LEWISTON — In the last redistricting meeting with parents of individual schools, Martel Elementary School parents had few questions for Superintendent Bill Webster Tuesday night, since redistricting wouldn't impact Martel students this fall.
Webster explained that long-range plans call for closing Martel in five or six years, replacing it with a new school for students in grades three to six from Martel, Farwell and Longley schools. That would only happen, he said, if and when Lewiston secured state funding.
In that plan, Martel prekindergarten to second grade students would go to Farwell Elementary, while Longley prekindergarten to second grade students would remain at Longley.
While Martel parents seemed satisfied Tuesday, parents from other schools attending the meeting did not.
They voiced objections to moving 223 students this fall and said students should go to school where they live.
On Feb. 11, the Redistricting Committee will recommend to the Lewiston School Committee that McMahon, Geiger and Montello schools' boundary lines be moved so 223 students attend different schools.
The committee's goal is to move downtown English language learner students from Montello to Geiger and McMahon. ELL students make up 37 percent of Montello's population, which is too high, the committee has concluded. All Lewiston students would be better off if all schools reflected the city's diversity of 24 percent, Webster said.
Several parents were unhappy to hear Webster report that the Redistricting Committee on Monday rejected four alternative proposals from parents, because, Webster said, they did not do enough to even out the ELL ratio in schools.
That frustrated McMahon parent Tom Gardner. Looking at Redistricting Committee member Marnie Morneault, who is also a Martel parent, Gardner asked: “What was the reason you guys do not like neighborhood schools? You rejected everything about neighborhood schools.”
“I don't think the committee was trying to reject neighborhood schools. They were trying to do both things (promote neighborhood schools and create schools with more equitable diversity),” Morneault answered. By moving some school lines slightly, that still left some neighborhood schools intact, she said.
Gardner disagreed and said he doesn't understand why, “when the community is asking for neighborhood schools,” Gardner said. “Let's keep these kids together.”
McMahon parent J.R. Davis said he also favors neighborhood schools. He's read articles the committee has researched that show students do well in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms.
Other research shows that parent involvement is the most important predictor of academic achievement, Davis said, adding that's more likely to happen when students live in the neighborhood where their school is.
“My preference is not to waste taxpayer dollars and school resources to bus students out of their neighborhood schools,” Davis said.
Peg Hoffman of the Visible Community said her group represents families of downtown students, both native Mainers and children of Somali immigrant families.
If the redistricting plan goes through, Hoffman said she's concerned about the reception children would receive in schools “where they'd be readily identified as children who live on Knox Street or Horton Street.” It's important that schools receiving downtown students “be compassionate. And not just children from Somali and Somali Bantu families, but from native Mainers who the only place they can afford to live is on Knox Street,” she said.
Lewiston School Committee Sonia Taylor said redistricting would impact ELL families, “and they are not representing themselves at these meetings.” If they have concerns “they need to step up,” she said.
She said she prefers neighborhood schools over redistricting. “Building up neighborhood schools is a stronger, better idea,” she said
The public will be invited to offer comments to the Lewiston School Committee on Feb. 11 when it receives the Redistricting Committee's final recommendation. That meeting will be at Lewiston High School at 6:45 p.m.
The School Committee, which has the final say, is scheduled to vote on redistricting on Feb. 25.