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Maize school board to discuss student placement options

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, at 8:52 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 15, 2014, at 12:03 a.m.

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Student placement options

The Maize Board of Education will hear a presentation Monday from a task force charged with exploring different strategies for assigning students to schools. Board members could ask questions and discuss the options but are not expected to take action. The meeting is 7 p.m Monday at Pray-Woodman Elementary, 605 W. Central in Maize.

Maize school board members will get their first look Monday at options that could dramatically change the way the district assigns students to schools.

Among the options is a plan that would turn Maize South High School into a “freshman academy” and send all 10th- through 12th-graders to Maize High.

Other options include drawing traditional attendance boundaries for elementary or high schools, establishing feeder patterns and reconfiguring grade levels at some schools. The district also could consider keeping the current placement system.

The plans are the work of a 45-member community task force that was formed last year after a group of Maize parents protested the district’s placement process. Those parents, whose children initially did not get their preferred school assignments, urged the district to explore boundaries or other options that would better clarify which schools students attend.

Unlike most school districts, Maize has no geographical attendance boundaries that determine where a child goes to school. Instead, families with students in fifth and eighth grades submit a preference card indicating which middle or high school they would like their children to attend. The district assigns children to elementary schools during their initial enrollment and tries to keep siblings together.

Nearly all Maize students – about 86 percent – live in west Wichita.

“My biggest hope is that students and parents and staff can just feel a reduction in stress and confusion,” said Angie Jennings, a member of the task force and the mother of three Maize students.

“Everyone should feel like they have a clear understanding of how kids will move through the district, that there is a plan in place and we know exactly what it looks like.”

Finding a plan

Choosing a plan and transitioning to it, however, could be contentious.

When Maize South High opened in 2009, the district decided not to draw attendance boundaries, as Andover and Goddard did when they opened second high schools.

Maize opted instead to let families choose – or at least request – which high school their children attend: Maize High, a Class 6A school near 119th Street West and 45th Street North, or Maize South, a smaller school at 37th Street North and Tyler.

Similarly, parents of fifth-graders fill out preference cards to request middle schools.

Last year, about 50 students didn’t get their preferred schools. About half appealed the decisions to the board, and all those appeals were granted.

The district tries to assign about two-thirds of freshmen to Maize High and one-third to Maize South. But here’s where it gets tricky, especially if you’re used to a traditional feeder-pattern system: Maize South Middle School is larger than Maize Middle School. So for the numbers to work, a good number of students must opt to “cross over” to Maize High for high school.

This year, all fifth- and eighth-graders got their preferred assignments, said Superintendent Doug Powers.

“This year’s results certainly cloud the issue,” Powers said. “You could easily make the argument that, gosh, we had an issue one year and then we didn’t have it this year. … So one year does not make a trend.”

Some parents, though, say keeping the current system shouldn’t be an option.

“It’s good for all those kiddos (getting their preferred schools), but I still think the district needs to figure something out,” said Amy Allen, a Maize mom who was part of the parent group that appealed the process last year.

“Mathematically, it just doesn’t make sense. … Until they address it, I think it could blow up in their face again.”

Several options

Among the options the board will hear Monday is one that would reconfigure schools and establish a Maize South feeder pattern: Maize South Elementary would house kindergarten through fourth grade, Maize South Middle School would have grades 5-8, and all those students would go to Maize South High.

Another plan suggests boundaries with a feeder system that crosses the district: Three elementary schools would feed to Maize South Middle School and then to Maize High; two elementary schools would feed to Maize Middle School and Maize South High.

Still another plan suggests building a third middle school – something a facilities task force also is exploring, Powers said – and having two middle schools feed into Maize High and one into Maize South.

The option to establish a single high school would reconfigure all elementaries into K-6 schools, both middle schools to grades 7-8 and Maize South High into a ninth-grade center. Students would be placed into elementary schools “at random or according to boundaries.”

Specifics on all the options being presented Monday can be found in the board meeting documents at the Maize school district website, www.usd266.com.

Board members likely will ask questions and discuss the options Monday, but they are not expected to take action. The board will delve further into each concept at a workshop scheduled for Feb. 24.

Marv Schellenberg, who served on the task force, said its report could be just the first step in a lengthy transition for Maize schools.

“There’s not a perfect way,” said Schellenberg, who has developed subdivisions and retail centers in the Maize district. “Each alternative has some negatives to it, and that’s what makes it difficult.

“If there was a perfect way without any problems, it would be simpler.”

Glen Cork, a Maize parent who supports establishing geographic attendance boundaries, said the district made a mistake by not drawing the lines when it opened its second high school.

“Had they bitten the bullet initially, they would have had maybe 5 percent of their patrons upset with them,” Cork said. “Now there’s a whole set of parents out there who are just befuddled by what we’re doing to ourselves.

“That idea of parental choice and everything will just magically work out – that might be a good theory, but it’s never a guarantee. And that’s not the way you manage growth,” he said.

“I don’t see what makes Maize so unique that they think that will work here when it doesn’t work anywhere else in the state of Kansas.”

Options being presented at Monday’s board meeting “are not recommendations,” said Powers, the superintendent. They are general concepts, along with potential pros and cons, and they don’t address estimated costs, staffing issues, potential boundary lines, grandfathering issues or other specifics that could come into play.

“Any of these options could trigger a fairly significant transition plan,” said Lori O’Toole Buselt, spokeswoman for the district. Should board members opt to draw geographic boundaries, for instance, officials would have to look at how to balance race, socioeconomic status and more within the schools.

“This is their shiny final presentation, and it’s not clear as a bell. It’s not simple,” Buselt said. “So I think in some ways that’s frustrating.

“You might feel more fulfilled if there was more resolution at the end: ‘This is it. This is the key. This is the answer.’ And it’s just more complicated than that.”

Powers said regardless which way the board decides, the process of exploring options is important.

“If we hadn’t, then it’s a question we’ve never answered, and it will always linger out there over our head,” he said. “Now, whichever way this goes, we can say, ‘We looked at that.’ ”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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