Fixed attendance zones for elementary schools are now a thing of the past in Riverside Elementary School District 96. 

On May 16, the District 96 Board of Education voted 6-0 to adopt a new student assignment policy that abolishes fixed attendance zones and instead will assign new students to schools based on a combination of factors, including proximity to a school, class size and a school’s capacity.

Under the district’s former so-called flexible-boundary policy, a new kindergarten student would be assigned to the school in the attendance area in which the student lived, until a class-size limit was reached. 

In recent years, a number of students living in the Ames School attendance area, which included the northern part of Riverside and part of North Riverside, were transferred to other schools, mostly Blythe Park and Central schools, because Ames’ enrollment exceeded class-size targets. The school board, however, has often waived the class-size targets for some classes in some schools.

The new policy retains the class size targets (20 students in kindergarten through third grade and 23 students in grades four and five), but the school board will revisit that policy in coming months.

The new student assignment policy’s language is general, stating the school board “is committed to neighborhood schools while providing flexibility for variations in enrollment.”

According to the policy, the district will follow an “unbiased enrollment process based on objective criteria” to assign students to schools. That process employ a standard algorithm, a mathematical formula, which is now used in the California school district of Belmont-Redwood Shores, to determine the shortest walking distance to a school for each new student to the district. 

Incoming kindergarten and transfer students will be assigned to their closest school until class size targets are reached.

School board members say that the new policy is not a major change.

“It’s a cleaner version of the old policy,” said school board President Jeff Miller. “We’ve got the same objectives — to basically have neighborhood schools, but at the same time to make sure there is some equity between the class sizes in the different schools and also to utilize space across the district efficiently.” 

Many homes in central Riverside are roughly the same distance away from at least two of the district’s schools.

Miller said there are a number of new students who will be assigned to a nearer school than they would have been under the old system of fixed attendance zones.

“There are students that are in the Ames attendance area that are closer to Blythe by walking distance,” Miller said. “And the same thing for Central and Blythe. There are kids that live closer to Blythe that fell into the old Central attendance area.” 

The new policy will apply only to students new to District 96 — kindergarten students, first-graders who do did not attend kindergarten in District 96 and older students transferring into the district. 

Current students will remain at the schools they now attend. 

The district’s policy of not separating siblings will not change. If an older sibling attends one elementary school, younger siblings will also be able to attend that school so long as an older sibling is still at the elementary school when the younger sibling is ready to enroll.

“The algorithm does take into account the siblings so that’s part of the formula,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said. “We’re not going to separate families.”

Ryan-Toye recently sent out a letter to local realtors explaining the policy shift, so they can make clear to prospective home buyers that buying a particular house doesn’t guarantee the right for children to attend a specific elementary school.

 “My sense is it doesn’t represent a huge change in our practices, but it brings clarity to the policy and to our communication strategies,” Ryan-Toye said. “We really tried to remove the language that said there are certain attendance centers and say we have flexible boundaries.” 

Next year’s kindergarten enrollment in District 96 is already larger than last year’s, and the district is considering opening a second section of kindergarten at Blythe Park School for 2018-19.

Ryan-Toye urged parents who will have a child in kindergarten next year to register and enroll that child as soon as possible.

“Having our enrollment number as accurate as possible is critical,” Ryan-Toye said.