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School board considers plan to redistrict South Hills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the county school board meets this week to decide whether to redistrict some South Hills elementary schools, members will have to weigh two conflicting messages from parents of students in those schools.

The first is their autumn request for a plan to ease crowding at one school.

The second is their recently vehement opposition of the proposal to shift students out of that school next year.   

In September, parents of children at Overbrook Elementary School, in South Hills, came to the Kanawha County school board complaining of overcrowding. Their children sit in crowded classrooms, they said, and stand in long lunch lines; sometimes they're forced to share textbooks.

"We told them then, we will let you consider the 'R word,'" said Eugenie Taylor, president of the school's parent teacher organization, referring to the potential for a redistricting plan to ease crowding at Overbrook. She spoke to the board at their September meeting.

With that, the school board took on the hefty task of putting together a plan that could redraw the boundaries for school attendance zones, shifting some students out of Overbrook and into other South Hills Schools. That project, headed by Jane Roberts, associate superintendent for elementary schools, also explored potential plans to ease crowding in two other Kanawha County elementary schools: Mary C. Snow Westside Elementary and Flinn Elementary.  

But when the plan was presented at a school board meeting last month, Overbrook parents were back — with a nearly complete reversal of their earlier position.

"The proposed redistricting will decimate our schools," one parent said. An Overbrook teacher told board members she spoke for the staff collectively when saying she strongly opposes the plan.  Taylor said she and the PTO agreed that they shouldn't "use a saw to cut off what a small knife could do," implying that redistricting is too drastic a measure.

The proposed plan would send around 75 students from Overbrook to either Kenna or Holz elementary schools, adding two bus routes to accommodate the change.

The three schools have similar profiles: all are in the South Hills area, score high in reading and math assessments and have 100 percent of their classes taught by teachers classified as "highly qualified" by the school board — compared to 86 percent countywide. All have student bodies composed mainly of well-off kids, with around a quarter or less of each student population coming from low-income homes.

"The good news is that all three schools are excellent schools," Roberts said. "It's just a matter of what folks are comfortable with and family traditions. Redistricting is an emotional issue."

At least some of the concern seems to revolve around the streets that were chosen to be moved out of Overbrook's attendance zone — neighborhoods full of "stable, single-family dwellings . . . and parents who do tend to support school-based projects and PTO projects," Taylor said.

"People are worried that the culture of the school could change, and it could," she said, though she said she believes Overbrook's family-centric atmosphere could persevere through redistricting.

School board member Becky Jordan lives in South Hills herself, and said she wasn't surprised by the parents' sharp reversal.

"I knew they would," she said. "I told them last fall that when they saw the areas that would be redistricted they wouldn't like it."

Overbrook parents and officials think they can head off crowding for the next few years by moving the computer lab into the library, freeing up one classroom. A special education class that moves between schools every few years was already scheduled to move to Holz next year, leaving another room open.

Taylor said this represents a more measured response to the school's crowding issues, and allows for the possibility that last year's large kindergarten class was an anomaly. She allows that it might not be a long-term fix though, and that parents might be forced to come back to the board in two years or so to again propose redistricting.

Roberts believes that the crowding at Overbrook will continue to be a problem — unlike most schools in the state and even other schools in the county, schools in the South Hills area seem threatening to burst at the seams. When students at Overbrook reach middle school they move on to crowded John Adams middle, where parents are trying to raise money to add four classrooms to the building. From there, they go to high-performing George Washington High School, where a moratorium on out of area transfers was imposed last year to ward off crowding.

South Hills parents hope that a new, tighter version of the county's out-of-area transfer policy could help stem the crowding in these schools — that policy's introduction in February inspired confidence in Overbrook parents that helped them come to the conclusion they could avoid redistricting. But that policy is still out for public comment, and can't come to a vote before the school board until April, well after the board votes on whether or not to redistrict.

The board will take that vote at its regular meeting Thursday. Board members will also decide whether to move some students from Flinn Elementary to Sissonville Elementary, and some students from Mary C. Snow West Side to Grandview Elementary.  

Board president Pete Thaw said that despite the hubbub surrounding potential redistricting South Hills, he hasn't heard a single complaint from anyone at the other four schools.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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