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Winchester parents on edge over school redistricting plans

Parents in Winchester, where many children walk to and from school together, are anxiously waiting to see what kind of plan the five-member School Committee will embrace for shuffling school assignments for the town’s youngest students: one with hard boundary lines that would mean car transportation for many, or a proposal flexible enough to accommodate families who wish to keep their children close to home.

The committee is expected Thursday to discuss a number of proposals for moving dozens of students out of their current neighborhood schools next September, when the new Vinson-Owen Elementary School is scheduled to open. The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Winchester High School auditorium.

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Five of the 10 proposals for the approximately 2,219 students enrolled in the town’s five elementary schools are map-based models that would permanently shift each school’s boundaries, forcing parents to accept a school assignment based solely on their home addresses. Those proposals were presented by the Redistricting Advisory Committee, which consists of Superintendent William McAlduff Jr.; a Winchester elementary school principal; six parent representatives; and two School Committee members.

The other five plans were drafted by parents who want local educators to consider alternatives to redrawing fixed district lines.

“There really is no silver bullet plan,” School Committee chairman Christopher Linskey said at a recent meeting. “Redistricting is complex . . . there are so many moving pieces.”

The models presented by Winchester parents include an open enrollment plan that would allow parents to send their child to any elementary school in town; a “kindergarten flex” proposal that would allow the district to move kindergarten students out of crowded schools into buildings that are under capacity; and an initiative that would offer advanced learners in all grades the opportunity to tackle more rigorous course work in an optional, application-only program at Vinson-Owen and/or Lynch Elementary School.

The goal of the Advanced Learning Opportunities plan, which is seeking support with an online petition, is to raise the ceiling for those students who are already well above the floor, said Catherine Valega, who authored the proposal. She noted that the district’s scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam show that more than 80 percent of Winchester students are earning top scores — proficient or higher — in key subject areas, with more than a third of the town’s elementary pupils scoring in the highest, or “advanced” category, on the math section of the test.

“Those children scoring advanced, who have demonstrated readiness for more challenge, deserve an education as well,” Valega wrote in her proposal, adding that the town must strive for academic excellence.

The final two plans submitted by parents recommend buffer zones, designated areas that sit between two schools near current district boundaries. Entering kindergarten and new transfer students who live in those zones would be assigned to the closest school with capacity, keeping existing students in their neighborhoods while allowing the district the flexibility to respond to changing enrollment data.

McAlduff said he is keeping an open mind on the various proposals. “At this point in time, I’m doing my job as superintendent of reviewing all of the plans, working with the RAC, hearing feedback from the public, feedback from the community, and on Oct. 23, I’ll be prepared in my role as superintendent to make a recommendation,” he said.

The board is under a self-imposed Nov. 5 deadline to adopt a plan for addressing a swell in enrollment that has caused the number of public school students in Winchester to increase 25 percent over the last decade. Today, there are 4,357 students in the district, and that figure is expected to continue to rise until 2015.  

To meet its deadline, the School Committee has condensed into eight weeks a process that took more than six months last school year, when the advisory committee analyzed 30 redistricting models. The superintendent is expected to recommend a plan on Tuesday; a public hearing on that recommendation is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30 in the Winchester High School auditorium.

Critics said the process does not allow enough time to properly study the alternative proposals, which were presented to the public for the first time on Oct. 2. Some Winchester residents have questioned whether the School Committee is simply paying lip service to the alternative proposals.

When asked by the superintendent to provide more information about his proposal, Tom Cafarella sent a scathing response: “It is abundantly clear from [School Committee vice chairman Michael] Schindelman’s nonverbal reluctance to run numbers on alternative plans . . . that you already have at least three out of five School Committee members voting for one of the permanent line redistricting plans. I can no longer be part of such a biased process. My time is too valuable for such charades.”

In the face of such criticism, Linskey said the board remains receptive to the various plans and is trying “to come up with a solution that achieves our goals and, if possible, does the least amount of community impact. . . . If that’s an alternative model or if that’s one of [the RAC’s] map models, that’s what the [School] Committee will discuss . . . that’s what we’re weighing. There isn’t any attempt to hover over and salvage any model or any sort of aversion to any new and different model.”

Originally, the School Committee intended to adopt a redistricting plan by mid-June, but that timeline fell apart as parents raised concerns about the proposal that was recommended in May by the advisory committee and embraced by McAlduff. Under that proposal, the district’s permanent boundary lines were shifted and as many as 112 students would have been transferred to new schools next year.

Under the updated mapping models presented by the advisory committee on Oct. 11, new school assignments would require many youngsters who now walk a half-mile to their neighborhood school to travel nearly 2 miles to a different school. Some parents voiced concern that the plans fail to consider the socioeconomic impact of moving students.

“No plan is perfect,” School Committee member Cindy Bohne, who also serves on the advisory committee, said at an Oct. 9 meeting. “We heard that in January, March, May, and we’re hearing that again. There are strengths and weaknesses in every plan . . . maybe if we can figure out a way to find a hybrid, maybe that will get us to a better place, a smarter place, a more decent and fair place.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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