Changing school boundaries, which can be an emotional, contentious decision for parents and students, typically aims to tackle disproportionate or dwindling enrollment.

Eden Prairie, however, is looking to significantly change boundary lines not just for enrollment but also to address racial and socioeconomic imbalance. Most notable is a 33 percent gap in student use of free and reduced lunch between two elementary schools in the district.

The southwest metro school district is set to vote next week on its most extensive boundary change in 10 years -- a change that could move 800 students to adjust enrollment and bring more equity to schools.

It's also poised to become a model for other suburban schools facing what's historically been an urban issue: segregation.

"Every school district is looking to see what they do," said Myron Orfield, the executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race & Poverty, adding about the metro area: "Almost all the school districts are dealing with this."

Last week, the nationally known expert told the Eden Prairie School Board that if boundaries aren't adjusted, the district's schools could end up racially and economically polarized.

"When schools become segregated and separated ... it hurts students," said Orfield, adding that racially isolated schools are detrimental to all students' academic success. "It's a huge destruction of thousands of kids' lives."

A district task force met all summer to redraw elementary school boundaries and is set to make changes that they hope will balance the district's demographics into the future. Maps showing the changes have not been released.

The change could make Eden Prairie, an affluent district of 9,700 students with high test scores and enviable extracurricular success, one of the few districts to follow through with an integration plan, Orfield said.

Between Forest Hills Elementary and the more affluent students at Cedar Ridge Elementary, school officials report a 33 percent difference between the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The proposed changes would reduce that gap to 2 percent, officials say.

That means students may not attend the school closest to them, but rather go elsewhere to help balance demographics. That worries parent Mary Jean Watras, who wants her children to attend their neighborhood school.

"I think people move into neighborhoods for a reason," said the mother of three young children. "I understand the need for racial diversity. [But] I want to make sure when they're drawing the lines, they make physical sense; they're not shipping kids across town."

It's been a sticking point for suburban parents elsewhere, too.

Earlier this year, officials in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district considered boundary changes to create more racial balance, but parents vocally objected to moving their children. The district scrapped that specific plan.

Similar discussions have emerged in Hopkins and Osseo. Most recently in Bloomington, a task force is on the verge of redrawing school boundaries and starting a magnet school to even out enrollment and racial imbalance across elementary schools. In one school, 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals while another school is at 16 percent.

"You have to address the disparity gap," said spokesman Rick Kaufman, adding that the task force is expected to make boundary change recommendations by November. "It's a constant struggle."

From 1992 to 2002, the number of segregated schools in the metro, or those with non-white and poor students making up 75 percent of the student population, has jumped from nine to 109 schools, Orfield said.

If there's a lesson Eden Prairie has taken from other districts, it's to mitigate parent backlash. The district has a communication plan to explain changes to parents. Regarding busing, board chairwoman Kim Ross said the district values reasonable bus times and, with a 6-square-mile city, "the other side of town isn't more than 6 miles away."

The district would have had to adjust boundary lines to realign enrollment, Ross added, so with the chance to also balance schools demographically "why wouldn't we do it?"

It will also help real estate values, Business Manager Patricia Magnuson said. "If one school is deemed less desirable ... it diminishes the value of our community."

The school board is scheduled to vote Sept. 14 on whether to approve administrators' interpretation of policy allowing noncontiguous lines. Ross said she's supportive of the change. If the board concurs, by early October officials will publish a new boundary map for fall 2011 and gather public input.

"I'm sure we'll have struggles with our community," Magnuson said. "The best we can do is bring people along in the conversation. We know it's better for all kids to be in an integrated school."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141