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Redistricting rankling Carrboro parents

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Michelle Brownstein, chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, is pleading for decorum, but the 100 or so hissing Carrboro Elementary parents are not too forgiving tonight.

Many of them found out days ago that their children, who attend a small neighborhood elementary in central Carrboro, may be shunted elsewhere as school administrators consider remedies for overcrowding at Chapel Hill's Glenwood Elementary.

"Our school community has been thrown into turmoil," says Carrboro Elementary parent MaryFaith Mount Cors. "What kind of process is this? It's not one."

Mount Cors—who co-chairs Carrboro Elementary's advisory School Improvement Team of parents, teachers and administrators—says there's an "equity" issue with the move. "Carrboro Elementary kids will pay the price for this decision."

Faced with an expanding dual-language program in Mandarin and a greater-than-expected surge in students slotted for the traditional classroom program, Glenwood Elementary is 90 seats above its capacity this year. Next year, that number is projected to swell to 155.

One proposed solution includes the creation of a new magnet school, possibly at Glenwood or Carrboro Elementary. The magnet would offer only dual-language programs in Mandarin and Spanish. Children not enrolled in dual-language programs would have to attend another school.

Carrboro Elementary already offers a dual-language Spanish program, launched more than a decade ago to better assimilate the town's growing Latino population. However, students don't have to enroll in that program in order to attend the school.

Whatever the decision, hundreds of students in Chapel Hill and Carrboro could be moved elsewhere in fall 2014 or fall 2015. It would be the second redistricting for Carrboro Elementary students in less than a year. Students were shuffled following the conversion of Frank Porter Graham Elementary into a magnet school for a dual-language Spanish program.

The school system also completed a major redistricting for hundreds of students last winter to fill Chapel Hill's Northside Elementary, which opened in August.

"It will be disruptive," said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services at Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. "And it will create significant anxiety. Clearly, it already has."

The idea of a new magnet school spread quickly. School leaders said the proposal emerged from administrative discussions in October and it was an unexpected revision, at least for parents and Carrboro Elementary administrators, to last week's school board agenda. The discussion came with a staff recommendation that board members decide by the end of November.

Board members could choose between launching a new magnet next fall, requiring a small-scale redistricting this winter. Or leaders could opt to wait another year, requiring a redistricting of up to 84 students into nearby Northside and Rashkis elementary schools as a temporary salve.

Staff and board members backtracked on a November deadline after Thursday's tense six-hour school board meeting. Schools spokesman Jeff Nash says the earliest the board could make a decision is in December, and that may even be too soon.

"The crowd was saying this is being rushed," Nash said. "I think they heard the crowd."

Brownstein says she will not back any major changes in 2014.

Thomas Mills, a Carrboro Elementary parent, says school staff attempted to move too quickly. "There's no question we were left out of the loop," he said. "The process was less than transparent."

Like many parents at Carrboro Elementary, Mills says students are best served if administrators scrap the magnet plan and move Glenwood families into nearby attendance zones.

Mills, whose child attends the dual-language Spanish program at Carrboro Elementary, says many parents would pull their children from the program if they are forced to attend a new school.

"It's why people move here," says Mills. "It's responsible for our tax value. It's got a lot of implications. They move that school and I'm not going."

Unexpected growth in the Glenwood attendance zone has forced the school system to redistrict. "The school is pretty much completely full," says David Saussy, co-chairman of Glenwood Elementary's School Improvement Team and parent of two Glenwood students. "Every room that could be turned into a classroom is a classroom now. It's a challenge and we can't leave it as it is."

Saussy says estimating attendance at magnet programs is easy because enrollment is a fixed number. However, it's more difficult for administrators to try to predict enrollment in the traditional classrooms as families move into Chapel Hill.

"I think people have a definite affinity for the school where their kids are and they hate to be moved," Saussy said. "But I don't think there are any bad schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. For many people, it's somewhat disruptive, but not a big deal."

The disruption isn't surprising, Nash says. "That's the hard part about growing and building new schools," he says. "They're beautiful and shiny and everybody loves them, but you have to find 600 students to put in them and nobody likes being moved."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Be true to your school."

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