The population living within the Fort Mill school district is growing, fast, and has been for most of the last few decades.
With growth comes the need for more schools, and with new schools comes the need for rezoning, or changing attendance lines that determine which schools students will attend.
With the opening of two new elementary schools – Doby's Bridge Elementary and Tega Cay Elementary – next year, the district is considering a plan for new attendance zones. When those schools open, the Fort Mill district will have nine elementary schools.
Like it has in the past, the district hired a consultant, Dale Holden, to draw up the new zones. These zones, Holden said, are designed to accommodate students now living in the district and those expected to move in during the next few years.
Five of the seven elementary schools are at or approaching enrollment capacity and four have had their enrollments “frozen” for the last few years.
More than 10,000 residential units are expected to be built in Fort Mill in the next few years.
In some cases, the new divisions are fairly simple and have gone uncontested publicly. The new Tega Cay Elementary, for example, just takes a large chunk out of the current Gold Hill Elementary zone, reducing that school’s population by more than 400 students.
Gold Hill’s zone is also taking a portion of students that currently attend Pleasant Knoll, but parents in that area, which sits on the corner of S.C. 160 and Gold Hill Road, don’t seem too upset with the change.
“We love it, it’s been a great school,” said Pleasant Knoll parent Amanda Bader. “But it’s alright, I don’t mind changing.”
In other areas of Fort Mill, the proposed changes are not being accepted so easily. One of the biggest battles seems to be centered around Riverview Elementary, where many parents and teachers feel their students are getting the short end of the stick.
As the attendance zones stand now, Riverview Elementary has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. At 44.3 percent, Riverview’s percentage is higher than any other elementary school by almost 19 percentage points.
Under the proposed changes, Riverview’s number will jump to almost 51 percent free and reduced lunch, leading the next school by 22.1 percentage points. Other schools, like Orchard Park Elementary and the new Doby’s Bridge Elementary and Tega Cay Elementary, will have free and reduced rates below 8 percent.
At a parents meeting with the district’s superintendent on Thursday night, Riverview parents wanted to know why.
“Personally, living in Fort Mill, I never imagined we would have a 50 percent free and reduced lunch school five miles away from a 5 percent free and reduced lunch school,” said parent and Fort Mill town councilman Nathan Blythe.
At that meeting, superintendent Chuck Epps explained that in developing these zones, the district and the consultant were considering maintaining “neighborhood schools” as the highest priority.
“(The neighborhood schools approach) probably makes more sense than if you were to look at balancing the free and reduced as a higher priority,” Epps told the crowd of more than 100 parents and teachers.
When pressed about whether the free and reduced lunch rates were a consideration at all, Epps and Holden said that no, there was not an attempt to balance these rates among schools.
When again pressed by parents about the affect of a school’s free and reduced lunch rate on test scores, Epps said that it was true that a higher free and reduced lunch rate does often correspond with lower test scores.
In last year’s Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, Riverview had the lowest overall average number of students meeting or exceeding the standards in all test subjects across all grades in the district. But Riverview still was well above the state average.
But not a single parent at the meeting, or at least none that spoke and asked questions of Epps and Holden, seemed concerned about their children attending Riverview. Instead, they talked about how much they loved the teachers, the administrators and the community.
This was a stark difference to other area meetings and messages posted on on social media, where many neighborhoods were upset about which schools their children would attend.
On moveon.org, an online petition site, parents from the Springfield neighborhood, who are currently zoned for Springfield Elementary, expressed discontent at being switched to Fort Mill Elementary.
“People have invested their life savings into buying into the neighborhood because of the schools. They pay the high taxes,” wrote one person who signed an online petition contesting the changes. “How is it appropriate to come along and change the school assignments?”
Several of the parents at the Riverview meeting also expressed concern about property values and public perception if Riverview were thought of as the “poor school” in the district.
Holden argued that the increase would only add about 30 free or reduced lunch students to the Riverview population. Overall, the school’s enrollment will increase by more than 100 students.
But another parent didn’t agree.
“When we say it’s only six percent more, we’re saying 45 percent was an acceptable rate to start with,” said Kirk Ogden, who also offered several suggestions to offset the imbalance.
He proposed paying teachers who work at Riverview Elementary more than other schools because of the increased difficulty of their jobs and creating magnet programs to attract more students to attend Riverview.
Ogden also proposed merging parent-teacher groups across the district because schools with higher free and reduced lunch rates usually have less active parent organizations and less opportunities for significant fundraising.
Epps said Ogden’s first two suggestions could be considered, but that each parent teacher organization is managed by the individual schools, and so that’s not under the district’s control.
“Equity is not doing the same thing for everyone,” said Riverview teacher Rone Washington. “But we are asking that you create a plan that is effective and equitable so that all children will continue to strive in this district.”
Another teacher tearfully said how much she loves the Riverview community and how difficult it is to see negative comments about the school on Facebook from her neighbors in Baxter Village.
“I love my kids and I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” said Jessy Belue of her students. “I’m just sad for our school sometimes that the perception is we’re not a good school.”
On Tuesday night, Epps will make his own recommendation to the school board, which will then have two weeks before taking a vote on the proposal.
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-407