Webster Groves’ elementary schools would be less crowded and have unbroken attendance boundaries under a plan being considered by its school board.
But the changes that would take effect in 2021 have lukewarm approval from parents, with concerns over concentrating poverty in one school, walkability and home values.
Superintendent John Simpson presented his preferred proposal, the first of five options families weighed in on, to the school board Monday evening. The board is expected to vote on it March 9.
“Redistricting is never easy, and I’d like to assure you that everyone involved understands that this is a sensitive and difficult decision. The goal throughout the process was to do everything we could to provide our younger students with a better elementary experience,” Simpson said in a letter to parents.
The concentration of children in St. Louis has shifted over the years, with districts in southern and western parts of St. Louis County trying to find room for growing populations. Meanwhile, school systems in the northern part of the county, such as Ferguson-Florissant, have closed schools to address falling enrollment. Both can face opposition and be fraught with racial undertones.
Webster Groves’ student population is up 251 since 2010, with officials planning on the need to have room for another 230 or so in the next two years. The district educates 4,679 children in pre-K through 12th grade across five St. Louis County municipalities.
Four of its elementary schools are over stated capacity, while the two in the northwest part of the district are less than 90% full.
Last year, voters approved a $22 million bond measure to expand Hixson Middle School to ease crowding. The district then embarked on the process of redrawing attendance boundaries.
Under the plan being considered, Givens school, in the northern part of the district, will no longer be a computer-themed magnet school attached to the Steger Sixth Grade Center. Instead, Givens and Steger will be converted to a regular elementary school under the Givens name. All middle school students will attend an expanded Hixson. This will ease congestion district-wide, Simpson said.
Currently, students who live near but don’t attend Givens for elementary schools are parceled off to the district’s five other elementary schools. The new attendance boundaries will send those students to Givens along with some currently zoned for different schools. Other schools’ catchment areas will shift and shrink slightly.
A dozen or so residents spoke on the plan Monday night. Many parents, however, had already weighed in through a survey.
About 56% of parents who responded to the survey either supported or strongly supported the option. While parents mostly favored the uninterrupted boundaries, some who will be zoned out of their current school worried about their children now having to cross busy, multi-lane streets to get to school.
Parents repeatedly expressed concern in the survey that the attendance boundaries before the board would concentrate poverty at Givens. About 30% of Givens’ students would be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty in education. The rates would be below 11% at all other schools.
“This scenario has a red score for diversity. For this reason alone, it should be avoided,” one commenter said.
In all, 1,615 people responded to the district’s survey.
“This will create a clear ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ dynamic in the district that will be detrimental to the values of diversity, social equity and inclusion that Webster Groves has long stood for,” another commenter wrote.
But some parents also are angered their children will now have to attend elementary schools in the northern part of the district, Hudson and Givens, either because of their lower test scores or distance from their homes.
One wrote: “Our neighborhood has become a very desirable location for young families because of the reputation that our Bristol community has. I would be concerned that if taken away from Bristol and moved to Givens that would be something that would start to see the neighborhood shift away from WGSD and back to (Mary Queen of Peace Catholic School) because of the geographical location of our ‘neighborhood’ public school.”
And another commented: “I would not have purchased this home if I knew I would be redistricted into Hudson. The scores are significantly lower. I will send to (sic) private if redistricted.”
Hudson third graders score above the district average on state reading exams but below it on math. Givens students are below the district average in reading but above on math.
Other options presented stretch or break up Givens’ attendance area far from the school. That would give Givens a poverty rate below 20%, which would still be the highest in the district.
North Webster is a historically African American community that once was home to Douglass High School, one of the few in the region for black students in the first half of the 20th century. In 2018, Givens school was named after Henry Givens, a teacher at Douglass.
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