November 17, 2011

Wichita students could travel farther under boundary proposal

New Wichita school attendance boundaries could mark a continued shift away from small neighborhood elementary schools in favor of larger schools that draw students from areas well beyond their current boundaries.

New Wichita school attendance boundaries could mark a continued shift away from small neighborhood elementary schools in favor of larger schools that draw students from areas well beyond their current boundaries.

“There’s a real question between efficiencies and neighborhood schools, and that balance back and forth,” said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

“Looking at where the state’s gone the past couple years, what would we have to give up in order to maintain pockets of very small neighborhood schools?” he said. “At one point, it’s going to be either-or, and that’s going to be a tough focus.”

Allison said he and his staff are just beginning to analyze a first-draft proposal for new elementary school boundaries, which a consulting firm presented for the first time Tuesday.

The plan suggests closing five schools — Bryant, Lincoln, Mueller, Payne and Woodland — and expanding at least eight others. It also would substantially shift where students in some parts of the city would attend school.

Some children in Kechi, for example, would attend Spaght Elementary — nearly 10 miles to the south, near Ninth and Grove — according to the draft proposal.

Children in that area currently are assigned to Chisholm Trail Elementary at 61st North and Hydraulic, and they live about a mile from a new K-8 school being built in Bel Aire.

Families living near Mueller Aerospace and Technology Magnet at 24th North and Hillside, one of the schools proposed to close, would be assigned to four different schools – Buckner, near 27th North and Hillside; Minneha, near Central and Webb; Hyde, at First and Oliver; and the new K-8 in Bel Aire. Only one, Buckner Performing Arts Magnet, is close to Mueller.

Similarly, students who live near Lincoln and Payne elementaries — many of whom walk to school — would travel past several other schools on their way to a new school being built near Seneca and 31st South.

Allison said he’s not sure yet how the proposal would affect transportation costs. The district provides bus rides to students living more than 2 1/2 miles from their assigned school.

“We have to think long term,” he said. We have to think educational opportunities for our students Should we not look, with new facilities coming online, at putting our students in the best structural facilities?”

A beginning point

If the draft proposal goes forward, it wouldn’t be the first time the district looked to close smaller, aging schools.

In 1996, Wichita shuttered 10 elementary schools as part of a cost-cutting measure. In 2003, Kellogg Elementary near Kellogg and Washington closed, and students in that neighborhood were split between Washington and Linwood, which were being replaced with new buildings.

This time, officials say opening and operating five new schools being built as part of the 2008 bond issue would be too costly without closing other schools.

“If you’ve got a 1942 building and the classrooms are small, even if you do FEMA upgrades (for storm shelters) or other upgrades you can’t change the size of those classrooms,” Allison said.

“Why these schools? It’s not a reason, it’s multiple reasons.”

Allison emphasized Wednesday that the draft proposal unveiled by RSP and Associates this week is “just a beginning point to start discussion. It is not the final.”

Even so, principals at the five schools recommended for closure started hearing from concerned parents and employees.

“At this point, we’re just all looking forward to getting some more of the reasons why,” said Dave Saunders, principal at Bryant Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary in west Wichita.

Bryant has about 400 students with room to expand, Saunders said. The school also has up-to-date technology in every classroom.

According to the proposal, students assigned to Bryant would attend Black Traditional Magnet near Ninth and Zoo Boulevard, OK Elementary at 15th and West, or the new Dodge Literacy Magnet at Second and Anna, which opened this fall.

Saunders said he thinks district officials and consultants will listen to feedback and make the right decision. And the cost savings from consolidating or merging schools has to be considered, he said.

“I’m interested in the 400 kids at Bryant, but I’m also interested in the 50,000 kids that this plan will affect for the next 20 years,” Saunders said. “We’re in a tough spot.”

Bond upgrades from 2000

None of the five elementary schools proposed to close as part of the draft proposal has received additions or upgrades from the 2008 bond issue.

But the schools did receive more than $6.7 million in upgrades from an earlier bond issue approved by voters in 2000.

The oldest of the five schools, Woodland Health and Wellness Magnet Elementary, built in 1919, received more than $1.7 million in work as part of the 2000 bond issue, including a new multipurpose room, kitchen, two classrooms and infrastructure upgrades.

Lincoln Elementary, built in 1938, received a new library, classrooms, restrooms and other improvements as part of the 2000 bond issue. The work was completed in 2005.

The three other schools suggested for closure were built in the 1950s.

Bryant received nearly $1.5 million in work from the 2000 bond issue, including two classrooms and three special-education classrooms.

Payne Elementary in southwest Wichita received a new gym that doubles as a storm shelter, and its old multipurpose room was converted to a library.

Mueller received about $1.4 million in infrastructure upgrades from the 2000 bond issue, including an expanded and renovated library.

“There isn’t a building in the district we could look at closing that didn’t have work in the 2000 bond,” Allison said. “That’s an issue, but not one that we can go back and undo at this point.”

Board faces tough decisions

Brian Kelly, a resident of the Orchard Park neighborhood near Bryant Elementary, said he doesn’t understand why the district would close more neighborhood schools, particularly ones that received additions or upgrades in the past decade.

“Elementary schools draw families to the neighborhood, and that is a plus for home sales,” Kelly said. “If you close down schools and say, ‘You’ve got to go six miles to a school or 12 miles,’ people don’t want that.”

Kelly, whose two grown children attended Bryant and walked to school, said he’s also worried about more vacant schools dotting the city. “They become eyesores,” he said.

Allison said school board members will have to weigh the pros and cons of maintaining neighborhood schools, particularly ones with fewer than 300 students. The district operates 56 elementary schools.

“The neighborhood school where you were always just a few blocks (away) and could walk down the street that may or may not be possible,” he said. “I think the board is going to have a difficult time as they begin to make some of those final decisions.”

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