School boundary plans: An overviewOver the past few weeks and months, emotions have run high on the subject of school boundaries which are being redrawn due to overcrowding at schools across the South Washington County School district.
Boundary issue coming to a head
Over the past few weeks and months, emotions have run high on the subject of school boundaries which are being redrawn due to overcrowding at schools across the South Washington County School district.
On Thursday, April 24, the District 833 school board is scheduled to vote on which of three elementary/middle school and which of three high school boundary plans to adopt.
Here, we set out the options, the figures involved, the background to the subject and a number of experts give their advice.
“We couldn’t have asked for more from them.”
That’s the message from Dave Bernhardson, principal on special assignment with South Washington County Schools, talking about members of the community who have taken part in meetings to redraw the district’s school boundaries, thrashing out the details of the various plans at elementary, middle and high school levels.
“No matter how hard you try, there’s no one perfect option,” he added, explaining why each task force was asked to devise three different plans.
“I think we knew we needed to put together plans that had variability but were also viable.”
Bernhardson said the buzzwords of the process were “community involvement.”
“We engaged in this process because the schools are for the community,” he explained.
“We felt that we needed to have a community-driven process that engaged community members as much as possible.”
Responding to comments that the process should have been reversed, with task forces first setting boundaries for the three high schools, then middle schools, and only lastly moving to the elementaries, Bernhardson said there would have been no gain in that.
He explained as the high school plans which have ultimately been selected are not attached to any particular middle and elementary school plans in any event, and the elementary schools operate a feeder system to the middle schools, the order followed by the task forces was the only possible way to approach the situation.
“The unique part of this process is that most districts would just be starting and doing their community participation right now,” Bernhardson added.
“We have put our heart and soul into doing the best we can in community participation.”
The Boundary Change Veteran
Three years ago, Lakeville’s school district went through the same boundary teething troubles that District 833 is facing now.
Lakeville Public Schools changed its K-12 boundaries in 2005 when the district opened a second high school and, in common with district 833, changed from a junior high to a middle school system at the same time.
“It’s not an easy process — regardless of how you do it, it’s not an easy process,” said Linda Swanson, the communications coordinator for Lakeville school district, which also covers parts of Burnsville, Elko, the Credit River, Eureka and New Market townships.
The Lakeville boundaries readjustment affected 2,000 students, with 1,100 of those moving due to the opening of the city’s second high school.
Lakeville boundaries were set using an electronic GIS system, which draws circles around schools on a map according to the number of students living within those lines.
A six-month public consultation followed, during which minor adjustments were made before the school board voted on the final plan.
Students due to be going into their senior year were allowed to vote on whether they wished to attend the original high school, Lakeville North, or the new, Lakeville South. A majority voted to keep the class together for the final year.
“I’m certain there were some students and parents who were very unhappy,” said Swanson, who added that some families even sold homes and moved to the school feeder area they desired.
“There were staff assigned at one place or another and had issues, but once the decision was made and once the parameters were established, they were held and I would say by and large, it was a very successful plan.”
The Boundary Change Expert
Action teams and natural neighborhoods are what it’s all about, says school boundary change expert Ben Anderson.
He is the manager of the analytics department at TeamWorks International, a consulting company based in White Bear Lake which recently oversaw changes in the Osseo School District.
“We would get the community involved in the form of action teams,” explained Anderson.
“These action teams would be the guiding factors in the creation of such things as natural neighborhoods within the district.”
These “natural neighborhoods” — areas of housing defined by semi-natural boundaries such as roads and lakes — would then be used as the building blocks of new school populations.
“Some sort of document by the board … would lay out their guidelines of what are acceptable and unacceptable means by which (the action teams) can make changes to the boundaries,” added Anderson, explaining the ideal process by which any renegotiation of school boundaries would take place.
“An unacceptable means might be that students aren’t allowed to be bused past one school to another.”
The number of options to divide up a school district can vary depending on the wishes of the board, said Anderson. In Osseo, for example, TeamWorks presented a single plan.
In another instance, however, TeamWorks started off with 30 different choices, paring them down to five or six from which one preferred plan was chosen.
“By the time you get to the decision-making day for the school board, you hope to have narrowed it down to two or three, and they have to be differentiated far enough so that it’s not about whether this neighborhood goes here to this school, or there to that school,” added Anderson. “They may be different designs completely.”
The Child Expert
Emphasize the positives and help give the kids a sense of closure.
That is the advice from Amy Susman-Stillman, director of applied research and training at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development.
“There are things the parents and the schools can do to help ease the transition,” she explained, referring to children who will be impacted by any boundary changes.
“The school can help things by holding goodbye parties at the end of the year, or celebrations to help the kids realize they are having a transition so the kids don’t have no idea they aren’t going back to the [same] school.
“You want to manage their expectations and bring some sense of closure.”
She added that individual teachers or principals could write notes or letters to children who wouldn’t be returning.
“Even though the child won’t see this teacher any more, and maybe that’s their favorite teacher, they will know that the teacher has always liked them,” added Susman-Stillman.
When it comes to discussing the subject with their children, parents should watch what they say, she advises.
“Even if they are frustrated about it, I think they should minimize the frustration they share with their children,” Susman-Stillman said.
“I think with the older kids, you can help them understand that, unfortunately, sometimes this sort of thing happens…
“The ‘K’ (through) fourth-graders will have a harder time understanding that, so I would probably shelter them a little from my parental frustrations about it.”