Make specific policies for school redistricting

Tue, 12/19/2006 - 4:20pm
By: Letters to the ...

The following was addressed to the Fayette County Board of Education and the school superintendent.

The recent redistricting to fill Bennett’s Mill Middle School is still fresh, and we as a county are looking to an even more contentious redistricting in 2007. I am a graduate of Fayette County schools (elementary through high school), and my husband and I chose to live here to raise our four children. I have a deep and abiding interest in our school system.

The problems we as a community went through during the last redistricting do not make me optimistic for the next round. The process generated ill will between the school board and the community. While the bad feelings won’t be papered over soon, the board could change the way it sets up policy to keep future ill will to a minimum. I would like to offer some suggestions.

This fall, you listed on your Web site some guidelines for the redistricting of children from their current middle school to Bennett’s Mill. In no case, however, did you give specific tactics for implementing these policies. Without these tactics, specific and measurable criteria for following policy, the policies themselves become nothing more than wishes. These wishes are easily brushed aside when the decision-makers are confronted with tough choices.

A goal may be to create similarly utilized campuses. Year-to-year variations in class size, coupled with county growth, make equivalent utilization rates nearly impossible. Your tactic here would be to accept a range of utilizations, say for example 70-110 percent of the state capacity, based on current population.

Schools at either end of this range would be considered similarly utilized. (My actual numbers aren’t important here, but the fact that you define and then stand by those numbers is important.) Most parents and teachers would gladly tolerate a slight overcrowding if they were assured that the students were having a stable educational experience. Without parameters, it is possible to deem any system unequally utilized.

Another goal in the previous redistricting process was to respect the importance of neighborhood schools. Again, there was no way to measure if this goal was met. This goal has two criteria: first, the closest school is generally regarded as the “neighborhood” school; and second, communities are formed by natural breaks, such as (like it or not) city boundaries in incorporated areas, subdivisions in unincorporated areas, and major roads (Ga. Highway 54, Redwine Road) across all of them.

To meet this second criterion, the “graham cracker” approach would be less painful than last fall’s “scalpel.” The community breaks naturally in some areas, just like the scored pieces of a graham cracker.

State as your tactic that you will first leave subdivisions intact first, and second that you will leave towns intact. To meet the objective of sending children to the closer school, state up front that subdivision entrances within a certain distance of each high school would not be redistricted to another high school. Also state up front that homes outside of this zone could possibly be redistricted if the other criteria were met. (The distance might be one mile, or it might be less. Again, you would set this number and then stick to it.)

A third goal would be to respect and develop the feeder system, where students from a group of elementary schools collect at one middle school and then progress together to one high school. Currently, even without Bennett’s Mill Middle School, this system is not respected at the elementary level.

I urge you to take a radical, top-down approach with next year’s redistricting by basing all of your attendance zone decisions on the high school attendance zones. As painful as this will be initially, it will go a long way toward easing these painful changes in the future.

An additional benefit would be the creation of five mini-districts, probably facilitating administration and making each school’s strengths and weaknesses easier to address.

You have the opportunity to show real leadership in 2007 and to demonstrate a firm commitment to improving, not merely maintaining, the school system for which you are responsible. I urge you to implement measurable guidelines, not merely to state goals.

Tell us, up front, that honoring neighborhood schools means placing the high school at the top of the system, assuring those in the county who live within a given distance of that school will not be redistricted.

Tell us you recognize the importance of feeder systems, and that whole elementary schools will move together to the middle and high schools.

Tell us that stability for our children is very important, and then define that by stating we can tolerate a wide range of utilization rates in individual schools before redistricting becomes necessary.

Tell us what those rates are based on current numbers and not projections. While this will be painful in the short term, you are more likely to find support for this if you have specific rules that don’t change merely for your convenience. This will be particularly true if you allow for some grandfathering of students into their current schools.

Finally, tell us that you are innovative. A middle school with no corresponding high school (Is there one? Then let us know!) should never have been built if the above goals, yours stated publicly this fall, really are valid.

We now have a great asset: a large, centrally-located campus. And we do have a little crowding in some schools. There are a variety of uses for the campus rather than a free-standing middle school. For example, a sixth-grade school which drew from several middle schools would immediately alleviate overcrowding in other middle schools. It has the added benefit of giving a large number of students a uniform school experience in the potentially tough year of transition between elementary school and middle/high school. This model has been used successfully both in Georgia (Marietta Sixth Grade Academy) and nationally (Oak Manor School in Niles, Mich., for example).

Alternatively, provide a 6-12 magnet school in the arts. Our schools do a fabulous job of core education, and there are terrific individual arts programs at the high schools. But offering a completely different campus experience could serve some students very well and would be yet another asset to set us apart from neighboring systems. Richmond Academy, near Augusta, is a model for this kind of campus.

We as a community will support you if you let us. We ask for specific tactics, not merely goals that are easily brushed aside when they become inconvenient.

Yes, we care passionately about our children, but many of us also care for the health and vibrancy of the system as a whole. We want to support “our” schools. We do feel a sense of ownership. Please use that sense of ownership as you work in partnership with the parents, homeowners, and employers in the county.

We have been through a combative process this fall that needn’t have been so adversarial. Ground rules, respected by all the stakeholders, and a sense of innovation, vision and real leadership from the board and system, will ease the process next year.

Please understand that I want the best for all children in the school system here in Fayette County. If the entire county is subjected to the treatment that the Bennett’s Mill, Whitewater and Booth parents received, I believe the entire county will suffer for it. It is my hope that we chart a new path together in 2007.

Cheryl Lattimore Drury
Peachtree City, Ga.

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Submitted by Split Decision on Wed, 12/27/2006 - 2:12pm.

Mrs. Drury,

I urge you to run for a position on the FCBOE! Your letter has many viable solutions and ideas that will serve Fayette County well, if they will only be implemented.

Thank you for your thoughts and comments. I can only hope The Powers That Be at the FCBOE consider your proposed points.

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