Group of Maize parents unhappy over school assignment process

Some parents in Maize are unhappy with the way the district has assigned students to middle and high schools for next year, saying their children weren’t given their first preference to attend Maize South High School even though the building still is below capacity.

“We were told we had a choice, and then all of a sudden that choice is gone,” said Amy Allen, whose son is an eighth-grader at Maize South Middle School.

Like the majority of eighth-graders at the middle school, Allen’s son wants to attend Maize South High School at 37th Street North and Tyler. But the family got a letter earlier this month saying he had been assigned to Maize High, a larger, Class 6A school near 119th Street West.

The Allens and about two dozen other families are appealing their school assignments and have organized a group to protest the district’s process.

District leaders say they used the same process this year as they have since they opened a second high school four years ago — asking families to indicate their preferred school but not guaranteeing placement.

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 child to attend.

The district tries to assign about two-thirds of students to Maize High and one-third to Maize South, officials said. Because more eighth-graders opted for Maize South this year than in past years, that meant telling nearly two dozen eighth-graders they didn’t get their first-choice school.

“I think a little bit of it is just familiarity and history,” said Maize Superintendent Doug Powers. “This group of eighth-graders is the first group of incoming freshmen who have never known a district without two high schools.”

Since Maize South High opened in 2009, he said, some students who attended Maize South Middle School would opt for Maize High because they were more familiar with that school or because older siblings had attended there.

“For three years, we didn’t have to go through the process of sorting and selecting because students took care of it themselves,” Powers said. “This year, that’s not the case.”

The names of students denied their preferred school were selected using a computer program that generates random numbers, similar to the system the Wichita district uses to fill slots at magnet schools, he said.

Corey Tyrell, whose daughter chose Maize South but was assigned to Maize High, said the selection process isn’t fair to students who will be separated from classmates they have known through middle school and even before.

“We basically were under the idea that if you are in this feeder (pattern), you would continue up this high school path. Everybody at Maize South (Middle) just assumes they’ll go to Maize South (High),” Tyrell said.

“I wouldn’t be so upset if we had known all along,” he said. “We trusted the system and never thought she’d be taken from her group of friends and told, ‘You have to completely start over.’ ”

More importantly, said Karlee Johnson, another parent: Maize South High has plenty of space to accommodate two dozen more freshmen next year.

Last fall, 223 students were allowed to enroll as freshmen at Maize South. This year, the number is 180.

“That’s why we’re arguing,” said Johnson, who wants her daughter to attend the Class 5A high school. “It’s not anywhere near capacity. It’s not a capacity issue.”

Maize South, which is designed for up to 1,000 students, is not at or over capacity. Current enrollment is 766, according to state records.

Powers said board members could opt to allow those appealing placements to attend Maize South.

“We sure could do that as a good-faith gesture and add those kids in,” he said. “But then each year that number creeps up until it gets to that maximum, and three or four years down the road the building is full and you all of a sudden have to preference. … I think the process we have has worked.”

Karen McDermott, spokeswoman for the Maize district, said the district clearly tells parents there are no guarantees regarding school assignments. A line on the preference card itself says: “I understand signing this card indicates a preference and does not guarantee my student’s placement.”

A district policy on transfer requests dictates the appeals process in place for families. Because of the higher-than-usual number of appeals this year, McDermott said, officials are still trying to schedule a date and time for board members to hear them.

“There’s still a lot of back and forth. It’s a fluid process,” she said.

About 97 percent of families got their preferred schools for next year, she added. Changing the process or establishing geographical boundaries likely would result in many more families being assigned away from their preferred schools.

“We’ve said we’re open to considering other options, other plans,” McDermott said. “If these families or anyone else has an alternative in mind, we’d certainly hear it.”

Johnson and other parents said their opposition to the school assignments isn’t meant as a rejection or criticism of Maize High School. It’s more about the district making good on a pledge — even an unofficial one – to keep Maize South students together.

“It’s her choice, her identity, her belonging,” Johnson said of her daughter’s allegiance to Maize South.

“That’s all she knows. She is a Maize Maverick through and through. All her friends and support system are going to Maize South. … To a teenager, that support system is the most important thing.”

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