Controversy Persists Over Possible Changes to Elementary School Assignments

Tuesday, December 4, 2018, 7:27 am
Ann Nichols

As the East Lansing Public Schools’ Superintendent and Board of Education present ideas for how to distribute students during and after the reconstruction of the District’s elementary school buildings, community reaction continues to include a mix of confusion, concern, and criticism.

Parents have been raising many questions in public comment and written form. These include questions about whether students should be moved or permanent redistricting decisions made before all the elementary schools are rebuilt.

Some are also questioning why the District might make decisions about elementary school districting before the School District has decided on programming at Red Cedar Elementary. Right now, Red Cedar is in use as a “swing school,” housing the populations of other schools during rebuilding.

With so many moving parts, some believe longer-term decision-making makes sense now, because it could provide predictability and certainty. But others feel it makes little sense to make long-term decisions before a lot more is known.

The History of the Shifts:

In May 2017, ELPS District voters passed a bond for just under $94 million dollars by a slim margin. The proposal that passed was based on an application stating that the money would be spent to build and equip five new elementary buildings on the existing sites of Whitehills, Donley, Marble, Pinecrest, and Glencairn Elementary Schools, and to remodel Red Cedar Elementary.

Before the bond passed, the District’s administration said they intended to use Red Cedar short-term as a “transition school” to house students as their schools were rebuilt. A lack of ground space at most elementary school properties meant that all schools slated for reconstruction except Donley need to be demolished before construction. That meant students at those schools needed a place to go.

Before the bond passed, the District administration also indicated that, after the new schools’ construction was complete, they planned to use Red Cedar long-term at least in part for pre-kindergarten programming. Bond language also said that following all construction, Red Cedar would house at least 7 regular, elementary classrooms.

Then, in June of this year, ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko announced that she hoped to start in July the process of realigning the populations of the District’s five elementary schools into six districts that would exist once Red Cedar was done being used as a swing school. The idea was that Red Cedar would become, at least in part of the building, a regular, sixth elementary school in the fall of 2021.

Leyko said at that time, "it has not yet been determined when the boundaries will go into effect; however, it could be as soon as Fall 2019 in order to reduce transitions for some students and to ‘right size’ our school populations as some of them will not be able to move back into their new buildings with their current populations."

Today, Glencairn has been demolished (above) and is being re-built. Its student population is occupying the Red Cedar Elementary building for the 2018-2019 school year. That school population includes students who live in what would be a Red Cedar catchment area, but whose home addresses were reassigned to Glencairn Elementary School after Red Cedar was shuttered in 2015.

Proposals, Modifications, and Reactions:

At the two most recent Board of Education meetings, Board members have discussed various ways that students might best be distributed among the elementary school buildings. In those discussions, the Board has indicated that it will vote on a plan at their regular December 10 meeting. This plan is consistent with Leyko’s June statement that the District hoped to have a plan in place by January of 2019.

At the Board’s November 13 meeting, Leyko proposed keeping 70 students who currently attend Glencairn Elementary School at Red Cedar Elementary School, after the rest of the students move back to Glencairn next fall. This would represent the start of “right-sizing” the District’s elementary districts.

Leyko also proposed moving 58 students from Pinecrest Elementary into Glencairn Elementary in fall of 2019, while the rest of Pinecrest’s student body moves into Red Cedar for a year as their school is torn down and rebuilt as another step towards balancing student numbers among elementary schools.

Current fourth graders would be “grandfathered in” with their current populations and be provided transportation, so that they could remain with the populations with which they’ve been in school for years. Other families wishing to have their children stick with their current schools would be given priority placement through the District’s “permeable boundary” request process.

Parents speaking at the November 13 Board of Ed meeting were unanimously concerned about Leyko’s initial proposal.

One Glencairn parent spoke of the risks involved in potentially disrupting the language learning of students living in the Red Cedar area, many of whom are not native speakers of English, by shifting the school population assignment of those children.

