Ashland schools put new policy to the test

The Ashland School District in March tweaked its method of determining in which schools elementary students will be placed and now, with the first day of school less than a week away, the district is hard at work implementing the new priority-based policy.

The district laid out its plans after a long process that included a town hall-like meeting with parents and a detailed, class-by-class statistical analysis. In the end, superintendent Jay Hummel and the school board decided that the district would adopt a more nuanced approach to controlling class sizes, surveying parents during parent-teacher conferences and using those responses and other information to determine which students will attend which schools.

Now, it’s game time. Registration has come and gone, and the first day of school is Wednesday, Sept. 2.

So what is the district telling parents whose children cannot be placed in a school that’s in their zone?

“You may register in our school district and we certainly want to get you into your neighborhood school,” Hummel said when that question was posed during a recent school board meeting, “but we may have to ask you — and we’ll help transport you — to (attend) another school until either we’re able to reorganize to make another class at that site and add additional staff and/or balance class sizes at other places.”

That explanation has already been used and may be again in the coming days as parents are redirected. The reason lies in ASD’s new policy, which was first implemented during parent-teacher conferences last spring. During those conferences, parents and guardians of kindergarten through fourth-grade students were asked to identify the school they prefer their child attends. The district has also asked all potential out-of-district enrollment families to share which school or schools they want their children to attend.

Now, the results of those questionnaires in hand, the district is placing students based on a specific prioritization method which favors above all students who live in a school zone and have a sibling currently attending that school. Next in line are students who live in the neighborhood zone, followed by students requesting a zone transfer who have a sibling in that school. After that are students requesting a zone transfer who do not have a sibling in the requested school, followed by students from outside Ashland requesting an inter-district transfer and do have a sibling already attending. Finally, the district will consider students requesting an inter-district transfer who do not have a sibling currently attending.

So far it’s working, which is to say some students will land in the school of their choice, and some will not.

“I’m worried about Bellview a little bit,” Hummel said during the Aug. 12 school board meeting. “They’re at our maximum in a lot of places, so if they don’t have some natural attrition and they have a number of others we’re going to have to help in that site as well and make some adjustments."

Hummel also mentioned Helman Elementary, particularly its fifth-grade class, which was projected in the survey conducted by the district last winter to include 60 students, making it the largest class in the district.

“So,” Hummel said, “we’re going to have to monitor that, but we’re certainly capping those classes at that site and holding students who might enter.”

That could lead to some uncomfortable conversations next week, because as school board Chairman Jim Westrick pointed out, there will be some families that simply show up at their zone school to register on the first day.

“The bottom line,” Westrick said, “is that in public schools we don’t know who we have until the first week of school.”

And sometimes, it takes longer than that. Last school year, according to Hummel, Bellview saw an influx of 10 students in November.

“And now, he said, “you’re looking at possible blends that you have to do for a period of time, or additional help in the classroom, or a part-time teacher that helps. So I don’t want to be limited and I would recommend we don’t limit our options to how to approach those challenges at each school. Instead, get the input from the teachers and that site, and try to get the parents to understand the best we can that we’ll work on those issues and respond to them appropriately.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

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