LEWISTON — Most residents who spoke at Monday's School Committee meeting criticized a proposal for redistricting that would affect 223 current students at McMahon, Montello and Geiger elementary schools.
The move would redistribute a percentage of English language learner students, moving them from Montello to McMahon and Geiger to help fill newly available classroom space at McMahon and make schools more representative of the city's demographics, Superintendent Bill Webster told a crowd of about 100 at the meeting.
The School Board and the Lewiston Redistricting Committee are set to hold a work session Feb. 25 to consider points made by residents Monday.
Some residents, like Robert Strong, questioned why only the schools closest to the average percentage of ELL students would be affected. Longley, where 61 percent of students are ELL students, won't be affected by the proposal. Nor will Farwell or Martel, which are 5 percent and 9 percent ELL, respectively.
Strong, like many, said the plan needed more research and criticized the committee's citing a study on how students perform better in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms. Strong said that the study doesn't address ELL students, who need extra attention to learn the language along with regular schoolwork.
Several, including Sarah Morin, questioned the effect on property values, as people who buy homes for their school districts could lose a main selling point and that some neighborhoods could be vacated.
“There will no longer be the days of better neighborhoods with better schools, therefore our property values will strongly be affected,” Morin said.
Others asked why the process was being rushed. “I feel as if the entire process has been flawed and, quite frankly, kind of sneaky,” Janet Beaudoin said. She said the decision should take more time and consideration.
“The idea of pulling children from the opposite end of the city and busing them to McMahon is disruptive to all students,” Beaudoin said. She said neighborhood schools were preferable and that the plan “seems like a strange social experiment on Mr. Webster's part.”
Jodi Wolverton, president of the McMahon PTO, blamed the harsh reaction on the way the committee and school board presented the issue, ignoring concerns and not studying the issue in enough depth. "We have a divided community because of the approach."
Some pointed out that two members of the committee are on the school board and said they shouldn't be allowed to vote on whether to implement the redistricting proposal.
It wasn't all complaints, however. Several people, both Somali and white, said their children had benefited from having classmates and friends from different backgrounds. One woman, Cynthia Taylor, said that after four years of homeschooling and an unsatisfactory stint at a private Christian school, she and her husband regretfully sent their children to Montello.
Taylor said they were fearful, having heard “horror stories” about violence at the school and about the attitudes of the Somali students there. “I had heard that a lot of the African children, that they fight, and that there were weapons at the school,” Taylor said. “I believed that.”
She said that's changed. There's no more talk of race in her home. Taylor listed off the names of her children's friends, including Jacob and Muhammad, Anastasia and Abdullah.
“I believe that my way of protecting my children is by preparing them for the future,” Taylor said. She said that exposure to diversity is part of that. “My kids are very, very safe at Montello.”