Boundaries back on the table in District 191

Years without change have left unbalanced schools

School District 191 Superintendent Randy Clegg amplified his call for attendance-boundary changes Feb. 7, telling School Board members that the current elementary-school boundaries are inefficient and concentrate poverty at some schools.

Avoiding concentrated poverty, Clegg said during a board workshop, “is one of your best returns on investment” for improving student achievement.

Unchecked, concentrated poverty begins to affect  learning for all students in a school at a certain point,  and can harm a school’s reputation even sooner, Clegg said.

The workshop discussion set the stage for what could be the district’s first boundary changes since 1996, when newly redrawn lines accompanied the opening of a new elementary school,  Harriet Bishop in Savage.

Changes wouldn’t come until the 2014-15 school year, giving the district time to adjust its bus routes, Clegg said.

Board members agreed to review a proposed set of boundary guidelines, including a guarantee of socioeconomic balance across the district. After that, Clegg said, he’ll appoint a team to study the boundaries, gather opinions and make recommendations for the board.

Boundary changes are politically fraught, as the board learned when a facilities task force it appointed recommended new lines that would have sent 774 elementary students to different schools. Many parents protested, and the board dropped the proposal in early 2010.

“There’s been a resistance to doing a boundary change, and we have not done a boundary change for a significant number of years,” Board Member Dan Luth said.

Changes should be made every three to five years in a mature district like Burnsville-Eagan-Savage,  where both neighborhood turnover and “aging in place” alter the number of schoolkids in an attendance area, Clegg said.

Enrollments at five of 10 elementary schools exceed suggested capacities. And there’s a 56 percent variance between schools in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

Enrollments range from 130 percent of capacity at William Byrne (a STEM magnet school) and 112 percent at Harriet Bishop (a gifted and talented magnet) to 83 percent at Edward Neill and 84 percent at Marion W. Savage.

Enrollments are also comparatively high at the district’s two poorest schools, Sky Oaks (104 percent) and Hidden Valley (103 percent), which along with Harriet Bishop are the largest elementaries.

At Sky Oaks, deemed a “racially identifiable” school under state law (see related story), 77 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Hidden Valley, 68 percent qualify.

When schools reach 50 to 60 percent, learning for all students begins to suffer, Clegg said.

At around 40 percent is a “tipping point” where public opinion of the school drops, he said.

Open enrollment and district-granted enrollment variances have contributed to concentrations of poverty, and the district’s magnet schools have been popular destinations for families leaving the poorer schools.

Clegg said the four elementary schools with the lowest socioeconomic profiles – Sky Oaks, Hidden Valley, Vista View and Edward Neill – have seen the greatest net outflow of students.

At Sky Oaks, 117 students have left through intra-district enrollment variances, compared with 70 who have enrolled in to the school, district figures show.

And they’re not the low-income students the district has tried to woo to underutilized Rahn Elementary, according to Clegg.

The families leaving Sky Oaks have switched to the Harriet Bishop and William Byrne magnets, as well as Rahn’s arts and technology magnet, Clegg said.

“They have the means,” he said.

Schools with the highest socioeconomic profiles have gained the most students. A total of 122 students have used enrollment variances to attend Harriet Bishop (with 21 percent free and reduced-price meal students), compared with 32 who have left the school.

A total of 139 have enrolled into William Byrne (39 percent free and reduced), compared with 54 who have left.

Harriet Bishop and William Byrne far outpace the district’s other elementaries in the number of students attending through variances or open enrollment (237 for Harriet Bishop and 153 for William Byrne).

Nearly half the students attending Harriet Bishop don’t live in its attendance area, Clegg said.

Proposed
guidelines

Clegg proposed a set of boundary guidelines that include balancing schools’ socioeconomic profiles.  No school would have 10 percent more or less than the district average of students receiving free or subsidized meals. The district average is 50 percent across the 10 elementary schools.

Still pending before the board is Clegg’s school-choice recommendation, introduced last year, which would create two east and west clusters of elementary schools with educational themes and force parents to choose a school within their cluster.

His boundary guidelines call for school choice “within a defined geographical area” and schools with educational themes or approaches attractive to parents.

The guidelines call for maximizing classroom use in each school without “overcrowding,” and for attendance areas that recognize safety, walking and traffic patterns and “logical and natural boundaries.”

Students would be able to remain in their current school until they complete its top grade.

“I think we can hit most of these,” Clegg said.

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