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Beware pitfalls of redistricting (09/07/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

The school board must be aware of stepping into something nasty as they wade into redistricting elementary school boundaries in the district. Redistricting is the big, bad relative of school closure. School closures anger a certain identifiable group of people in one geographic area. Redistricting has the potential to raise the hackles of almost everyone, even when it is done with sensitivity.

Parents and children identify strongly with their schools. Parents get to know administrators and teachers, are able to talk to them about their children’s needs, whether general or specific. Children find comfort in going to the same school each day, seeing the same people, playing with the same friends. It is wrenching to change schools, even in the lower grades.

Parents choose day care centers often based on where their child’s elementary school is located. They carefully train their kids how to walk to and from school and day care. They take pride if their child’s school is rated a good one; they worry about their child’s future if the school has troubles. All parents want the best for their children.

Minnesota has applied to the federal government to be released from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, and at the same time, Congress is slated to reauthorize NCLB, which may bring great changes to the program. NCLB has long been harshly criticized by the National Education Association, the teachers labor union, saying that “the nation’s schools are headed for a train wreck due to runaway NCLB formulas that bear no relationship to reality.”

But NCLB or no NCLB, the achievement gap in U.S. schools — minority children and poor children who continue to perform badly on test scores, in grade point averages, graduation rates and attending college — is a reality. Even in Winona.

What is also a reality is that the school board just closed one of only three elementary schools in Dist. 861 that has made what the state calls AYP, Adequate Yearly Progress. The former students of Central Elementary, which did not reopen as an elementary school this fall, will now be attending a school that did not perform as well as its old school — either Madison or W-K.

Jefferson Elementary, which did not meet AYP, is now home to the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) program. If the program is to grow, and allow students from schools other than Jefferson to enroll, that could have an impact on which students are redistricted out of the Jefferson attendance area.

In the meantime, a few charter schools are becoming more and more the choice that parents are making, and redistricting could well be a boon to those schools and to parochial schools, depending on how satisfied parents are about the process and results.

And nowhere on the school board agenda does there seem to be a discussion about the future — the “what ifs” of the economic life of Winona. What if, for instance, the I-90 interchange at Wilson is developed with companies new to Winona, not simply ones moving from the valley to the ridge? What if those companies were to need more employees, and those employees built homes in Winona, as opposed to Lewiston or La Crescent? Would Winona public schools be ready for them? Or are we redistricting ourselves out of the running for attractive places people want to build and raise families?

School board members must be thoughtful and cautious in this upcoming process. Parents must be vigilant. All of us, who rely on the public schools to educate our citizens, should be aware of what is happening and weigh in on the process. 


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