COLUMBIA — Before Donna Kessell had children, she moved into a home less than a mile from Hickman High School so her children could someday walk to school. Her youngest daughter, Sally Kessell, a junior at Hickman, often walks home from school after attending classes, club meetings and soccer practices.
Because Sally will graduate next year, she will not be affected by changes coming to Columbia Public Schools’ attendance areas. If she were in high school after the changes took effect, however, she would be reassigned to Rock Bridge High School across town.
In parts of neighborhoods to the south and east of Hickman, including the North Central neighborhood where Kessell and her family live, students live within walking distance of Hickman, but they will attend Rock Bridge under a boundary scenario recommended to the Columbia School Board.
A balancing act
To keep enrollment and demographic numbers balanced among Columbia's high schools, some areas within two miles of Hickman, including some areas right behind the school, had to be assigned to Rock Bridge or the future Battle High School.
The situation has raised concerns among members of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association. Daniel Cullimore, Kessell’s husband, Sally’s father and a member of the association's board of directors, has drafted a statement of concern on behalf of the association. He said the statement will be sent to the board when it is done and, if possible, presented at Monday's meeting.
Starting in the fall of 2013, district boundaries will change to accommodate the opening of Battle and a grade-level reconfiguration in which students in grades six through eight will attend intermediate schools and students in grades nine through 12 will attend high schools.
After about a year of meetings and public forums, the Secondary Enrollment Planning Committee, the 22-member committee charged with redrawing the boundaries, recommended Approach B to the board. The board is expected to vote on new boundaries Monday.
The committee split into three groups, which met about every other week from January through April and about weekly from May through November, and drew up 180 boundary scenarios. Approach B was the most optimum setup, Don Ludwig, co-chairman of the committee, said.
Two of the committee’s goals while drawing the new boundaries were to balance enrollment and the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, a number the district uses to measure poverty.
Near Hickman, keeping those numbers balanced means some students might not be assigned to the school within walking distance of their homes.
Speaking on his own behalf, not that of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, Cullimore said he is concerned that the proposed boundary setup for intermediate and high schools “severely limits” students’ ability to walk to and from school.
It might also limit their ability to participate in before- or after-school extracurricular activities, which have been known to keep students engaged in school, improve school performance and chances for college admission and reduce instances of dropping out, he said.
Alyce Turner, a member of the Environment and Energy Commission and the Public Transportation Advisory Commission, said neighborhoods close to Hickman are working class, so students might not have access to transportation to and from extracurricular activities in the evenings.
Difficult drawing process
Committee co-chairman Darin Preis said the area around Hickman is a dense area with a lot of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Because Hickman is so close to Jefferson Junior High School and halfway between Rock Bridge and Battle, it was hard to plan around, Preis said. The boundary ended up being drawn very near Hickman.
“It’s not ideal in my mind,” Preis said.
Ludwig said that the committee started with students in the 2-mile walking circle around Hickman assigned to the school, but doing so distorted boundaries outside the circle. To fix that distortion, they had to move about half the students in the circle to Rock Bridge and some to Battle as well.
While drawing the school boundaries, one of the committee's groups took the approach of keeping students from the same intermediate schools together, assigning them as much as possible to the same high schools, Preis said. When all of the groups' ideas came together, the committee decided that was the best way to go.
Under the current proposed boundaries, students from what will be Jefferson Intermediate School will be assigned to Rock Bridge, and students from what will be West Intermediate School will be assigned to Hickman. Expanding the Hickman boundary would take the boundary closer to Jefferson, so more students who live close to Jefferson would be assigned to West, Preis said.
After giving the Hickman boundary a lot of attention, Preis said, “We decided it’s best left where it is.”
The problem with Hickman is hard to understand because it doesn’t make sense when only looking at the high school map; the intermediate school map needs to be taken into consideration, too, Preis said.
Ludwig said the committee did consider walking distances when drawing the boundaries. However, when boundaries needed to be moved to support walking, it was done to support students in intermediate schools, not high schools, he said. High school students are more likely to drive to school, Ludwig said; students in intermediate schools don’t have the ability to drive yet.
Despite the fact that the committee put a lot of time into the new boundaries, Preis knows it has faults.
“It’s not a perfect plan, and I hate that,” Preis said.
He said it's the best they could do, however, and it's a reasonable plan. He said he wishes they could fix the problem near Hickman, but the number of students affected is not enough to justify going back and making the intensive adjustments that would be needed. He knows that’s not what parents want to hear, he said, but the committee really is looking at the big picture.
Ludwig said he did not have a specific total number of students living in the affected area; the consulting firm that came up with the student numbers the committee worked with split Columbia into areas that don't exactly line up with the walking circle. He also said the district's transportation committee is in the process of working street by street to determine the number of students within each school's walking circle.
Lisa Reed, a member of the committee, said she wished walking distance had been a higher priority at the beginning of the boundary-drawing process, but she doesn't expect changes to be made for it now. She said that as a committee member she didn't feel like walking ability was a priority for the group.
Reed also said walking distance in the area near Hickman did not appear to be a high priority at the community forums she attended. She took minutes at some of the meetings, and she only remembers one woman from the area bringing up the issue. She said she was surprised that walking distance was not a bigger concern given the push to get children to be more active.
Side effects of a growing community
Cullimore said he fully supports the attempt to balance demographic factors in schools and that he understands that was the committee's aim. However, he doesn't like the method that was used to balance demographics, and he thinks the boundaries as they stand could have a negative impact on students' performance.
He said he thinks the committee needs to start over in redrawing school boundaries because now they’re not asking the right questions. The committee drew up and presented six options for school boundaries — approaches A, B and C for intermediate and high schools, with the possibility of mixing and matching the maps for each level — but Cullimore said people have said they were never given the option of “none of the above,” and based on his anecdotal experience, he thinks people would have chosen that. He pointed out that the committee had said it would go to the school board with choices, but it only presented Approach B, leaving the option of B or nothing, he said.
District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said the board is likely to approve the committee's recommendation because the matter has been well reviewed in meetings, public forums and through the long work of the committee. "But really, the board can do whatever it wants," she said.
Kessell said it would be too much to ask for the committee to start over, but she would at least like to see a liberal transfer policy for those who live close enough to walk to a different school.
To attend a school other than the one they are assigned to, students would have to request a transfer, Preis said.
He said that he would recommend that parents in the affected area who are concerned about having their children walk to school request a transfer to Hickman. He also said they would have a good educational argument for making a transfer. He said studies have shown that students who walk to school are more ready to learn because they get extra exercise.
The school board is looking at a strict transfer policy, Preis said. He said that generally speaking, it won't allow transfers based only on a desire to go to a different school. Strict is fine, he said, but it has to make exceptions, too. The board does things that make sense, Preis said, and will work with parents; it's not going to put students into bad situations.
Ludwig said the School Board has the option of asking the committee to reconvene and make changes, but he does not think that is likely.
Preis said he keeps reminding people that the school district has put together a 10-year facilities plan that could see a new high school and as many as five new elementary schools in Columbia in the next 10 years, meaning that the whole boundary-drawing process could happen again soon.
Sometimes attendance areas don’t work, Preis said. Columbia is a growing community, and “these are just some of the growing pains that go with it.”