Sunday, February 14, 2016

Transition to new secondary boundaries

Because our school district is opening a new high school in 2017, it will need to transition to a new set of secondary (i.e., junior high and high school) boundaries. There are so many moving parts to this issue that it can make your head spin. Here’s my attempt to summarize the issue. As usual, I’m speaking only for myself here, not for the full board or the district. This will be a very long post that will not be of interest to everyone.

Last year, the board addressed what our secondary school boundaries will be when Liberty High opens in 2017. Technically, the board didn’t actually set the boundaries for the new high school; it just determined the “feeder system.” It decided to use a (mostly) “clean” feeder system: Southeast Junior High kids will go to City High; Northwest Junior High kids will go to West High, and North Central Junior High kids will go to Liberty High. It also determined which elementary schools would feed into which junior highs.

So the actual boundaries for the secondary schools will depend on what the elementary school boundaries are. The board has to draw new elementary boundaries because it’s opening two new elementary schools in 2019—Grant Elementary in the North Corridor and “Hoover East” on the far east side of Iowa City. Even though those schools won’t open until 2019, it makes sense to set the boundaries now, because they affect the secondary boundaries that will go into effect in 2017. The board plans to determine those boundaries over the next couple of months, finishing by May.

So, for example: Suppose you live in Coralville and have a kid who will be in seventh grade in 2017-18. You might not have any kids in elementary school, and you know that Grant Elementary won’t open until 2019 anyway. But you’d still like to know if your house will be in the Grant attendance area, because if it is, your child will end up Liberty High someday. And if that’s true, you might prefer to have your seventh-grader go to North Central Junior High, with all the other kids who will end up Liberty, instead of Northwest, where most kids will end up at West High. So it makes sense for us to draw the Grant Elementary boundary now. Then we can have those Liberty-bound kids start junior high in 2017 at North Central instead of Northwest.

But then another issue arises, and this is the one we discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting. What about kids who will start junior high next year, in 2016? Our new secondary feeder plan doesn’t go into effect until 2017, but if you know your child will end up at a particular high school under our plan, you might want her to start at the junior high that will eventually feed into that high school. This year’s sixth-graders are already signing up for their junior high courses; if we’re going to change their junior high destination for next year, we would need to do that as soon as possible.

The same issue arises about next year’s high school freshmen. For example, suppose you currently have an eighth-grader and you live in the Alexander Elementary attendance area. As of 2017, Alexander is designated to feed into Northwest Junior High and West High. But until then, the area feeds into Southeast Junior High and City High. If you know that your child is going to end up at West High, you might prefer that she start at West High next year, rather than starting at City High and then switching to West as a sophomore.

So the board has to settle all these questions as soon as it can. But, unfortunately, simply deciding to implement the new feeder plan in 2016 won’t settle the matter. We could have decided to do that at our last meeting, but many people would still have been in limbo—because you can’t know what secondary zone you’re in until you know what elementary zone you’re in, and we won’t be finished determining the new elementary boundaries until May.

This uncertainty affects only a fraction of district households, because many people can be virtually certain which secondary schools they’ll be zoned for. A house in the Lemme Elementary area could end up getting zoned into Hoover East, for example, but it will still be zoned for Southeast and City.

But people who live in or near the Wickham and Kirkwood Elementary zones—as well as those in the “North Lincoln” area and conceivably the northern parts of the Shimek area, and possibly others—could find themselves in a different elementary zone come May. And that could very well change their secondary school zone as a result. So, many people in those areas simply cannot know what secondary zone they’ll end up in until May. Nothing we could have decided last Tuesday would have removed that uncertainty.

There were also particular concerns about sending Alexander-area students to its new secondary assignments as of 2016. First, even though Alexander is relatively far from Grant and Hoover East, it’s still possible that its boundaries could be affected by the opening of those schools. If any part of Alexander is rezoned into a different east side school, for example—which we won’t know until May—those kids would end up in a different secondary zone.

Second, the district’s recent survey of the parents of Alexander sixth-graders showed that most of them don’t want to start the new secondary feeder system next year. In fact, a clear majority of them would rather their kids start and finish at Southeast (which is much closer to the Alexander area than Northwest is), even if they’re headed to West for high school.

There are also busing costs to consider. The new secondary feeders require an increase in busing, largely because they send Alexander, Kirkwood, and Wickham students to junior highs that are farther away than their current junior high assignments. That cost has been estimated at $240,000 annually, but may be higher because the board may choose to provide after-school activity buses as well. Once Liberty High opens in 2017, that increased cost will be offset by the fact that fewer students will qualify for a high school bus. But if we implement the new secondary assignments in 2016, we’ll have a year of increased busing cost without any offset.

As we discussed these issues on Tuesday, it became apparent that four or five board members (including me) were willing to revisit the secondary feeder plan adopted by the previous board. In particular, the decision to have Alexander feed into Northwest Junior High raised concerns. We put the topic on our agenda for discussion at the February 23 board meeting. The fact that the feeder system itself is up for re-discussion was one more reason to hold off on making any decisions about 2016.

So what did the board decide to do on these issues at Tuesday’s meeting? Basically, nothing (except as to Hills). For the time being, we will continue to operate under the old (pre-2017) feeder system. This means that Wickham-area students will register at North Central Junior High, Kirkwood- and Lincoln-area students will register at Northwest Junior High, and Alexander-area students will register at Southeast Junior High. (Clarification: Although Northwest in the default school for Lincoln-area kids, some Lincoln families have chosen to enroll their kids at Southeast instead, since they’re ultimately headed for City High.) After we’ve settled the new elementary boundaries and the secondary feeder plan, we could choose to revisit this issue and implement the secondary feeder plan as of 2016, if there is still time. But there was just too much up in the air to decide that issue now.

