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No change (yet) to allowing only seniors to stay at current high school after redistricting triggered by new school

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Some still pressing to add juniors to ‘grandfathering’ exemption

A decision that seemed to have been settled a month ago – to only allow rising seniors to remain at their current high schools once Southeast High School opens and new high school attendance lines go into effect for 2023-24 – appeared to be in limbo again during the school board’s latest meeting Monday night.

Earlier in the evening, the school board’s meeting room at Central Office had been filled nearly to its capacity but was practically empty by the time that question emerged, shortly before 10:00 p.m., during the “board and superintendent comments” portion of the school board’s meeting Monday night.  The board heard earlier Monday night from 10 speakers, eight of whom appeared to be from the Southern zone and pressed the board to consider giving, at the least, all rising seniors and juniors the option to remain at their current high schools in 2023-24 (see related story, this edition).

The eight public speakers who discussed the redistricting plan Monday night included: five Southern High School students; two athletic coaches; and one parent.  Their pleas followed the board’s 4-3 vote last month to allow only rising seniors to remain at their current high schools, if they choose, once the high school redistricting plan takes effect for 2023-24. [See separate story this edition.]

Most of the eight speakers dwelled exclusively on the potential impact that the redistricting plan could have on athletes and athletic programs at Southern High School.  None appeared to be from any of the other five existing attendance zones; and none spoke for or against the redistricting plan’s potential impact on Cummings, Graham, Eastern, Western, and Williams High schools.  (The board also heard from two other speakers Monday night, former commissioner candidate Barry Joyce and former school board candidate Seneca Rogers, who urged the board to pursue higher funding for things such as a pay increase for coaches and county-funded supplements for teachers.)

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While no motion has been introduced so far that would allow rising juniors to remain at their current high schools next year, that possibility appeared unresolved this week for some school board members, based on their remarks much later Monday night.

School board member and vice chairman Ryan Bowden

School board vice chairman Ryan Bowden and several other board members had pressed last month to review “the numbers” of how many rising juniors and seniors would opt to remain at their current schools, and how that might affect capacity at all ABSS high schools in 2023-24, before giving only rising seniors the option to stay put next year.

Bowden also said last month that he’d heard from a number of people in the Eastern and Southern zones who weren’t happy to hear their children could be redistricted to Southeast High School.  He surmised that change could bar some rising juniors from playing varsity sports if they’re moved to Southeast High School in 2023-24, though Eric Yarbrough, the principal at Southeast High School, assured the board later that night that the new high school would offer varsity sports across the board.

Several other school board members also joined Bowden last month in asking to review the numbers of how many rising juniors and seniors might opt to remain at their current schools, if allowed.

So far, the only members speaking in favor of reviewing the decision are those who were on the losing side of a 4-3 vote to limit grandfathering to seniors.

Newly-elected school board member Dr. Charles Parker opined in December that it could be easier to open the new high school with fewer students.  Newcomer Chuck Marsh, who also took office in December, voted with Bowden and Parker against a motion to allow only rising seniors the option to stay at their current high schools in 2023-24 – signaling their apparent preference to allow both juniors and seniors to decide where they’ll attend school once the county’s seventh new high school opens.

School board member Donna Westbrooks leaned toward the idea of polling juniors and seniors on their preferences for 2023-24 but ultimately joined school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, Dan Ingle (who also took office last month), and Patsy Simpson in voting in December to allow only seniors the option to remain at their current high schools.

 

Ingle and Simpson: ‘Stay the course’

Ingle tackled the thorny issue later Monday night, telling his fellow board members, “I’d like to take exception to one of the comments made earlier tonight.  Somebody said, it was a coach, ‘you can’t get into a numbers thing.’  Well, by [goodness] we have to in terms of

School board member Dan Ingle

placing kids in that new school.  But you have to look at the backside of that also, and if we come in with a smaller number of kids, there’s going to be certain things that may not be able to be done as a functional high school.  That’s what I want all of our board members to be thinking about as we go forward.  We’ve made some great decisions in the direction that we’re going.  With the late date we’re in, we need to stay the course.”

Simpson also urged the board to stand by its decision to give only rising seniors the option to remain at their current high schools once the new high school attendance lines go into effect.  “There are a lot of students from other schools who are in this same predicament,” said Simpson, who said she was unable to be present at the meeting due to a respiratory virus but participated by phone.  “Having been on this board for a long time and having gone through [spot] redistricting – you know, we’ve done this, and the students adapted.”

For an example, Simpson pointed this week to redistricting that took effect when three former Burlington city school satellite zones (the Hillcrest, Newlin, and Smith Elementary attendance zones) were dissolved in May 2015, for which those parents had received three days’ notice of a public hearing about that redistricting plan, which took effect in August 2015, and to a subsequent spot redistricting that in 2019 moved approximately 130 students from Highland to E.M. Holt Elementary School.  She said those earlier redistricting plans had shifted students from Broadview Middle School to Western Middle.

