Iowa City school district unveils boundary plan for diversity policy compliance

Officials relying on magnet programs or charter schools to aid in rezoning

The Iowa City Community School District spent the first weeks of 2013 debating a diversity policy. It will start 2014 by debating a plan to comply with that policy.

A proposal released Thursday by district administrators calls for changing school boundaries over the next several years, starting in fall 2015, to achieve a better socio-economic balance of students.

The goal of the diversity policy, approved by the school board last February, is to more evenly distribute low-income students throughout the district as measured by free and reduced-price lunch rates. Educators say schools with high concentrations of poor students face more challenges.

Currently, there is a wide disparity between schools in the district.

The school board will receive a plan to change attendance zones at a meeting Jan. 14. It is the culmination of the three dominant school issues the community has discussed the past year: the diversity policy, enrollment projections that show a significant increase in the number of students over the next decade and a 10-year facilities plan.

“It really winds up tying those disparate parts together,” Superintendent Stephen Murley said.

Under the diversity policy elementary schools can be no more than 15 percentage points above the districtwide average for K-6 students, the junior high schools must be within 15 percentage points of each other and there can be no more than a 10 percentage point difference between the comprehensive high schools.

There also are provisions related to building capacities.

If it were in effect this school year, six elementary schools, North Central and South East junior high schools and City High and West High would be out of compliance.

The proposal from Murley’s administration groups a small number of schools geographically and redraws boundaries within each cluster.

That is what the district did when Roosevelt Elementary closed and Borlaug Elementary opened in Iowa City in 2012, and Murley said it resulted in a good socio-economic distribution of students and community members being mostly satisfied with the results.

At the elementary school level, there would be five clusters that would go through boundary changes at various times until 2019, when all schools would be in compliance with the diversity policy.

The policy is supposed to be fully implemented in grades K-8 by 2018, but the facilities plan calls for major additions and three new elementary schools in the coming years. Waiting until 2019, when two new elementary schools open, would reduce the disruption to students, Murley said.

“Otherwise, you’d have to rezone them twice in two years,” he said.

Several elementary schools would be rezoned a few years after the first rezoning, but Murley said only a small number of students would switch schools because some would not yet be in school at the first rezoning and some would graduate to junior high before the second one.

Perhaps the trickiest problem is at the junior high schools. North Central in North Liberty has a 22 percent free-reduced lunch rate and South East in Iowa City is at 44 percent.

But they are on opposite sides of the district from each other and do not share a boundary, and South East is over capacity. Some South East students may need to go to Northwest in Coralville, Northwest students to North Central and North Central students to Northwest – a conversation Murley said will be held after spring break.

City High and West High would be in compliance with the diversity policy in 2015 under the proposal. They would need to be rezoned again in 2019 when a North Liberty high school opens, and again in 2022 when the new school gets a large addition, Murley said.School board members a year ago said they do not want students bused away from their neighborhood schools to comply with the policy. But Murley said such a plan would rely on magnet programs or charter schools to entice students to voluntarily move and the growing district does not have the space to do that at this time.

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