2/17/16 Redistricting restart: New idea could ruffle some feathers

Redistricting restart: New idea could ruffle some feathers
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 2/17/16    
Reprinted with permission.      

   Since October, Superintendent Bill Harrison has been working on a redistricting plan for the Alamance-Burlington School System, but this month he started over, at least with the high schools.

   “If I could I would wipe all our schools away and divide the county into quarters and have four high schools … and see what this looks like,” Harrison said, “as a starting point for discussion.”

   So he did, at least on paper, do just that, though just as a place to start.

   “The key word is potential,” Harrison said.

   Harrison showed the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education a map of the county with four main high school zones for Eastern, Southern and Western, and a proposed new high school in Hawfields. The urban high schools — Williams, Cummings and Graham high schools — could be “repurposed” into sixththrough-12th-grade magnet schools, like the Durham School of the Arts, or a vocational magnet school for carpentry, electrical and HVAC, Harrison said. Board member Patsy Simpson asked whether one could be an International Baccalaureate school.

   Harrison said this was the start of a long process that would involve public forums early in the process and ending with a final proposal in December.

   Harrison acknowledged the idea would ruffle some feathers.

   “People will panic when they read the paper tomorrow morning,” Harrison said.

   An earlier proposal for seven high schools is still on the table, Harrison said, which would include a new high school between Southern and Eastern Alamance high schools to alleviate overcrowding in those zones, and make an addition to Western Alamance High School to accommodate more students at the already-crowded school.

   While the seven-school plan alleviates overcrowding, Harrison said, having the urban schools clustered together leaves a high concentration of students from poor families at Graham and Cummings, and a growing number at Williams. That also leads to unequal resources like limited Advanced Placement classes at Cummings, where there is not as much demand for college-level courses as Western.

   “Where these schools are sited made sense when we had two systems,” Harrison said. “What we’ve been is the Alamance school system with the Burlington school system sitting inside.”

   Board member Tony Rose said the four-school idea avoids a high concentration of poor students at any particular school and the problems that go with it.

   The four-high school idea would make significant expansions at Southern, Eastern and Western. Harrison said there is room to grow at those schools.

   “That’s almost like building a second Southern right beside (Southern),” board Chair Steve Van Pelt said. “That’s something I’m going to have to think about — that’s a real stretch for me.”

   THE REDISTRICTING PLAN for elementary schools, on the other hand, is ready to go ahead, Harrison said.

   The district started last summer alleviating overcrowding at Newlin Elementary School by eliminating its satellite zone. That left two other desegregation-era satellite zones for Grove Park and Smith elementary schools. Eliminating those would mean shuffling 526 students among six elementary schools in Burlington.

   More controversially, Harrison proposes closing the old, underused and remote Pleasant Grove Elementary School in northeastern Alamance County, and building a new elementary school in the eastern part of the county that could absorb those students as well as some students from overcrowded South Mebane Elementary School.

   An early version of the elementary redistricting plan would have sent more than 100 students from South Mebane to E.M. Yoder, but that plan did not consider Yoder’s classrooms for autistic students, and also would cost it its computer, art and music rooms, Harrison said, and probably lead to more redistricting in three to five years.

   It also made parents from South Mebane very angry.

   Harrison asked the board to vote on moving forward on the elementary school plan and concept at its public meeting Monday.