Education

Big shift: Iowa City school attendance rezonings will affect 21 elementaries

Katiya Ellermeier, left, and Estelle Ralston laugh and joke May 24 as they toss a hair scrunchie back and forth at Estelle’s home in Iowa City. Iowa City school attendance rezoning will separate the best friends when they start sixth-grade next fall. Katiya will stay at Lincoln Elementary while Estelle will attend Penn Elementary. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Katiya Ellermeier, left, and Estelle Ralston laugh and joke May 24 as they toss a hair scrunchie back and forth at Estelle’s home in Iowa City. Iowa City school attendance rezoning will separate the best friends when they start sixth-grade next fall. Katiya will stay at Lincoln Elementary while Estelle will attend Penn Elementary. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — For Estelle and Katiya, it was obvious they should pair up for the three-legged race.

The best friends already are in sync in so many other ways — leading a push at their elementary school to reduce plastic waste, passing out after talking until 3 a.m. during slumber parties, even once trying to teach themselves Braille.

During a spring track and field day at school, the fifth-graders said they placed third in the race, running instep with their legs strapped together.

Last weekend, the girls practiced tossing blueberries in the air and catching them in their mouths in the kitchen of Estelle Ralson’s home, near Coralville Lake. They said they planned to stay up late talking about “whatever fifth-grade shenanigans happen,” Estelle said.

But the last day of school in the Iowa City Community School District on Friday marks the last day the girls attended the same school, as extensive rezoning of the district’s elementaries taking affect this fall is set to move many students to new schools.

Approved unanimously by the school board in November, the boundaries rerouted Estelle to Penn Elementary while Katiya Ellermeier will stay at Lincoln Elementary.

Prompted by new schools opening and a desire to desegregate school populations by income, the changes impacted each of the district’s 21 elementary schools open next year.

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Come August, Lincoln Elementary’s student population is expected to increase from about 10 percent low family income to nearly 40 percent. About 65 Lincoln students from this school year, including Estelle, will next attend Penn Elementary. As a rising sixth-grader, she could have opted to stay at Lincoln, but decided to join many of her classmates.

Taking their places at Lincoln will be students previously zoned to attend five other schools: Longfellow, Mann, Borlaug, Coralville Central and Horn.

A ‘BITTERSWEET’ END

“Any individual school, they’re going to have to grow into their new selves” in the fall, said school board member JP Claussen. “All of our schools are these great little communities, almost like families.”

The final days of class were “bittersweet,” Lincoln Principal Ann Langenfeld said in an email. “We are sad to say goodbye to many Lions; yet we are all excited about the new adventures that await each of us next year.”

The end of this school year has left some students feeling sad, Katiya and Estelle said, as students disperse to their new schools. But most are excited to make new friends as well.

Sixth grade won’t be what they expected — a year with friends and teachers they’ve known since kindergarten. They said they’ve long looked forward to a party next year celebrating the end of elementary school.

“It’s going to be weird because we’ll be having a sixth grade party with a lot of people we don’t know very well,” Katiya said.

“We’ll get to know them,” Estelle responded. “But one year is different than having like six or seven years with people.”

The school has been proactive about preparing students for their upcoming transitions, Principal Langenfeld said. She visited all five schools her future students attended this year, and Lincoln hosted an open house for new students and their families.

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She and the school counselor also have led group discussions about the changes, and the school’s parent-teacher organization has created “memory books” for students. Everyone was invited to an all-school photo earlier this month.

“The school has tried really hard to try and help kids with transitions,” said Lincoln PTO President Tea Ho, who is Katiya’s mother. “They’ve had discussions with students, read books together about change, the guidance counselor has been really good about that — talking to kids about this big stuff. But all the talking the world doesn’t change anything.”

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

Some families, like Taivna Mills’, have tried to opt-out of the new boundaries. Mills has two daughters — third-grader Olana and fifth-grader Zaya — who attend Lincoln. The family voluntarily transferred to Lincoln and out of Kirkwood Elementary years ago, Mills said, because of concerns about Kirkwood’s scores then.

The new district lines put the Mills next year at Garner Elementary.

But as a rising sixth-grader, Zaya is able to remain at Lincoln. The board didn’t take action on a request to allow Olana to remain at Lincoln, Mills said, effectively splitting the siblings between two schools.

“I don’t really have friends there,” said Olana, worried about her upcoming move.

It’s an emotional challenge as well as a logistical one, her mother said, as the two girls will need be taken to two different schools. Because they live within 2 miles of each building, Mills said they won’t qualify for busing.

“We’re trying to honor her choice to stay at Lincoln,” Mills said of her fifth-grader. “At the same time, we would like to have them at the same school.”

With redistricting, there’s a risk of pushing families to a breaking point. Those with means could leave the district altogether, board member Claussen said, and enroll into a private school or neighboring public district.

But most children are resilient, Estelle’s parents said, including their own. Tiffany and Kent Ralston aren’t worried about their daughter’s or their twin sons’ transitions next year. If anything, their only concern is that the change won’t stick — they want to lock in which junior high and high school their elementary-aged kids eventually will attend.

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“We would like consistency,” Kent Ralston said. “ … But would I be afraid for my kids to go to any school in Iowa City? No.”

As the school year ends, Principal Langenfeld said the questions she’s asked most by students are straightforward. They want to know about the school’s colors, mascots, if there are art classes and if they get lockers.

Parents, meanwhile, inquire about voluntary transfer policies, transportation options and after-school programming.

Ho, the PTO president, said she similarly fields questions from parents about the schools’ STEAM education offerings, fundraising and other activities.

“The kids don’t care about that,” Ho said. “They all just actually want to know who their classmates and their teachers are going to be.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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