Choice vs. Equity
From K-12, one thorny 4J issue after another
BY ALAN PITTMAN
With hundreds of distraught parents giving hours of testimony against closing their elementary schools, the 4J “Schools of the Future” proposals for middle and high school kids were largely overshadowed. But they would have a big impact.
4J Superintendent George Russell’s proposal to restrict transfers would cut South Eugene High School by 200 students; Roosevelt Middle School would lose about 80 students.
The losses over the next several years could mean big cuts in the diversity of course offerings at the two popular schools and could sever hundreds of kids from their friends while they struggle through their most awkward years.
Jamie, a Roosevelt transfer student, asked the School Board at a Feb. 20 hearing to consider the impact. “Imagine a kid, maybe 13 or 14 years old,” he said. “He’s in 8th grade, he’s not doing so well with friends but he’s finally made a great friend, a best friend.” But due to the new transfer restrictions, his friend doesn’t get into South Eugene High School. “They get split up.”
Parents and teachers who testified focused on the arts, language and advanced placement classes Roosevelt and South could lose along with the enrollment drop. Parent Patrick Phillips called South a “nationally recognized jewel” in serving top students. Such excellence is “ephemeral,” he said; it is hard to build it, and “it is very easy to destroy it.”
But 4J officials appear determined to cut students at the schools to rebalance attendance as enrollment drops. If the district did nothing, 4J projects that in four years Churchill High School would drop to 850 students, and North Eugene High School to 1,050 students while South would have 1,576.
Russell has proposed to restrict middle and high school transfers to no more than 5 percent of another region’s kids and cap high school enrollment at 1,500 and middle school enrollment at 600. The policy could result in South sending about 150 teens to Churchill and 50 to North, the district estimates. The School Board is scheduled to decide on the recommendations by March 19.
Roosevelt’s current enrollment is about 660. The popular Middle School draws 104 transfer kids from Spencer Butte Middle School and 102 from Arts and Technology.
Restricting transfers to the two schools could impact hundreds of students. Last year 293 students entered the lottery for limited spots at South and 105 for spots at Roosevelt.
Russell said he would grandfather in existing transfers from being kicked out of the schools. Charlemagne French Immersion Students would get guaranteed slots at Roosevelt and South, Russell said. But other feeder neighborhood elementary students would not enjoy the same privilege.
Charlemagne takes up 44 transfer student slots at Roosevelt and 27 transfer slots at South Eugene, limiting the space available for other transfer students. Roosevelt and South offer French classes the Charlemagne students want but also offer many other academic programs that other transfer students want.
Parent Kent Howe testified that the district should allow transfers at feeder neighborhood schools to follow their friends and track to Roosevelt and South, “not just those in language immersion.”
Howe and parent Betsy Boyd said 4J needs to reconfigure its boundaries before it gets tough on transfers. As it stands now, many kids in the midtown, downtown, Skinner Butte and Whiteaker neighborhoods who could walk to South are instead in the North Eugene High School boundary, they pointed out. Other youth, a short walk from South on College Hill, are in the Churchill High School region.
“Our boundaries have been neglected,” said Boyd. “There are reasons for the transfer pattern,” she said. With such odd boundaries, “it’s no wonder.”
Russell said in a memo to the board that he would consider some “limited boundary changes.” But the district doesn’t appear likely to give up on cutting students from South and Roosevelt to strengthen other schools with declining enrollment.
“We need to keep that vision,” Deputy Superintendent Tom Henry told the board.
“I am very inclined to support this,” said School Board Member Eric Forrest.
The South and Roosevelt issue isn’t the only thorny proposal the school board is still struggling with. The idea of some sort of a merger of Eastside Alternative Elementary with Harris neighborhood Elementary gathered steam this week with the endorsement of Russell in a revised recommendation. But much remains to be worked out.
Although Eastside and Harris teachers and Harris parents have publicly voiced support for the idea, Eastside parents have not.
Part of the reason may be that Russell has threatened Harris with closure, but not Eastside.
“The idea they are in jeopardy and the alternative schools aren’t is just not a fair starting point,” said School Board Chairman Charles Martinez at a Feb. 27 meeting. Martinez said in negotiating a merger, both Harris and Eastside need “sufficient influence” to bring a compromise. If “one party is convinced it can walk,” the negotiations will be more difficult, according to Martinez.
Russell said he did not recommend closing Eastside because “it was my view the board was not particularly interested in a recommendation to close another alternative school.”
Board member Forrest agreed with Martinez that the board had not ruled out closing alternative schools. “At the base, the board is not interested in closing any schools,” Forrest said. But given the situation, the board should consider “any and all options,” he said.
