Westerville News & Public Opinion

Creative solution sought for Uptown schools

With magnet program ending, district has three elementary schools within several blocks in Uptown.

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With the closing of the magnet program, Westerville City School officials are left trying to create attendance boundaries for three elementary schools in close proximity: Emerson, Hanby and Whittier.

As the district looks to realign its elementary attendance boundaries for the next school year to accommodate the conversion of Emerson and Hanby magnet schools to traditional neighborhood schools, district officials and community realignment committee members have looked at a variety of options for the Uptown area.

The solution for the Uptown area at this point has local students going to either a combined Emerson/Hanby school or Whittier Elementary, where most students in the Uptown area are assigned now.

As the result of community feedback, the district has made State Street a dividing line for attendance, rather than an east-west boundary, and has made a walk-in boundary for Emerson/Hanby for families living close to that school, said district Business Operations Services Executive Director Jeff LeRose.

The committee charged with finding realignment options also has looked at what would happen if Hanby and Emerson were closed entirely, or if Emerson were closed and students were sent to Hanby only.

In both cases, the population at many district elementary schools were at or over capacity, leaving officials to find creative solutions for Uptown, LeRose said.

"That's the challenge when you have three schools that are right on top of each other," he said.

With the split school, the district could do certain grade levels at Emerson and others at Hanby -- as in, Hanby could house students in grades K-2 and Emerson grades 3-5, with the two collectively treated as one school -- or all grades at both schools, LeRose said. That decision would fall to the district's administration once attendance boundaries are settled upon, he said.

The district also has looked at busing students in from neighborhoods that don't have an elementary school in close proximately, but the concern was that the school would lack parental support and that the arrangement would make it more difficult for students who want to participate in after school activities, LeRose said.

"All of those things have been taken into consideration," he said.

The solution for Uptown schools has drawn much interest from parents in the surrounding neighborhoods, with many sending emails and speaking at school board meetings. One small group sat down and drew up its own elementary attendance map.

The district has entertained the group's ideas, which included the bus-in option and shuttering Emerson.

Regardless, the closing of the magnet schools -- which is driving the need for realignment -- continues to concern Whittier parents, as their neighborhood will be so affected by realignment and the creation of an additional Uptown attendance boundary, said Whittier parent Derek Blazo.

"At the end of the day, we love our schools and only want the least student impact, and if there has to be impact, to try to make it as fair as possible," Blazo said. "Completely devastating the Whittier area while barely touching other areas doesn't seem fair."

At recent board meetings, parents have urged the board to come up with other options for Emerson and Hanby: refill the magnet program to alleviate overcrowding at other schools, with students whose home schools are overcrowded getting preferential placement in the magnet program, or create a "zone" concept, in which each school is given a different focus and parents within the Uptown attendance boundary can pick which particular school to send their children to.

"There is an opportunity here which is if we're going to use Emerson and Hanby and Whittier ... the schools that have the largest themes or focus now, we have an opportunity to pilot something new" instead of forcing families into the district's oldest school buildings, parent Jennifer Aultman suggested to the board at a March 7 work session. "Then, people aren't forced to attend those schools; then, they're able to rank some preference there."

Parents also have created a website sharing information on the realignment process and urging school board members to slow down their decision on realignment, called optionmoretime.com.

LeRose said he understands why parents have been frustrated with the realignment process and the potential upheaval for Uptown-area families.

"Most of it is: People like where they're living; they don't want to change," LeRose said. "You can't create a new attendance boundary without affecting someone."

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