Boundary work reveals a changing Sioux Falls School District

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Drawing boundaries for middle schools and high schools in the Sioux Falls School District is like putting together a puzzle.

What pieces fit best where depend on shape, size and location of the puzzle. While boundary lines can be moved, neighborhoods can’t.

The Sioux Falls School Board is considering new boundary options for high school and for middle school with an expected decision on each at the June 22 meeting.

The boundary process reveals the difficulty to trying to reach some of the goals within the five main priorities for the boundary task force and how the Sioux Falls School district is changing as it grows.

“The trend in the elementary schools is even higher than in the middle schools and high schools,” school board chairwoman Cynthia Mickelson said.

Mickelson noted an increase in diversity in the school district and said that was a positive change.

An increase in poverty is also happening and that creates struggles, Mickelson said.

Terry Redlin Elementary School at 1721 E. Austin St. is one example of changes in the Sioux Falls School District. Because of the high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced meals, the school is at least one of the district’s schools in which all students are eligible for free and reduced program without completing paperwork, principal Ryan DeGraff said.

“That’s one weight off the parents’ shoulders,” DeGraff said.

Many of Terry Redlin’s parents work more than one job or double shifts as a way to improve their families’ lives, DeGraff said.

While many work with their children’s education at home, the work demands can leave little time to complete program paperwork or become involved in their children’s schools, DeGraff said.

While other schools can also have challenges with involvement such as no or struggling parent teacher groups, parental involvement is a factor at Terry Redlin, DeGraff said.

Terry Redlin students will attend Whittier Middle School under existing boundaries and in a boundary recently approved by the school board.

The option on the left is the middle school option recently approved by the school board. It has also been called middle school Option A2.

Terry Redlin’s ethnicity is also changing. Roughly 30% of the school’s students are white, DeGraff said.

The school has about 100 students who are English Language Learners and 23 languages or dialects are spoken by students, DeGraff said.

A 2018 report on the school district’s strategic plan said students of color were one-third of the student enrollment.

Mickelson said the increase in diversity in the school district is a positive feature.

DeGraff agreed.

“It’s so important for students to know that it’s OK that all students don’t look like them,” DeGraff said. Students of different cultures can teach each other about cultures and perspectives, he said.

Diversity of culture can provide diversity of thought, which benefits students, DeGraff said.

The school district has spent more than a year on developing new boundaries for when Ben Reifel Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School open in the fall of 2021. A task force has been involved and guided by five priorities listed on the district website: quality education for all students, student safety and well being, budget considerations, natural borders as school boundary lines and accommodate growth and change. There are considerations within those five guidelines.

The priority of quality education for all students will likely mean that some schools will still have significantly different student enrollment make-ups than others as the district tries to retain natural borders and accommodate growth and change.

There were also challenges to consideration of economic status within boundaries.

Short of completing splitting neighborhoods, the school district may not be able to fully balance economic equity because free and reduced meal percentages tend to be part of the fabric of the elementary schools that send students to middle schools.

Some schools will continue to have a high percentage of white students and lower percentage of free and reduced meal rates. Diversity depends in large part on the neighborhood.

Roosevelt High School is the least diverse of any of the three main high schools in the city. In 2018-2019, 71.8% of its students were white. Memorial Middle School’s roughly 1,400 students would go to Roosevelt now. Memorial’s student make-up was 79.8% white in 2018-2019.

54.7% of Washington High School’s students are white, according to the most recent data profile from the 2018-2019 school year. None of the possible high school boundary options significantly changes that percentage.

Under a school board approved middle school plan, the make-up for Whittier Middle School, for example, would be about the same as it is now. About 32% of Whittier’s students are white and under A2, 30% would be. The rate of free and reduced meals would also be similar at about 70%.

Let’s follow the path of a potential Susan B. Anthony student. The elementary school’s free and reduced meal enrollment is 46.1%. Susan B. Anthony students move onto Patrick Henry Middle School. Patrick Henry had a free and reduced rate of 27.2%. Most of Patrick Henry’s students move on to Washington High School now while about 400 students go to Lincoln. Lincoln High School’s free and reduced meal rate is 28.9% and Washington’s is 42.6%. High school Option A sends all Patrick Henry students to Lincoln and Option C sends most to Lincoln and some to Jefferson.

In general, the elementary schools are showing the biggest changes in diversity and economic status. So their student make-ups will eventually change the make-up of the middle schools and high schools.

Less than 60% of the 12,186 Sioux Falls elementary school students were white (59.7%) in 2018-2019. The most recent school district data profiles for each level of school and individual schools are from 2018-2019.

Of those 12,186 students, 47.9% qualified for free and reduced meals.

The high school enrollment had 33.8% students qualify for free and reduced meals and 43.5% of the middle school students qualified. Sixty-two percent of the middle school enrollment was white and 67.4% of the high school enrollment was white.

Mickelson said the board and those who worked on the new middle school and high school boundaries are aware of the changes happening in the school district.

The process of determining new middle school and high school boundaries should spark healthy interest and healthy conversations about diversity within the school district, Mickelson said.

“A lot of people in Sioux Falls live in a bubble,” Mickelson said. Many people have work friends, social friends, church friends and others who are similar to them, Mickelson said.

Residents can benefit from knowing people and making friends with those “outside their comfort zone,” Mickelson said. “Get to know our neighbors.”

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