Carving up the city

District proposes new attendance boundaries for non-charter schools

The conversion of Sacramento High to a charter school has led principals, parents and teachers to propose revised attendance boundaries (the heavy shaded lines) for Sacramento City Unified School District.

The conversion of Sacramento High to a charter school has led principals, parents and teachers to propose revised attendance boundaries (the heavy shaded lines) for Sacramento City Unified School District.

Courtesy Of Sacramento City Unified School District

On November 12, community activist Heidi McLean joined a small but important discussion group at John F. Kennedy High School. Principals from each comprehensive (non-charter) high school in the Sacramento City Unified School District and a small group of parents and teachers were carving up the city, establishing new attendance areas around all five high schools to determine which students would be assigned to C.K. McClatchy, Hiram W. Johnson, Luther Burbank and John F. Kennedy high schools, as well as the newest campus, Rosemont High School.

Sacramento High School, which used to have its own attendance area, no longer does as a charter school under St. Hope Corp., leaving students living in the area around Sac High no home campus that has to enroll them no matter what. (District policy insists that a charter school can’t be a student’s only option.)

McLean actively opposed the closure of Sac High—which kicked off the need for new attendance boundaries—and was a founder of the current recall effort against board president Rob Fong. She attended such workshops looking for signs of inequality or favoritism. When she spoke with others, she wore a deeply ironic smile she seemed to save strictly for district business.

At the workshop, McLean received a large packet of information describing the process the newly formed Attendance Area Advisory Group (AAAG) would follow. The packet set goals—"establish a fair and equitable process … seek participation from affected high-school communities"—and included six color-coded maps with thick red lines showing where new boundaries could go.

The district’s contractor, Architectural Research Consultants Inc. (ARC), had plotted each student on a map electronically by address and grade level. By analyzing the students’ progress over the next four years, ARC was able to propose attendance areas nearing maximum enrollment for each school while minimizing transportation issues for students. While estimating enrollment, ARC considered the 1,586 students currently enrolled at St. Hope’s charter school to be students who would not attend one of the other high schools.

What ARC didn’t consider, according to McLean, was socio-economic status.

McLean was one of three AAAG members from the old Sac High area. She watched the AAAG review the maps, consider the number of students in each attendance area and then pick a plan that split the old Sac High area among Johnson, McClatchy and Rosemont high schools.

“This is so racist,” McLean told the workshop attendees. She admitted later that she should have used a term like “classist.” In McLean’s opinion, the AAAG’s preferred map sent all the Oak Park students to Johnson High, even when McClatchy High would have been closer for some of them.

Under the new plan, according to ARC’s calculations, McClatchy High would drop in attendance in the 2003 school year and hit a low of 1,942 students in 2004—approximately 450 students fewer than its working capacity allows. Johnson High’s population, on the other hand, would increase to 3,461 in 2004, putting the enrolled population 680 students above capacity. The school’s numbers then would drop significantly in 2005 and 2006.

Though the AAAG’s plan worried McLean, it did not bother Johnson High’s principal, Lynne Tafoya, who said by phone that the high numbers were only temporary and that the district would help her handle any overflow.

“The central office is very supportive,” she said.

Kennedy High’s principal, Mary Shelton, said the main criteria for choosing a plan was an equal distribution of students among the schools. As Shelton remembered it, there was little dissension among the attendees. “There was pretty much a consensus,” she said.

Rosemont High’s principal, Rob Jones, agreed that the AAAG had picked the most appropriate plan. “It had the most balanced numbers,” he said. But he also felt that ARC’s projections may have been off, underestimating the number of students that would flood into Rosemont under the new plan.

Though AAAG was able to choose a plan in one evening’s meeting, the group’s recommendation still needs to go before the public, the Facilities and Safety Committee and the school board.

McLean said that had she known the AAAG was going to choose only one option to present to the public the first night the group met, she would have encouraged more community members to attend the workshop.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Gallegos acts as the link between the AAAG and the school board. He recently updated board member Roy Grimes during a Facilities and Safety Committee meeting, which McLean attended, her chair pulled away from the small round table.

Gallegos reiterated from his office that the current plan for new boundaries is just a jumping-off point, what district Communications Officer Maria Lopez called “a skeletal plan.”

According to Lopez, public meetings will take place on December 8 at McClatchy High, on December 9 at Albert Einstein Middle School, on December 10 at American Legion High School, and on December 11 at Johnson High. She said each of these meetings would include the same presentation, so parents would not need to attend more than one.

After hearing the public’s concerns, the AAAG will meet on January 7 and then submit its recommendations—"hopefully a compromise,” said Gallegos—to the Facilities and Safety Committee, which will make its final recommendations to the board. The board will finalize a plan on January 12.

“Usually, this would take a whole year,” said Gallegos, sitting among binders and books in his small conference room. But the district doesn’t have a year. The area boundaries need to be in place so that parents can participate in open enrollment in late January. That’s the process by which students can enroll in a school outside their attendance area.

Asked why the process was begun in October when Sac High was closed officially in June, Gallegos said the hearings to determine whether St. Hope could maintain control of the campus stalled the process.

“It would have been premature to start talking about attendance areas before we were sure the charter school would be there,” he said.

Regarding McLean’s concerns, Gallegos said carefully that he didn’t think the charge of racism was valid. If students didn’t want to go to Johnson High, they could enroll at any other school. The attendance areas simply ensured that each student had a home campus that would enroll them.

Despite disagreeing with McLean, Gallegos praised her for participating in the process.

“We need more parents out there doing the same,” he said.

He may get his wish; McLean surely will bring friends to that series of public meetings.