Others addressed the potential difficulties for students left at Red Cedar after their Glencairn classmates returned to their new building. The concern included the possibility of having students have to experience several new sets of administrators and classmates moving through while Red Cedar served as a “swing school” during construction.

Pinecrest parents whose houses might be subject to reassignment to Glencairn Elementary also spoke up, citing dangers of requiring students to traverse Harrison Road and cross Saginaw Street. Some also felt it illogical or unfair to have their children leave the Pinecrest Neighborhood’s own school to attend a school outside the neighborhood.

In response to communications from the community, Leyko offered four possible modifications to her original proposal at the Board’s November 26 meeting:

  • Redraw the boundaries for Pinecrest to keep the houses on Woodingham Drive assigned to Pinecrest, reducing the number of Pinecrest students moving to Glencairn from 58 to 53.
  • Move 37 students who are currently bussed to Pinecrest from west of Coolidge Drive to Glencairn.
  • Explore the potential of having all 70 Glencairn Elementary students who would otherwise be left at Red Cedar actually stick with Glencairn until graduation through permeable boundary requests, while also still redistricting 53 from Pinecrest to Glencairn. (A significant problem is that this would leave Glencairn with too many students in the second and third grades.)
  • Hold the current Glencairn population at Red Cedar for another year and use the new Glencairn building as a swing school for Pinecrest for the 2019-2020 school year. This would give the 70 students scheduled to stay at Red Cedar another year with their peers, but would still separate them a year later.

Eleven parents spoke during that second public hearing, none in support of any of the proffered modifications. Some asked the Board to minimize transitions for Glencairn and Red Cedar students and to keep Pinecrest children at their neighborhood school. Some also asked the Board to consider the disruption to Donley students of adding an additional school population to that site immediately following a year of construction. The District is currently considering housing the populations of Whitehills and Marble in the “old” Donley school while their new schools are being built.

A fairly consistent attitude among parents speaking-up was that big decisions about “right-sizing” schools through boundary changes should not be made until all elementary re-builds were complete.

Glencairn parent James Barger submitted an alternate proposal for the placement of students during the years of elementary construction. He included suggestions for student placement, transportation, cost and choice for families. Barger emphasized what he sees as the prudence of waiting before relocating students and redistricting homes on a permanent basis.

Glencairn parent and economist Mike Conlin (above) has been vocal in his opinion that the redistricting proposal and its modifications don’t make financial sense. In a letter published at Public Response, he says, “it is clear that no one has done any credible analysis of: (i) how the elementary school catchment areas should be drawn; (ii) how the school of choice decisions should vary across schools and grades; (iii) how permeable boundary requests affect these decisions; and (iv) what programming should exist at Red Cedar.”

Conlin asserts that what is needed to make the best possible decisions is a “demand analysis,” and that although District administrators have access to a nationally-known expert in demand analysis on the MSU faculty, they have chosen instead to rely on “local politicians, School Board members, lawyers, education consultants and education academics, who have no training or expertise in demand analysis, [to] advocate for an elementary school reconfiguration with unknown implications and unspecified educational programming for Red Cedar.”

Although Leyko’s redistricting proposal is scheduled for a probable vote on December 10, it is not clear whether that vote will in fact take place, or in what exact form the proposal will take given the number of possible modifications discussed at the November 26 meeting.

ELi will continue to follow this story.

UPDATE, DECEMBER 7: Leyko has now issued a new set of recommendations. Read on.


Editor's note: this story was updated on December 4, 2018 to clarify that the school bond proposal included at least 7 permanent elementary classrooms at Red Cedar Elementary School. We also corrected an error to make clear that the population of Marble, not Glencairn, may be housed at the old Donley building while Marble is reconstructed. Additionally,the original article contained the statement that "The District has indicated that no redistricting or other changes in the operations of the currently open five elementary schools would take place until 2021 at the earliest and then only after discussions with the community and action by the Board." We have now learned that there had been a misunderstanding of that statement, and removed it from the article on December 5, 2018.


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