January 29, 2012

In Wichita school boundary proposals, one area remains a patchwork

Proposed Wichita school boundaries would leave in place a complicated patchwork of school assignments in one portion of the city – a holdover from the district’s system of busing for integration.

Proposed Wichita school boundaries would leave in place a complicated patchwork of school assignments in one portion of the city – a holdover from the district’s system of busing for integration.

According to the plan, students in a predominantly African-American part of central-northeast Wichita known as the “assigned attendance area” would attend seven different high schools and 10 middle schools.

That’s what’s happening now, superintendent John Allison said, although many people outside the area assume the practice ended when the district ended busing for desegregation four years ago. District leaders and many in the community had hoped a new boundary plan would simplify attendance boundaries or even do away with the so-called “Triple-A.”

“Part of folks’ quandary is they don’t understand what’s happening now,” Allison said. “We’re busing students all over the district.”

Lavonta Williams, president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP and a member of a district advisory group on boundaries, agreed.

“They don’t realize what is going on with the system,” she said. “It’s almost like an education process needs to take place.”

The Wichita district is drawing new attendance boundaries in part to prepare for the opening of five new schools this fall. New boundaries also are intended to better distribute students to address overcrowding at some schools.

Allison will present a draft recommendation to board members at a special meeting Feb. 6. The board plans to approve a plan Feb. 27, and the new boundaries would go into effect this fall.

How we got here

Over the past four decades, as the district’s student population grew increasingly diverse, administrators fought a losing battle to maintain racially balanced schools.

In part, this is because its desegregation plan took into account only black and white students.

In 1971, the district was 82 percent white and 15 percent black. Asian, Hispanic and American Indian students made up the remaining 3 percent.

This year, the district is about 37 percent white, 19 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 14 percent other races.

From 1971 to 2008, black students who lived in the assigned attendance area – a portion roughly bounded by Central, 29th Street North, I-135 and Hillside – were assigned to schools throughout the city and bused from first grade through high school.

White students who did not attend magnet schools were chosen by lottery to be bused to Adams or Mueller – elementary schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods – for one year, after which they could return to their neighborhood schools.

In 2008, the school board approved a plan aimed at ending race-based busing of elementary students. The plan let elementary students in the assigned attendance area go to schools in their neighborhoods. It also offered transportation for students who chose to stay at their old schools and priority placement in magnet schools.

But the change had little effect on older students. A labyrinthine boundary map for the assigned attendance area still assigns middle- and high-school students to schools all over the city. In many cases, next-door neighbors attend different schools.

The system was necessary, officials said, because schools in or near the assigned attendance area did not have enough space to accommodate all the students.

When consultants started redrawing boundaries recently to plan for new schools, they hoped to simplify the assigned attendance area, Allison said. That proved problematic.

An early draft had the area’s students attending three high schools – East, North and Northwest. But the change would have forced nearly 90 percent of those students to switch schools, Allison said.

In addition, those attending East and North would not qualify for bus rides because they live within 2 1/2 miles of those schools.

“For some (residents) there was a bit of, ‘Whoa, wait a second. We kind of like the way it is now,’ ” Allison said.

What’s to come

The new boundary proposal would leave the assigned attendance area and its intricate, block-by-block assignments intact, at least for now, a boundary-free island in the middle of the district. About 2,800 students live in the area, about half of them middle- or high-schoolers.

The plan also would close the only high school in the area – Northeast Magnet, which draws students from all over the city. Officials have suggested moving the program to a new high school being built in Bel Aire.

Allison said moving the magnet high school before next school year makes sense. But he wants to gather more information from residents in the assigned attendance area before deciding how to proceed with school assignments.

“This is an area where we can pause … and the impact across the district is not extensive,” he said. “Being able to say, ‘Here’s the consequences, here’s the benefits.’ Let’s look at this, let’s get input and let’s go from there.”

Williams, the NAACP president, said she would like to see the current maze of school assignments phased out over time. That could mean shifting toward simpler geographic boundaries or moving toward an open enrollment system, where families could choose which school their children attend.

“There’s still just so much up in the air, a lot of unanswered questions,” she said.

Williams also envisions a day when nobody uses the term “Triple-A.”

“That little area just stands out so much,” she said. “It’s all by itself there on the map, and that’s how we’re identified, by the way we were bused for 37 years.”

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