Although a portion of the street’s name has changed, the line splitting attendance areas for Lawrence’s two public high schools remains the same as it’s always been.
But the overall number and characteristics of students on each side of the dividing line — 15th Street/Bob Billings Parkway — are shifting, and that’s catching the attention of members of the Lawrence school board.
Determining just how students are assigned to Free State and Lawrence high schools, and from where, is poised to be among issues at least discussed as board members determine their goals for the coming year.
“When 15th Street was set up as a boundary, it made perfect sense,” said Bob Byers, entering his third year on the board. “But it’s different now. We need to figure out the best way to do that. It’s no longer as simple as drawing a line down the middle of Lawrence, and now we’re all equal. You can’t do that.
“It’ll take some looking at, and making some purposeful decisions about what we should do.”
The concern — one brought up during previous board meetings and poised to arise in future ones — is “the whole separate-but-equal thing,” Byers said: ensuring that programs, resources, facilities, instruction and other matters at each campus are comparable.
When one school ends up with too many students, or too many from minority ethnic groups or too many with relatively low incomes, Byers said, keeping resources equal becomes increasingly difficult.
“You’re consistently fighting that balance,” said Byers, who works as a system program administrator for child support enforcement with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. “We’re going to have to keep fighting it, but it would behoove the district to set up a structure for how to make those decisions.
“We need a lot more data and a lot more discussion.”
Among the population trends at the two schools, from the opening of Free State in 1997 and recent years:
While the two schools started out with a large overall imbalance — Free State opened with 869, while Lawrence High had 1,261 — that could be attributed to a major policy allowance: seniors could choose to stay at Lawrence High to graduate. At the sophomore and junior levels, the enrollment was essentially balanced: Free State had 749, while Lawrence High had 780.
These days, Lawrence High has an even higher share of high schoolers: 1,206, compared with 1,064 at Free State. The spread will be expected to widen this fall with the arrival of ninth-graders on each campus.
In 1997, the two schools were relatively close in two key demographic categories:
• Minorities enrolled, with Lawrence High at 18.7 percent and Free State at 16.9 percent.
• Students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, an indication of family income, with Lawrence High at 18.1 percent and Free State at 14.3 percent.
These days those spreads have widened, and others tracked using data collected by the Kansas State Department of Education show a disparity.
Lawrence High, when compared with Free State, now has more minorities (25.3 percent to 21.2 percent); more economically disadvantaged students (38.6 percent to 25.6 percent); more English language learners (5.8 percent to 2.5 percent); and more students with disabilities (19.6 percent to 15.2 percent).
Attendance and graduation
Back in 1997, the two schools were virtually identical in terms of how many of their students showed up each day for school and how many ended up receiving their diplomas: Lawrence High recorded an average daily attendance of 97.04 percent, compared with 96.77 percent at Free State; Lawrence High’s graduation rate was 86.6 percent, compared with Free State at 86 percent.
Nowadays, those rates have diverged: Lawrence High’s average daily attendance was 87.9 percent last year, compared with 92.8 percent at Free State; and Lawrence High had 20.1 percent of its students not graduating, compared with 7.2 percent at Free State.
Board members have discussed such trends in the past, and undoubtedly will do so again. Monday night, the seven-member board will welcome four new faces elected in April — Rick Ingram, Shannon Kimball, Randy Masten and Keith Diaz Moore — and they will be scheduled to discuss plans for conducting a goals-setting session in the coming weeks.
Whenever the session is scheduled, Byers plans to bring up the high school boundary as something he’d like the board to address. Whether that’s during the coming year, the next year or the year after that remains to be seen, he said, but he does know at least one thing for certain.
“At some point the district needs to have that struggle,” Byers said. “And it will be a struggle.”