LJWorld.com weblogs First Bell

Lawrence schools at a tipping point


The Lawrence school district is fast reaching the point where it needs to make some decisions about how to handle future growth.

That was a common thread running through a number of discussions at the school board meeting Monday night. Much of it was brought on by the sudden and unexpected enrollment growth the grade schools are seeing this year, especially on the city's west side.

This may be an uncomfortable conversation for some people in the district. After all, it was only a few years ago when Lawrence closed the Wakarusa and East Heights grade schools. And more recently, there was serious talk about closing and consolidating older schools on the east side to save money and make more efficient use of space.

But the public ultimately balked at that idea. People in Lawrence like their small neighborhood schools, and there seems to be no desire to shift toward so-called "mega schools" at the elementary level.

The result of those conversations was the $92.5 million bond issue that voters just approved in April.

Then came the first day of school this year, and the enrollment numbers really caught officials off guard - not the overall growth, so much, as the places where it occurred. But even looking at the district-wide numbers, it's clear the Lawrence district is close to reaching a tipping point where it will have to make some hard choices.

According to the latest projections from the district's consultant, RSP and Associates, total elementary enrollment has increased by 127 students over the past two years. Between now and the 2017-18 school year, they project another 233 students. That's 360 students additional over six years, or basically one entire average-size grade school.

And it's only a matter of time until those 360 elementary students move on to middle school and high school. Right now, South and Southwest middle schools, as well as Free State High School, are close to being filled to capacity.

Based on discussions across several agenda items at Monday's board meeting, here are some of the grand policy questions the district will soon have to grapple with:

Boundaries: Board president Rick Ingram says the district needs a clearer policy about studying, and possibly making adjustments to, attendance zone boundaries on an ongoing basis. While some buildings are expected to grow beyond their capacity over the next few years, others still have excess room. A nip here and a tuck there could prevent, or at least delay, the need for costly new construction in the future. But Superintendent Rick Doll says that will only get you so far, unless you want to draw boundaries that require small children to have to walk across 23rd Street or Iowa Street during rush hour.

"Mega schools": Nobody seems to like them, and it's nice living in a town with small, neighborhood schools where the teachers and parents all know each other and there is a real sense of community. Board vice president Shannon Kimball indicated she has no desire to move in that direction. But at what cost does the district stay with the small-school approach?

Build more small schools: It may have seemed unrelated at the time, but one of the other things the board did Monday was sell 2.31 acres of land to the state to make way for a South Lawrence Trafficway interchange at Bob Billings Parkway. That's right next door to Langston Hughes school, the largest, and soon-to-be over-capacity, grade school in the district.

The interchange is needed because of new development in that area that is already being planned, and some people expect the interchange itself will spur even more new development west of the SLT. Add to that the SLT extension about to be built on the southeast side, which no doubt will spur even more commercial and residential development, and you have the makings of two large, new growth areas.

If the idea of "mega schools" is off the table, at some point the district has to look at building at least a couple new grade schools, and probably another middle school as well.

Closer planning: Board member Keith Diaz Moore - who surely set a long-distance record for telecommuting to a board meeting because he was took part via Skype while on sabbatical in Sweden - suggested the district might be overreacting to a one-time spike in enrollment. Go ahead and build the new rooms the district knows it needs right now, he suggested, but hold off on the others until we see some more reliable long-term enrollment trends.

More Education News

  • First Bell Blog
  • Schools and Education news
  • Comments

    irvan moore 4 years, 9 months ago

    it sure seems like this shouldn't be a surprise to the school district

    jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

    Sure seems like a rather dumb way to go about it, closing schools and then having to build new ones.

    Isn't there a more efficient, cost effective way to deal with this issue?

    Stephanie Hull 4 years, 9 months ago

    I agree that there must be a more cost-effective, efficient manner of solving this problem. However, I don't think keeping those schools open would have helped. The majority of kids simply don't live in those areas anymore. It's certainly not efficient to bus them from way out west to the east side. (And I make that comment as someone who lives in an older part of town and loved attending Cordley as a child.)

    Amy Gottschamer 4 years, 8 months ago

    As someone who was recently booted out of Wakarusa Valley, I can assure you our children are still over here on the west side. They are bussed 6 miles beyond their home school to the east side of town. We were just under 200 kids when they closed us down. With the increase of children on the west side, you could easily bus the kids that are south of Bob Billings across the dam and have a fully enrolled elementary, with NO NEW CONSTRUCTION. New construction is a waste of tax payer dollars and a slap in the face to the Wakarusa community who were thrown under the school bus in 2010.

    Paul Silkiner 4 years, 9 months ago

    We have such "liberal thinking" teachers and administrators that the kids are not learning and the cost of this poor system is going up! The only reason that any of them do a thing is if it benefits them.....the children are not even an after thought............The Lawrence School district is terrible!!

    yours truly, A 30 year Teacher

    Chris Phillips 4 years, 9 months ago

    The population of the city is growing to the west and the families on the east side of town are growing older and have fewer children to attend those schools. If we could pick the schools up and move them to areas that have a need for a school to handle the population growth that would be great. Another alternative would be to restrict families that have children to only allow them to move into homes where a school currently exists...both ridiculous ideas aren't they? Unfortunately, we are left with the reality that existing schools on the east side are under utilized and on the west side over populated. To resolve that we will need to build new schools to address that. I don't like it because that will mean I will have to pay higher taxes to fund it, but for the future children I will accept this up to the point where it requires me to move to a zip code I can afford.

