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School choice lapse complicates space questions 

Closing public schools, even failing public schools, is almost always a complicated, emotional business fraught with pitfalls.

Rochester school board members heard the outcry from Charlotte High School parents, teachers, and some members of the public when they decided to phase out the school shortly after the building underwent improvements.

They heard it again recently when they chose to close School 1 in the Cobbs Hill neighborhood and turn the building over to School 15.

But the seemingly never-ending conversation about why some city schools close and others stay open may have reached a turning point; the school board passed a resolution last month to assess the district's capacity and its future space needs.

But a few factors could make getting an accurate assessment difficult as well as complicate any attempts by the district to match enrollment needs to space.

Those factors include the district's school choice policy and the $1.2 billion overhaul of school facilities that is in progress.

Another factor: the student population swells at the full-day prekindergarten level and then contracts in the elementary grades as some parents either opt for charter schools or leave the city.

The district's school choice policy bears little resemblance to how the policy actually works. The district is divided into three zones — NE, NW, and South — and parents are supposed to select a school within the zone where they live.

At a recent Southwest Education Forum meeting, school board member Liz Hallmark showed how the population for School 16 should draw from its surrounding area in the district's South Zone, for example.

But the school actually draws students from all over the district, she said.

The policy has not been implemented correctly for years, and roughly half of city parents don't even participate in the policy's student placement lottery, Hallmark said.

And then there's the pre-k "wrinkle," she said. Pre-K isn't part of the school choice policy, so those parents can choose pre-k anywhere. But that's led parents to expect to have their choice of kindergartens, too, Hallmark said. The district has mostly accommodated those parents.

But that complicates any estimate of space requirements and makes it difficult to assess where large numbers of students will be as they move up in grades.

A similar problem has developed with the district's special education students, since many parents choose schools based on the services they provide and not what's in their zones.

The district is considering having special ed teachers and support services travel to the students instead at schools inside their appropriate zones.

Board member Willa Powell says that while the district has adequate space to meet current needs, that could change if a charter school closes, for example, or if there's a larger-than-expected influx of refugee students.

No significant contingency space exists; the district has returned some buildings to the city and others have been leased out, Powell says.

The district's capacity and space needs are linked to arriving at a consensus on school choice policy and enforcing it, she says. But enforcement is difficult while the overhaul project is going on, because teachers and students are moved into swing space while their buildings are under construction.

It's been suggested that the concern about space is a result of poor communication between teachers and the people who planned the overhaul project. But the district's superintendents had influence in the project, and staff teams in the selected schools met with the planning architects.

But it is fair to ask if the space needs accounted for at the onset of the overhaul project will be the same when the project's finished, given evolving demographics in the city's neighborhoods.

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