A year into the controversial plan to shuffle almost 1,100 Eden Prairie students to different schools, low-income students are more evenly dispersed throughout most of the district's elementary schools.

Still, the west metro district has paid a hefty price for the changes, which forced many students to be bused across town and closed a popular intermediate school.

Most notably, the district lost about 200 students this school year -- a fact that school officials concede is partially due to the changes.

That loss, which was greater than expected, has deepened a decade-long enrollment decline and an ensuing $4.4 million budget shortfall projected for the next school year.

Still, officials remain upbeat about the future of the Eden Prairie schools. The district has a new superintendent and is about to embark on a long-term planning process that school board members pledge will be both thorough and inclusive.

"People have to do what's right for their families. I understand that," said Ranee Jacobus, the board's chairwoman. "Still, I'm very saddened we lost over 200 kids. And it's probably unrealistic to think that we're not going to lose some more.

"But the board is working really hard to make sure that doesn't happen. And we're doing that by putting the focus back on the classroom."

Before the boundary changes approved in 2010, Forest Hills Elementary had significantly more students eligible for free and reduced-price meals -- those considered low-income under federal guidelines -- than any other Eden Prairie elementary.

Today, that percentage has dropped from almost 50 percent to 34 percent, a consequence of an influx of students from more affluent communities within the city.

Because of the boundary changes, Lynda Whittemore's three children were reassigned from Prairie View Elementary to Forest Hills, almost tripling her daily commute time.

"Going into it, I questioned the reasoning and rationale as to why they were doing it," she said. "Then it became obvious that there wasn't much I could do to change the outcome. As a parent, you get on board. You get focused on doing your part to make positive experiences for your kids."

Whittemore said she now believes the educational experience offered at Forest Hills, though different than Prairie View, to be on par with the neighborhood school they were forced to leave.

Other Forest Hills parents, particularly those who belong to the school's sizeable Somali community, say the new students have changed their school for the better.

"We always have supported the change because we want our children to have an equal education," said Asad Shane, a Somali community leader.

Not all Eden Prairie elementary schools have seen significant increases in their low-income student population.

Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School, which receives students from across the district, saw its population of low-income students increase only from 6 to 8 percent.

Relieving building pressures

In addition to redistributing low-income students, schools officials also sought to balance the abundance of elementary students in the southern part of the district's attendance zone with the northern area, which had significantly lower enrollments.

"Each of the elementaries now has space to house K[indergarten] through sixth" grades, said Bob Noyed, the district's spokesman. "Still, it's not perfectly balanced. Enrollment is still tight at Eden Lake and Oak Point to a certain extent. It hasn't completely settled out just yet."

Cedar Ridge Elementary Principal Marilee Hoch said she now has enough classroom space to offer extra reading and math instruction for struggling students.

"All of those programs are now in the classroom," she said. "Our hallways are clear. It's a great thing."

Many parents today remain opposed to moving fifth- and sixth-graders from Oak Point Intermediate School to the elementary schools, known as the "K-6 Transformation."

Last month, the school board in a 5-2 vote rejected the idea to "hit pause" on the K-6 piece of the plan for the 2012-13 school year.

Lessons learned

As the district moves forward, it will have a new leader at the helm. In March, the school board selected Curt Tryggestad of Little Falls as its next superintendent.

When it comes to restoring community trust, Tryggestad has his work cut out for him. Earlier this year, the school board and staff interviewed the families that left the district prior to the start of this school year.

Among the comments frequently heard: neighboring districts like Minnetonka offered more academically rigorous programs; trust in the schools was broken; the Eden Prairie district did a poor job communicating.

The loss of 200 students certainly doesn't financially help the district, which has seen declining enrollment for about a decade. This year, the district is projecting a $4.4 million deficit, attributed to the loss of students and declining state and federal funding.

Still, school officials believe long-term planning is a critical step in getting the district back on track. Jacobus said the process will involve parents, community members, teachers, staff and business leaders.

Everything, she said, will be on the table for discussion.

"The teachers, I think, are focusing on what they can do in the classroom," Jacobus said. "I think that's what everyone wants us to do."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469