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Parents Question Motive for Lewiston School Redistricting
12/12/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Typically, when a city decides to draw new boundary lines for school districts, the goal is to avoid overcrowding. In Lewiston, where there are 100 new students enrolled each year, school officials also want to balance demographics and improve diversity. Many of the students are Somali. But at the first public meeting on a redistricting plan intended to improve student performance, some parents questioned the motive behind it. Patty Wight reports.

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Parents Question Motive for Lewiston School Redist Listen

Like many parents, when Kim Hill and Richard Long considered where they wanted to buy a house, schools were part of the decision. They have a son, and they wanted him to go to Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston.

"And it's just, you know, we worked really hard - we were in an apartment in the Montello district to begin with, and we worked really hard to buy a house," Kim Hill says.

Their son is now in Kindergarten in the Farwell School District, which has the fewest number of Somali students. But if the proposed redistricting plan is approved, next year he'll go to Montello. "And to have that hard work taken away from us kinda - digs a knife right in your back, you know?" Kim Hill says.

Lewiston is a growing school district: Twelve hundred additional students are expected over the next decade. One elementary school is getting a 10-classroom expansion to help accommodate the growth. But many of the additional students aren't coming from within the school's district - they're coming from other schools across the city.

"We think diversity in our city, diversity in our schools is the way to go," says Bill Webster, the superintendent of Lewiston schools. He says their schools should mirror the demographics of the city as a whole, where 67 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 23 percent are ELL, or English Language Learners.

The proposed plan redraws district lines to get as close to those percentages as possible at each elementary school. "And with the range in the classroom, we think that will motivate students throughout," Webster says.

It means that about 10 percent of students will have to switch schools, and their parents aren't very happy about it. Chris Raymond says he found out last week his second-grade daughter will no longer go to Farwell under the proposed plan.

"No parents from the affected schools were invited to be a participant in drafting the plan," Raymond says. "They've already drafted it, and now they're asking us to respond to it. Well, now they're going to get the response."

Raymond works with inner-city youth in Lewiston. While school officials say balancing demographics in schools will strengthen student performance, Raymond says it will split and weaken neighborhoods.

"I work with a lot of the immigrant population, and I've actually had the opportunity to speak with some of them on these issues. None of them have been consulted about how they feel about being dislocated from where they are," he says. "For them, community is very important, perhaps moreso than a lot of the other more affluent families we have in the community."

But perhaps the greatest concern from parents was whether bringing more low-income and ELL students into some schools will boost student achievement. Jodi Wolverton, mother of three elementary school kids, told Superintendent Bill Webster at the meeting that she's not convinced that will happen.

"You're spreading your problems around instead of trying to focus your resources on the problem areas," Wolverton said.

"I can tell you, as superintendent, unfortunately, the students I meet and tend to deal with have misbehaved, and I meet with students of all levels of socioeconomics."

Some parents called the plan a social experiment and reverse discrimination. They said school officials assume disadvantaged students will do better just by sitting next to more affluent students.

"That's certainly not what we're doing," says Linda St. Andre, the principal of Longley Elementary. She was recently honored at the White House for her work increasing educational attainment at Longley, which has a disproportionately high number of low income and ELL students.

"We do know that when children are immersed in an environment where maybe the culture is raising their aspirations, they rise to that," she says.

St. Andre says the proposed redistricting is what's best for Lewiston in the long-term. But parent Jodi Wolverton says she's hoping for a compromise to develop over the next five meetings that run through January.

"I believe that if either side gets their way 100 percent, I feel like everyone's going to lose," she says.

The redistricting committee will make a final recommendation to the school committee in mid-February, and a decision is expected at the end of that month.


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