The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District knows it's time to make changes to accommodate the dramatic demographic shifts of the past five years. With three plans to choose from, the question now is which will best suit the district's needs.
"What we are striving for is diversifying our schools and creating a better socio-economic balance across our district," said Superintendent Randy Clegg, who will retire June 30.
Each plan would make changes to student assignments for the district's 10 elementary schools for 2014-15, Clegg said.
Currently, some schools, such as Sky Oaks Elementary School, have more than 70 percent of their children receiving free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty. At others, like Harriet Bishop Elementary, a gifted-and-talented magnet, only 20 percent of students are receiving the lunches.
Sky Oaks also has been deemed racially identifiable by the state, meaning there's more than a 20 percent disparity in the number of minority students there compared to other district schools, said school board member Sandy Sweep.
Finally, some elementary schools are overcrowded, while others are under capacity, Clegg said.
Using input from three recent community forums and internal focus groups, a team made up of principals, the superintendent and others have created the three plans, which were presented at a school board work session Thursday.
The goal is to keep every school within 10 percentage points of the district average of students receiving free and reduced lunch, which is about 48 percent, Clegg said.
One plan, the "blue option," would significantly redraw boundaries, making them contiguous and attempting to balance enrollment numbers and poverty. Students would likely be "grandfathered in" to the new boundaries, so older students could finish at their current school.
"It's a little bit more disruptive overall, but it's doable," Clegg said. "The challenge is, 'OK, how quickly would you implement this?' "
The plan would preserve the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade model and allow families to attend their neighborhood school. However, it would require boundary tweaks every few years and may not result in long-term equity, Clegg said.
The "yellow option" would pair schools, with one serving kindergarten through third grade and the other grades four through six. With four pairings, the two elementary schools at the district's outer edges would stand alone.
Pairing schools balances out demographics "fairly quickly," Clegg said. The plan's advantages are that there would be six or seven sections of each grade per school, allowing teachers to plan together and minimizing disruption when new students come midyear, since they would be distributed among many classes, Clegg said.
But the idea presents challenges, too. "On the surface, the paired schools … sounds great. But then you have parents with a kindergartner and a sixth-grader who will have to go from building to building," Sweep said. "What we're hearing … is that it creates a hardship."
At community forums, parents with siblings attending different schools under the plan raised concerns about scheduling and transportation, Clegg said. Parents were also concerned that younger kids wouldn't have older role models.
Finally, the "red option" involves boundary changes and also pairs schools together.
While many districts make boundary changes every few years, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage hasn't done so since 1996. Three years ago, a proposal to change boundaries resulted in a wave of parent protest, so no action was taken.
This time parents "have been very understanding. They're aware of the needs of the district and that some things need to change," Clegg said.
Sweep said the board will consider the plans over the summer and hold more community forums in the fall, with a decision by late fall, she said.
But even when a decision is made, the board will continue to look at longer-term solutions to balance the district's demographics and make the best use of facilities.
The board will consider things like creating more magnet schools, moving sixth-graders into middle school and shifting ninth-graders into the high school, she said.
At the work session, Clegg said he favors pursuing the blue option, but eventually making the elementary schools K-5 and considering more magnet schools. Sweep said she doesn't have an opinion yet on which plan would be best.
But Denise Morgan, whose son will be in second grade at Sky Oaks, does. After attending all three forums and the work session, she said she prefers the red option but would be fine with either plan that pairs schools together.
"My concern with just doing the boundaries is that it doesn't change anything structurally in the district, so we're going to be having the same discussion again in five years," Morgan said.
She said she loves Sky Oaks, but she has seen firsthand the effects of concentrated poverty there.
"I'm trying to just accept that any change would be positive," she said. "When you're at Sky Oaks, you need change."