D21 suspends ‘zone waivers’

Ever since School District 21 was formed 12 years ago, it has allowed grade school students to attend a school in the district other than their “resident” school, if they chose.

That will change for future “zone waiver” requests, as they’re called.

“Zone waivers like we’ve done in the past, we can’t do that this next year,” said District Superintendent Candy Armstrong. “However, we are going to work out something with those who were zone waivered last year.”

What’s driving this change is that the school district, for the first time last year, ran out of space at Col. Wright Elementary to add another classroom for incoming kindergarteners.

All three elementary schools have modular classrooms, but space is so tight at Col. Wright that another wasn’t an option.

That space crunch was driven, in turn, by the state-mandated switch to all-day kindergarten. Where one classroom used to hold two sessions of half-day kindergarten, now two classrooms are needed.

Col. Wright, the smallest of the three elementaries, hit capacity first.

The district thinks it’s getting 66 kindergarteners at Col. Wright next year – which is 16 too many. But it would like to know for sure. To get a firm head count, it needs parents to pre-register their children.

“There’s so much pressure on us right now with physical building capacity,” Armstrong said. “It’s really kind of catching us at a point of, oh my gosh, what can we do to get parents to register their kids for kindergarten because it’s a big deal.”

The district tried some outreach in spring to get parents to register their kindergarteners, but it didn’t work.

“The other day we had seven enrolled at Chenowith, and we only had just a very few at Col. Wright,” she said. She encouraged the public, “please, please, please, if you have a kindergarten student, please get to your school and register them because that will help us with this next step,” she said.

To learn what school zone a student lives in, families can go to the district website, www.nwasco. k12.or.us and under quick links, select “grade school attendance boundaries.” Or, they can call the transportation department at 541-506-3430.

Last fall, the extra students who lived in the Col. Wright zone – almost enough for a whole classroom -- had to be transferred to either Chenowith Elementary or Dry Hollow Elementary.

Col. Wright has just two kindergarten classrooms, while the other two schools have four each.

Coupled with the overage of kindergarteners for Col. Wright is an unknown number of new kids who will enroll once a 24-unit farm worker apartment complex – near 10th and Cherry Heights, in the Col. Wright zone -- is finished in the fall.

While it studies the zone waiver issue, before the district makes a move, it will send out a letter soon to families with current waivers, asking them whether they wish to continue with their waivers. Armstrong expects most of them will.

Once they get those responses, they will proceed with further planning.

There were 140 zone waiver applications last year. Now, there are 116 students with waivers to attend other schools: 38 are waived in to Chenowith Elementary, 33 are waived in to Col. Wright, and 45 are waived in to Dry Hollow Elementary.

Historically, the elementary principals met in August, reviewed enrollment and available space, and accommodated as many students as they could.

The district’s goal is to create an enrollment model that provides stability to each of the schools and also accommodates the physical limitations of each school. The district also wants the process to be parent-friendly and there is talk of switching to a waiver that lasts throughout the elementary years rather than requiring a year-by-year waiver.

Armstrong said the situation is not that the overall district enrollment has exploded, but that all-day kindergarten increased the demand for classrooms.

As for the new farm worker housing going up near 10th and Cherry Heights, the district is working with the owners of the building to try to learn as early as possible about the families and how many students will be attending school, she said.

With more kindergarteners in the building, it affects other areas as well, such as adequate space for PE and adequate bathrooms.

At Col. Wright, the oldest of the elementaries, the classrooms themselves are even smaller, so adding a few kids to them causes a tighter squeeze than at the other schools, Armstrong said.

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