Attendance area, boundaries in Wichita schools to continue indefinitely

03/11/2013 1:48 PM

03/11/2013 1:48 PM

Correction: State law does not require districts to transport all students who live more than 2 1/2 miles from their assigned schools. Earlier versions of this story were incorrect on that point.

Wichita school officials say a complex patchwork of school assignments in a portion of central-northeast Wichita – a holdover from the district’s system of busing for integration – will continue indefinitely.

“I have yet to hear any kind of concern from parents or community groups that have said, ‘You know what? We don’t like this, and we need to go back to the drawing board,’ ” said school board member Betty Arnold. “Because I’ve not gotten any kind of feedback that the plan is questionable or not in our best interest, I am very comfortable with leaving things as is.”

But some community leaders said they would like to meet with district officials to discuss the issue, to make sure everyone is comfortable continuing the current practice.

When school leaders approved new attendance boundaries last year, they preserved a boundary-free island in a predominantly African-American part of the city known as the “assigned attendance area.”

Although the district ended its practice of busing for integration five years ago, students in that area – bounded roughly by Central, 29th Street North, Hillside and Ohio – still attend seven different high schools and 10 middle schools.

District leaders and some community members had hoped a new boundary plan would simplify attendance boundaries or even do away with the so-called “Triple-A.”

But redrawing boundaries proved problematic.

An early draft had the area’s students attending three high schools: East, North and Northwest. But the change would have forced most students in the area to switch schools, and many would no longer have qualified for bus rides because they live within 2 1/2 miles of the assigned school.

Superintendent John Allison said at the time that the district would postpone changes to allow for more input.

A year later, he and board members say there is no plan to do away with the assigned attendance area or redraw boundaries to include that portion of the city.

“For our parents within that community … there really has been no desire to revive that at this point in time,” Allison said.

“The current attendance assignments by geography, by address, are working and proving to be a good option.”

He said he has gauged community sentiment over the past year by talking with principals and some people who live in the assigned attendance area.

“The feedback was, ‘It’s OK,’ ” he said. “We’ll continue to monitor and see how the patterns go, and … if there’s a need, we’ll step back and research it further.”

Busing history

The school assignments for secondary students are a holdover from the district’s voluntary agreement with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to maintain racially balanced schools.

From 1971 to 2008, black students who lived in the assigned attendance area 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 that ended 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 some cases, next-door neighbors attend different schools.

The system was necessary, officials say, because schools in or near the assigned attendance area did not have enough space to accommodate all the students. All middle- and high-school students who live in the area are assigned to schools according to the map, not just black students.

In the northwest corner of the area, for example, most students are assigned to Truesdell Middle School and South High, but a few houses in the middle of that section are assigned to Hamilton Middle and West High schools.

Houses in a 20-block area in the eastern part of the Triple-A are assigned to Coleman, Curtis, Pleasant Valley and Wilbur middle schools and Southeast, Heights and Northwest high schools.

District leaders say the intricate, block-by-block assignments may be confusing, but they – and the cost of busing students to their assigned schools – remain a critical part of the district’s pledge to keep schools diverse.

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

Now Hispanic students are the largest minority in the Wichita district, but neither the previous busing plan nor the new boundary system attempted to redistribute them throughout the district. This year the district is about 36 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black and 15 percent other races.The state reimburses districts that transport students who live more than 2 1/2 miles from their assigned schools – whether they are neighborhood schools or magnet schools – but it is not required in all cases.

The law requires only that districts provide transportation to: students who live in the district but in another city, such as Bel Aire or Kechi, and whose homes are more than 2 1/2 miles from the school; homeless students covered under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act; and students identified as needing transportation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“From an economical standpoint, there may be concern,” said Arnold, the board member whose district includes the assigned attendance area. According to estimates, the district will spend nearly $26 million on transportation this school year. Much of it – between 60 and 80 percent, calculated using a complex formula – is reimbursed by the state or federal government.

“You have to find that fine balance between economics and the things this community stated are important,” Arnold said. “We held meetings all over the city, and people said very clearly, ‘We want diversity in all of our schools.’ ”

Community discussion

Lavonta Williams, a Wichita City Council member and past president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, said during boundary discussions that she would like to see the current maze of school assignments phased out over time.

“That little area just stands out so much,” she said last spring. “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.”

Last week, she said she hopes Allison and other district leaders will sit down with NAACP representatives and residents of central-northeast Wichita to re-evaluate school assignments and other diversity issues.

“I think what happened 37 years ago probably doesn’t work as well as it does right now,” she said.

“If those two entities sat down at that time, then these two entities need to sit down at this time to say, ‘Are you OK? Are we OK? Is this the way we should be looking?’

“So I think there’s some community discussion that needs to take place. … Is everybody on the same page? I think that’s really the main thing that we have to look at.”

School board member Sheril Logan, who served on the advisory group that weighed in on boundary proposals, said last spring that she supported postponing boundary changes to the assigned attendance area to allow for more input.

Last week, she said she agreed with Allison and Arnold that the current plan should continue.

“It looks a little strange on the map, but it seems to be working,” Logan said.

“It would create more havoc and unrest if we made a huge change than if we didn’t. … I guess you could say I’m not interested in stirring up a hornet’s nest if we don’t have to.”

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