Public invited to weigh in on options for changing school attendance zones

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Three open houses will be held this week to discuss proposed changes to school attendance zones across Columbia.

Community members are invited to give feedback on the four possible attendance areas, which were presented Dec. 20 at a Columbia School Board meeting.

The open houses will take place:

From 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria for Gentry Middle School, 4200 Bethel St.From 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the media center of Battle High School, 7575 E. St. Charles Road.From 1 to 3 p.m. Friday at the Aslin Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.

A survey is available on the district’s website open until Monday where parents and other community members can share their opinions on the redistricting options.

The district plans to put the new attendance boundaries in place in August 2020, when a seventh public middle school will open on Sinclair Road in southern Columbia.

The district hired Cooperative Strategies, an Ohio-based company, to create the boundary options. Cooperative Strategies will hold the open houses, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

The open houses are about providing constructive feedback “so that we can have the best possible recommendation to the Board of Education,” Baumstark said. “It’s not about pushing one ahead of the other for whatever reason. We want to be careful that everybody’s voice is heard equally.”

At the December board meeting, Scott Leopold of Cooperative Strategies emphasized that “community feedback is very important and valuable to this process.” He said the open houses will be an opportunity to talk about the options with neighbors and ask clarifying questions of them.

The options presented to the board were drafts and, according to a presentation by Leopold, “may be tweaked or blended together to form the final recommendations.” The options reflect input from a series of focus groups held in December.

Community members can see the options on the district’s website.

School Board members will discuss and possibly vote on the final recommendation Feb. 11. The latest date for a board vote will be March 11, according to the district’s website.

Start2Finish is a Facebook group made up of families who want high schoolers to be grandfathered — meaning that students in high school when the new boundaries take effect wouldn’t have to move schools.

Overcrowding is one of the main reasons the new school is being built. Because it’s a middle school, attendance zones at elementary, middle and high school levels are affected.

Jennifer Roberts, who started the group in October, said the group does not oppose new boundaries.

“We understand that that is necessary,” Roberts said. “We’re concerned with the rollout process.”

Groups like Start2Finish are worried that having to change high schools can disrupt a student’s learning. A 2014 study published by the National Institutes of Health shows that the dropout rate for students who stay at the same high school is 8.1 percent but that the dropout rate for students who have to attend two high schools is more than twice that — 19.1 percent.

Start2Finish members were was disappointed there were no questions about grandfathering in the district’s online survey. Roberts said she hopes the open houses will be a good place to exchange ideas and possibly make tweaks to the draft maps.

“These open houses are an opportunity for us to further our arguments — communicate those thoughts and feelings and opinions to the school board members,” Roberts said.

Baumstark said if board members attend the meetings, they will be there as private citizens rather than in an official capacity.

Roberts said she hopes district leaders will be available at the open houses.

“I think that our purpose right now is convincing (Superintendent Peter Stiepleman) as well as the board members that the cost of grandfathering should be built into the process,” she said. “It should not be considered extra or ‘if we can afford it.’ Other communities, more often than not, grandfather high school students. It’s an important part of the remapping process.”

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