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Lee County school board to vote on Proximity Plan; Would change busing, building assignments

Lindsay Johnson

Tuesday evening could be the start of the biggest change for Lee County Schools since the district's School Choice student assignment program began 17 years ago.

At the Lee County Board of Education's next meeting they will take up the question of what elementary schools the county's children go to, a decision that will change for nearly half of those students by virtue of something called the Proximity plan.

Interactive map showing proposed elementary school proximity boundaries

Dr. Adam Malloy, coordinator of the superintendents office and project lead on proximity-based based student assignment, said the district has been working on the plan to develop a new elementary student assignment system since 2020, looking to better address system issues such as student distribution, transportation, students getting late to classes because of bussing and just generally making the district's system better for students, families, and the community.

To listen to the full Gulf Coast Life interview with Dr. Adam Molloy go to this site

"So I would say this past year, when Dr. Christopher Bernier joined in, he made proximity and student assignment kind of a number one priority for him and his team. We were seeing a lot of students late to school, we're close to 3000 students late every single day to school," Molloy said. "And that's, you know, there's been a lot of talk as to the why of the project. And you know, the why the project is that our current system isn't hitting any of the targets that it was designed to do. And it's hampering student in school success, based on the times in which students are getting to school and getting home from school."

The growth of Lee County schools is one factor why the board is addressing this now, Molloy said. In 2005-2006, the first year of School Choice, there were 65,000 students. Molloy said that figure is now over 100,000 students.

"The current system, I would say, is not ... meeting its goals, as were stated in its plan, as you know, in terms of the distribution of students," he said.

Molloy said that the plan is to address issues like lateness at the elementary level first, with the implementation of the new elementary assignment currently planned for the 2023-24 school year.

"We do think that we'll see a lot of positive benefits that that rollout, so from the students late to school, but then also thinking about some of those start and end times that are really tied to our transportation system, and not actually what's best for student learning," he said.

Dr. Molloy talking about proximity plan

The plan, if approved by the board Tuesday night, was described by Molloy as follows:

"So the proximity for elementary school starting 2023-2024 It really is like a miniature version, kind of a light of our current system. It shrinks the attendance zones, and it activates transportation for elementary school students only within those proximity zones," he said.

"So we will immediately see some of the transportation ... efficiencies addressed. And ... we then are hoping to move and consider some of those other project connections, whether it's starting in times, or aligning the middle school map, eliminating an entire transportation tier, and then taking a look at what that kindergarten cohort, because that's really who it impacts," Molloy said. " First is that incoming kindergarten class."

He added that the three main student groups that will be affected if the plan proceeds for 2023-2024 are incoming kindergarten students, students new to the district, and any rising elementary student (1st-5th) that is living outside of their current school zone and needs transportation.

Molloy said options remain part of the plan. He said students displaced by the plan will be listed. If the board approves the plan on Tuesday, those lists then go out to principals, and the district will start an intensive communication campaign and parents can take action.

"These are your two options," Molloy said. "If you're living outside of the proximity zone, and you would like to remain at your current school, you can select to what we're calling grandfather or maintain enrollment."

What that means is transportation will not be provided unless the current school is within new proximity boundaries.

Lee County School Board meeting, 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7, agenda

Compared to the current school choice system some students could have much fewer schools to choose from.

"We've heard from a lot of families like, well, I want to go to school closer to home, so that maybe you elect to not stay and maintain enrollment, then you'll go into the new proximity choices based on your address, you'll you'll select from there and then be assigned in the lottery," he said. "It goes down from on average, 12 schools to rank for elementary school families now to four."

For now the proximity plan affects only elementary school students.

"We don't have quite the sophistication and depth on the middle school project side," he said. "So we're looking really to align the middle school maps in years two and three. But right now, it really just focused on the elementary side."

According to the school system, if the plan is approved on Tuesday, open enrollment for elementary schools will start to run in February-March with two consecutive windows.

Window 1: For all rising elementary students living outside of their current school’s Proximity zone. Students in this window will either select to stay and waive district transportation or enter their new Proximity attendance zone with associated choices.

Window 2: Proximity lottery for all incoming kindergarten students, elementary students new to the district, rising elementary students (1st-5th) living outside of their current school’s Proximity attendance zone and needing transportation. Finalized dates for the two windows are forthcoming.

The genesis of this plan goes back to 1964 and the Rosalind Blalock lawsuit against the district.

"That is really what sets us kind of on this track of boundary changes every so often to try to meet the requirements of the desegregation order," Molloy said. "And then in the 1990s, as the school district is really attempting some new, I would call them innovative practices, whether it's magnate or controlled choice, they start to move closer and closer to unitary status, which is basically getting out of the desegregation order. That happens in 1999. They they settle the cases, the case is dismissed, in (an) agreement with the plaintiffs, and then there's a five-year supervisory period until 2005-2006."

For more on the plan and to listen an interview with Dr. Adam Molloy tune into to Gulf Coast Lifeon Monday at 2 p.m.

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