Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Board inches toward changing school boundaries

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 20, 2009)

During Tuesday's meeting of the Iowa City School Board, administrators outlined a possible transition plan to alleviate overcrowding at West High and to use available space at City High until a planned third comprehensive high school opens for the 2014-15 school year. The proposed transition plan would require moving about 35 graduates from west-side elementary schools to South East Junior High and, starting in 2011-12, changing Northwest Junior High into a 7-9 school with about 150 ninth-graders.

Lest anyone mistakenly think the Iowa City School Board already has made up its mind about the plan, every page of the document has the word "DRAFT" scrawled across it. Yet only a few of the five boundary-change scenarios offered in the document seem to fit best within the district's "Secondary School Attendance Area Parameters."

That long list of parameters -- in addition to minimizing disruptions in students' educational experience and trying to ensure that students attend the school closest to their homes -- includes:

• Using current capacity in order to be fiscally responsible,

• Addressing immediate, short-term and long-term needs,

• Balancing socio-economic and ethnicity demographics,

• Keeping schools from growing either too large or too small,

• Considering transportation boundaries and

• Ensuring equity in education opportunities for all students.

We're already on board with the suggestion that the board and administrators need to fundamentally change the way they think about boundaries. Rather than consider attendance areas as static entities that should be largely left alone except for an occasional tweaking, it's time they start thinking about boundaries as being more fluid and update them more regularly.

If the school board is going to start the process with redrawing the boundaries between the district's two comprehensive high schools, then it makes sense to start with some elementaries on the boundary line. The proposed plan breaks up the school attendance areas for Lincoln, Hills and part of Roosevelt into six different neighborhoods or "building blocks":

• Block 1: Manville Heights;

• Block 2: North Lincoln, east of Dubuque Street;

• Block 3: North Lincoln, west of Dubuque Street;

• Block 4: Roosevelt/Hills south of Highway 1 up to and including Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane;

• Block 5: Hills south of Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane and east of Highway 218; and

• Block 6: Hills south of Lacina Drive and Meadowview Lane and west of Highway 218.

Redirecting students in Blocks 1, 2, 4 and 5 is the scenario with the fewest number of "con" bullet points in the document. But there is still a lot of room to argue about which of the parameters should have more priority: Proximity? Crossing boundaries like Interstate 80? Moving at least 35 students per grade level? Balancing ethnicity and poverty levels?

Likewise, we've called on the board to begin the process of redrawing boundaries between the district's elementary schools -- which are disturbingly out of sync with each other in terms of poverty, mobility and achievement statistics. Any short-term changes to the high school boundaries must be made with an eye to the long-term changes to the elementary boundaries.

As school board members continue to debate these controversial issues, they need to keep in mind some of the other recommendations of the High School Enrollment Task Force:

• They must actively and publicly solicit input from the affected schools and families, and

• They must demonstrate that they fully understand the consequences of whatever decision they make.

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