LEWISTON — A plan to disperse poorer and English-learning students throughout the city's six elementary schools is necessary, some say, but not everyone agrees.
Schools Superintendent Bill Webster presented the proposal to the School Committee on Monday night. It calls for sending about 8 percent of elementary school students — an estimated 234 out of 3,036 — to different schools next year. Fourth through sixth grade students and their siblings would be allowed to stay at their schools, so the number would likely be less than 234.
It “would impact a very small minority of students in each school. And there would be school choice,” he said Tuesday.
The plan will be aired at each elementary school in the coming months, and information on those meetings will be sent to parents next week, Webster said. The proposal will be taken up by the School Committee in February.
The city's education chief pointed out that when each school represents the makeup of the entire district, students do better academically and socially. Citywide, 23 percent of students are English Language Learners, many of whom are from Somali families; and 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals.
Some schools have a disproportionate number of poorer or English-learning students, Webster said. Longley Elementary has 93 percent of students who receive free or reduced-priced meals and 61 percent are English Language Learners. Montello Elementary has 75 percent of students who get free or reduced-priced meals, and 37 percent who are English Language Learners.
At Geiger Elementary School, 58 percent of students get free or reduced-price meals and and 14 percent are English Language Learners. Farwell school has 64 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, and 15 percent who are English Language Learners.
The redistricting plan would mean, for instance, that Geiger Elementary School would have 61 percent of its students receiving free and reduced-price meals, up from 58 percent; and 19 percent who are English-learners, up from the current 14 percent.
“Research shows schools that are more reflective of the type of diversity are more successful, have greater equity and opportunity, and expose students to situations they're going to experience in middle school and high school,” Webster said.
Next fall there will be 10 new classrooms at McMahon Elementary, which means more students will be moved to McMahon to fill those rooms.
“This provides us an opportunity to rethink the district lines in Lewiston that have evolved over many years,” Webster said.
If nothing is done there will be empty classrooms at McMahon next fall while other schools are overcrowded, he said. “We need a plan.”
School Committee member Sonya Taylor on Tuesday questioned the plan's fairness to families “who have worked hard to buy homes in the more affluent part of town.”
The Ward 5 representative said each school has qualified teachers and programs to help all children succeed, but sending poorer students to different schools would mean less involvement by their parents, who may not have access to a vehicle.
Her other concern is for middle-class families who live in “the more affluent part of town so that they can offer the very best environment for their children,” she said. While some parents have worked “to get what they want in life, there are those who have unfortunately fallen into a cycle of dependency on state aid.”
"Let's be real," Taylor said. There aren't many parents who would be willing to bring their children downtown to play with a classmate “at an apartment building that has bug-infested mattresses laying out front.”
Responding to her concerns, Webster said redistricting would be “sensitive to the impact it has on families who have made decisions to where they live.” That's why the proposal is recommending that fourth- through sixth-grade students and their siblings stay at their schools.
Marnie Morneault, a member of the redistricting committee and Martel Elementary School PTO president, acknowledged redistricting students is tough.
“We recognize this is an emotionally charged proposal” and parents have bonds to their schools,” said the mother of three, but change is needed.
She said redistricting is needed and would be best for all Lewiston students.
Redistricting “would make school sizes more equal, classroom sizes smaller and more equitable. A lot of thought has gone into this,” she said.
The meetings at each school will allow parents opportunities to ask questions and offer suggestions, Morneault said.
What's needed is to “step back and realize this is about the children, not my emotional attachment to a school,” Morneault said.