School district trying to balance enrollment numbers as enrollment declines
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Many parents are speaking out against a plan by the Ashland School District to redraw the boundaries for local grade schools in an effort to equalize enrollment after large changes in student attendance.
Opponents of the plan say moving students arbitrarily, especially after disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic and Almeda Fire, places an unnecessary emotional burden on young children who need to feel safe at school.
They have started circulating an online petition and intend to voice their concerns during the Feb. 13 regular meeting of the Ashland School Board, while the board is scheduled to consider a final recommendation on the plan Feb. 27.
Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said public feedback will be weighed heavily by an enrollment balancing committee that has been examining the issue since October, made of local parents, teachers and school administrators, and which will present the final recommendation.
“All of that feedback will be aggregated and go to the committee for review to see if it can help inform the consensus scenario where they put the boundaries,” he said during the board’s Jan. 9 meeting.
Compounding issues drive down enrollment
The district began reviewing the potential need to re-draw school boundaries last summer in light of significant shifts in student populations due to the pandemic, wildfires, local housing crunch and changes in state policy. Enrollment figures for the current school year showed 222 students at Walker Elementary School, 260 students at Bellview Elementary School and 312 students at Helman Elementary School.
This contrasts with the 2018-2019 school year, which saw 342 students at Walker, 317 students at Bellview and 342 students at Helman, and the 2017-2018 school year that saw 341 students at Walker, 324 students at Bellview and 352 students at Helman.
During a Jan. 12 open house on the issue, Bogdanove said lower numbers at Walker were once offset by a statewide open school enrollment policy, which allowed students living in one district to enroll elsewhere without their district’s approval. But this policy was nixed by state legislators in 2019 and students seeking to transfer districts must be released by the district where they reside, and few districts have granted such transfers recently due to enrollment losses across the board during the pandemic.
In addition, said Bogdanove, new housing built within the boundaries of Hellman has caused numbers there to swell compared to the other schools.
Bogdanove said the district’s goal is to equalize these numbers with a target of 276 students at each school in order to ensure equitable access to teachers and resources. This number was determined through the work of the committee, which was assisted by consultant FLO Analytics, of Portland, to study current demographics and population growth projections.
The 17 members of the committee began meeting Oct. 17, 2022, and included parents, teachers and principals from all three schools, as well as district administrators. Their stated goal was to minimize disruptions to students, consider the proximity of schools to student homes, balance demographics and other equity factors, and to adopt a district-wide view of the issue.
School Board Director Eva Skuratowicz acted as an observer of the committee on behalf of the board. During the Dec. 12, 2022, board meeting, she said she believed the committee had achieved a strong community focus and that teachers and parents were leading the process, with consultants acting in a support role.
“The people who are thinking about these boundaries are the parents and the teachers and it’s amazing to watch their input actually change what the boundaries are going to look like,” she said. “So I’m thrilled to see that level of collaboration.”
A preliminary plan
The committee met Dec. 13, 2022, to consider potential combinations of new boundaries, and reached consensus on a preliminary plan they believed would fulfill their priorities and account for future population growth. The proposal would move the boundaries of Walker westward to include homes south of Wimer St. and west of Hwy. 99, as well as north to include homes south of Interstate 5 and east of North Mountain Park, and east to include homes near Clay Creek.
These expanded boundaries would apply at the start of the next school year to new students within the district and students currently in kindergarten through second grade. Exceptions would be made for students who also have siblings attending third or fourth grade at their current schools, while students outside these boundaries could apply for transfer to a specific school if there was room for additional enrollment, though this would not be guaranteed.
FLO Analytics told the committee the final recommendation to the school board would likely differ from this preliminary plan, as public feedback would impact the ultimate outcome. The committee is scheduled to meet again Jan. 24 and Feb. 7 to discuss public input and any potential changes, and is scheduled to present a final recommendation to district leaders Feb. 27.
Impacted parents push back
Many parents have said they are strongly against the proposal, arguing it is unfair and potentially harmful for their children to suddenly change schools when they are in the process of developing relationships with classmates and teachers. Mother Nellie Abel, who has a first grader at Helman who would be enrolled at Walker under the proposed new boundaries, started an online petition Jan. 16 at moveon.org which has since gathered around 150 signatures.
“The plan is intended to make the class sizes at both of the schools more equitable,” said Abel on the petition. “But the truth is there are several factors that have created the imbalance — COVID enrollment, school construction, the Alameda Fires, school transfer rates. None of this should be the responsibility of our children to solve by being moved out of their current schools.”
One parent who signed the petition said her first grader has struggled to adjust during the last three years, having been forced to move between rentals as his family looked for a permanent home, and that moving to another school would be “devastating” as none of his friends would move as well. Another petitioner said the bonds developed within a school community are more important than class size and that students deserve to feel safe and respected.
The district board also heard criticisms during their Jan. 9, including from Jane Kellum, a mother of a Helman kindergartner who would have to change schools. She said the data produced by FLO Analytics does not paint the full picture of the negative impacts on students by moving them arbitrarily. She also said redrawing school boundaries may not resolve the issue of students moving out of Walker and encouraged board members to look deeper at the factors that have caused student populations to shift.
“Why are we disrupting children’s course of study right now?” said Kellum. “I encourage the school district — the school board — to reject any proposal that says the kids would have to change. You start in a school, you should be able to continue in your school.”
Kelsy Anderson, a mother of three students in the district and Kellum’s neighbor, said she fully supports Kellum’s concerns and also wanted to address larger problems she saw connected to enrollment. Anderson said, when parents bring concerns to teachers or administrators and are met with dismissiveness, this sows distrust and may encourage parents to pull their children from public education in favor of private schools, home schooling and teaching cooperatives.
“I’ve never lived in a place where I met so many parents who didn’t send their kids to public schools,” she said. “When all public school employees start treating the unhappy parents as the clients they may lose, public school attendance will start to stabilize.”
Abel said parents are preparing a presentation to the board during its Feb. 13 meeting, and encouraged opponents of the plan to attend and voice their concerns. Additional information on the current plan, the committee’s activities, and where to submit feedback can be found at ashland.k12.or.us/page/enrollment-balancing-review.
Feb. 5 update: A photo caption added and grade level of a student corrected.