By Gregg Hennigan
(This is an expanded version of the story that is in Saturday’s Gazette. The bottom third, in particular, has information only found here.)
IOWA CITY — At a meeting earlier this year, Iowa City school board member Gayle Klouda joked about when the best time to redraw school boundaries across the district would be.
When school board members aren’t seeking re-election and the superintendent is retiring, she said.
Yet comprehensive boundary changes are exactly what a growing chorus of people wants, from Klouda and other board members to administrators and parents. And no one is expecting it to be painless.
“Tongue in cheek, there is a humorous side to all that,” Klouda said in an interview. “But it’s also true that people are not going to be all of one mind with respect to where those boundaries ought to be put.”
Redistricting, as it is often called, has not occurred in Iowa City in nearly two decades. But it has been the underlying theme to a number of recent issues confronting the district. This includes high school enrollment, the call by some for a third high school, the concentration of low-income students in certain schools and the upcoming closure of Roosevelt Elementary.
“I think the board has heard the issue, and I think we are as close as any board has been since I have been on the board (starting in 2002) to addressing these tough issues,” board President Toni Cilek said of redistricting, adding that the board is not scared politically to tackle the subject.
Superintendent Lane Plugge said he is not yet preparing a boundary recommendation but has started preliminary work by meeting with demographers from the University of Iowa to see how they can help in adjusting boundaries.
HIGH SCHOOL ENROLLMENT
School officials and the public have various ideas on what redistricting should accomplish.
The most pressing concern probably is high school enrollment. Iowa City is a growing school district and the state’s fifth largest, with an enrollment of 11,449 last school year.
But the district is not growing evenly. Following Coralville’s and North Liberty’s population gains this decade, West High’s enrollment is projected to hit 1,817 students this fall, compared with 1,414 at City High.
The disparity is expected to increase with time, with West projected to surpass 2,500 students in 2017 while City has 1,490.
That’s a problem because West’s capacity is 1,800 (City’s is 1,600). As a short-term fix, all juniors and seniors who are new to the district must attend City High no matter where they live.
Besides space concerns, there’s a question of whether students at City High would get the same educational and extracurricular opportunities as their peers at West.
City High Principal Mark Hanson has made that argument and suggested changing boundaries to get more students at his school.
“Any time you have a two-high-school town, there are going to be comparisons made, whether it’s in the area of facilities or academic achievement or extracurriculars or whatever it is,” he said.
High school enrollment is the primary concern of a group called Citizens for Outstanding Public Education in Iowa, which circulated a petition earlier this year, signed by several hundred people, calling on the school board to change boundaries by the start of next school year to better balance high school enrollment.
Ed Stone, a member of the group, said he has seen firsthand with his children — one a graduate of City High and the other an incoming junior — that lower enrollment has led to fewer teachers and offerings of some courses.
“I believe that we need urgent boundary change,” he said.
Hanson said City High offers similar courses to West, but there may be fewer sections because there are fewer students. But with only seven periods in a day, both schools have issues every year getting students the “perfect schedule,” he said.
The school board on Tuesday is to discuss the recommendations of a high school enrollment task force, and boundary changes are expected to come up.
Cilek anticipates the board acting on high school enrollment in the next couple of months, but the redistricting process will take a lot more time than that.
DESIRE FOR THIRD HIGH SCHOOL
What many believe is the ultimate solution to the problem is the construction of a third comprehensive high school. Another petition circulating this spring that garnered several hundred signatures called for the school board to start planning for a high school on the district’s northwest side.
Plugge has said that there will not be enough students to justify building a new high school in the next few years and that the financially strapped district cannot afford to operate one.
It also raises the same questions on size that have come up at City.
High school enrollment is projected to increase by about 800 students in the next eight years. Supporters of a new school say that’s enough to get started. Plugge has said the community would have to discuss the implications of having two larger schools and a smaller one.
Some have called on the district to redraw boundaries to use existing capacity, such as at City High, before building new.
Others want a new school as soon as possible. That includes Nick Westergaard, who sat on the high school enrollment task force and is the father of four young children in Coralville.
But, he said, the district will need to do a better job communicating than it did during the Roosevelt Elementary debate, in which some people said that administrators weren’t upfront with the issue and that the school board seemed to have made up its mind to close the school before the public weighed in.
“I don’t envy the school board at all,” he said of the upcoming redistricting discussion. “…. But I do think they’ve handled communication and publicity … poorly.”
