It’s not a bad idea to take a look at Lawrence’s high school boundaries, but engineering the two districts in an effort to achieve educational goals will be a tricky business.
On Monday, Lawrence school board members agreed to start a “community conversation” about the boundaries for Lawrence High School and Free State High School. They expressed concern that the 15th Street boundary line that has separated the two attendance areas since Free State was opened in 1997 may no longer be achieving the kind of balance they’d like to see between the two schools. According to board member Mary Loveland, due to changes in population and demographics, the 15th Street boundary “isn’t working anymore.”
In what sense is it not working? Enrollment at the two high schools is relatively equal (1,064 at Free State, 1,221 at LHS) but other factors are drawing the board’s attention.
The number of economically disadvantaged students (the number receiving free or reduced-price lunches) is significantly higher at LHS (36 percent) than at Free State (22.5 percent). According to the most recent state report card on schools, LHS also has a significantly higher percentage of minority students, about 27 percent compared with 19.8 percent at Free State. Those factors may or may not be related to lower graduation rates at LHS and lower scores on the state’s reading and math proficiency tests.
While all of those factors are worthy of discussion, it’s hard to know exactly how tweaking the boundary line between the two schools’ attendance areas will impact those trends. No matter how the line is drawn, it’s hard to predict how the populations within the two districts will change over time. Long-term trends may justify a boundary change, but the district shouldn’t redraw the line every few years in an effort to maintain some kind of statistical balance.
Back in 1997, splitting the town from east to west made sense to district patrons and addressed the concern that a new high school on the west side of Lawrence would primarily serve a more affluent and less diverse population. After 13 years, it’s fine to re-examine the high school boundaries, but the question many district patrons will have is whether adjusting the socio-economic or racial balance at the two schools will actually result in better test scores or higher graduation rates.
An improved education for students at both schools should be the No. 1 objective of any discussions about changing the high school boundary line.