Kathy Darnell can’t say exactly what would happen if Allison Traditional Magnet Middle School becomes a neighborhood magnet, as a district consultant has proposed.
But “I see no upside at all,” said Darnell, president of the school’s PTA. “I think it would destroy the success they’ve built at Allison.”
Earlier this month RSP & Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district, presented a first-draft proposal showing new boundary lines for Wichita middle and high schools. Part of the plan calls for doing away with pure magnet middle schools, such as Allison, Brooks, Horace Mann and Mayberry, and making them neighborhood magnets instead.
The plan also proposes another controversial change: closing Northeast Magnet High School and moving that program to a new high school being built in Bel Aire.
Popular magnet programs
A neighborhood magnet serves students in a defined geographic boundary, then accepts students from throughout the district if there is space. At a pure magnet, everyone who wants to attend has to apply.
Since it was established as a traditional magnet 15 years ago, Allison Middle School, near Douglas and Seneca, has become one of the district’s most popular magnet programs and consistently has posted the highest test scores of any Wichita middle school.
The school offers a structured, “back to basics” curriculum that emphasizes rigorous academics, enforced discipline, a strict dress code and a high level of parental involvement.
This year Allison is at building capacity with about 525 students, said principal Justin Kasel. About 180 students, including 160 sixth-graders, are on a waiting list to get in.
“We have a very good reputation and very involved parents that value education,” Kasel said. “We’re very safe. We have high test scores. … There’s a lot to like.”
Kasel said he has cautioned families that the boundary proposal is only a draft. An advisory group will meet Jan. 5 to discuss and possibly alter boundary options.
“Right now there are more questions than answers,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what the impact would be.”
Traditional vs. neighborhood
But Darnell, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at the school, said Allison’s pure magnet status is critical to its success. The school attracts like-minded parents from across the district who value education and choose to send their kids there, she said. The majority of students come from Wichita’s four traditional magnet elementaries.
If the school drew students from the surrounding neighborhood – the historic Delano district near Friends University – there likely wouldn’t be many spots left for families who live elsewhere, Darnell said.
“This school’s had a proven track record for years and years,” she said. “If anything, we should be trying to create more schools like Allison rather than destroy what’s already working.”
One factor that could prompt a shift away from pure magnets is transportation costs. Wichita’s practice of busing magnet school students across the city – from wherever they live to whichever school they choose to attend – has come under fire recently as officials had to cut nearly $30 million from this year’s budget. The district spends almost $25 million a year on buses, fuel and related expenses.
Superintendent John Allison said doing away with magnet busing or charging families a portion of the cost could dilute the district’s commitment to diversity and schools of choice. Nevertheless, magnet schools and transportation likely will be part of the school board’s boundary discussions in coming months.
“What are we offering and where do we offer it? That’s all part of the puzzle,” Allison said.
Northeast Magnet’s future
Under the consultants’ first draft of new high school boundaries, meanwhile, the district would bus magnet high school students farther.
The plan calls for a $31 million high school under construction at 53rd North and Rock Road to become the new home of Northeast Magnet High School. The current Northeast Magnet, at 1847 N. Chautauqua, would close.
Northeast, a magnet that focuses on science, art, law and public service, has an enrollment of about 600 students and a waiting list of 100 more. Unlike the district’s comprehensive high schools, Northeast does not have athletic or instrumental music programs.
Allison said moving Northeast Magnet to the new building instead of launching another comprehensive high school, as promised in a $370 million bond issue, would save the district between $10 million and $12 million a year in operating costs.
“To open the new school as planned – it’s just not fiscally possible for us to do that,” Allison said.
That leaves students and officials at Heights High School, near 53rd North and Hillside, wondering how or even if they’ll get relief from the overcrowded classrooms and hallways that were a driving force behind the campaign for a bond issue in 2008.
The bond plan called for two new comprehensive high schools — one northeast and one southeast — to ease overcrowding and handle growth.
The new southeast high school, slated to be built on land the district owns near 143rd East and Pawnee, is on indefinite hold and was not mentioned in the latest boundary plan. Allison said the school could be part of a second-draft plan.
“Heights is still crowded. We know that,” Allison said. The next proposal could “have some component geared toward helping offset some of those issues.”
Maps showing proposed boundary lines for elementary, middle and high schools are on the district’s website, www.boundary.usd259.org. Officials are collecting feedback via an online survey through Jan. 3.
Darnell, the Allison mom, said families are on holiday break and probably not thinking about school boundaries. She worries that proposals could be pushed through without enough analysis or feedback.
“They’ve given us only very limited information about something that could have a huge impact,” she said. “I want to know how they’d implement these (changes)? What’s the transition process? … I’d hate to see great schools dismantled.”