“I know this is going to be tough on the athletic programs,” Simpson said Monday night, referring to remarks made by the eight people who spoke during public comments.   “I assure you, we did take into consideration not only athletics, but many other aspects in rezoning the schools.  I would like to encourage those parents, students, and coaches to work with us in this transition period by supporting the decision that the board has made.

“This is not picking on Southern – this has happened throughout,” Simpson elaborated, noting that one speaker had lamented the distance that students currently enrolled at Cummings and Graham High schools would have to travel once they’re redistricted to Southern or Southeast.

“We have children who live down near Siler City, but in Alamance County, and they’re having to drive much longer than those students in what he calls inner city schools to get to the new high school,” Simpson said.  “We’re not trying to take away the rights of parents to make choices.  What we’re doing is carrying out the authority that the board and superintendent have not only in local policy but also state [law]…and we’re being good stewards of our money and good stewards of the bond money. It would not even make any sense to not do what we set out to do.  I also think we need to stay the course.”

“We had five athletes, one parent and two coaches that spoke tonight,” Ingle said later in the discussion.  “I understand the concerns, but we have to make tough decisions.”

Though an earlier iteration of the high school redistricting plan was approved by a differently-constituted board five years ago and was revised this past fall, the school board’s vice chairman said this week that some ABSS families are unaware of the impending changes to the high school attendance lines.

“I’m curious to see what we hear in February because I’m still hearing that people don’t even know that there’s a redistricting plan out there,” Bowden said Monday night.  “People may not even know they’re getting redistricted.  I don’t think that’s going to occur until those report cards come out.  I think we’re actually going to hit another wave of emails and phone calls and stuff like we did back around Christmastime.  I want us to be mindful of that as a board.  I think it’s important we’re open to that.”

ABSS administrators have said during several earlier discussions, and reiterated this week, that students and families will be notified in writing of any school assignment changes with the report cards that are scheduled to be issued February 3.

 

Bowden: ‘I’d like to see what the numbers look like’

Rising seniors will receive a link to an online survey that will enable them to “declare” whether they want to stay at their current high schools or move to the new high school in 2023-24, ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson told The Alamance News Monday night.  The survey period will be open for four days, from January 31 until February 3, she said.

The high school course registration period for 2023-24 is scheduled to begin February 6, Johnson told the board earlier Monday night.

“Me personally, I’d like to see what the numbers look like once the report cards go out and we start getting people registered,” Bowden said Monday night. “I’d like to see what those numbers look like in February, too.  Maybe I could reach out to you on a one-on-one basis and get those, whatever that looks like. I would just say be open-minded; still I just don’t think folks really know there’s a plan out there.”

“As far as the seniors not knowing, there’s a joke in communications that if you say it seven times half the people will say they heard it once, even though there are a lot of ways that [ABSS] communicates,” Parker said Monday night.  “I think we probably will have a second wave. I think we’ll have a lot more data once the seniors declare where it is they want to go, and it still may be something we look at a second time.”

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves echoed Bowden and several other board members in thanking speakers who’d expressed their concerns earlier Monday night.  “It’s always nice to see students advocating for themselves,” she said, pointing in particular to one Southern High School senior who spoke on behalf of “his peers for a decision that didn’t really impact him.

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

“I do think when those letters go out there’s going to be another wave; I’ve continually heard [via] phone calls and emails from parents and teachers and students who are impacted by the redistricting,” the board’s chairman said.  “I think we’ve done a great job in communicating; unfortunately, I do think there are still people who don’t realize that their child or household is impacted.”

Simpson countered that she doesn’t want to mislead ABSS students and families in thinking the board might reconsider grandfathering rising juniors, as well as rising seniors at their current high schools.

“I think we’re doing a disservice if anything we said tonight leads them to think that the board is going to reconsider based on the numbers,” Simpson said.  “I think if fellow board members, the press, or anybody, [are] alluding to [the idea] that once we finish registration, we’re going to change our minds – that’s a disservice.  I don’t want to mislead anybody to think we’re going to reconsider…I think we all need to stick together, to support the board whether we agree or not.

“It is very clear – it is for seniors only,” Simpson added.  “I don’t want to sit here and debate on breaking this down to juniors, sophomores, or whatever.  The numbers speak for themselves.  What our objective is, we have made very clear.  I just don’t want people thinking we can wait for the numbers and registration, and then somebody make a motion [to say], ‘okay, we want juniors to be grandfathered.’  That is not preparing these children and families…I heard that when a couple of members said, ‘we’ll wait for the numbers.’  No, you can’t go back and change the registration; it’s going to affect that school.  They need to know how many will be there – how many teachers will be there is based on that.  I don’t want to keep prolonging this discussion.  I want it to be known we’ve already decided, and that’s it.”

For her part, Ellington-Graves emphasized that the board will not reverse its earlier decision to allow rising seniors to remain at their current high schools, if they choose to, starting in 2023-24.

Rising seniors will have from January 31 until February 3 to complete the survey, indicating whether they want to remain at their current high schools, via a link that will be sent to their ABSS email accounts, Johnson told the board Monday night.

Marsh was absent from the meeting Monday night; Simpson participated in the discussion and voting via phone.

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