Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 30, 2010.
Whatever recommendations the 38-member redistricting committee makes next month -- and however the Iowa City School Board decides to redraw school boundaries -- one thing is certain: The Iowa City School District is at the beginning of a cultural shift in how it determines and updates school attendance areas.
Last year, "several members" of the High School Enrollment Task Force called on the district to fundamentally change the way it thinks about boundaries. Rather than consider attendance areas as static entities that should largely be left alone except for an occasional tweaking, the district should start thinking about "boundaries as fluid and change them periodically, perhaps as often as every five years."
And the current redistricting debate is a perfect example of why district officials need to listen to the recommendation of those "several members."
For decades, the only times that district officials would even dream of redrawing school boundaries was when they decided to open a new school. With the opening of Weber, Wickham and Van Allen elementaries and North Central Junior High (and with the scheduled openings of Garner Elementary and the elementary on Camp Cardinal Road), attendance areas were shifted as a means of addressing growth in the north and west sections of the district.
Those focused changes allowed administrators and board members to avoid an all-out, dragged-out fight over changing boundaries districtwide. Although there were pointed comments and raised emotions in the boundary-setting meetings over those new schools, the heated discussions took place in a relatively small sections of the district.
Because eastside families haven't seen widespread changes in more than a generation, many long-term district families have come to view school boundaries as somehow written in stone. They've come to consider the elementary and secondary schools their family attends (or attended) as a legacy that they have a right to pass on to future family members.
With enrollment projections showing that eastside elementaries are soon facing capacity issues, however, that sense of stability was bound to come to end -- even if the decision to close Roosevelt hadn't triggered a passionate call for redrawing school boundaries districtwide. And by avoiding boundary changes except for new schools, past administrators and board members have all but ensured the current redistricting effort will be more difficult than it ever needed to be.
We understand that, in practical terms, changing boundaries districtwide every five years may introduce too much chaos into the mix. But the current redistricting debate shows why the district needs to begin reconsidering boundaries on a more regular basis. That way, district officials can respond more directly to population shifts and to inequities among facilities.
In the meantime, we encourage all district families to follow the process on the district and the Press-Citizen redistricting Web pages (www.iowa-city.k12.ia.us/district/redistrict and www.press-citizen.com/redistricting) and to attend the public forums at 7 p.m. Thursday in Parkview Church, 15 Foster Road., and 7 p.m. Friday in the Amos Dean Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, 210 S. Dubuque St.
And maybe if district officials can start thinking about school boundaries in such fluid terms, they also can start thinking about school curricula in more fluid terms. Then they could begin addressing underperforming schools, not only through improving poverty rates and other demographic considerations but also by developing magnet programs and other innovations.