Lewiston looks for ways to preserve school choice

Posted June 04, 2013, at 6:05 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Compared to most years, more Lewiston families are being told no when they ask if their child can attend a school not in their neighborhood district.

School Superintendent Bill Webster expects that by September as many students will attend schools out of their neighborhood as last year, but this year parents may not get their first choice.

The School Department receives 700-plus “school choice” requests from parents each year. Typically the superintendent approves more than 500.

So far at Montello and Geiger elementary, “there are roughly 35 families who were told your son or daughter may not be able to continue at the school,” Webster said. “They can return to their home school, or we’re offering McMahon.”

There are two reasons why.

Webster is taking a harder look at granting school choice requests as he fills new classroom space opening at McMahon Elementary this fall.

And, following the direction of the School Committee in February when it rejected a redistricting proposal, Webster is trying to reduce the ratio of English Language Learning students at Montello Elementary. At Montello, 37 percent of the student population are ELL students, compared to the city average of 23 percent. For best learning conditions, an ELL population percentage of 25 percent is preferred, Webster said.

The redistricting proposal was to move downtown, poorer and immigrant students learning English from Montello to Geiger and McMahon elementary schools. The plan would have moved 223 students to different schools.

Supporters said it would help all students better prepare for the middle and high school by exposing them earlier to the same demographics they’ll face in the seventh grade, that ELL students would learn English faster, and local students would learn new cultures.

Opponents said redistricting wasn’t necessary, didn’t diversify enough, had too many problems and some worried Geiger and McMahon students would suffer.

Committee members told Webster he could achieve some redistricting goals through school choice requests, decisions which rest with him.

Acting on that, Webster said he started the school choice process earlier this year to help with planning. More staff will be moved to McMahon this year to fill new classrooms.

Parents whose children attend schools out of their neighborhoods were sent letters telling them their child may no longer be able to attend that school. For instance, a student living in the Longley Elementary district that has a one-year school choice approval to attend Montello may find out Montello is not available next year, Webster said. Parents of that student may be told their student can attend Longley or McMahon, Webster said.

Students denied permission to attend an out-of-neighborhood school tended to be in the lower grades; students in grades four through six are often more likely granted permission to stay, Webster said.

Letters are being sent informing parents their child can continue at the out-of-district school, or they’re being denied and what their options are, Webster said.

“We’re still very much in that process. We are beginning to look at enrollment numbers for next year,” he said. In some schools there are too many students in some classes. “We’re looking down the list of who we need to revisit allowing them to go to that school.”

By the last day of school June 13, Webster hopes to have school choice letters sent. Parents who are denied do have an appeals process, he said.

Lewiston’s population is growing by more than 100 new students a year. Most schools are at capacity. “We still have some very tight classrooms,” Webster said.

An expected 75 students will be moved to McMahon, where an addition that includes a gymnasium and classroom wing will open this fall.

Webster: Not using busing to redistrict under the radar

LEWISTON — One McMahon Elementary School parent who opposed redistricting last winter is questioning whether Superintendent Bill Webster is redistricting by offering busing to downtown students who meet his profile, but not to students who don’t.

If Webster is providing busing to downtown students who attend Longley or Montello, but not to other students, that would be a “way that he can get his redistricting done without calling it redistricting,” parent Jodi Wolverton said.

Not providing busing to all “would make it more challenging” for those families to send their students to out-of-neighborhood schools, Wolverton said.

Wolverton said she is for “transparency and fairness,” and doesn’t want to see Webster “go under the radar and get his ratios” by selecting who gets busing. Transportation “costs money,” she said. “Taxpayers are paying for that.”

Webster said it is true that busing is being provided to some but not all, but it is not a case of him selecting which students get busing, or using busing to achieve redistricting.

Rather it’s students who live on a street where the bus is going by, and there’s room, can ride. Students who live on streets where the bus is not going by, or there is not room, have to provide their own transportation.

More poorer students tend to live in the city’s center where there are more bus runs; more middle-class students tend to live in more suburban or rural areas where there are fewer bus runs, Webster said.

“A student who lives in South Lewiston, the Ferry Road or Outer College Street, there’s no way we can provide transportation to McMahon. A student who lives on Sabattus Street may well be provided transportation because it’s closer to the bus,” he said. “We’re not adding bus runs, but are looking at existing bus runs.”

That policy is not new, he said.

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