A goal some have with redistricting is to address diversity by more evenly distributing students demographically, which became a prominent issue with Roosevelt.
About 27 percent of the district’s students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. But there were seven schools — out of 24 total — with rates at about 50 percent or higher.
Furthermore, City High and its feeder schools had a higher percentage than West High and its schools, 33 percent versus 23 percent.
Part of the reason Plugge recommended closing Roosevelt was because an Iowa Department of Education report cited its high free-reduced-lunch rate of 54 percent.
Many parents applauded the diversity of the school but continually brought up that children from Pheasant Ridge, a large low-income apartment complex, are bused past Horn Elementary to Roosevelt. Wouldn’t redrawing boundaries be a better solution than closing the school, they asked?
“The district cited this as a problem that they were solving by closing Roosevelt, but at no point did they really acknowledge it was a problem they had created,” said Josh Kaine, whose children attend Mann.
The discrepancies in demographics were not as pronounced a couple of decades ago, Plugge said, but he believes those shifts are another reason to look at boundaries.
Noga O’Connor, a visiting assistant professor of the sociology of education at the University of Iowa, said it’s important to remember that race is a factor and free or reduced lunch can be a euphemism for black students.
Studies show that low-income students, and schools with more of those students, tend to perform less well on standardized tests than more prosperous students. Poorer students present more challenges and require more resources, she said. Also, it’s harder to attract and retain teachers at schools with a lot of low-income students, she said.
It’s not guaranteed, O’Connor said, but individual students should be better off in a school with lower free-reduced lunch rates.
Test scores as a whole may suffer at schools that see increases in such students, but most students should benefit culturally from the diversity and more affluent students shouldn’t see their learning negatively affected, she said.
“An affluent white student is going to be a strong student almost no matter what,” she said. “The black students, however, really benefit from attending those schools that have a more affluent population that have greater resources.”
Cilek said changing boundaries to better distribute low-income students would be much more difficult than doing so to balance enrollment, but the goals of redistricting are to be determined.
So is the process, although school officials agreed public involvement will be important.
The Ankeny school district, which is north of Des Moines and is one of the fastest growing school systems in the state, may provide some guidance. The school board there recently approved new boundaries for the 2011 school year in preparation for the opening of a second high school in 2013.
The district hired a company to do a demographic study and to develop a formula used to create a boundary proposal, which school board President Andrew Martin said was enacted with very few changes.
A committee with representatives from throughout the community developed criteria, later approved by the school board, to weigh the boundary decision.
The top criteria are similar to issues that people here have said are important. One was that each child was in a classroom of similar size. Another was to have contiguous boundaries for each school. Another was to keep the two high schools similar in size — about 1,000 students each to start — so they’d be on a level playing field academically and with extracurricular activities.
Several forums were held, including ones with very specific focus. For example, one was aimed at the parents of the first class that will graduate from the split high schools.
Martin said the boundary change was a “very emotional topic for a lot of people.” But, he said, there was remarkably little resistance, for which he gave a lot of credit to the demographer.
“It comes across as a little more objective and it’s based on more data and facts and it’s a little less about getting a bunch of people in the room that draw up boundaries that may be based on personal judgment,” he said.
As part of the preliminary work in the Iowa City school district, Plugge has asked demographers at the UI to organize demographic data by small geographic areas.
It’s not yet known, however, when the school board and the public will delve into the issue in depth. Another major question is whether the district should make some short-term changes to boundaries, perhaps to address the City-West enrollment issue, leaving the possibility that boundaries will have to change again later if a third high school opens.
The district has a list of parameters intended to help make boundary changes. One is to disrupt students as little as possible. (Plugge said they’ll use some of the demographic data to create models to project how long boundaries should last.)
That’s just one example of how balancing the various goals people have for redistricting will be difficult. Some of the other parameters could be viewed as mutually exclusive.
For example, one is to have schools serve neighborhoods, but other parameters call for balancing students by ethnicity and socio-economic status and to minimize busing.
Klouda said the school board probably won’t be able to balance demographics and have all neighborhood schools.
“Hopefully we can make progress toward both goals,” she said. “I think a major thing that we … have to decide as we go through this is which one is more important.”
Karrie Craig, co-president of the Districtwide Parents’ Organization last year, said the redistricting process probably won’t be without controversy, but that’s the nature of change.
“It is an attempt to look at what’s in the greater good for the whole district, I think is what we need to keep in mind,” she said.