Viewpoint: Working through school choice, boundary adjustmentsIf you are the type of person who likes things neat and orderly, this column and the topics it discusses are not for you.
By: Tom Nelson, interim superintendent of Stillwater schools, Woodbury Bulletin
If you are the type of person who likes things neat and orderly, this column and the topics it discusses are not for you.
For the past six months our district has been involved in an incredibly complicated process of redrawing boundaries and providing school choice to families. Both of these issues lead to confusion and are just plain messy. It would have been much easier for us to leave boundaries as they were, and tell parents that school choice was no longer an option.
I grew up in southern Minnesota (my kids hate these stories). My first school was a one room, grades 1-8 school, located about a quarter of a mile from our home. There was no choice. There was just one school and it was a school district all to itself. Then came consolidation and our one room schoolhouse was closed and we had to switch schools. It was a boundary adjustment with no choices. Following the consolidation, my family moved to the “big” city of Austin, and all the schools in the district had defined boundaries. School choice was not part of our vocabulary. You either went to the public school assigned to you, or you attended the local parochial school.
But this is not the world we live in 2011. School choice and boundary adjustments are realities today. We live in a world where the consumers (families) want choices and options. We also live at a time of great mobility. More families move into a desirable area and soon the local school is over-crowded.
This is where the Stillwater Area Public School District found itself this year. We have always embraced school choice in our district. We understand one size doesn’t fit all, and we want families to find the best places for their children to be successful. For years, parents have been allowed to choose an alternate school. If you lived in one attendance area, but wanted your child in a different school, we honored those choices so long as parents agreed to transport their child to the alternate choice.
At the same time our schools had become unbalanced, and crowding was a real concern in two of our buildings. It became necessary for the district to halt some school choice at several of our buildings and to define new boundaries. At times boundary adjustments and school choice were at odds. This proved difficult for parents and for the district. We do value school choice, and yet in some instances we were placing restrictions on choice based on crowding.
Our staff went to work to figure out a way to continue our commitment to school choice while remedying the enrollment unbalance. We moved boundaries. Then we provided families the opportunity to submit a first and second choice for alternate schools. We held our first-ever school lottery. This was a learning experience for us, but our staff did a wonderful job. We have been able to meet more than 75 percent of the first and second choice requests people made, and we are continuing to maintain an active waiting list. It has been very time consuming, but has proven to be worth the effort.
It would have been much easier to assign boundaries and grant no exceptions, but this was not the path chosen by our school board. They wanted to continue the value of school choice in ISD 834. We have done this. Some days it was not all that pretty, but as I stated at the start, choice and boundaries are messy work.
In my short tenure in the Stillwater schools I have come to know our excellent schools, teachers and principals. Your children are going to get a high quality education in any of our schools. I know my parents did not enjoy the boundary changes caused by consolidation or the loss of their local school, but as children we did not suffer. We received a great education at the next school. And that’s what really matters. The end goal should always be about how our children are progressing in their education. We are committed to making sure every one of our students have a successful education experience in our Stillwater Area Public Schools.