I was in the audience on Oct. 8 to hear the Elementary Area Attendance Proposal being recommended by Dr. Dale Holden, the school district’s outside consultant. Parent participation was impressive and another sign of the vibrant community we share.
I appreciate the thoroughness of Dr. Holden’s work. He demonstrated an outstanding command of attendance numbers, neighborhoods, natural boundaries and traffic flow. I was relieved by the careful attention given both to current population as well as to projections of new growth. I came away convinced that Dr. Holden’s work with the district since 1999 is one of the reasons we enjoy such outstanding schools today.
While I think I am convinced that the boundaries as proposed make great sense, I still find myself troubled by the lack of discussion of an important metric. Toward the end of the presentation, one slide addressed the distribution of free and reduced lunch students (mentioned as “Current F&R” and “Proposed F&R”). There was no commentary on the impact of “F&R” percentages and no indication that the statistics presented had any bearing on the proposed attendance areas.
I could understand the lack of discussion if the variance between schools was insignificant, but that is far from the case. The “Proposed F&R” for Riverview Elementary School exceeds 50 percent! That’s 20 points higher than the next highest school, while three of the nine schools have percentages below 10 percent.
I was able to speak to Dr. Holden after the presentation and asked him about the inclusion of the slide with free and reduced lunch data. Rationale was given for decisions on every other metric (that I can remember) but this one. His answers disquieted me and reduced my confidence in the proposal.
First, Dr. Holden asserted that elevated rates of students receiving free and reduced lunch do not impact education quality (citing the principal at Riverview as his authority for this opinion). Second, when I asked why the data was included at all, albeit fleetingly, Dr. Holden intimated that it was to avoid a flood of e-mails protesting exclusion. While I would be surprised if Dr. Holden stood by his comments that these factors do not impact education, I do feel compelled to respond to the lack of attention in public discussion.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am a Riverview parent. My children are indeed receiving an excellent education there and we are Rockets through and through. I have great admiration and respect for Principal Chinchilla. All of my children have had the kind of teachers one hopes for.
So what’s my beef? My interest really is for the broader community. Even with the best faculty and staff, the concentration of families struggling to make ends meet has consequences for the learning environment. I’ve seen the turnout at PTO meetings. I know the impact on learning readiness that cobbled-together diets have.
I have heard that families with fewer resources and less educational background are less likely to read at home with their first grader. I’ve experienced the impact of both upward and downward peer pressure.
These things do matter.
Dr. Holden went on in our post-presentation conversation to make very good cases for other factors that need to be prioritized over socio-economic distribution. I don’t want to break up neighborhoods or buy more buses in the interest of a perceived equality. And honestly, I don’t think I have major recommendations for changes on the attendance area boundaries.
However, if we implement the boundaries as presented, if our other priorities result in the kind of disparities proposed, then the proposal should include plans to address the inequities that result. We can’t just hurry past the statistics that don’t sit well.
I’m sure Dr. Holden was limited to boundary lines in the scope of his recommendations. Now that we have the proposal before us, I think it is incumbent on the administration and school board to implement an integrated plan that best addresses the resulting realties.
Maybe that means a higher teacher-to-student ratio in schools with lower anticipated parental involvement. Maybe that means an upward salary adjustment for those teaching at certain schools – if only to make up for the increased out-of-pocket expenses for supplies parents can’t afford to contribute. Or maybe, in true Fort Mill spirit, one PTO shows up in massive force ... to support another PTO’s Chick-fil-A night. These are obviously just a few off-the-cuff ideas to get discussion flowing.
My main point is that adoption of the areas as proposed will require intentional action and resources, not just a brief slide acknowledging the disparities.
I love being a resident of Fort Mill. I agree with the mission statement of the school district. In putting “children first” let’s come up with an area attendance plan that goes beyond simple boundaries to give “all our students the opportunity to achieve their greatest potential.” In order to do that, we need families that show up in force on behalf of all kids, not just their own. We need our school board to include the needs of the unheard in their deliberations.