When Planning for Growth, Redrawing Boundaries for CPS can be Complicated

Apr 16, 2015

The most contentious part of a building a new school is shifting attendance boundary lines. Some families get to stay, others switch schools, leave friends, and if they’re lucky, get a shorter commute.

The Bent family gets ready for school on Thursday morning, April 2nd. Their school, Fairview Elementary, is five minutes down the road.
Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA

At the meeting on Monday, Columbia Public Schools Board of Education approved new attendance boundaries affecting six elementary schools in southwest Columbia. The affected schools are Paxton Keeley, Fairview, Russell, Grant, Mill Creek and Rockbridge Elementary schools. The changes will go into effect when the new school, Beulah Ralph, opens in 2016. This is a much welcomed addition for a district that’s promised to get rid of the trailers and crowded classrooms.  But new schools and new boundaries mean new demographics for every school on the list.

Liz and Mike Bent are preparing for their family’s routine to change, starting in 2016 when their neighborhood will be in a new attendance area for public elementary schools.

The change, Bent says, caught her a little off guard. She got the school’s emails, but didn’t look to see if her family would be affected.

I actually didn’t pay that much attention to them until my brother in law pointed out ‘Hey, now you guys are switching too,’” she said. “We kind of assumed we wouldn’t be switching because we’re right next to Fairview, so it’s kind of a weird switch.” 

Noble Bent, a kindergarten student at Fairview Elementary, ties his shoe on April 2nd, 2015. Noble will be moved to Russell Elementary in fall 2016.
Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA

The Bents have two children, a kindergartener, Noble and a third grader, Sofia. In 2016 Noble will be moved from his current school, Fairview, to Russell Elementary. Sofia will be in fifth grade and given the option to finish elementary school at Fairview. That means a little extra running around for the Bents, despite recently moving to this neighborhood because of its proximity to Fairview.

The Columbia Public School District recognizes that switching schools can be an emotional process, especially without enough warning. That’s why the Board of Education began the Beulah Ralph redistricting process in September, two full years before the new school in Southwest Columbia will open.

Sofia Bent makes sure her homework is in her backpack before school on April 2nd, 2015. Sofia will be in fifth grade when the boundary changes go into affect and she'll stay at Fairview.
Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA

The board set up a committee of parents, community members and school professionals to establish boundaries that the board would then approve. They were given guiding principles that focus on maintaining neighborhood schools, balancing diversity and recognizing areas of future growth.

Superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, Peter Stiepleman, said that’s not all the board is doing in anticipation of growth and development throughout Columbia.

The board this year adopted a new policy that requires the superintendent to give an annual update on boundaries,” he said. “Not just in terms of the immediate concerns but rather where do we see ourselves in a couple years so we can start having the conversations we have when we open up a school.”

But the district’s new schools are being built on the edges of town. Battle elementary and high schools are on the far eastern side of town, Beulah Ralph will be on the southwest border.  Rob Schwarz with the demographic consulting firm that works with Columbia Public Schools, said building schools in these areas can make sticking to those guidelines difficult.

“That’s where it was challenging here in the southwest,” he said. “Because when you break down the type of student, we look at socioeconomic, we look at diversity as far as ethnicity, there’s less in this area than there are in other portions of the district.”

Stiepleman said this is something board struggles with—how to maintain diverse schools amidst serious growth. CPS has 1,000 more students than it did just 10 years ago.

We don’t get to choose who lives in a certain neighborhood, who lives in a certain home, who buys a certain home,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to make sure our schools are as diverse and good mix of socioeconomics as we can. It’s important to us. Is it achievable 100%? No.”

Steve Hollis works for Columbia’s division of human services. He’s also a parent at Russell Elementary who sat on the boundary committee. He said he sees the way the schools are dealing with a changing city as unsustainable. His solution is a more permanent committee.

“The bigger picture issue is that we more and more have a segregated community,” Hollis said. “And that’s an issue that this boundary committee I would like to see needs to address. And we need a vision for the schools can influence community development and be a part of good community development and not simply reacting to community development.”

For families like the Bents, diversity is important. Third grader Sofia said she likes going to school with people who are different than her.

“I know at least three, no four kids who are from other countries,” she said.

“You have a really diverse class,” her mom, Liz Bent added.

But with the boundary changes, Russell, the school their son Noble will move to will have only 22 percent free and reduced lunch students and only 4 percent ESL students. Right now his school has 35 percent free and reduced lunch students and 13 percent ESL student. District-wide, free and reduced lunch students make up 47 of students and ESL students make up 9 percent.

Mike Bent makes sure the whole family is in the car before 8am on April 2nd, 2015. Fairview Elementary is right down the road from the Bents, but in 2016 they'll bring their son Noble to Russell.
Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA

And Sofia? Well by 2016 she’ll almost be a middle-schooler. The Bents said they’ve learned not to make rigid plans.

“She’s still going to go to the same middle school, as of right now,” said Liz Bent. “But honestly we’re not. We don’t bet on them not redrawing the lines by the time she gets there.”

Her instinct is right. A new middle school south of town is part of the district’s 5 year plan.

Overall, the Bents said as long as the district is making smart choices, they trust it.

As much as we angled for particular schools, it’s just part of the problem, I guess to expect it to some degree,” said Mike Bent.  “But that’s kind of a first world problem. Like ‘how dare he have to face change!’

“He’s going to have to during life, so might as well now, or in two years,” his daughter, Sofia, added.