Race won’t be factor in school redistricting

Saturday, October 20, 2007 | 5:59 p.m. CDT; updated 10:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — Race will not be considered by Columbia Public Schools when it redistricts to accommodate a new high school and elementary school.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that schools could not use race as a factor to create diversity within classrooms. In the past, the district included race as one of its considerations when drawing boundaries.

Now, distance from schools, gender and whether a student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch are all factors the district looks at when drawing school boundaries.

Don Ludwig, chairman of the District Enrollment Planning Committee, has been drawing Columbia’s school boundary lines for ten years. School boundaries are redrawn as often as needed, usually when schools are built or expanded, Ludwig said. It is important that each school have demographic ratios that mirror the city’s, he said.

“If you have kids who come from poverty, they’re not as ready to learn as those who don’t,” Ludwig said. He said that diverse classrooms accelerate the learning of students who enter elementary school with fewer opportunities than others.

The socioeconomic background of parents is also important. Affluent parents tend to support schools more, Ludwig said. “Support” is parent involvement with the school, such as PTA attendance and participation in fundraising.

“Using free or reduced-price lunch is a better criteria for diversity than race,” he said.

At the High School Evaluation Committee’s last meeting, the committee members asked about redistricting during their discussion about potential high school sites.

Committee member and Northern District County Commissioner Skip Elkin asked Ludwig how high school redistricting would be done. Other members worried that some students would be forced to commute long distances in order to “balance” school ratios.

“I’m against an inner-city Hickman,” committee member and banker Steve Smith said at that meeting.

Ludwig said those concerns are unfounded. He and an enrollment committee selected for each school will draw boundaries, and his goal is to reduce the total number of hours all students spend on school buses.

The high school evaluation committee voted at its Oct. 9 meeting to recommend the St. Charles Road property, north of Interstate 70, to the school board as the site for the new high school. Before its meeting, the committee requested population density reports, fire station response times, sewer, road and other infrastructure cost estimates. No member asked Ludwig for any information about redistricting until that meeting, he said.

Drawing school boundaries begins with the students who live closest to the school.

First, a one mile radius is drawn around schools. Children within that area are “walkers” and will not be sent to any other school. The number of children in that radius are counted toward the school’s population.

If the school can hold more students, another larger circle is drawn, and more students are added. The process is repeated

until each school has enough students.

The end result is not smooth circles drawn around schools, but ragged rectangles stretched across the city map. Neighborhoods and subdivisions are not broken up, Ludwig said.

The district collects demographic information about each student: race, gender and whether the child receives free or price-reduced lunch. The information is matched with the student’s address instead of using names. Ludwig uses that information to balance schools.

He will not request any racial information about students until after he has finished redistricting, so he can see the end result of his work.

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