W-JCC schools begin to look at middle school redistricting

Last spring, as 273 of their classmates prepared for freshmen year at Warhill, 12 Toano Middle School eighth graders were on a different path.

Their attendance zone directed them to Lafayette High School instead.

This split has occurred for years. From 2014 through 2016, an average of 4 percent of Toano's eighth-grade students was sent to Lafayette, while the rest head to Warhill High School.

"The transition from middle school to high school can be very difficult for students, often having established relationships helps with the transition," Williamsburg-James City County Schools director of public relations Betsy Overkamp-Smith said. "When you have middle school students going to multiple high schools, those relationships are impacted. Especially if you have a small number going to a school different from the majority."

Overkamp-Smith is part of a team of senior administrators from the offices of superintendent, finance, operations and public relations that wants the School Board to consider feeder patterns as they look at redrawing attendance zones ahead of James Blair Middle School opening in 2018.

Toano isn't the only divided school; students at Hornsby and Berkeley middle are split between all three high schools.

From 2014 through 2016, Hornsby sent more than half of its students — 54 percent — to Jamestown. Thirty-six percent went to Lafayette and 10 percent to Warhill.

Berkeley is a more even split between Jamestown, where 44 percent of students go, and Lafayette, which takes 50 percent. The remaining six percent — about 19 students each year — enroll at Warhill.

"We'd like to see that cleaned up. The administration has discussed it and would like the board to discuss and look at whether it is feasible in W-JCC," Overkamp-Smith said. "Balancing that out could be a good goal of any redistricting effort."

Feeder patterns

For an example, W-JCC can look to York County.

Those schools have been on a feeder system for as long as chief operations officer Carl James can remember. The system is based on proximity, which is why all Magruder and Waller Mill elementary students head to Queens Lake Middle; from there they move to Bruton High School.

"In most cases, a feeder pattern for the elementary school will send it to a middle school that will send it to a high school," James said. "There are some cases where fifth graders will be split. … If they are split, they're only split between two schools."

Three of York's 10 elementary schools are split — Tabb, Coventry and Dare — James said, and that's only because of capacity constraints.

James said it's very important for York to maintain the feeder system with every redistricting because it provides consistency to students and families. It also lets schools better coordinate programs, like athletics.

Greg Davis, president of redistricting consulting firm Davis Demographics, said they are often asked to consider proximity of schools and feeder patterns.

"Many districts do look at that, whether its with closeness to school, the number of kids at the schools, transportation, safety issues," Davis said. "A lot of times districts want to keep the kids together as they go up to middle school and high schools."

Davis said feeder systems are usually worked toward gradually. To create them requires disruption across a district, which most boards tend to avoid, Davis said.

"Capacity is the overriding concern," Davis said. "How to do that and accommodate potential growth as well as safety — short distance to schools, neighborhood schools, not crossing major roadways."

Other considerations

Capacity is why James Blair is being built. Thirteen of W-JCC's 16 schools have surpassed the division's ideal 85 percent to 88 percent capacity for schools.

That spatial stress will be relieved for the middle schools, but the board is looking at solutions at the high schools as well.

Jamestown is at 112 percent capacity, Lafayette is at 88 percent and Warhill is at 91, according to Virginia Department of Education and schools data. The board could redraw the high school districts to try to balance that out, chairwoman Kyra Cook (Williamsburg) said.

Another consideration, which most boards put toward "the bottom of the totem pole," Davis said, is balancing socio-economic diversity.

W-JCC's rates of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch range from 20 to 65 percent, according to VDOE data.

College of William and Mary professor Sal Saporito is a W-JCC parent and studies school attendance boundaries.

"The underlying residential geography is what's driving the composition across the district," Saporito said. "Most attendance zones are relatively compact. In most school districts, they're relatively square, rectangular; they don't sprawl all over the place."

Sometimes to achieve diversity, those lines may have to be irregular to draw from other areas of the district, he said.

Feeder patterns wouldn't affect segregation rates because it comes down to neighborhood make-up, Saporito said.

"I want to understand the pros and cons to feeder patterns, proximity, capacity, economic integration," Cook said. "I hope the administration hires a firm that has the capacity to guide us through these conversations."

The School Board can hire that firm after July 1. Until then, they're tasked with deciding exactly what they want. That conversation will continue at their 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Where middle school kids go to high school:

Toano

Four-year average from 2014 to 2017: 4 percent to Lafayette, 96 percent to Warhill

Berkeley

Four-year average from 2014 to 2017: 6 percent to Warhill, 44 percent to Jamestown, 50 percent to Lafayette

Hornsby

Four-year average from 2014 to 2017: 36 percent to Lafayette, 10 percent to Warhill, 54 percent to Jamestown

Want to go Tuesday?

6:30 p.m. May 2 at the School Board and Central Office Annex, at 117 Ironbound Road. In addition to redistricting, the Board will discuss the student code of conduct, which will come to a vote on May 16.

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