Ongoing issues with overcrowding at elementary schools and a diminished number of students opting into Seth Boyden Demonstration School may lead to rezoning, according to a discussion at the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on Monday night.
During a budget analysis presentation, South Orange-Maplewood School District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider noted that although the district had avoided adding building capacity to elementary schools, redistricting (or rezoning) would need to be looked at to deal with some realities.
“We are full at all of our buildings now.” Schneider noted that the district had sent students to different locations rather than add classes or building capacity at the elementary school level. In particular, at Tuscan School this fall, the district decided not to add a fifth kindergarten class; instead almost a full class of kindergartners zoned for Tuscan School were sent to alternative locations, including Seth Boyden Demonstration School.
Schneider said that the district continued to watch Tuscan School enrollment numbers which were just over 600. “We’re looking at bringing it down.” She said her “recommendation is to re-look at some of the zones to decide if we need to re-tweak to bring those numbers down further.”
She noted that Seth Boyden School, which became a demonstration or magnet school almost two decades ago offering a multi-intelligence curriculum, had seen an increase of students from the Clinton zone, although the original idea was to attract a higher number of students from Tuscan and South Mountain schools. Schneider said that the higher number of Clinton opt-ins was because those students were zoned for Tuscan, then rezoned for Clinton in 2010.
Schneider noted that Seth Boyden had been zoned purposefully to keep the number of in-zone students at about 50% of population in order to allow for opt-in students to the demonstration program.
“We haven’t been far off but they’ve been coming to Seth Boyden for different reasons,” said Schneider. She said that out-of-zone families were not opting into Seth Boyden for the demonstration program but rather because of proximity or for the bus that is provided to those opting in who live a mile or further away.
“We’re not seeing people asking for the demonstration program as they did 5 or 6 years ago,” said Schneider.
Currently, Schneider reported, 63% of the 5th grade class at Seth Boyden do not live in the Seth Boyden zone. However, that number is only 28% for the kindergarten class. Schneider called that number “a little concerning. It means that our numbers are going to drop off dramatically for the number of students who are opt-in.”
In fact, Schneider explained, a number of the kindergarten opt-in students were placed at Seth Boyden because they were closed out of other buildings. Schneider said a major discussion was in order regarding Seth Boyden which is dealing with other demographic issues such as the fact that now over 43% of the population qualifies for free and reduced price lunches, as opposed to 20% in the district overall. In addition, Seth Boyden has almost twice the amount of students in the reading intervention program as compared to other elementary schools in the district.
“We need to have a bigger discussion about that program, the demonstration program,” said Schneider.
Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, Chair of Finance Facilities & Technology, said that her committee had been discussing these issues. She said that the board needed to look at the “totality of the population and what Ms. Schneider has outlined.” In addition, the district would need to work hard on community engagement.
“Redistricting has a very large impact on the community,” said Lawson-Muhammad. With regard to Seth Boyden, she said the conversation was already underway to create a new guiding change document “given the charter and mission has shifted and changed.”
This is “a huge discussion, not something we can hash through in a board meeting. This is going to take community engagement,” said Lawson-Muhammad. (Lawson-Muhammad also noted that in-zone Seth Boyden families were the only ones in the district without an option to choose another elementary school.)
Board President Beth Daugherty wondered what could be done to deal with enrollment issues for the next school year — enrollment opens in January: “It has to be comprehensive…. it can’t be a bandaid.”
Regarding issues around free and reduced lunch numbers and the high number of students in reading intervention at Seth Boyden, Acting Superintendent Jim Memoli noted that he and Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson have met with the faculty at Seth Boyden. “We have some decisions to make,” Memoli said, indicating that some Title I money can be shifted to Seth Boyden for the remainder of the year.
Daugherty suggested that the board try to have a Seth Boyden guiding change document ready for approval at its January 26 meeting. Memoli suggested that “it may be a document that considers a phase-in over two years, not all at once.”
Lawson-Muhammad concurred: “We never said that we were waiting for 2016/17.” She said that the FFT committee had already engaged the Seth Boyden community, including teachers. “I want to be very clear that these discussions are already happening and work is already underway. Work can be done immediately with longer term solutions in the following year.”