Champaign school board member Gianina Baker speaks as fellow member Heather Vazquez listens during Monday night’s meeting.
Weigh in with a letter to the editor
CHAMPAIGN — Coming next year to Unit 4: adjusted middle school assignment patterns, pre-K options and travel reimbursements for many families who drive their kids to school.
On its way out: The “balanced calendar” schedules at Kenwood and Barkstall elementaries.
The Champaign school district’s recent search for a new method of assigning students to schools has ended not too far from where it began. The current Schools of Choice model will survive, with a few key modifications.
“School of choice was here when I arrived. I’ll admit, I didn’t get it at first, I didn’t understand it. It took a lot for me to understand what it’s all about,” Superintendent Shelia Boozer said. “But I truly get and understand the ‘why’ now.”
The district hired demographer Cooperative Strategies last year to propose new student assignment paths, with a focus on balancing its elementary schools’ socioeconomic makeup.
After rounds of fierce feedback from parents who feared sudden disruption, the district changed course. The firm came back to Unit 4 with a proposal that would move few elementary students next year, instead of 64 to 79 percent of them.
The Unit 4 board unanimously approved the new assignment scenario at Monday’s meeting, which will take effect in 2023-24.
“I think if we had done any other scenario right now it would’ve felt like we were doing this to the community, and not with,” board member Gianina Baker said after the vote.
The new plan preserves Schools of Choice, where families rank their choices for elementary schools and their preferences are algorithmically weighted based on proximity, sibling preference, socioeconomic status and whether the child needs access to school-specific programming.
The district will reroute how a few elementary schools feed into the district’s middle schools, while turning Garden Hills and International Prep Academy into pre-K-through-8 schools. (Garden Hills is currently K-5 while IPA is K-8.)
Carrie Busey children will go to Franklin instead of Edison Middle; South Siders will go to Jefferson Middle; Booker T. Washington and Westview school kids will go to Edison.
“As it became clear that the way students were assigned in our elementary schools wasn’t going to shift in any dramatic, dynamic way, it also became clear that we were going to have to look at different ways to balance our middle schools,” Boozer said.
The board also elected to do away with Kenwood and Barkstall elementary schools’ balanced calendar schedule, which forgoes a long summer break for several shorter pauses throughout the year.
According to Boozer, two calendars create “operational inefficiencies” for staff development and payroll, and students may lose out on summer programming, she said.
“The honest truth is, having two different calendars hurts us as a system. I believe moving to one calendar would make it easier for us to do the work we have to do,” Boozer said.
The new plan sets aside 5 to 15 percent of seats at all schools for late registrants and extends the registration deadline for kindergarten-bound students to June or July.
To keep up with transportation needs, families who qualify for district transportation may obtain reimbursement for driving their students to school every day.
Board member Chris Kloeppel said the middle school adjustments help a longstanding problem — asking families if they would pick a different elementary school just to go to a different junior high.
“We’re going to positively impact this entire community, and it’s hard, and some families are going to bear the burden of that a little bit more than others, and I’m sorry, and I hear you and I understand you,” Kloeppel said. “I feel your pain and I feel your anguish, but please stick with it.”
For Unit 4 parent Rebecca Leitschuh, the reason she wanted her daughter to go to South Side was because of its old feeder pattern to Edison, she told the board.
Some felt the district’s pivot toward middle schools was still rushed. Parent Tony Bruno brought up the guidance given to new Unit 4 families, which urges them to consider middle school feeder patterns before choosing their preferred elementary schools.
“I think a lot of people take that seriously, and the first time that the public learned that one third of the elementary schools would be fed to a new, different middle school, what 14 days ago, from a consultant in Ohio appearing over a Zoom video,” Bruno said.
Parent Kyle Kirchhoefer asked Boozer to stay with the district and see out this plan.
“Let’s make a K-8 (school) actually happen. If we’re going to change all these feeder schools, and we have the data for it, let’s share it, so these parents who are confused know it,” he said.
“I’m not planning on going anywhere, I want to retire here,” Boozer said.