The Beaufort County Board of Education needs a good history lesson as it again wades into the murky waters of student reassignment.
Even a quick look at recent history will bring clarity to the planning discussions the board hopes to have this summer on the topic.
Enrollment numbers send a crystal clear message: The district has much more classroom capacity than it does students. A few schools -- such as Whale Branch Middle School and St. Helena Island Elementary School -- are grossly out of kilter, serving hundreds fewer students than the buildings can accommodate. Conversely, over-enrollment is an issue at only a handful of schools, including Bluffton High, Beaufort High and Coosa Elementary.
The school board was smart to vote 7-3 last month against a student-reassignment plan requested by Lady's Island Elementary School parents. The board must take a much broader perspective. That's one reason the board's own policy prohibited that quick move. It states: "Decision for changes in student assignment will be made no later than Oct. 1 of each year for the following year." The request from Lady's Island missed that deadline, but the board promised to look at it this summer.
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A big question is how important it is to align students by grade level. The traditional alignments -- with elementary schools housing students through grade 5, middle schools housing grades 6 to 8, and high schools grades 9 to 12 -- have been altered in some instances recently to better use classroom space.
Fifth graders were moved out of Coosa and Lady's Island elementary schools for good reasons: Coosa was bursting at the seams, Lady's Island Elementary was full, and Lady's Island Middle School was one-third empty when the change was made in 2008.
Robert Smalls Middle School was about 600 students under capacity when it took in fifth graders who had been assigned to the Shell Point, Shanklin and Broad River elementary schools.
In Bluffton, ninth graders were removed from an over-crowded Bluffton High, and the two Bluffton middle schools were realigned with one housing grades 6 and 7 and the other grades 8 and 9.
Perhaps these are not ideal situations, but the school district has gone to great lengths and expense to make it work, and it is better than building new schools when the district has more than 5,000 empty seats countywide.
If the school board were to decide that all fifth-graders must be housed in elementary school buildings, it also must lay out the full ramifications. Coosa Elementary students would be learning in a trailer village, while St. Helena Elementary School nearby would be roughly half empty. Whale Branch Elementary would be over-crowded while the middle school next door would be at 35 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, the school district is working to more completely align the arts-infused education from Lady's Island Elementary School with the curriculum at Lady's Island Intermediate School, which is what the wing for fifth- and sixth-graders is called at Lady's Island Middle School.
The school board would not be served well by setting hard and fast policies on grade alignment; practicality can demand exceptions.
Rather, the school board should study the data its administrative staff and consultants have been providing for years that show flexibility in attendance zones and grade alignments is a must when the district has so much unused classroom space.