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Redrawing the future: How to talk to your community about boundary changes and rezoning

school boundaries

While summer break may mean sunshine, pools, and vacations to students, for district administrators the next few months represent a time of planning for the future–and considering hard decisions.

One of the most difficult–and controversial–planning decisions districts must consider is school boundary modification.

Changes in district funding or shifts in population often force school districts to consider redrawing boundaries.

For parents and students, changing schools is no small matter. It means leaving friends and beloved teachers for a totally new and unknown experience. In some cases, boundary changes stir up community-wide debates about racial and economic inequities. These are just a few reasons why school boundaries changes are among the toughest decisions school leaders make.

There’s no easy way to make such decisions. And it’s impossible to please everyone. But there are ways to ensure your community is involved in the process, feels heard, and understands the eventual move–whether they agree with it or not.

Access for all

At the heart of the school boundary issue is this simple, but important aspiration: Every parent wants to send their children to the best possible school.

It’s problematic, but not all that surprising, that the highest-performing schools in most school districts are based in more affluent communities.

A 2012 study conducted by the Brookings Institution found a correlation between housing prices and school test scores in America’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. According to the study, students from lower-income communities with large minority populations were often at a disadvantage when it came to access to quality schools.

Communities like Wake County, North Carolina and Montgomery County, Maryland, have successfully reduced the gap between low-income and high-income student achievement by introducing attendance programs geared toward integration and access as opposed to neighborhood dividing lines, writes Richard D. Kahlenberg for the Washington Post.

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In 2016, the Loudoun County School Board in Virginia rejected a zoning plan that would have concentrated students from a largely low-income, hispanic neighborhood into just two schools, after public outcry and concerns over unintended segregation of students.

Instability is another concern. Shifting students–especially younger students–from one school environment to another could stunt their academic growth.

When St. John’s County Public Schools, the fastest-growing school district in Florida, was considering its own boundary changes, school leaders faced community meetings packed with students and parents.

As one sixth-grade student, who had already changed schools twice due to zoning shifts told First Coast News, “It’s frustrating to start over, have to start over with the new school environment, new teachers, and having to make new friends again.”

Facing backlash

When the Portland Public Schools (PPS) announced a plan to open two new middle schools (grades 6-8) and eliminate its K-8 schools, the decision raised zoning and logistics concerns that rippled through the school community.

Families crowded into school cafeterias and auditoriums to participate in contentious listening sessions. Students and parents worried that the changes would cause students to lose touch with friends. A recent plan to co-locate a gifted and talented program across two schools drew widespread consternation, with parents complaining about inequities and a lack of community input.

Here’s what PPS Senior Director of Communications Stephanie Cameron told the Oregonian in May:

“One of the first things I’ve learned is how complex this district is and how important it is to make sure our messages connect with the questions of our community members. For a new person with the district this has been very, very informative to me in how we shape our future communications.”

Leading the conversation

A quick Google search for “school boundary changes” produces hundreds of similar results.

If you’re considering changes to your school boundaries this summer, keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Start the conversation early. Springing big changes on your community without warning never works. Make sure your community is aware of proposed changes as soon as possible, and start asking for feedback whenever feasible.
  2. Don’t be afraid of feedback. No matter how early–or how well–you prepare your community, any proposal is going to meet with criticism. That’s why you need to give community members a chance to weigh in. Most important, make sure you solicit feedback through a variety of channels, so everyone has the chance to contribute.
  3. Actually use that feedback. Leading community conversations about school boundaries is more than just good strategy. It’s a way to build alliances in your community. That’s why it’s important to demonstrate how you are using community feedback to inform your decisions.

Is your school or district facing hard zoning or boundary decisions this year? How do you engage your community in tough conversations about boundaries and rezoning? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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