Robert Strong: Lewiston elementary school redistricting plan needs more input

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On Nov. 20, a Lewiston School subcommittee released a proposal for redistricting the city’s elementary schools, ostensibly to more evenly distribute students classified as English language learners and lower socioeconomic status among the schools. Along with the change in district for future enrollees, 234 current students would be assigned to new schools next fall.

Unfortunately, the subcommittee that drafted the plan included parent representatives only from the two elementary districts excluded from the proposed redistricting, and no parent representatives from the affected districts.

It was not surprising that parents throughout Lewiston responded cautiously, even skeptically, to the plan at a series of meetings in December.

In turn, Superintendent Bill Webster has invited parents to submit additional redistricting proposals.

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According to the redistricting committee, the Lewiston School District faces two main challenges: a substantial ELL population and underestimated enrollment growth overall. The first issue necessitates specific resources, programming and specialized instructors; the second is a mathematical question of space and teacher-student ratios.

The current proposal does not address resources or teacher workload directly but, instead, claims that redistributing ELL students across the districts is vital because “schools that reflect the city’s diversity better promote opportunity and student success.”

As support for that claim, Webster points to a 1998 study by sociologist Maureen T. Hallinan. However, the research that Hallinan summarizes is not directly relevant for Lewiston: it does not discuss ELL or SES challenges, but looks at broader categories of race. The conclusion drawn about diversity is that minority students “attain higher academic achievement in majority white schools.”

All Lewiston schools, with the exception of Longley, currently have the productive balance of diversity described in the very research cited in support of the redistricting.

Strangely, Longley is left untouched by the proposed redistricting.

Every child in the school system should be valued and supported. The best practices for ELL instruction will arise from a plan for resources and teachers, not from moving students around.

Lewiston also faces the challenge of enrollment pressures, but that can be addressed in much more streamlined fashion than the complexity of a proposal built on shaky demographic ground.

It would be better to find the simplest way possible to use the 100 to 120 seats being built at McMahon to alleviate crowding at Geiger and Montello. (And since the subcommittee’s complex proposal would require two new bus routes at a cost of more than $80,000, a simpler plan seems worth considering.)

Under the official proposal, 234 current students would be removed from their schools, with 102 of these students transferring to schools with much lower test scores than the one they currently attend. McMahon would gain 87 students from a new district “island” downtown, but Webster puts the ideal number closer to 100.

A simplified alternative proposal would move 100 students directly from Montello and Geiger to McMahon by nudging the district lines far less radically than has been proposed. This could be accomplished by expanding the McMahon “island” from the official proposal and eliminating all other proposed changes.

That plan has many benefits: Half as many students are disrupted; they move to a school with new classrooms and higher or comparable test scores relative to their current schools; and the bus plan is more economical.

Of course, McMahon still would need additional resources to help acclimate 100 new students.

Ultimately, all of the back and forth on this subject overlooks the children who will live with the outcome of any redistricting. Although one member of the redistricting subcommittee has dismissed parental concerns as mere “emotional attachment” to particular schools, studies such as the U.S. government GAO’s “Elementary School Children: Many Change Schools Frequently, Harming Their Education” show that there are achievement and cognitive deficits experienced by elementary students who change schools, and these become more profound for students from minority, ELL and SES groups. And other research has found that all students in school moves are affected by the disruption of important social ties.

For that reason, redistricting should take place only for objectively necessary reasons, and the continuing education of the redistricted students should be a top priority in any plan.

Whether a Geiger Gator or a Montello Eagle, elementary students already have identities as members of their current school communities. Lewiston is blessed with a growing population of young people, a dynamic diversity of cultures, races and languages, and the Maine tradition of joyful diligence. The best plan for the schools will capitalize on all of these positive attributes with the minimum disruption for the very youngest schoolchildren.

Robert Strong has two children in the Lewiston elementary system and has worked in education for 15 years. As an undergraduate at Boston College, he wrote his thesis on institutional racism.

Meeting times

The Lewiston Redistricting Committee will host three meetings this week to gather feedback on the redistricting plan:

Monday, Jan. 7, 4:30 p.m., Dingley Building, 36 Oak St.;

Wednesday, Jan. 9, 6 p.m., McMahon Elementary School;

Thursday, Jan. 10, 2 p.m., Longley Elementary School.

In addition, residents can send feedback directly to School Committee members by email or phone. For contact information, go to the Lewiston Public Schools website under “School Committee.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong meeting location for the Monday meeting. 

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