The only exception was as to Hills, which we officially switched to Northwest Junior High and West High as of 2016, because (a) most of the parents surveyed want to go there, (b) their attendance zone is unlikely to change significantly in a way that would change their secondary assignments, and (c) there are no added busing costs to sending them there (since they’d be bused to either set of secondary schools).

Whatever we do, I think it’s very unlikely that the board will ever require any student to change schools between seventh and eighth grade. For example, if Wickham-area students start at North Central Junior High next year, I strongly suspect that we would allow those students to finish junior high there, even if Wickham starts feeding into Northwest as of 2017. (Availability of a bus might be a separate question, though.) Beyond that, I don’t have any guesses about what the board will do.

In retrospect, should we have started the redistricting process earlier? I don’t know. The board got five new members in mid-September and spent a chunk of time doing the orientation necessary to bring us all up to speed, and there are only so many things that can get done at one time. And I confess it would not have occurred to me that we had to start the process of drawing the 2019 elementary boundaries even earlier than Spring 2016. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have at least considered starting earlier.

Again, these issues are very complicated. There’s no ideal way to transition to new secondary boundaries that will make everyone happy. I’ve tried to summarize the major difficulties here, but please chime in if I’ve missed or misstated anything.

If you’ve read this far, you should consider running for a school board seat in 2017.


Curious in IC said...

Are you saying you will not be running for school board in 2017?

Chris said...

Curious -- Ha, don't forget there will be three seats up!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insight. This is the most clarity I've had on the redistricting situation. Now I have a couple questions for you. (I realize you may not be able to answer them as they predate your time on the board, but it's worth a shot!) First, if all that was done last year was determining feeder systems, not boundaries, why did we go through the map process? Why not just put together a feeder system chart? Second, given that we did go through maps, why was SES/ELL/special needs percentages being consistent across the secondary schools the driving factor when those percentages are wholly a function of boundaries? Any change in boundaries will change those numbers and upset the numerical balance, right?

Chris said...

Anonymous – You’re right that I can’t speak to that as well as someone from the previous board could. I’m guessing that what it looked like to them at the time is different from what it looks like to me in retrospect. They probably hadn’t decided in advance that they would keep a clean feeder system, and if I remember correctly, I think some of the scenarios may have split elementary schools between two junior highs or high schools, so maps would be necessary for that. And maybe they just needed maps to get a good sense of what realistic feeder possibilities were.

But I know that they understood that the redrawing of elementary boundaries would alter the boundaries of the secondary schools. For example, the map they settled on put the land right across the street from Liberty High into the West High zone; I don’t think they would ever have done that if they didn’t think that the drawing of the Grant Elementary zone would put it back into Liberty.

I think they must also have been aware that the socioeconomic/English-language-learner/special-ed balance between the secondary schools would be altered by the redrawing of elementary boundaries. My guess is that they figured that the balance would be driven primarily by the feeder plan and wouldn’t end up changing so much during redistricting that it would make a major difference.

Matt Townsley said...

I appreciate this attempt to describe such a complex issue. I think it's safe to say those most involved in the process (school officials and board members) often have a unique perspective due to access to information. It is our job to share this information with others, just as you've done a nice job of here!

Anonymous said...

Does it make sense or cost money to keep a clean feeder system from junior high to high school (e.g. send Alexander to SEJH and then to City versus send Alexander to SEJH and then to West)? Geographically, the location of the elementaries and junior highs and high schools don't seem to match up as well as they could.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- I agree that the locations of the junior highs and high schools don't line up as much as would be ideal. I don't think it's busing cost that makes it tempting to split the feeders; you could have a pretty clean feeder system that wouldn't require nearly as much busing as the board's current plan will. But doing that would result in less "balanced" school populations and would raise some building capacity issues as well.

My sense is that people would be more comfortable with a split feeder system if it was more fully split; no one's crazy about being the only kids in the junior high who won't move on to high school with the group. But I suspect the idea of sending Alexander to SEJH but then to West will come up as one possibility when the board discusses the issue.

Chris said...

Matt -- Thanks!

Michelle S said...

Nice summary of the issues. I'd like to correct the piece where you discuss Kirkwood and Lincoln kids registering at NWJH. For the last 4-5 years,Lincoln kids have been given the choice to attend SE or NW because of our CH assignment. The trend of those choosing SE has grown each year. My 2 'North Lincoln' 6th graders recently registered at SE for 7th grade , along with half of their 6th grade class while the other half chose NW.

Chris said...

Michelle -- Thanks! Yes, I forgot to mention that one variation. It would probably better for me to say that Northwest is the "default" school for Lincoln until we officially change to another system.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious if balanced diversity/demographics is still a value for the current board?It seems strange to send North Shimek, for instance, which is relatively affluent, to Liberty, when it would simply make that school more homogenous and less diverse, while the relative low FRL level of Shimek helps balance the FRL at City. Frankly, I worry that the board will create a "lily white" Liberty/Grant area by sending primarily affluent, white students there.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious how we balance adding barriers to learning for low-income students with a desire to create balance at our schools. Are people aiming for a specific percentage of lily whiteness and how are we connecting that with FRL, affluence, and achievement? That seems offensive. At what point do the negative impacts to student achievement caused by additional barriers outweigh the positive impacts of more balance? How do we measure that?