Mill Creek Elementary community responds to overcrowding, boundary proposal

Saturday, November 2, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Parents feeling out of the loop about Mill Creek Elementary School overcrowding are getting the chance to give their input, but frustration remains after miscommunication between parents and Columbia Public Schools.

The district talks to Mill Creek parents and teachers about overcrowding every year, but this year — a year in which the district wants to temporarily redraw boundary lines to redistribute students on the south side of town — something fell short.

On Sept. 26, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Peter Stiepleman met with  Parent Teacher Association chapters from Rock Bridge and Mill Creek elementary schools.

He thought he was brainstorming possible solutions to overcrowding with a group of parents, but the meeting included only the PTA boards and committees from both schools. Other parents hadn’t known about the meeting.

"I honestly thought I was meeting with families," Stiepleman said. "It seemed to me that this was a parent meeting."

By the time Stiepleman learned otherwise, it was too late. Some parents already felt excluded.

One month later, parents at the monthly Columbia School Board meeting expressed their frustration with the lack of information from Stiepleman and the district about possible changes at the school. In response, Stiepleman promised the parents at the board meeting that he would set up a parent meeting to discuss Mill Creek’s dilemma.

This week, Stiepleman met with Mill Creek parents and teachers to discuss an overcrowding plan to present to the school board. He presented a slide show supporting a temporary boundary change for the 2014-15 school year.

The temporary boundary change would relieve overcrowding at the school until a new elementary school on the southwest side of Columbia opens in 2016.

"Our decision, and we've got board members here to listen, is to try to make a laser cut and survive two years," Superintendent Chris Belcher said at the Tuesday meeting.

But some are worried that boundary changes would disrupt the community of the school.

Parents at the meeting pointed out that moving students from school to school could disrupt their academic support systems. Others were worried that the district's plan would split up siblings. The parents said over and over that they feel like they haven't had a voice in the discussion.

"When it's this big of a topic, I think parents have to be included. I think parents need to be kept up to speed and there needs to be complete transparency," Mill Creek parent Becky Spicer said in an interview before the meeting.

The discussion was cut off after about an hour. Parents were told to email the rest of their concerns to Stiepleman and the board. Some parents were visibly upset when the meeting ended.

Unless those concerns lead to a discussion of a more serious overhaul of Mill Creek's overcrowding situation, the board plans to vote on a final overcrowding plan at its Dec. 9 meeting.

The proposed solution

In the 2014-15 school year, Stiepleman wants to make temporary boundary changes to redistrict two areas — neighborhoods off Scott and Forum boulevards — for Russell Boulevard and Paxton Keeley elementary schools.

The move would decrease the student population at Mill Creek by 100 to 120 students, he said.

This plan was developed with two guiding principles in mind:

  • Keep students from making as many moves as possible before the new southwest elementary school opens.
  • Allow fifth-grade students to finish elementary school at Mill Creek.

For current Mill Creek students, the proposal works this way:

  • Fifth-graders: They will go to their home middle schools next year.
  • Fourth-graders: Stiepleman wants to ask the board to consider allowing next year's fifth-grade students to stay at Mill Creek for their final year. They would continue to middle school in 2015-16.
  • Second- and third-graders: All students affected by redistricting would move to either Paxton Keeley or Russell Boulevard in August 2014 for the rest of elementary school. They would attend their home middle schools afterward.
  • Kindergarten and first-graders: Students affected by redistricting would move to either Paxton Keeley or Russell Boulevard in August 2014. When the new southwest elementary school opens in 2016, the board would give students the option to stay at their current elementary schools or move to the new school.
  • 3- and 4-year-olds: Students would start elementary school at either Paxton Keeley or Russell Boulevard and then move to the new elementary school in 2016.

Concern with moving students

With the new southwest school opening in two years, the district wants to find a plan that will make one change across the board instead of two changes for a few students.

"We're trying to not make two moves for the coming years," board president Christine King said at Tuesday's meeting.

That one change still worries parents.

In October, Stiepleman shared information about the effects of mobility on students with parents and the school board. Students who move from school to school are more likely to struggle academically, especially if they don't have firm foundations in other areas of their lives.

Most of the struggling students at Mill Creek live in the neighborhood that the district wants to move to Paxton Keeley and Russell next year.

"What we're proposing is a shift from one neighborhood that is our most at-risk neighborhood," Stiepleman said.

Parents and teachers at the meeting were worried that uprooting students from their friends and teachers would adversely affect the low-performing students in this neighborhood. They were concerned that the community of Mill Creek would no longer reflect a diverse public school if these new boundary lines are drawn.

"Think about how difficult that is for those students. Mill Creek is their home. It is a safe place to land," Spicer said.

Concern with dividing families

At Tuesday's meeting, Stiepleman told parents that he wants to be able to give them what they've asked for in the past. Many parents have told him that their fifth-grade students should stay at Mill Creek because they have gone to school there for so long.

"We would advocate to the board that fifth-graders would be able to stay," Stiepleman said.

Keeping fifth-grade students at Mill Creek even if their homes are redistricted comes at a cost. The temporary boundary plan does not include an option for younger students to stay at Mill Creek with their older siblings.

"If the fifth grade are grandfathered in, that divides my family. That leaves one there and three somewhere else," Spicer said.

Stiepleman wouldn't ask the board to make an exception for any divided families, either.

"I don't believe that I would recommend to the board doing multiple exclusions to a practice," he said. "My recommendation would be no."

Ongoing overcrowding problems

Overcrowding is a problem district-wide, and a long-term, bricks-and-mortar plan is underway to address that. The worst overcrowding at the primary school level is at Two Mile Prairie, Cedar Ridge and Mill Creek elementary schools, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

Two Mile Prairie will be relieved by the 2015 opening of an elementary school near Battle High School in northeastern Columbia, Baumstark said. The district plans to ask for a bond issue in April 2014 that would fund an elementary school on the east side of Columbia to ease overcrowding at Cedar Ridge.

"While Mill Creek may be the largest ... what the building can hold versus the actual population is the comparison that needs to be made," Baumstark said.

Mill Creek has 864 students — 164 over the school's capacity. 

Twenty-five years ago, Mill Creek was built to hold 700 students, but enrollment numbers at the school have been creeping upward. This year, two additional trailers were added to meet building code requirements, for a total of nine trailers.

But at face value, overcrowding does not seem like a problem to some parents.

"Currently, I can't say that overcrowding at this point has had a significant impact on my family," Spicer said.

Spicer has four children at Mill Creek. One child — a daughter —  is in a trailer classroom this year. She doesn't think her daughter has missed out on anything because of it, though.

In the past, the district has added additional class sections to meet grade level enrollment. Even though Mill Creek's student population was rising, class sizes were reasonable — 20 to 25 students for kindergarten through second grade and 22 to 26 for third through fifth grades.

As the number of class sections increased, however, so did the demand for classroom and recreational space. Logistically, space demand means having "art on a cart" and earlier lunch start times. Some students already have gym class in the cafeteria, Stiepleman said.

This year, Mill Creek is at a tipping point, he said. Adding more trailers to the school would jeopardize student safety; the district can't protect students from tornadoes and other emergencies without permanent structures in place.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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