Board to pick a school model

Board to pick a school model

   CHAMPAIGN ? School administrators say they'll recommend a cluster model for the district's middle school choice program when the school board meets Monday night.

   That recommendation means each of the district's 11 elementary schools would feed students into a specific middle school, but it's not clear how proximity, parent preference, administration input and other factors will play into that assignment process.

   But the overriding selection goal ? to comply with federal Office of Civil Rights rules ordering Champaign schools to balance racial populations and improve the quality of education for all children ? was repeated over and over again at a meeting Thursday night attended by parents, many of whom expressed concerns about the way the current choice program for elementary schools is working.

   The middle school program is now scheduled to begin with the 2004-05 school year.

   East Coast education consultant Michael Alves, who's helped the district start its choice programs, attended the meeting to field questions and to make recommendations about how the schools should continue to meet their goals.

   School board President Scott Anderson opened the middle-school discussion by outlining the issue.

   "Franklin was over chosen for a decade," he said of the magnet school on Champaign's north side. "Now Jefferson's enrollment is up, Franklin's not being chosen and the numbers are getting worse. We have to do something in May. At the earliest, we'll be voting Monday, but if there are a lot of questions, we'll put it off."

   Parents in the audience had a lot of questions. Many of them are disillusioned with the choice program because their kindergarten students failed to match at any of their three chosen schools, and they aired a long list of concerns about the middle school proposals. Among them:

   ? Parents might be forced to pick elementary schools that are under chosen, schools like Stratton, if they're paired with a desirable middle school.

   ? Younger siblings of current middle school students might not be able to follow their sisters or brothers at the next level.

   ? All children in a fifth-grade class at one school might not attend the same middle school. If the middle school is full, the overflow will be sent to a school that's not full.

   ? Transportation looms as a huge issue because the clusters will likely be formed with little regard for proximity.

   "Kids are already being bused all over the district," said parent Rebecca Brooks. "Our kids are in Garden Hills, and our proximity school is Bottenfield. We didn't know when we picked schools we were also picking a middle school."

   Carol Stack, deputy superintendent for achievement and administration, said four elementary schools will likely feed into one middle school, four will feed into the second and three will feed into the third.

   Stack outlined the features ? positives and negatives ? of the three models under serious consideration. Besides the cluster model, the board also considered a magnet school proposal that would develop special programs at each of the district's three middle schools and a choice model that would operate exactly like the district's elementary school program.

   The cluster model emerged in Stack's descriptions as the program with the fewest negatives, but when parents asked Stack what she was recommending, she declined to say.

   However, Superintendent Arthur Culver stepped in, and Alves also offered his advice.

   "It's clear the model we'll be recommending is the cluster model," Culver said. "It's clearly the best model for us."

   "The elementary choice model made wonderful sense in Champaign," said Alves, the self-described inventor of controlled choice. "But in the middle school, it's really critical to provide continuity and stability. Also, the cluster model gives elementary schools and middle schools a chance to work together."

   He said Champaign's elementary school choice program is "one of the best in the country." The program requires parents to apply for spaces in kindergarten, listing their top three choices, and Alves' consulting business software matches children with schools, taking proximity, sibling attendance, racial balance and other factors into consideration.

   "Clusters also provide choice again," Alves said, noting that students and parents who aren't happy with the middle school in their cluster can apply for transfers, to be granted as space is available.

   But board member David Sholem expressed his reservations about the way the elementary choice program is working because parents who select popular schools often don't get any of their choices.

   "People are selecting their first, fourth and fifth choices because they have no chance of getting into their second or third choices if they don't get their first," Sholem said.

    He also noted that school proximity rules that weight the selection don't work for many Savoy residents because they live more than 1.5 miles from all schools and for residents of some areas of Champaign.

   "As a recruitment tool, this is a disaster," Sholem said of the choice plan's impact on new business development. "If you move to Champaign after the sign-up deadline, you'll be going to the ninth, tenth, eleventh choice schools, or you have to select a private school. It puts us at a severe disadvantage."

   Board member Nicole Storch said she's skeptical about the so-called choice transfer component of the middle school cluster plan because she said it depends on available space, and history shows there have been few transfer options at the elementary level.

   Culver said the board has to make a decision because the district is forced by its consent decree to take action on the middle school choice plan in May, even though many questions about logistics and programs like gifted programs are still unanswered

   "We should conduct a facilities study, but there's not time," he said, adding that the facilities study is just getting started, and the information likely won't be compiled until later this year.

   "Conceptually, the cluster model makes sense, and now the question is, how will it work in Champaign?" Alves said. "In the southern part of the district you have growth that wasn't there in 1998 (when elementary choice started). You need more space in the south. There's no question that more families are living in that area, and more houses are being built there. We need to understand that, because it could have an impact on the middle school situation."

