Redrawing School Boundaries with Confidence

Redrawing school boundaries can be a thicket of competing interests and charged emotions. Bringing geographic data into the mix can increase confidence and help manage reactions.

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When it comes time to redraw a district’s school boundaries, you get the full gamut of responses. Some stakeholders don't want to see their school boundaries redrawn—they like the schools their children are attending and don't want to change. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have their own ideas about how the new boundaries should look and make their suggestions known. These conversations affect stakeholders in different ways. Emotions can and will run high, and that’s understandable. These changes will be affecting people’s children after all.

I've learned over the course of my career, especially from mistakes, that redrawing school boundaries has to be a process that involves a lot of communication, a lot of input from stakeholders, and data. Collecting input from families, the community, school board, and more is daunting, but bringing their input into the conversation and working to make it a part of the solution is incredibly valuable. It leads to compromise to get to the best possible place for the school district as a whole. In the end, we know that not everybody is going to be happy, but the process has to be open, transparent, and inclusive if we're going to have any kind of chance at making it work and surviving afterwards.

Any open, transparent, and inclusive process, however, has to begin with accurate data presented in a way that makes sense to the stakeholders. At Community Consolidated School District 15, in Palatine, Ill., we’ve recently had the opportunity and challenge of redrawing our school boundaries. Of all things, data has been a crucial component of making the process go smoothly. Here’s how we implemented a process that is allowing us to consider these changes with confidence, success, and buy in.

Need for Change

Our process began two years ago when our new school board was elected. Having heard throughout the election process that many constituents wanted them to take a look at the school boundaries and consider making changes, they decided to make it a priority.

Our district serves approximately 12,000 students across 20 schools covering 33 square miles in a suburb northwest of Chicago, making it the second largest elementary school district in Illinois. Our district is about 75 years old, and the school boundaries hadn’t been updated in more than 25 years. In that time, there have been many demographic changes in neighborhoods across our district, and the boundaries no longer reflected where our students were actually living.

New boundaries were almost certainly in order, but given the size and complexity of our district, we didn’t think it was a challenge we were ready to face without some help. We were also undertaking this challenge with a task force made up largely of volunteers—our school board wanted this to be a community-led initiative—so we needed a tool that was accessible to lay people and not something only a team of computer scientists could run. With a little research, we decided that we needed a geographic information system (GIS) tool to help us uncover the relevant data and present different potential scenarios to district stakeholders and the school board.

Ease of Change

We began by creating a map of our current boundaries with ONPASS® Pro, a GIS platform from Educational Data Systems designed specifically to run numerous boundary scenarios. Once our initial map was in place and data was at our fingertips, we were able to change attendance boundaries simply by clicking on and reassigning areas to different schools. As we experimented with different boundaries, we got instant feedback regarding the effects on enrollment—not just for the school in question but any other schools that were affected by the changes.

Anyone who has gone through the process of redrawing school boundaries knows that when you tweak something to solve one problem, you often have three more issues pop up. Being able to see changes visually represented on the district map as we progressed was a huge benefit from day one. The instant feedback allowed us to go back and make adjustments immediately rather than digging through static data to look for any surprises.

Confidence in Change

In addition to making it easier to adjust proposed boundaries as we went along, putting data at the center of the process has made it less vulnerable to criticism.

Constructive feedback is, of course, a necessary and useful part of the process. But when you’re operating with incomplete data about the changes you’re making, you’re really just making best guesses about how changes will affect stakeholders and the makeup of different schools. With the receipts in hand, so to speak, addressing any feedback becomes much more straightforward—either those concerns are visible in the data and we make adjustments to alleviate them or those concerns have already been taken into consideration and are reflected in the proposed changes.

Whenever you make a change in boundaries at schools, you want to make sure that it's done right. Discovering mistakes and adjusting boundaries after a year of implementation or so is an expensive and emotional experience for both you and the public. We want these things to last a long time. We need them to be done right.

We aren’t yet ready to present proposed changes to the community or school board, but there has been a wide range of emotions and responses already. Armed with concrete, accurate data, tools to present that data to the public, and a process that involves the community, we’re confident that everyone involved will have an opportunity to understand the options completely, voice their informed concerns and suggestions, and send us appropriate recommendations we can incorporate into our current scenarios.

In the end, we’ve found that confidence is the most valuable result of our data analysis; the school board is confident that we have accurate information, our volunteer task force is confident that they can get a complex job done right, and our community is confident that we are doing what’s best for their children throughout a complicated change.

About the Author

Scott Thompson is the superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 15, in Palatine, Ill. He can be reached at [email protected].