COLUMBIA — Demographics, transportation and keeping friends together were constant refrains in the roughly 650 comments submitted anonymously since Oct. 27 to Columbia Public Schools' redistricting Web page.
The responses community members typed into one of three boxes reveal a set of attitudes about public education as diverse as the city itself. The boxes corresponded to the three proposed approaches to redrawing school boundaries.
The audience for this feedback was the committee tasked with the most significant boundary realignment in district history. The new boundaries will incorporate Battle High School, scheduled to open in August 2013, and change grade configurations for secondary schools. In 2013, high schools will begin serving grades nine through 12 and middle and junior high schools will become intermediate schools serving grades six through eight.
Members of the Secondary Enrollment Planning Committee, which worked on drawing the new boundaries throughout most of 2011, viewed the online comments as well as others submitted on comment cards at schools and recorded at eight community forums held in November. Don Ludwig, the committee’s chairman, said the committee divided them between three subgroups of its 22 members.
Some commenters submitted only a line or two, such as "I like this scenario best." Others wrote essays, expounding for hundreds of words on exactly which streets would be affected by certain boundaries, the volume of traffic specific streets experience at certain times of the day and friendships their children have built with their peers.
Notions about the cultures of the different high schools became apparent, though many of these were in direct conflict with each other. Hickman High School was described alternately as a school with a reputation for academic success and a "troubled inner-city school."
Some saw Rock Bridge as a strong community that shouldn’t be disrupted by boundary changes, but others labeled it a "country club." Battle High School was seen as a desirable destination because of its new facilities, but also as a potential academic pitfall because of its high percentages of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches in every boundary scenario.
The committee’s goal of leveling demographics among the schools proved to be a controversial topic. Commenters had substantially different ideas about whether this was a good idea.
"C seems to be the best plan in reference to demographics," wrote one anonymous person at 11:18 a.m. on Nov. 2. "I am concerned that we are allowing our schools to become the 'haves and have-nots' because of socioeconomic status.”
"I’m against bringing students from a high crime area in north Columbia to Rock Bridge," wrote another at 9:37 p.m. on Nov. 1, also regarding approach C. "My wife and I worked very hard to be able to afford an expensive house near good schools, and we don’t want the school ruined with students from high crime areas."
Travel times to and from schools were another heavily discussed issue. Most people who covered travel times in their comments indicated that the shorter a distance between a student’s home and his or her school, the better. But responses were divided over whether certain scenarios would be better or worse for travel times, most likely because the respondents live in different neighborhoods.
Regarding scenario C, one person wrote at 3:04 p.m. on Nov. 3, "This scenario makes the most sense as far as travel time to transport the kids to school."
"It could prove difficult to get those children to school, activities, etc., to the south side for some parents who work, or who are limited in transportation. It could also prove to be hardship to those parents whose budgets for gas are constrained already," wrote another at 7:08 a.m. on the same day about the same map.
The scope of the comments also varied greatly. A few people based their preferences on how different scenarios would affect the whole city. Most people dealt primarily with their schools and neighborhoods. Some concentrated only on their own households.
"Why would my child change from Rock Bridge High School district to Hickman?" someone wrote of approach B at 9:05 p.m. on Nov. 1. "This is unacceptable. I bought this house in the Rock Bridge district and want all of my children to go there. As a single mom, there is no possible way for me to sell my house and buy another if you continue with any of these plans."
At 4:44 p.m. on Nov. 1, a person wrote of approach A, "I feel this is a very good approach for intermediate and high school boundaries. This is the best all around approach for the community!"
Not all who posted were parents. A few comments came in from students as well.
"I’m a sixth grader at Gentry Middle School," one person wrote at 9:47 a.m. on Nov. 23. "I would like to have Approach C because it looks like the school zones are more evenly distributed. It also means I would get to go to Gentry with my friends."
Some comments gave specific information to the committee about how many Columbia students live in their neighborhoods. For example, one commenter informed the committee that there are few district students living on Woodrail Avenue, so it didn’t make sense for them to be moved to a different school than the rest of the neighborhood to balance enrollment.
Without a census of every house, apartment, trailer and duplex in the city, it’s impossible to project the exact number of students living in each household, even using a wide variety of demographic information. Ludwig has said this is why community feedback was important to the committee in understanding how street-by-street changes would affect families living in certain neighborhoods, especially those on the edges of attendance areas.
Throughout December, the committee has been using feedback to fine-tune certain areas of the six different boundary maps. On Dec. 1, Ludwig said intermediate approach A was removed from consideration based on overwhelming negative feedback from the public.
On Monday, the committee is scheduled to meet again to review these tweaked maps and decide which two intermediate and which two high school maps it will recommend to the Columbia School Board.