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Sunday, April 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Parents want to ensure children can attend their neighborhood schools

Kirsten Robinson, who has two children at Wilson Elementary School, has been at the forefront of a push to make sure Spokane Public Schools’ intradistrict transfer policy favors neighborhood children. (Colin Mulvany)
Kirsten Robinson, who has two children at Wilson Elementary School, has been at the forefront of a push to make sure Spokane Public Schools’ intradistrict transfer policy favors neighborhood children. (Colin Mulvany)

Having your child attend the elementary school in your neighborhood seems like a given.

It’s not possible for all Spokane Public Schools students, however, because their neighborhood schools are full, sometimes with children from other neighborhoods whose parents have “choiced” them in.

An intradistrict transfer policy that basically allows parents to choose the school they want their child to attend, no matter which school boundary the family lives in, sometimes leaves the K-6 schools too full to accommodate the nearest students. To further complicate the issue, once a child is enrolled in a school, they can’t be kicked out even if it means turning away neighborhood children.

About 1,500, or 10 percent, of Spokane Public Schools’ elementary school population are choice students, attending a school outside their residential area. The practice is not common in the Mead and Central Valley school districts.

Some parents living within Wilson Elementary School’s boundaries objected to the policy after they were told their youngsters may not be able to attend the neighborhood school. Kirsten Robinson, who has two children in the school, has been the voice of neighborhood parents, leading the charge to change the policy.

Her hope, she says: “Create a policy that gives neighborhood children priority, but still gives choice students some flexibility.”

It’s not just Wilson, she said. The problem is happening all over the district, data show. There are extra students at more than half the district’s elementary schools; Franklin Elementary had the most “overload” students with eight.

District officials are responding to parents’ concerns and continued to work on the issue this week.

Among the proposed solutions is changing deadlines for parents to enroll their children in a particular school from May to August, to accommodate families moving into neighborhoods during the summer. In addition, school officials are considering new criteria for deciding which choice students are allowed to stay and which have to leave.

No matter what district officials do, though, “this whole thing is about who is going to be the loser,” said school board President Bob Douthitt.

Reasons cited by parents in choicing students into another school include proximity to where a parent works or proximity to affordable day care, as well as a perception that a school is better or has a higher level of classroom rigor based on its test scores, officials said.

School officials say at least 65 children – and perhaps many more – were pushed out of their neighborhood schools this year, although not all involuntary transfers are because of choice students.

“For example, some schools are busing kids elsewhere because too many kids showed up for that grade,” said Steven Gering, Spokane Public Schools’ chief academic officer. “The decision comes down to money; spend $80,000, which the district doesn’t have, to create another class, or bus those kids to nearby schools for significantly less.”

Douthitt added, “We have two competing pressures. We just don’t have the money to leave spaces open at every school.”

With the exception of school board Vice President Jeff Bierman, board members favor changing the district’s policy to favor neighborhood children.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure neighborhood kids go to neighborhood schools, and do everything to accommodate choice students up until displacing neighborhood students,” said board member Deana Brower.

“I guess I’m a neighborhoodist,” said board member Sue Chapin. “I think families primarily buy their homes where they want their children to attend school.”

Bierman thinks the policy should stand as is. He says taking a choice student out of a school is “disruptive to the elementary school community.”

Gering, the chief academic officer, said the problem Spokane Public Schools is experiencing has been more prevalent recently, but “I think school districts are always looking at transfer policies. There just isn’t anything we can do to take care of every problem that comes up. We can only change the policy so it’s a little better.”

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