GUEST COMMENTARY: Don't trap students in new districts

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:13 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 23, 2012

A committee of smart people have drawn new intermediate and high school district lines, now approved by the Columbia School Board.

They gathered a ton of data and ran many statistical combinations to come up with the best balance of demographic equality while avoiding busing kids "too far." Though it's now water under the bridge, many parents and community members expressed concern in several public outreach forums about the priorities set or, rather, the priorities that were considered to be less important by the committee but are nonetheless some of the diverse interests of the people the new maps would affect.


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One such example is living a few blocks from one school but — for the greater good of the community at large, or at least the priorities set by Columbia Public Schools — being bused across town. Or, with that greater distance, the lessened ability to walk or bike to school. Or disjointing naturally occurring neighborhoods. Or the inability for students (particularly children in lower income families) to participate in after-school activities because the bus already left for their end of town, but mom or dad can’t afford to drive back to get them.

This has been decided, so there's no sense playing Monday Morning Quarterback on the results of the well-informed committee's work.

But now the board must decide to what degree it will lock down students into these new boundaries in terms of transfer policies. I guess if kids have a "good" academic or family reason to transfer, it might be approved by the appropriate authority.

But what about those who find an increased distance a burden? Or whose assigned school does not have equal facilities to another? What if they'd rather attend a school that employs a certain teacher they connect with?

Children might be assigned to the school nearest their home but would rather attend one that is instead nearest to a parent's workplace. The parent and child could ride to school together, share lunch occasionally and would be nearby if the child gets sick during the schoolday or work day.

See, there are an infinite number of priorities that parents might decide are best for their school-aged child. In fact, the board has moved in the right direction by trying new things in recent years, including West Boulevard Elementary's transformation a few years ago and building upon the tradition of magnet-type schools such as Ridgeway to try what are called small autonomous schools.

Among the proofs of success are more parents applying to Ridgeway than spots available. Parents are telling the district they want options and are willing to find a way to have their students travel there. Other parents value proximity greatest, others something else, and that is not necessarily bad.

Whatever one calls it, strategies that free up progressive-thinking school leaders to try things such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Benton Elementary or an arts focus at Lee Elementary are a good thing. Leaders can contemplate and talk about closing the achievement gap all day, but trying things like this have greater likelihood of success.

Recently, I even heard Superintendent Chris Belcher float the idea of a publicly owned charter school. The school would be like Ridgeway is now, still fully owned and controlled by the public school district, but with even more flexible strategies available. Perhaps his thought is a pre-emption to broader school choice measures being proposed in the state Capitol, but it’s a good idea regardless.

With the new districts now drawn, the board needs to make the transfer policy more liberal, leaving it more to parents where they would like to send their child. A reasonable policy could still allow for proper planning for public school facilities. Perhaps only allow a certain percentage of student population to move outside a district.

The board should heed such signals from parents — who are voting with their transfer requests for that type of curriculum or that type of teaching, etc. — and provide more of those traits at more schools.

As far as transportation concerns, parents who transfer their children are on their own with that. But perhaps, down the road, the school board could pursue a mutually beneficial partnership with the city buses to coordinate with more diverse school bus route needs, including those for the new high school and other facilities in the future, like the one MU students use now to a significant degree.

Parents, like anybody else, don’t like being told, "Here's your assigned school, take it or leave it." Instead, allowing people a say in a matter tends to increase satisfaction, so the district should also consider this a factor as it campaigns for its new tax increase proposals.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m.

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Sally Willis February 23, 2012 | 2:54 p.m.

I don't think transportation is the only reason for the breakdown being done this way. If kids and their parents are allowed to choose where the child is to attend school what is to stop everyone from trying to pile into one school? The purpose of building this new school is to alleviate the overcrowding. Who is to decide at that point who may, and may not attend a school if not having the deciding factor be who lives around what school? When Rockbridge first opened I'm sure it was a hard transition because so many people didn't want to leave the familiarity they had grown with. The first few years are always hard! These kids will be okay and this will benefit them in the ling run. The thing that concerns me is that the school board keeps saying they want to build new schools they want to build another new elementary school and it will be a small tax increase but then we have to staff these schools! We have to pay these teachers... The teachers we have now don't make any money! We also have to find teachers that are able to TEACH which if you have children you know how hard that can be. I will say most Columbia public teachers in my experience have been wonderful but come on can we pay the ones we have!

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield February 23, 2012 | 3:40 p.m.

"Parents, like anybody else, don’t like being told, 'Here's your assigned school, take it or leave it.'"

Many of them pay a premium to live in neighborhoods whose desirability is due partly to school boundaries. I doubt they would like being told, "Now anyone's kids can attend a school that you're paying extra to live near."

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble February 23, 2012 | 3:48 p.m.

What stood out to me when I saw the new district map is how Rock Bridge and Battle schools were physically located well apart from the boundaries of their districts, but Hickman is located right against the edge - corner, even - of its district. They may be balanced in some ways, but something didn't seem right abut that, at the neighborhood level, and Mr. Spellman addresses that here.

My own experience with transferring between districts was an immensely positive one. I transferred from Rock Bridge to Hickman before starting high school, after visiting both schools to learn more about their academic programs in one area that I was most focused on (and ended up majoring in). At the time, there was a clear difference between the schools, and the result was a great enhancement of my education that benefited me in college and beyond.

As Ms. Willis points out above, there are implications for any transfer policy. But I hope that, when implemented, the new policy won't entirely discount the value of transfers to specific students and their individual needs and academic goals.

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Ellis Smith February 23, 2012 | 3:52 p.m.

Good point, Sally. In the city where I attended high school there were then five high public high schools and two Catholic high schools. For four of the public high schools you were required to attend the high school in the district in which you lived; enrollment at the fifth high school was open to any student living in the city. Why? That fifth high school was a technical high school.

It was easy for the four high schools to anticipate enrollments from year to year. Enrollment at the technical high school was in fact self-limiting: there were only a certain number of students who wanted to attend that high school.

No school buses were used to transport students from their homes to their high school: students used the same public transportation every one else did, except that they got passes which were very cheap (and were sold at the high schools). Some students had cars (mostly 1930s models), but not like they do today.

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