrollment and demographics as well as making sure transportation times are feasible and travel distances are reasonable.

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About 40 people attended the forum at Smithton Middle School on Tuesday night. The secondary enrollment planning committee, the group in charge of redrawing the boundaries, made a presentation during the first half of the meeting detailing each scenario and how the transitions in the next few years will play out.

Smithton will transition to an intermediate school, serving grades six through eight, when Battle High School opens its doors in August 2013. Smithton, along with many of its surrounding neighborhoods, falls in Hickman High School territory in all of the boundary scenarios. However, many community members who do not live in those neighborhoods were very concerned with the strictness of the transfer policy the district will implement once it chooses a boundary scenario in February.

Columbia resident Peter Wilden said he thought the committee should be less lenient for transfer students when recommending a policy to the school board, which they will do in December.

"The committee needs to be very, very careful about how lenient you make the transfer policy," Wilden said. "The more lenient the policy is, the more unbalanced the district becomes, and the work that you have just done will be undone. This is a major issue that can potentially undo multiple years worth of work. This issue needs to be dealt with carefully."

Other community members emphasized the importance of a strict transfer policy in order to keep the district's demographics balanced. They stressed the need to make sure all students have equal access to district resources, such as teachers, supplies and equipment. 

Meagan Hahn, a former Columbia Public Schools student, agreed that the policy should be "monitored closely."

"When I was growing up, kids wanted to go to Rock Bridge because they wanted to go to a nicer school," Hahn said. "It is important to balance out the resources of the schools.

"It is important for all students to have the same opportunity to learn," Hahn said. "If we don't monitor the transfer policy, we could have a big imbalance in the socioeconomics of the schools. Don't punish the kids who don't live in richer neighborhoods. I like approach C."

Darin Preis, one of the committee's co-chairmen, said that he agreed the transfer policy should eventually be tightened but that he understands families have connections to certain schools and would be open to recommending a looser policy to the board for the first couple years.

"Then with the growth in the city, the demographics will have an opportunity to balance out," he said after the meeting.

Julie Keevins, who has two children in the district, said approach C is her least favorite of the proposed scenarios. 

"My kids are coming from Grant, which is getting chopped up no matter what," Keevins said. "Grant is getting divided up into three different sections. I think keeping kids together is the best idea. Given that A, B and C are my only choices, I like B the best.

George Batek, another parent, agreed with Keevins.

"Our kids and their friends have gotten split up the last couple of years. It would be nice if they could stay together for once," Batek said, echoing the sentiments of many members of the group.

Not everyone at the forum was as concerned about keeping children with groups from their elementary and intermediate schools. Darlene Grant, a member of the committee and assistant principal at Smithton, said balancing demographics should be the focus, suggesting that many kids will adapt well to new environments.

"I encourage all of the parents here to really consider that our kids are awesome, and they will rebound and make friendships," Grant said. "Right now, kids are separated when they come here (Smithton). They're all from different schools, and they meet kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds who are diverse, who they didn't go to school with for four or five years, and they leave here with amazing friendships." 

After the meeting, Preis said he was pleased with the feedback he and the committee have received from the forums. So far, the committee has received more than 750 comments, which Preis said the committee will go through on an individual basis.

The next forum will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lange Middle School, 2201 Smiley Lane.


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