   Culver said he'll ask board members to support the cluster concept Monday without knowing how some major issues will be resolved, including what elementary schools will be matched to what middle schools.

   "I don't think we should hold up anything based on the sham that students can transfer to another school if they don't like their assignment," Storch said.

   "They have to be three equally good schools," said parent Katie Rocheford. "You shouldn't be in love with a building."

   Parent Carol Lynn Hassan said she's encouraged by board members' recognition of the shortcomings of the elementary choice program and their willingness to look at new middle school options, but she said she's worried about their short-term approach.

   "They're not addressing growth in southern Champaign," Hassan said. "They'll have to build a new middle school there, and it will affect all the feeder schools again. They're not doing long-range planning. They're putting Band-Aids on because the court says they have to do something in May."

   "I think they're causing a bigger problem going into this middle school program not well-enough informed," she said. "One of my biggest concerns is that they're going to make the south side school (kids) go north to middle school."

   The board meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mellon Building, 703 S. New St., C.


Parents voice frustration over program

   CHAMPAIGN ? Disenchanted parents laughed Thursday when education consultant Michael Alves tried to explain the facts about the elementary choice process.

   "You always have a choice of schools with available seats," Alves said. Then, in response to the audience's laughter, he added: "What's available you might not think is much of a choice."

   Parent after parent at the special session called to discuss both prospects for middle school assignments and failures of the elementary school choice program told stories about how the current system has failed them.

   Carol Lynn Hassan and her family live in Savoy, 1.9 miles from Barkstall School, where her son attends fifth grade. Barkstall was her first choice for her daughter, who will be entering kindergarten this fall. But the proximity rule didn't apply because she lives more than 1.5 miles from the school, and the sibling rule also didn't apply, officials said, because her son will be attending middle school in the fall.

   "We didn't get any of our top three choices," Hassan said. "We've been at Barkstall since it opened. Our children play with Barkstall children.

   "This program isn't helping Champaign," Hassan said. "All the private schools have expanded since choice started. People don't want to mess with the politics."

   She said she'll likely send her daughter to private school for a year until she sees how the issues are resolved.

   Alves said 132 students picked recently built Barkstall, which is adjacent to Cherry Hills subdivision, as their first choice, and only 69 spaces were open there. On the other hand, he said, only 27 youngsters picked Stratton on North Neil Street ? also a new school that's only about half full ? as their first choice.

   He said unless applicants had something like proximity or sibling attendance going for them, they had virtually no chance of getting into Barkstall or the district's two other most popular schools, Bottenfield and South Side.

   Alves told board members they need to adjust the choice rules, making changes like reducing the proximity distance qualification.

   "You also need to ask yourself why some schools are so popular and some are so unpopular," he said. "We're five years into this. What are you going to do with the under-chosen schools? That's the key. You can't go on year in and year out like this."

   As a step in that direction, the board recently voted to "reconstitute" Stratton, making jobs there open to all teachers in the district and expanding popular programs like the gifted program.

   Parents protested that they're "bullied" into picking a school they really don't want when their child fails to place at a school they do want.

   "I'd be happy with any of my top three choices," said one mother, who didn't get any of them.

   Of the 30 or so families who ended up unmatched, many of them attended the meeting, and several said they're thinking about moving out of Champaign.

   "Parents like choice, but they like it more when they get what they want," Alves observed.

   He said racial balance plays a role in the choice system, but only at the end of the process.

   "At Barkstall, we admitted three African American kids this year to meet the minimum requirement," Alves said, underscoring the word "minimum."

   "Up to that point, it was all proximity or siblings."

   Patti Herges said she lives a block from Bottenfield, and her daughter didn't get into kindergarten there, in part because Herges missed the application deadline by a day due to a long-term illness.

   "Bottenfield is why we bought a house where we did," Herges said. "I just got our real estate taxes, and a lot of that goes to the schools. Now it's becoming a middle school issue too. I don't feel like (my daughter will) ever have a chance to go there. I can keep appealing, but we'll never have priority preference again. I don't understand where the choice comes into it."

   "We've had choice for five years, and it's OK not to like it," said board President Scott Anderson. "We need to look at ways to improve it. There are some wrinkles.

   "But we should remember that when we first looked at the neighborhood schools, they were extremely segregated. One school was 99 percent African American."

   "I'm glad they're looking at adjustments," Herges said. "Before, the rules were so rigid. This is a move in the right direction. The board has been responsive and open to adjustments, and that gives me hope. I feel better."


You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at

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