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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Don't trap students in new districts

By Steve Spellman
February 23, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

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.