    Busing the kids to the existing schools so they don't have to be closed is certainly a valid option, however, I strongly dislike this option as it pulls the kids out of their own neighborhood, where they are no longer familiar or comfortable with their surroundings leading to a distraction from learning that provides no benefit to the student. The end result is that we might save a few dollars now at the cost of our childrens education. Bad idea in my opinion.

    Amy Gottschamer 4 years, 8 months ago

    Um, no one thought is was a problem to pull the Wakarusa kids out of their community and bus them across town. Let the Wakarusa kids go home.

    Jennifer Nigro 4 years, 9 months ago

    "But Superintendent Rick Doll says that will only get you so far, unless you want to draw boundaries that require small children to have to walk across 23rd Street or Iowa Street during rush hour."

    With all due respect, Mr. Doll, you might want to take a closer look at your current school boundaries. As currently drawn, elementary students from the Prairie Meadows neighborhood have to cross not only 23rd and Iowa, but Clinton Parkway in order to get to their designated "neighborhood" school. Then there's the commercial district they have to navigate as they make their way down 23rd Street past the likes of Hastings, Jimmy John's and T-Mobile. Thankfully most of us are smart enough to drive our children, and our PTA has been resourceful enough to contract with the bus company to provide a bus for those who have the money to pay. My children don't GET to walk to school-- it's just plain dangerous.

    Next time you want to make an argument for or against something, you'd best do your homework.

    Peter Houston 4 years, 9 months ago

    Oh No!!! They have to walk past Jimmy Johns??? Next thing you know they 'll be hanging with hoodlums and hooked on the slim #4 without capppicola. It's a slippery slope!!!

    3up3down 4 years, 9 months ago

    They have been yacking about changing the boundaries for a few years now and nothing gets done. It is time to cut the fat and make the new boundaries. Sure, toes are going to get stepped on, but keeping the student to teacher ratio in a proper range is important to their educational development. Too many schools to the west are bulging at the seams. Change the boundary lines now!

    Jim Schilling 4 years, 9 months ago

    While the article mentions East Heights and Wakarusa closing as well as other, older schools on the east side, really more central than east, being talked about for consolidation that does not mean schools on the east side are under-utilized. Kennedy and Prairie Park are both at maximum capacity right now with housing development projects in the works that will add hundreds of houses, townhomes, and apartments right around 23rd and O'Connell taking those schools beyond capacity within 5-10 years. Another school will be necessary on the east side within a decade to accommodate that growth.

    Jim Schilling 4 years, 9 months ago

    I guess I should amend the part about Prairie Park at maximum capacity, it isn't right now based on USD 497 statistics. With the development of those new housing areas that Prairie Park is the elementary school for it will reach that maximum capacity within the next decade though and we'll be right back where we are now.

    Richard Heckler 4 years, 9 months ago

    There are a lot of new families in East Lawrence buying up older homes and in new housing developments. LIke across the street from East Heights..... probably about 30 new homes and about 20 or more off 19th near 19th and Delaware.

    Tenants to Homeowners has also built a lot of new homes in this part of East Lawrence.

    Mega schools are losing favor in favor of returning to smaller neighborhood schools. Mega schools are not practical and demand a ton of additional driving for parents.

    Richard Heckler 4 years, 9 months ago

    East Lawrence is growing by way of new families moving into east Lawrence and/or current families having children. Retaining and maintaining existing assets such as schools has been considered fiscally responsible for probably two hundred years…. down right frugal. New York School is paid for.

    *East Lawrence is not a dying farm community.

    *East Lawrence is an attractive neighborhood.

    *East Lawrence new residents CHOSE the east side for a variety of reasons.

    • East,and Old west Lawrence are the choice neighborhoods for restoring old beautiful homes.

    *Eastern Lawrence is about old growth trees,character of housing, easy walking or biking to most destinations like downtown, KU and our public schools.

    • Eastern Lawrence has Weavers, Browns Shoe Fit,Dillons, downtown hardware store,D&D tire shop,Liberty Hall,City Library,Senior Service Center, used goods such as the antique mall/Fun and Games, Kring's, Waxman Candle,Foot Print,Mass Street Music, Cottins Hardware, very nice parks and the new hike and bike trail These are but a few of the wonderful attractions to East Lawrence. And paid for public schools.

    • East Lawrence is not dying and is home to many many many college graduates, common” laborers", the retired, musicians/artists aka diversity.

    • Eastern Lawrence received many thumbs up by urban consultant Placemakers for our:

    • Home designs
    • layout of neighborhood streets
    • proximity to neighborhood schools
    • sidewalks - a walkable neighborhood community
    • proximity to downtown

    dee66044 4 years, 9 months ago

    My kid is a 5th grader at Kennedy. They were unable to fit everyone in the building this year, there are two portables out front near the street to serve as 5th grade classrooms.

    Elizabeth Halsey 4 years, 9 months ago

    Don't write off the "mega school" idea too quickly. It might not sound good in theory, but I know of a very successful one in Eudora. I assure you that parents and staff don't feel like it's New York City - but still a calm and cohesive, tight-knit environment of 800+ students.

    jayhawklawrence 4 years, 9 months ago

    A great teacher can teach in a barn and make students love that barn. What I worry about most is whether we are attracting and keeping talent.

    A great teacher can transform a school. We should focus on finding, keeping, and rewarding these gifted individuals. They will change our community and effect the lives of our children and make teachers around them better.

    We get what we pay for and these kind of people want to follow great leadership.

    My advice for Mr. Doll would be that this community has and has lost these kind of teachers. Don't lose anymore.

    Commenting has been disabled for this item.