After a year of meetings and study, a committee established to study the Flexible Boundary program in Riverside Elementary School District 96 recommended doing away with set boundaries for the four elementary schools.
The committee, consisting of two school board members and parent representatives from each of the district’s four elementary schools, was charged with evaluating the district’s flexible boundary policy, established in 2002, and recommending improvements and solutions.
“There are no attendance areas under this new policy,” said school board member Jennifer Leimberer, who chaired the committee. Members of the committee presented a 36-page PowerPoint presentation to the school board last week. The report and discussion lasted for about 90 minutes at last week’s school board meeting.
Instead of attendance boundaries, the report recommends that two factors be taken into consideration in assigning kids to schools: Legal siblings and children sharing custodial parents should be assigned to the same elementary school and students should be assigned to elementary schools in reasonable proximity to their home. Proximity is defined as easy walking distance.
Leimberer called for separating class-size policy from school assignment. Under the current policy, parents register their children at the school within their attendance boundary. The current policy originally called for class sizes not to exceed 20 in kindergarten through third grade and not to exceed 23 students in fourth and fifth grades. Increasing enrollment has caused the school board to raise the caps for kindergarten through third grades to 23 in recent years.
If enrollment at a school exceeds the current class size caps some students are assigned to other schools in the district.
The existing policy has not lived up to its name, according to school board member Mary Stimming, a member of the committee.
“It’s made the assignment of children flexible, not the boundaries,” Stimming said.
Fifty of the 73 students who go to out-of-area schools live in the Ames School attendance area, which includes North Riverside. Thirty-seven of those students presently attend Blythe Park School. Just over 20 percent (41 of 199) Blythe Park students do not live in the Blythe Park attendance area.
“We’ve rarely sent a student to the farthest point from where they live,” said Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
Hollywood School parents, like Leimberer, have complained the most about the current policy. Hollywood parents note that if their children can’t attend Hollywood, they have to attend a school across First Avenue, making it more difficult to walk to school.
“Your kid can no longer walk to school,” Leimberer said, adding that a few years ago about 12 percent of students who lived in Hollywood were sent to another school.
But this year only three students from the Hollywood area attend another school. Ten students, though, have to cross First Avenue in the other direction to attend Hollywood.
Leimberer said a goal of the proposed policy change is to separate decisions about class size from decisions on school assignment. The proposal recommends that class sizes be kept between 20 and 23 students in the elementary schools but urges the administration to explore other ways of maintaining those class sizes beyond assigning kids to other schools.
“We’re encouraging the administration to try some other things,” Leimberer said. “We haven’t explored those specifically since that wasn’t on our task list.”
One idea mentioned was the possibility of multiage classrooms. Leimberer suggested the policy on class size might be relaxed a bit, saying that proximity should be a more important factor.
However teachers have concerns about increasing class size and the leader of the District 96 teachers union urged caution in making any changes.
“The Riverside Education Council feels that the ramifications of the board’s actions need to be carefully studied before the board takes action,” said Patty Gill, president of the teachers union.
One key change in the proposed new policy is that parents would initially register with the district’s central office, and the district would then assign kids to schools based on where they lived and projections for future growth.
Parents would list their first- and second-choice schools but their choices would not be binding. The result, committee members say, would be more kids going to schools closer to where they live.
“You are considering proximity and you’re not bound as rigidly by the enrollment boundary,” Stimming said.
Leimberer admitted that in the proposed policy not every student would be able to go to the school closest to their home.
“Are we going to eliminate kids not going to what people would necessarily see as their neighborhood school? Probably not, especially with rising enrollment,” Leimberer said.
Some school board members seemed skeptical.
“I’m not agreeing to that,” said Hareena Wakely at one point. “I would like to take a step back.”
No votes were taken on the proposal and the board will consider it again at its December meeting.
“Let’s think about it for a month,” said District 96 board President Nancy Jensen.
Leimberer remains confident that the gist of her committee’s recommendations will ultimately be approved.
“I think we got some feedback that warrants some looking back at some of the language,” Leimberer said. “I think that in its intent they will adopt it.”
Stimming said she was open to modification of the proposal.
“It’s the start of a discussion,” she said. “It lays the seeds for an ongoing discussion. Any adoption is going to be a modified version. I am under no illusion that it’s going to be adopted lock, stock and barrel.”