COLUMBIA — Over the next two weeks, the committee in charge of realigning Columbia's school boundaries will be putting community input into action.
Members of the secondary enrollment planning committee met Thursday at Columbia Public Schools' central office to discuss how they would use community feedback to recommend two school boundary scenarios to the Board of Education.
The committee was tasked with redrawing the attendance boundaries of Columbia’s schools to include Battle High School, which will open in August 2013. Middle and junior high schools will also be recombined to serve grades six through eight in 2013, the year changes will take effect.
After a summer of drawing lines and calculating corresponding enrollment and demographic statistics, the district decided on three intermediate maps and three high school maps, dubbed approaches A, B and C.
Since the district presented these maps on Oct. 27, about 650 comments have piled into the district’s servers from a comment form on its website. Combined with comment cards placed at schools and those spoken by parents at eight community forums, the total number of comments exceeds 1,000.
Committee members’ discussion at Thursday’s meeting cited several statements parents made in person at the forums and focused less on opinions expressed online or in comment cards.
Don Ludwig, the committee’s chairman, said the 1,000 comments were divided up about evenly among three subgroups of the committee's 22 members. Each group read the comments assigned to them. He said it was impossible for every committee member to read every comment, but the themes repeated most often were transitions between schools, the board’s transfer policies and drive times.
“One group said we didn’t do enough of one thing, and another group said we did too much, so to me that means we did a good job,” said Darin Preis, one of the committee’s co-chairs.
Preis added that the committee’s most important concern is drawing boundaries that make sense.
The committee decided on four significant changes it will experiment with on paper in the month of December in response to community feedback. They are:
- Moving about 100 students between Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools to balance enrollment.
- Moving the western half of Russell Elementary's split attendance area into one intermediate school. This would only affect intermediate approach B.
- Addressing overlapping districts for Lange and Oakland intermediate schools. The two are about a mile apart, with overlapping circles on the maps indicating walk-to-school zones.
- Deciding how to deal with the splintering of classes as they transition between schools.
Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education and one of the committee’s co-chairs, said it was important to distinguish between examining different options and making permanent changes.
“The terminology needs to be, ‘We’re looking at this,’” Brown said. “Maybe we won’t change anything.”
Ludwig indicated that the committee would not recommend intermediate approach A to the board, based on its unpopularity with the community. He stressed that there are no final decisions yet, though. The committee is still waiting on updated enrollment data for the 2011 school year.
The committee depends on this data to make its recommendations to the school board, and the board will need a final boundary plan before it can make decisions on related policies.
One data set Ludwig spoke about during the meeting showed all the siblings of high school students who will be moved under new boundary lines. Ludwig gathered this information to inform the board of how its transfer policies would affect enrollment at the high schools.
Brown has said that the board’s decision on its transfer policy would come after it had made its final choice on boundaries, probably in late January or February.
Another data set projected which intermediate schools students would go to under approaches B and C, depending on what elementary school boundary they live in. Intermediate approach A was not part of the data set.
Included in the data was a percent of change between where students would go under current boundaries and where they would go under approaches B and C. The comparisons are not between identical things because middle schools and junior highs will become intermediate schools. Still, they show how changes will affect students in grades six through eight.
In intermediate approach C, an average of 59 percent of middle school students and 62 percent of junior high students will be placed in a different intermediate school. In intermediate approach B, an average of 54 percent of middle school students and 74 percent of junior high students will be in a different intermediate school.
Even though these projections use 2010 data, they indicate that attendance areas will be greatly affected by boundary shifts.
The same data sets show how different groups of students living in an elementary school attendance area will be divided into different intermediate schools. In some cases, the majority of a school goes one way, except for a handful of students who go somewhere else.
Ludwig highlighted these areas on the spreadsheet, saying possible tweaks might correct these outliers. He added that if the committee wants to experiment with any major changes, it should work fast.
“Whatever we’re going to change, we have to do in two weeks,” Ludwig said. “By January, everything has got to be done.”
He then asked for volunteers to form a subcommittee to use the method they perfected over the summer to make these minor adjustments.
From May to September, the committee drew boundary lines for the six intermediate schools and three high schools in meetings once a week, except for August. For every scenario they drew, a consultant in Chicago would calculate the number of students enrolled at each school and the percentage of students at the school who would receive free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of family income.
At the end of this process, the committee settled on six boundary maps. Intermediate approach B and high school approach B are linked, but approaches A and C could be interchanged at both levels. This means the committee could recommend intermediate map A and high school map C or the opposite.
Ludwig said until the committee makes its recommendation to the board in early January, it will be making minor changes to certain areas of the maps.
“Right up until the eleventh hour we’re going to be making tweaks,” he said.