CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – The Champaign Unit 4 School District is tackling socioeconomic segregation. Over the past five months, district leaders heard comments from families about potential solutions. Monday, for the first time – WCIA-3 crews brought questions directly to the school board.
Members were unable to discuss the matter before voting to “protect the integrity of the process,” per Chief Communications Officer Stacey Moore.
“I think after Covid, families don’t want disruption right now,” Board President Amy Armstrong said.
Since September, the sentiment was heard time and time again from parents in the district.
“After a pandemic and all the change – for our kids, you don’t really want to do that again,” Armstrong said.
She says years of analyzing the district’s policies brought their attention to Schools of Choice and how the process fell short of its goal to balance socioeconomic status.
“The village of Savoy is segregated, the city of Champaign is segregated, and if we’re not going to make efforts in desegregating ourselves as a city, then it became the school’s responsibility because we do not want segregated schools,” Armstrong said.
District leaders got to work. But then – the pandemic hit. If it hadn’t, Armstrong believes the need for change may have been clearer to families, giving the board more flexibility in making it happen.
“I enjoy a healthy, honest dynamic of a conversation,” she said. “I don’t know that we got that from everyone; it wasn’t always healthy. But that’s okay.”
Armstrong wants families to know their concerns were heard. Board members voted unanimously for the model consulting firm Cooperative Strategies predicts would create the least disruption. Scenario 4 is expected to keep students at their current elementary schools, eliminate the balanced calendar and change how students are assigned to middle schools. Will it work?
“We’ll see. We have to try something,” Armstrong said.
Middle school assignment
Cooperative Strategies initially proposed two student assignment models that would’ve uprooted the majority of elementary students. The district collected feedback from families, and Armstrong says they listened.
“When we talk about schools of choice – that was supposed to balance our segregated community. Unfortunately, our community remains segregated,” Armstrong said.
That realization is what launched the months-long search for an alternative student assignment process, and friction between families and the board.
“But what we heard loud and clear was that: ‘we actually like schools of choice. We like having the choice of – do I want to go here, do I want to go there,’” she said.
So, they met in the middle.
“Yes, there will be pieces that are hard for some families, but our goal is really to serve our most underserved populations and put them in spaces where they have access to educational opportunities,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong believes the proposed cluster model would have been the most successful over time. But she and the rest of the board voted for scenario 4 – which modifies the current schools of choice model. They hope it will help balance socioeconomic status.
“But your sibling preference is probably going to be the biggest anomaly that happens moving forward that will skew things one way or the other that the district will have to pay attention to,” Armstrong said, referring to the algorithm used in student assignment.
By choosing the path of least disruption, new needs emerged.
“The less you disrupt at an elementary level, you have to do something at the middle school level because these schools are large,” she said.
And because Jefferson Middle School and Franklin STEAM Academy are so overcrowded they’ve added portable classrooms.
“Moving the populations of our student bodies will actually bring relief to those buildings,” Armstrong said.
Several board members have children who will also feel the impact of their decision.
“We not only are looking at it, we are living it, and we are reacting to it in a vein that serves the majority of our students,” Armstrong said.
In a January meeting, one member asked families to reflect upon why they send their children to public schools.
“There’s the difference – we serve all. That means that anybody that shows up, we have to find a spot, and we welcome them where they are, and we start to serve and educate kids,” Armstrong said.
The new model will also remove the balanced calendar for Kenwood and Barkstall elementary schools, something Armstrong says the board received both positive and negative feedback about. She says it was just too difficult for the district to operate on two different calendars and she believes by the end of the process, families understood that.