Planning for Equity in Athens Schools

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Students living in Athens can’t seem to leave their past in the past. Even after students move into Athens High School, they still remember which elementary school they attended and so does everyone else. Generations of Athens students admit there’s some stereotypes that go along with attending different elementary schools. Griffin Lutz is getting ready to leave Athens, but he still remembers what his elementary school said about him.

“I’m the stereotypical Morrison kid so I don’t know,” said Lutz, “Sporty and athletic”.

Grace Tonkavich is a junior at Athens High School. She says while there is some stereotyping attached to the elementary school students attended, it usually plays out as lighthearted joking at the high school.

“I don’t think they were trying to hurt anyone’s feelings”, says Tonkavich “They were just trying to have fun, that’s what [the senior] follies is all about, making people laugh”.

Reputations are a lot harder to forget in a class of 200 than in a class of 2,000. In the spring, Lutz will walk across the stage with fewer than 200 fellow seniors. In comparison Columbus City Schools could almost fill a high school football stadium with its graduating class.

Small Town, Big Changes

Master Plan Option 1

The Athens City School District houses four different elementary schools; East Elementary, West Elementary, Morrison-Gordon and The Plains. Currently the set up in the district is one building for optional pre-K, four different K-sixth grade elementary schools, one middle school for grades seven and eight and the high school for grades nine through twelve. The Athens City School District was offered partial funding by the Ohio School Facilities Commission to update or replace district schools. The district took this as an opportunity to re-structure and create a master plan.

Master Plan Option 2

The Athens School District assigned a steering committee to create options to move the district forward not just to figure out building renovations, but also to address underlying socioeconomic and special education equity issues among the elementary schools. The steering committee presented three different options for the master plan. All three options include moving sixth grade from the elementary schools to the middle school. Moving sixth graders to the middle school allows students to have one more year before making the adjustment to high school and it also brings all district students together sooner.

One of the most controversial parts of the plans recommends moving the middle school from Uptown Athens to a location closer to Athens High School.

Master Plan Option 3

Parents and students would see the most redistricting within the elementary schools. Plan one would build three new elementary schools all located on one campus. Plan two divides elementary schools by grade levels. Pre-K through second grade would be together and third through fifth grade would be together in a school. Plan three creates two Pre-K through fifth grade schools. The schools would be in separate locations, maybe even in current buildings.

In all three options, elementary students would not be isolated geographically in neighborhood schools, but integrated with students from throughout the district.

Erasing Inequity

While students see the stereotypes as light-hearted, some parents worry about long lasting effects. Traci Winchell is a mother of three boys in the Athens School District. One went through the Plains Elementary, one is currently attending and one will enter next year. Winchell is representing the Plains Elementary on the steering committee. Having kids in the Plains Elementary, Winchell realizes that sometimes the stereotypes hit a little too close to home.

“When you get to middle school, you’re looked at very poorly. So, our kids are not a part of the same,” Winchell explains. “They’re not expected to go to college, even though not everybody here is socioeconomically deprived, but many of our kids are.”

Traci Winchell has three boys in the Athens School District. She worries about equity issues they might face
Traci Winchell has three boys in the Athens School District. She worries about equity issues they might face

Half the elementary students in the district living under the poverty line go to The Plains Elementary School.  Nearly 60 percent of students attending the Plains live below the poverty line. The Plains also has the highest number of students with special needs; at 40 percent. Winchell hopes that by integrating students earlier, students from the Plains won’t be seen as so different.

Out of the 4 elementary schools, The Plains Elementary has the highest level of poverty.
Out of the 4 elementary schools, The Plains Elementary has the highest level of poverty.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson says that the steering committee plans are a good  start to solving the equity problem among the elementary schools.

“The other thing that can happen with equity, too, is kind of redistricting within the where you are better integrating everyone together,” says Patterson. “The physical location isn’t necessarily the solution to equity. The solution is what you do with the buildings.”

Another concern about the planning process was the possibility of creating a mega school, such as the Alexander School District designed.  A mega school is one large building housing all the grades, K-12. While a mega school was never part of the original plans, that hasn’t stopped parents like Maryann Gunderson from being concerned. Gunderson has a sixth grader at West Elementary. Gunderson says she and other parents are worried about losing the small, community feel in the elementary schools.

Steering committee members say the mega school confusion is a result of the initial plans not being clearly presented. Committee member Sean Parsons recognizes community concern.

“The reaction to school size has really been the loudest voice that’s contrary to the recommendations that were put forth,” explains Parsons.

Signs reading "No to Mega School" are seen in yards around the school district
Signs reading “No to Mega School” are seen in yards around the school district

Seeking a Solution

Three weeks ago, the Athens City School District Steering Committee presented the three options to the school board. The Steering Committee did not rank the options before presenting them. The Athens School board will make a recommendation to the Ohio School Facilities Commission by the end of September. The Commission provides the funding for new schools and renovations.