The Lee County school district is revamping how elementary aged students are assigned to schools, and, next week, the public can attend informational meetings to check out the four maps under consideration.
The drafts were drawn up by Davis Demographics, a redistricting firm hired by the school district last year to rework the boundaries of its 45 elementary schools.
The project is part of a $280,000 contract, board documents show. In December, the school system paid the company $85,000 of the total.
More than 41,000 students are in elementary school in Lee County. Including charter school students, the district serves over 95,000 students.
The redistricting project is aimed at creating a closer-to-home attendance plan for the district’s youngest learners for the 2022-23 school year. A grandfathering policy is in the works as well to handle families who are facing changes.
Officials have said the proximity plan will cut down on school busing issues and costs while creating a greater sense of community around local schools.
Currently, the county is divided into three main attendance zones — East, South and West — that are broken into subzones. What’s being proposed are “much smaller attendance zones than what we have currently,” said Adam Malloy, the district’s community engagement coordinator for the district.
“The number of options is fewer, but they are like closer, neighborhood choices,” he said.
The four draft plans will lower school choice options to an average of three to five schools, depending on where a family lives, and all of them will be “much closer to home,” Malloy said.
A key issue with the redistricting process is ensuring diversity and equity in the schools.
The district’s complicated school choice model exists today because it took Lee County more than three decades to receive unitary status, meaning the federal court system recognized it as desegregated.
Many have questioned whether a proximity model will threaten that work. But Malloy said the district is working on this project without “tunnel vision or blinders” to ensure equity and diversity remain the focus of the boundary changes.
“There’s a goal as a team that we cannot create a system that is going to revert to an old style of student assignment that isolates students demographically, be it by a number of issues,” Malloy said.
The current assignment plan calls for schools to have a diverse makeup of students, including those with various levels of academic performance, family income, race, ethnicity and languages they speak.
“Those are things that we have to take very seriously,” Malloy said, adding that “the research is there that if we isolate demographics, we are affecting student achievement.”
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What do the maps look like?
While there are tweaks to the current system in each map, Malloy said most of the proposals seem to focus on central Fort Myers. This area is often referred to as historic Fort Myers and has a high density of students and schools.
Changes are also noticed in the North Fort Myers area, where some of the maps move the boundary east to State Road 31 or jogging south across the Caloosahatchee River.
The maps don’t easily compare to the current assignment boundaries, as roads, schools and neighborhoods are not listed on the proposals.
Also, each zone is color-coordinated with letter-based zones. The first three plans propose 18 attendance zones while the fourth contains 19.
The last map includes Zone T, giving residents of Fort Myers Beach its own zone.
To help people understand how the proposals could impact their children, the district is launching a user-friendly web app next week. People will be able to plug in their address and layer the various draft plans on top of it to see how and if their choices change, Malloy said.
Beginning Tuesday, this can be found at leeschools.net/proximityplan.
The public is also invited to in-person information sessions at four schools next week. Each is scheduled to last from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
- Monday: Dunbar High School, 3800 Edison Ave., Fort Myers
- Tuesday: Cape Coral High School, 2300 Santa Barbara Blvd.
- Wednesday: Three Oaks Middle School, 18500 Three Oaks Parkway, Fort Myers
- Thursday: Varsity Lakes Middle School, 801 Gunnery Road North, Lehigh Acres
Face masks are required at the meetings, which will follow the school system’s COVID-19 safety guidelines. Live translation will be provided in Spanish and Haitian-Creole during each meeting.
Debbie Jordan, the chair of the school board, plans to attend three of the four presentations next week, which she said will run in a similar fashion to the information sessions about Gateway High School.
Following the main presentation, people will be invited to walk around the room to see the different plans up close, she said.
“They will have sheets for comments about the different plans — what they like, what they don’t like,” Jordan said.
If people cannot make these meetings, the district is working out a virtual option this month.
Also, the plans will be discussed during a school board briefing meeting set for 1 p.m. Tuesday. Each of the seven board members were scheduled for one-on-one meetings this week to review the maps ahead of time.
Jordan is looking forward to next week’s discussion, as well as seeing an interactive version of the maps go live on the district’s website.
“I can’t wait for it to go online so I can play with the interactive map so when I’m looking at it I can understand it better,” she said.
How we got here
Work on this project began in March with the collection of residential data and 10-year forecasts for Lee County. The first scenarios were created in June with adjustments coming from a mix of committees.
Malloy said a core “work group” of district officials communicate directly with Davis Demographics several times a week while a panel of district stakeholders and a committee of residents have been part of the conversation since the summer.
The latter group comprises parents, business owners, local leaders and faith-based organizations. Also included were people who were involved with the attendance process in the 1990s.
“The idea with the smaller groups — the smaller community and district stakeholder groups — was to collaboratively work to produce drafts that the larger public could then engage and really make this a truly community effort,” Malloy said.
Although public input will be solicited throughout the coming months, now is the time for people to get involved in the proximity process.
Suggestions collected at the meetings and through email will be considered in making changes to the maps.
“Student assignment plans, although it sounds very technical and boring, has that element that everybody has a personal connection to: How does this impact me and my family? Also, they want to know how this is going to improve student academic outcomes,” Malloy said. “We really do have a strong belief that these stronger community, or neighborhood, choice zones have the ability, along with policy companions, to do just that.”
In March, revised maps will go back out to the public for review.
The school board is scheduled to vote on a final recommendation in July so that it can be put in play for the spring 2022 open enrollment period.
Questions or comments about the plans should be sent to ProximityPlan@LeeSchools.net.