Proximity Plan approved for Lee County public school students
Lee County School Board members unanimously approved a Proximity Plan Tuesday night that addresses the ever-growing school transportation issues within the county for K-5 students.
The plan will reduce the number of schools parents have to choose for the 2023-24 enrollment process. It will be based on new maps. The current plan called School Choice, which began 17 years ago as a result of a 1964 lawsuit, guarantees bussing for all students regardless of how far they live from their school.
Since starting School Choice, the student population has increased from 68,000 to 100,000 students, overwhelming school transportation in Lee County. About 3,000 students arrive late to school every day, according to Dr. Adam Malloy, coordinator of the superintendent's office and the proximity project’s lead official.
“Our goal is to get our children closer to home and reduce the number of routes so we can get students to school on time,” Superintendent Christopher Bernier said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Parents of K-5 students have two options.
All rising elementary students living outside of their current school’s Proximity zone and those new to the district will either choose to stay and waive district transportation, or enter their new Proximity attendance zone with a selection of school choices assigned in a lottery system.
Listen: Gulf Coast Life interview with Dr. Adam Molloy on the Proximity Plan
Incoming kindergarten students and those that are new to the district will be automatically taken through the lottery system. Siblings of students are able to stay with their original school in an effort to keep family members together.
The decision to approve the plan did come with pushback from parents. Deanna Bos is a mother of three students at Rayma C. Page Elementary, located near the intersection of Alico Road and US 41. She says providing transportation for her children is not an option for her family.
“If they make this change, they have to start all over with their teachers,” Bos said. “They’re building relationships. I have a student with a disability and the teachers and the staff have been amazing in transforming my child. We’ve seen progress and growth.”
Bos and her family moved into the community because they knew Rayma C. Page Elementary was an option. Her oldest child is in fifth grade and has attended the school since starting kindergarten.
“It’s a culture risk with new students,” Bos said. “Our children are invested. They have their friends.”
The district still values the choice-based system, reducing the average number of options from 12 schools to four and lessening the district’s responsibility to transport by over 100 square miles.
Families choosing to grandfather their children into the system and provide their own transportation still have questions. At this time, the district cannot gauge how many are going to choose this option. That leaves some people to question whether the schools will be left with an unbalanced attendance.
Bernier said the county would release weekly updates on the number of parents choosing for their child to stay at the original school.
North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts teachers voiced concerns over the new program. That's because their school would not be open to all Lee County students, despite offering specialized art and music classes.
Lori Madl, a dance instructor at the North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts, encouraged board members to consider the students who are already invested in the school’s mission.
“Of course, teachers at [the school] will welcome any student who comes through our doors,” Madl said. “But we really want to keep the culture we have at the school for students we know that love the arts.”
Bernier suggested the district look into transitioning the North Fort Myers school to a Magnet Program that would allow any student to enter through an audition process.
“Every child, based upon where they go to school and where they are located in this community, deserves the opportunity for art, fine arts, drama, music, orchestra and strings,” Bernier said. “It becomes a matter of ensuring a whole child is educated.”
School Board Chair Armor Persons pointed out the reasoning behind the change and noted that it is not related to costs.
“The reason we are doing this is not to save money,” Persons said. “The reason we are doing this is that the bussing transportation system is broken.”
While the new program will save the district money, Persons said the district would put the money back into education.
For now, the plan will only be for elementary students. Middle schools will be considered next year.
Elementary school enrollment will open soon. To look over the process, families can visit the district’s website.
This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org