IT Trends

How Data Takes the Guesswork and Angst Out of Rezoning

Redrawing boundaries has more hurdles than a track meet and all the emotional charge that often comes with parents wanting the best for their children. A CIO shares how his district got a leg up on both.

Redrawing the school boundaries of a district sounds like it should be relatively simple: Just divvy up your students and send them to the nearest school. In practice, though, there’s an array of competing goals, from making efficient use of school facilities to creating socioeconomic balance and ensuring racial equality across each building. If you redraw boundaries frequently, some families feel that they’re always the ones asked to sacrifice for the good of the district.

At Muskogee Public Schools, we recently redrew our boundaries. We found what was key in deciding where to put the new boundaries and, more important, getting the district community on board with the plan, was solid, well presented data. People could see the need for change and that we had created a reasonable solution, which helped manage emotional reactions to change.

Redrawing Boundaries Was Unavoidable

It would be great if we could avoid school boundary realignments altogether, but we have an aging population in general and a declining student population. Our long-term planning committee decided, with public input, to convert one elementary school into a 6th-grade center and close one middle school.

With this decision, we are only losing one building, but rezoning the remaining five elementary schools to encompass the 2,700 elementary students has been a very tall order. We wanted to make sure we got it right. The last thing you want to do is put your teachers, administrators, families and students through such a disruptive process — and then ask them to do it again a few years later because you didn’t do your homework the first time.

Our homework was to show the community why change was necessary and provide data analysis to support several proposals. We needed to analyze where students live in relation to schools and show how changes would affect the demographic make-up of each school. We selected ONPASS Pro software as our geographic information system (GIS) application for its powerful and yet easy-to use tools. Using GIS software makes a complex and detailed job into something that’s actually manageable. For several weeks, we used the software to model change and prepare multiple possible scenarios for our planning committee to consider.

Data May Undermine Your Assumptions — And That’s a Good Thing!

As our planning committee — which included the superintendent, prominent members of our community, and members selected by the school board — began looking at rezoning challenges, one of our assumptions was that we still had neighborhood schools. But, when we plotted out where our students lived in relation to the schools they attended, we found that that assumption was wrong for one school.

The school was in a great neighborhood and many homes were located within its existing boundaries, but 65 percent of the students in the school were intra-district transfers. It was hard for us to believe, but only about 80 of the kids attending that school lived within its boundaries. Of course, location is just one metric to consider when rezoning, and perhaps one that could lead to highly emotional reactions.

With our GIS application, we were able to look at the data from several perspectives. We could analyze student attributes such as socioeconomic status and make sure that our school populations reflected the demographic mix of the district. The planning committee was able to present rezoning scenarios to the community for feedback, and all scenarios were based on data: characteristics of the students assigned and where students lived in relation to each school.

Creating scenarios was easy, but more important than that, the data-backed scenarios put us in a position to present facts and mitigate some of the raised emotions before they took off. The solutions just made sense to people.

Another example of a misassumption we had to address comes from the west side of our town where we have just one elementary school. Its new boundaries encompass about 45 percent of our district’s land and people didn’t understand why it needed to be so big. When we actually put students on the map and showed folks how dispersed the student population was in that area, it brought the point home for everyone.

Using Data to Promote Equity

Throughout the process, we wanted to make sure we weren’t unintentionally segregating our schools by income or race. While that seems like an easy enough goal to reach, it can be challenging to meet because neighborhoods tend to be segregated along those lines.

For example, we had concentrated pockets of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. If we moved the boundary west to balance the number of students attending schools on each side of the line, we may have ended up with all the kids in one of those pockets at one school and none at the other. But we were able to look at students by attributes such as race, ethnicity, test scores and socioeconomic status to ensure we created an equitable balance.

As a result of our data analysis, we decided to turn one of our schools that has a lot of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds into a magnet school for project-based learning.

Unexpected Benefits of Data Analysis

ONPASS Pro software isn’t for designing bus routes, but we were fortunate to have our own busing data that we could incorporate to see if we could improve transportation efficiencies within the new boundaries. It was truly eye-opening to see how many of our students ride the bus.

Usually, once we have good bus routes set, they stay the same with a 5 percent or 10 percent change here and there. But with the new information we found, we’re going to be able to make some significant changes and get our kids to and from school much more efficiently.

In the end, the school board will decide the school boundaries, but the school board works for the public. Sometimes there is going to be a disconnect between the two, especially when members of the public feel the scenarios presented are less than favorable to them. But if you can give them data in an easy-to-understand format, it is a lot easier to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

About the Author

Eric Wells is the chief information officer for Muskogee Public Schools in Oklahoma. He can be reached at [email protected].