Burnsville district crafts plans to shift students

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2013 - 4:47 PM

Evening out imbalances in the number of low-income students is a priority.

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Fifth-grader Jeremiah Jones raised his hand at Sky Oaks Elementary, which has been deemed “racially identifiable” by the state.

Photo: DAVID JOLES , Star Tribune

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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.

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