Eastside parents testified that they believe their school is successful, but Harris parents also testified that they believe that their school is successful in meeting the challenging needs of their diverse student body, Forrest noted. “This community of Harris families believes they are on mission and on point,” he said.
“Eastside has continued to be a source of concern because it does not serve a diverse population,” Russell wrote to the board. Eastside is 5 percent free and reduced lunch (FRL) and 1 percent Latino. By comparison Harris is 67 percent FRL and 25 percent Latino.
Russell had hoped that a school diversity plan, moving Eastside to a somewhat more accessible area and giving lottery preference to FRL kids to enter the school would help diversify Eastside.
But there’s little evidence that it would have much of an impact. Eastside’s FRL percent has dropped roughly in half in recent years despite its diversity plan. School district data from last year indicate that FRL kids participate in the choice lottery at less than half the rate of other kids. Fox Hollow Principal Martha Moultry told the board that the Harris location for an alternative school “will not necessarily yield a more diverse population.”
A merged Eastside and Harris would create instant diversity. The district estimates that its FRL would be about 37 percent.
Some board members expressed concern that the combined school could lose federal Title I funding by dropping below 40 percent FRL. Henry pointed out that any funding lost to Harris would be redistributed to other 4J Title I schools. He said 40 percent was the district threshold which could be lowered to 35 percent, the federal standard.
Russell said it should be the district’s goal to reduce concentrations of poverty that make students struggle with achievement, not create them. “Is our goal to have more Title schools? I would hope not,” he said. “I think we need a better balance.”
Another thorny issue the 4J board faces is what to do with Coburg Elementary.
Russell has revised his recommendations to avoid closing Coburg and Meadowlark elementary schools by building a new school for the Buena Vista Spanish immersion elementary.
The proposal could preserve the school that Coburg residents testified in force to save, but it also creates other problems:
• Building a new school for an alternative school would be a first for the district and may cause resentment from less privileged neighborhood schools.
• Coburg taxpayers may not be willing to contribute their fair share to keep the school afloat. In the past the city of Coburg has given about $15,000 a year to keep the small school. That’s less than a third of the per student contribution that Eugene has given its schools through a local tax levy. Eugene has also spent millions on school athletic facilities.
• Coburg would be allowed to keep a small school while larger Eugene schools, also a vital part of their neighborhoods, continue to be threatened with closure. Coburg has 148 kids; Harris has 180.
• Coburg officials predict that growth will fill the school, but they’ve been saying that for decades. From 1990 to 2006, Coburg’s population increased 41 percent but its elementary school enrollment dropped 2 percent.
Testimony to the board from alternative school parents suggested many other ideas for addressing the problem of school choice concentrating poverty in some neighborhood schools.
Some parents suggested that 4J remove its ban on advertising schools so wealthier schools could market themselves to poorer students. But Russell said federal law prohibits the district from releasing FRL information for targeted mailings.
Some parents suggested that busing kids to alternative schools could increase diversity. Russell has proposed spending about $300,000 a year on a regional busing program to alternative schools. But a 4J parent survey indicated that few people would actually want to use such buses.
Russell also questioned whether busing would actually work. “It hasn’t worked elsewhere. Why would it work here?”
Instead of placing the “burden” on poorer children to ride the bus into wealthier neighborhoods, Russell said the wealthier schools should relocate to places closer to the poor to diversify. “We have a better chance of doing that if it is located in the neighborhoods they call home”
Some other alternative school parents suggested that rather than focusing on alternative schools, the district try to find out why parents don’t want to send their children to some neighborhood schools.
But the district may have already answered that question for itself. Adams Elementary, for example, has 71 percent of the children in its attendance area transferring to other schools. The school is 59 percent FRL. The district earlier noted widely accepted research that students in schools with concentrated poverty often don’t learn as much.
In backing off some of Russell’s harsher recommendations, it appears that 4J may not change as much as some may want.
The district’s professional association of administrators, 4JA, sent a memo to the board on Feb. 27 supporting Russell’s initial recommendations. “The District MUST make changes,” the memo stated. “We cannot accept the status quo, see inequities grow, and sustain the unsustainable.”
“It is better to act than to stall,” 4JA said. “Delaying just increases anxiety and stress.”
Board member Craig Smith agreed with 4JA that the district made tough closure decisions in the past and “is stronger because of them.”
With declining enrollment, “we do need to take some capacity out of the system in terms of buildings,” Smith said.
But 4J data do not show much declining enrollment at the elementary level where the school closures were proposed. In the next five years, 4J expects to lose 787 students. But 89 percent of the loss will be at the high school level. Only 29 students, or 4 percent of the decline, will occur in elementary schools.