Rock Hill schools plan demographic study; board reluctant to rezone

Students head for buses at Sullivan Middle School in this file photo. Rock Hill school district leaders are seeking proposals for a demographic study of the district.
Students head for buses at Sullivan Middle School in this file photo. Rock Hill school district leaders are seeking proposals for a demographic study of the district.

School leaders are pursuing proposals for a demographic study recommended by an equity committee, though some school board members say now is not the time to rezone attendance boundaries.

Rock Hill Superintendent Kelly Pew said school leaders could use the study to make recommendations to the board about schools across the district.

A recent district request for demographic proposals said the study would cover a broad scope, from student populations projections for each school to information such as home values, income levels, births and land use, including planned developments.

Pew said the study, recommended by an equity committee, could go deeper.

“It could be a comprehensive review of the demographics of our community,” she said.

Cost and timing have not been determined, she said.

But several board members said they don’t want to rezone school attendance zones to balance enrollment, especially while change is being made in the school choice program.

Board chairman Jim Vining questioned why the district is seeking demographic data if the board is not willing to consider a change in school attendance zones.

“If our intent is not to do anything with the data, then we don’t need it,” Vining said. “The only reason that you need this data is if you are willing to do something with it.”

Vining said high school inequity is not the only issue.

“If the balance at the high schools is bad enough that we have got to do something, and I’m talking about the economic balance, then we have got a major problem with our elementary schools,” he said.

An equity committee comprised of representatives of the three high schools said in January a greater analysis of demographic data and trends is needed and that such details were beyond the scope of the group. The group also recommended a more comprehensive study of extracurricular activity costs.

Stephen Cox, who represents South Pointe High School as one of three equity committee co-chairs, said the group recommended the district obtain the data and see where it leads. The committee did not take a stance on the need to rezone, he said.

“There appears to be enough of an imbalance, based on the data that we saw, to warrant a comprehensive demographic study, and the district needs to take that wherever it leads,” Cox said.

Enrollment disparities are part of the problem.

Enrollment at South Pointe High is more than 550 students below its 1,872-student capacity, according to October 2015 district enrollment data. The data show Northwestern High is about 60 students over capacity and Rock Hill High is about 150 students below capacity.

Enrollment disparities exist in many elementary schools, too.

Vining said the difference in poverty levels is another issue.

The percentage of free- and reduced-price lunch students, a common school economic indicator, is more evenly distributed at Rock Hill’s three high schools and five middle schools than at the 17 elementary schools.

Northwestern has about 44 percent and Rock Hill High has about 45 percent of students on free- and reduced-price lunch, while that population at South Pointe is 48 percent, the October 2015 data show.

At elementary schools the disparity is wider. It varies from 87 percent at Ebenezer Avenue to 44 percent at India Hook, the data show.

At middle schools, it ranges from 46 percent at Dutchman Creek to around 60 percent at Castle Heights, Saluda Trail and Sullivan. It is 57 percent at Rawlinson Road, the data show.

Vining said one option the board has not discussed is adjusting school funding based on demographics. “There is not a simple answer that everyone can agree on,” he said. “I think we should discuss it.”

Vining said the school board is reluctant to rezone because it encourages parents to consider options such as private schools and charter schools.

“We already have people leaving in droves,” he said. “When you talk about moving students around, people get tired of that.”

Other board members agree.

“Rezoning is a dirty word in the parent world, in the school world,” said board member Terry Hutchinson. However, he said the board needs to get the information and see where it leads.

Board member Walter Brown said the time is wrong for school zone changes because of changes underway in choice programs. “We don’t know what the effect is going to be,” he said.

Board member Helena Miller said changes in choice programs should be part of the discussion. “It’s very difficult to make any assumption until choice is done,” she said.

Pew said school choice changes may help balance enrollment without rezoning.

The board has agreed to move elementary students in a Montessori program at The Children’s School at Sylvia Circle to Ebenezer Avenue Elementary over the next two years.

The board also agreed to allow students from the Saluda Trail Middle science, technology, engineering, arts and math program toattend South Pointe in the fall.

Pew said one question leaders may need to consider is “are there things we can do programatically that address some of those issues, so parents have an opportunity to choose rather than rezoning and making people go places they don’t want to?”

Pew said the district would be “remiss not to move forward and have this group come in and look at a variety of things, to at least give us feedback on where we are. Once we have that, we can have a conversation with the board.”

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077