Beaufort County on right track with school zones

info@islandpacket.comOctober 27, 2013 

Redrawing school attendance zones can be one of the most difficult -- and controversial -- tasks school boards must do.

Parents and students are rightfully attached to their schools. Every precaution must be taken to ensure the redrawing process is fair and sensible.

Families and community members deserve a chance to be heard. The district also must make the most of the school space it already has. To do otherwise is unfair to taxpayers who foot school construction bills.

The Beaufort County Board of Education is off to a good start as it begins work on the difficult job of reworking its schools' attendance lines.

Last week, the district's Student Services Committee approved eight parameters to guide the district's redrawing process. On the list: Ensuring students who live in the same neighborhood all go to the same school and limiting the practice of "grandfathering" so more students go to the schools near their homes. Also, students living within one mile of a school would be given priority for attendance.

It makes sense to send students to the schools closest to their homes. Parents dropping off and picking up their students have a shorter drive, and the district saves on gas and other transportation costs.

Plus, schools are part of their surrounding communities. It's best when the families who live near a school have a stake in its success. Sending students to nearby schools also helps the district detect population shifts and better plan for changes in its schools' enrollment.

Another smart parameter set by the committee: Opening schools that are at 75 percent to 89 percent capacity, leaving room for growth. It's past time for this solution.

Some Bluffton families are rightfully complaining that their children have been moved to a new school nearly every year because of the rapid student growth in Bluffton schools. Meanwhile, many schools in less-populated parts of the county have far more seats than students.

The district is using stopgap measures to correct the imbalance, shifting students to other schools.

While the temporary measures were necessary, the new attendance zones must offer a more stable fix that balances student enrollment across all of the district's 30 schools.

The enrollment imbalance is just one of the district's many challenges as it draws new lines.

A 1970 federal desegregation agreement requires that the percentages of white and black students in each school approximate the district-wide percentage. Adherence to that order is one of the eight parameters the committee set.

Another challenge the district faces: Some families view their assigned schools as subpar and want to send their students elsewhere in the district.

The fix for that is not sending students to schools for which they are not zoned.

Instead, the district must do more to improve its troubled schools by employing more veteran teachers and innovative administrators, introducing new programs that meet the unique needs of its students and working with the surrounding community to identify perceived and real problems at the school to find solutions.

The rezoning process should be a time for the district and the community to discuss the shortcomings of schools and possible solutions.

The final zones are not likely to be decided until April, giving time for these important discussions.

They are tentatively set to go into effect in late 2015, giving families more than a year before students would change schools.

No doubt some families will not embrace the final lines chosen by the school board. The district must stand ready for the inevitable criticism.

It's already had a recent taste of it. After the school board closed Shell Point Elementary School in 2011, parents were upset and formed a charter school, Bridges Preparatory School.

Rezoning the school district is likely to be even more painful, but worthwhile.

If district leaders do a good job of setting the lines, children and taxpayers will benefit for years to come.

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