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Originally published April 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 16, 2009 at 11:14 AM

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Redoing student-assignment plan and Seattle school boundaries expected to be hot topic

Rumors about new attendance boundaries for Seattle schools are flying faster than the speed of e-mail. District staff say no lines have been drawn yet, but that isn't stopping parents from speculating about what will happen as the district overhauls its policies for how it assigns students to schools.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle meetings

Student-assignment plan

Wednesday: School Board work session, 4-5:30 p.m., followed by board meeting at 6 p.m., both at John Stanford Center, 2445 3rd Ave. S.

April 22: Board vote on broad policy at board meeting, starting at 6 p.m., John Stanford Center.

April 23, 29; May 19: Board work session, 4-7 p.m., John Stanford Center.

May 5, 7: Community meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m., location to be determined.

May 9: Community meeting, 10:30 a.m. to noon, John Stanford Center.

More information: www.seattleschools.org/

area/newassign/index.html

Source: Seattle Public Schools

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Rumors about new attendance boundaries for Seattle schools are flying faster than a speeding e-mail.

Tracy Libros, Seattle Public Schools' enrollment manager, says her inbox is full of speculations. The one that the northern cutoff for the popular Ballard High will be Northwest 65th Street. Or Northwest 67th. Or Northwest 85th. And those cover only one school.

At a recent community meeting at Ballard, Libros tried, perhaps futilely, to stop the deluge.

"The first thing I want to tell you," she told dozens of parents, "is that there aren't any lines yet."

But she knows why e-mails keep coming. "I understand there's strong feelings about where those lines will be drawn."

That's probably an understatement. School Board meetings were standing-room-only a few months ago as members voted to close five schools and move part or all of eight others.

The district now is considering changes that will affect even more of its 45,500 students: an overhaul of its student-assignment plan, which would mean new attendance boundaries for the district's 90-some schools, and new rules for determining who goes where.

The School Board will discuss the plan Wednesday. It plans to vote on the broad policy on April 22, on the rules in June, and the new boundaries this fall. If approved, the new plan would take effect in September 2010.

One goal is to simplify what's now an uncertain, often-confusing process, in which students may apply to a wide range of schools but have no guarantee of a seat at any particular school.

Under the new plan, students would be assigned a spot, based on their home address, at a nearby elementary, middle and high school. They could try for one of a few other options but still be assured a space at their assigned school.

In the long run, that approach would give parents much more certainty about school assignments and significantly reduce the district's transportation costs.

In the short run, it means upsetting expectations of many families about where their children will go.

And one neighborhood could be pitted against another.

Right now, for example, students who live close to Ballard High can count on going there. But some worry new boundaries may leave out those who live just north of the school, yet include the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods, where there is no high school.

"That doesn't seem like a good solution," said Shelley Logan, who has a second-grader at Loyal Heights Elementary, not far from Ballard High. It seems silly, she said, to bus students who otherwise could walk to school.

Logan is one of hundreds of people who have signed a petition that asks the district to keep Ballard students close to home for high school.

In general, the board is headed toward the kind of neighborhood-based system that Seattle had decades ago — and that still exists in most school districts today.

Seattle moved away from that system in the 1970s, when the district began busing students in an attempt to racially integrate schools.

The district eventually reduced, then eliminated, forced busing for integration. But families continue to be offered a fair amount of choice in where students attend school. That choice — and the busing that goes with it — costs money.

At least in theory, the idea of a neighborhood-based system seems to have considerable public support. But board members are just starting to tackle the important details, such as boundaries, and what choices to offer beyond the assigned school.

And in a city where many neighborhoods are racially segregated, board members also are wrestling with how to try to foster diversity within its school buildings.

The district no longer can base some school assignments on a student's race, the way it used to; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 it violated the Constitution.

But the district appears to be allowed to take race into account as it draws new boundaries, and that's something board members say they may do.

They also have talked about reserving 10 to 15 percent of seats at each high school for students who don't live nearby, with those from low-income families possibly getting first shot.

Still, many board members have made it clear that their first priority is a high-quality school in every neighborhood. Diversity, while desirable, ranks lower.

Fall 2010 start

After the April 22 vote on the broad outlines of the new plan, the board will decide on the system's rules, such as whether to set aside seats at high schools for low-income students, and what options families would have beyond their assigned schools.

But the board won't approve boundaries until fall. District staff say they need the rules in June to build a new software system in time for fall 2010.

Several board members have expressed concern about that approach, saying they worry important issues won't emerge until they see the maps.

"Clearly, we are reserving the opportunity to go back and examine the rules if the maps don't make any sense to us," Board President Michael DeBell said.

The new plan most immediately would affect students entering kindergarten and those advancing from elementary to middle or middle to high. All other students would stay in their current schools.

Parents will have a number of opportunities to share their views on the new plan as it develops. Some — like those who showed up at the recent Ballard meeting — already are.

But Sharon Rodgers, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said she's not hearing from as many parents as she would like.

"I think that means," she said, "that people are not aware of how big the changes have the potential to be."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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