Starting in late 2017, the Chatham County Board of Education began discussing priorities for the redistricting process for Chatham Grove Elementary School, the county’s newest school, located …
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Starting in late 2017, the Chatham County Board of Education began discussing priorities for the redistricting process for Chatham Grove Elementary School, the county’s newest school, located across the street from the Briar Chapel development in the northeastern part of county.
More than 15 months later, the board is moving closer to a decision on the school’s attendance zone while trying to balance its priorities, parent feedback and Seaforth High School coming around the corner.
Redistricting is the avenue by which the school system determines attendance zones for each individual campus. The district utilizes the N.C. State Operations Research and Education Laboratory, or OREd, to help determine the proper geographic areas to fill each school while meeting priorities set by the school board.
The board most recently, at its April 8 board meeting, asked for a fifth redistricting scenario, Scenario E, a very slight variation on Scenario D. Chris Blice, the district’s chief operations officer and point person in the redistricting process, said the journey to the new set-up has been complicated.
“It’s been a while since we did this,” he said.
The last new school the county built was Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, completed and opened for students in 2010. Blice said redistricting for that institution was “fairly straightforward” since the middle school was built to relieve overcrowding at Perry Harrison and North Chatham schools, moving both from K-8 institutions to exclusively elementary schools.
“It was fairly obvious what that attendance zone was going to be like,” Blice said of Pollard. “(Chatham Grove) was starting from scratch.”
The district began by establishing priorities, like balancing demographics and minimizing the impact of reassignment. Then OREd stepped in and drew three different maps based on the board’s priorities and projected student populations. Those maps were taken to public input meetings where parents gave their opinions.
The survey showed that 57 percent of parents attending would prefer for their student to attend Chatham Grove, while 14 percent had no preference and just under 29 percent preferred for their children to stay at their current school. When it came to the actual scenarios, the margins were much tighter — Scenario A received 46 percent, Scenario B got 31 percent and Scenario C was chosen by 22 percent.
Based on the surveys and parent feedback, OREd created Scenario D, first presented to the school board in March, which shrunk Chatham Grove’s projected attendance area and accounted for faster-than-expected growth coming from Briar Chapel. There was also concern about too much space at Perry Harrison once Chatham Park’s elementary students — who will attend that school until the first elementary school is finished in Chatham Park — leave the institution.
Mathew Palmer, a staff member at OREd, told the board at its March meeting that the Chatham Grove process was “likely to be the first step.”
“The point that is being made — always thinking about what this is going to be long-term,” Palmer said. “For this project, for this initial step, it is good to get a foundation.”
But as the county grows, and Chatham Park begins to build houses and the county builds schools there, it will get more complicated. As Blice said earlier this month, “Each of the moving pieces just makes it a little more difficult to do.”
And this is not going to be an isolated case. When Chatham Grove’s redistricting process wraps up, slated for August, the board will almost immediately begin considering scenarios for Seaforth High. OREd’s proposed timeline has the first scenarios scheduled for board viewing in October.
Blice said OREd believes, and he does as well, that high school redistricting is much more complicated, particularly because of emotional attachments formed by families to high schools.
“It is an important part of a family,” Blice said, referencing his time as a high school principal. “To tell this group of people that you are now going to this school and you’re no longer going to be a Charger or whatever it is — it is a huge thing to build a new high school.”
But the district’s experience in working through Chatham Grove’s redistricting has been invaluable. Chatham Schools Superintendent Derrick Jordan referred to it earlier this month as “a solid process that is not perfect,” and with new schools around the corner, “an ongoing project that will outlive every one of us.”
“You will have a playbook moving forward form the naming of the school to determining the colors to the zoning,” Jordan said. “We’ll have a playbook that we’ll be able to reach back and reference as this process continues.”
Blice agreed with Jordan, saying the district has learned how to “develop a template” for attendance zone drawing. He also emphasized the importance of public input, with a caveat.
“I will say that you have to, at some level, direct that input,” he said. “There are things we can do something about, there are things we need to know, and then there are things that are not relevant. So we have to be sure that we’re gathering the right information. It’s a balancing act.
“We want to do this right, and we want it to be sustainable. And that’s tough, it really is. But I definitely believe that’s our goal.”