Wednesday, July 6, 2022

High school redistricting puts equality and stability at odds

Williamsburg-James City County parents are at odds about high school redistricting, some supporting socioeconomic change and others asking the School Board not to uproot their children. (Tom Davis/WYDaily)
Williamsburg-James City County parents are at odds about high school redistricting, some supporting socioeconomic change and others asking the School Board not to uproot their children. (Tom Davis/WYDaily)

When 50-year-old Marjy Friedrichs’ daughter came home one day in June, telling her mother she would no longer go to Jamestown, but Lafayette, her mother was concerned.

Her daughter, who was getting ready for her freshman year at Jamestown, has been upset since July, Friedrichs said. She had been redistricted to another school once before in 2010, and still carried the heartache from the move.

Now, Friedrichs’ daughter faces another move as the Williamsburg-James City County School Board considers redistricting for the third time in a decade.

While some parents and school board members believe redistricting high schools is a short-term fix with many consequences, other parents – and some William & Mary professors – say redistricting could balance the schools’ current inequities.

As the new James Blair Middle School’s walls are built and contractors install windows and brick siding, school board members are working to figure out which students will attend classes in the new building.

While redistricting middle schools is necessary to populate the new school, the school board is also considering redistricting high schools for two reasons: Jamestown High School is over capacity and there are socioeconomic disparities between the division’s three high schools.

School board members have called past redistricting in 2007 and 2010 “tumultuous,” and the topic is proving contentious again as parents from both sides debate whether the process is a “band-aid” fix.

Students with disabilities and disadvantaged students

Some Lafayette High School parents hope redistricting could put the division’s three high schools on a more level playing field.

Lafayette, located on Longhill Road, has more English language learners, disadvantaged and students with disabilities than both Warhill and Jamestown high schools, according to 2017 data from the Virginia Department of Education.

The data shows a disparity between WJCC’s high schools, meaning Lafayette requires more special resources.

“Moving students around could address the disparities across the schools,” Jennifer Bickham Mendez, a Lafayette parent and William & Mary professor, said.

Mendez’s daughter is in her junior year at Lafayette will most likely not be affected by redistricting. Mendez’s son graduated from Lafayette in June. The family lives in the Windsor Forest neighborhood.

“I’m very concerned about the opportunity gap between schools. The school had to bus my son to Jamestown for his Advanced Placement (AP) classes. It cut into his instruction time – there’s no other way to say it,” Mendez said.

While Jamestown is the most crowded school at 111 percent capacity, it also has the largest percentage of white students, data shows.

Jamestown High School also has the lowest percentage of English language learners, disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

“We know that students benefit from learning environments in which they are exposed to people from various walks of life,” Mendez said. “Fully integrated schools that reflect the demographics of our community are important contexts where learning to engage with people from various backgrounds will occur. The United States is poised to be a majority-minority country in the next quarter of a century.”

Other parents, including 52-year-old Lafayette mother Sara Block, describe it more frankly.

Block said students who come from wealthier families or who are more privileged start out on better footing during the school day, so they don’t require as many resources to bring them “up to speed.”

Students who have disabilities or disadvantaged often need more resources invested, she said, meaning there’s less school funding left over for special programs.

Uprooting dozens of students

While redistricting carries the potential to even out each school’s demographics, it would also uproot dozens – or possibly hundreds – of WJCC students.

Draft redistricting maps propose reassigning as many as 711 students to different schools in the division. Option 5, the most intrusive option, would reassign 711 students.

Friedrichs’ children have been shuffled to different schools every time the division has redistricted.

“Two of the proposed maps affect my child, and would move my neighborhood, Powhatan Secondary, to Lafayette,” Friedrichs said. “When she started high school this fall, she would’ve been perfectly happy going to any of the high schools. But now she’s made connections to teachers, to coaches.”

Leah Kelso has three children in WJCC Schools: a 15-year-old sophomore at Jamestown, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Berkeley Middle School and an 11-year-old sixth-grader.

Kelso said some of her concerns lay with her children being split up at different high schools. If older students are “grandfathered in” to stay at their current school, while younger grades move for redistricting, Kelso’s rising freshman could end up at a different school.

Kelso’s oldest is at Warhill now, but one proposed map, option 5, would send her middle child to Jamestown.

“I want all the kids to be together,” Kelso said. “I want the kids to be there supporting each other because it means having someone there to help soften the blow.”

Options for the issues at hand

WJCC School Board Chair Kyra Cook said Wednesday that something needs to be done about the crowding at the division’s high schools, redistricting or not.

If the high school population was spread evenly between the three schools, each school would still be at about 96 percent capacity, according to School Board agenda documents.

An ideal utilization for each school would be about 85 percent, Cook added.

WYDaily reached out to all seven school board members with questions about redistricting, but only received a response from Cook. The board chair is responsible for responding on behalf of the board, she added.

“At the high school level, WJCC is at the stage where we should already be designing and building space,” Cook said in an email.

Cook outlined several options to alleviate overcrowding:

  • Purchase trailers for Jamestown High School
  • “Spot redistrict” children to move an exact number of children to a less crowded school
  • “Spot redistrict” by phasing in changes, moving only certain grades at a time
  • Redistrict the entire high school level of the division
  • Build a new school, which could take at least four or five years to come to fruition, or make additions to existing schools.

No option comes without a cost, however, Cook said.

Some school board members are not sold on redistricting the high schools, right now, describing it as “kicking the can down the curb.”

During an unofficial Nov. 28 straw poll, three school board members said they wanted to pursue redistricting conversations. Four said they did not want to move forward.

The school board will discuss high school redistricting at their Dec. 12 meeting, Cook said.

Whether redistricting is a band-aid fix or not, parents on both sides believe something needs to be done: High schools are close to or over capacity, and some high schools bear a higher socioeconomic burden than others.

“This isn’t [Lafayette] against Jamestown. It’s really not. It’s about equality,” Block said.

WJCC Schools has two online redistricting surveys for middle school and high school, which are open until noon on Dec. 11. Community members can give feedback on redistricting through those surveys. After the surveys close, administrators will compile data and present it to the School Board, according to spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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