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Learn from redistricting
Fourth-grader Bailey Dicken, 9, front center, watches Illinois Wesleyan University intern Yuliana Zaikman, a sophomore from Israel, use a smart board at Glenn Elementary School, 306 Glenn Ave. in Normal, during a recess activity Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. Dicken was spending her first week at the school after transferring from Sheridan Elementary School in Bloomington. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

Nine-year-old Emmy Mussey was a little nervous when she started fourth grade at Glenn Elementary School last fall. She was one of hundreds of students switching schools in Unit 5 as part of a redistricting plan to re-arrange some of its more than 13,000 students.

The changes were made to accommodate two new elementary schools that opened last year and a middle school opening this fall.

“I was nervous, but now I like it,” said Emmy, of Normal, who had attended Fairview Elementary School previously.

She wasn’t alone. About half of her fourth grade classmates were new to the Glenn school because of the changes.

“They blended absolutely wonderfully. Coming as a group likely helped,” said their teacher, Teresa Uhlman.

Now that the first year of redistricting is nearly complete, administrators, parents and students say it went smoothly — often better than expected.

Some of the lessons learned in a redistricting of this size, may be transferable to other kinds of restructuring and consolidations like those advocated by Gov. Pat Quinn as cost-saving measures.

Those involved in both redistricting and consolidating note that kids seem to be the most adaptable, while parents and staff take a little longer. They also say that a key to a smoother transition is to provide the public an opportunity for input, follow through with adaptations to address concerns, and to blend in the best ideas.

Initial concerns

Redistributing students among its schools is nothing new to Unit 5 over its 63-year history. The Normal-based district was formed in 1948 with 13 schools and 1,955 students. At that time, it combined students from 37 former districts, including 39 grade schools — mostly one-room school houses. Now it has 23 schools, and may add more as early as 2015 if enrollment continues to rise.

For its latest redistricting plan, Unit 5 held several public meetings in fall 2009 to gather input from its Bloomington, Normal, Carlock, Hudson and Towanda elementary and high schools. Redistricting the junior highs was also part of the plan; that goes into affect this year as George L. Evans Junior High School opens. About 988 students — more than one third of those attending four junior high schools will go to a different school this fall.

Emotional meetings

Some of the early public meetings were emotional.

One of the top concerns was the effect changing schools would have on high schoolers’ academics, sports and social support networks. In answer to that issue, Unit 5 offered attendance exceptions for high schoolers so students could complete school where they started. By the deadline of Dec. 1, 2009, more than half — 223 of 412 eligible families —sought attendance exceptions. Those accepting the offer provide their own transportation.

Age differences

Another key concern was that young children could potentially traveling further from home, which the district addressed by maintaining its policy of neighborhood schools for elementary school students — as much as possible — and by offering early childhood education at two schools instead of one as initially planned. In the large district, even with the emphasis on neighborhood schools, busing is required for many children.

For the younger crowd, the desire to keep children close to home was a higher priority than fostering diversity, a priority for older students.

“Elementary redistricting has gone very well. It has taken the pressure off enrollment,” said Superintendent Gary Niehaus last week.

At Northpoint Elementary School in Bloomington, for example, one of the most popular improvements was getting rid of portable classrooms. Before the change, the school’s enrollment was 801 students; this year is about 642. “Now this is what the building was built for,” said Principal Bruce Weldy.

The average class size is up slightly this year, but it hasn’t been a significant problem, he said. On the positive side, there is flexibility for art, music and special education classes, he said.

Without the portable classrooms, there is more of a “community feel” at the school for the first time in two or three years, Weldy said.

Enrollment changes

As a result of redistricting students to accommodate opening two new schools, the enrollment at many McLean Unit 5 schools changed significantly this year over last. Here's a closer look.

Elementary Schools...April 30, 2010...April 29, 2011 ...Change

Benjamin ...0 ...576 ...+576

Brigham ...402... 136... -266

Carlock... 137... 139... +2

Cedar Ridge ...0 ...492 ...+492

Fairview ...442 ...318 ...-124

Fox Creek ...441 ...364... -77

Glenn ...254 ...215 ...-39

Grove ...722 ...634... -88

Colene Hoose ...766 ...527 ...-239

Hudson ...275 ...288 ...+13

Northpoint ...801 ...642... -159

Oakdale ...525 ...457 ...-68

Parkside ...349 ...294... -55

Pepper Ridge ...460 ...400 ...-60

Prairieland ...580 ...599 ...+19

Sugar Creek ...283 ...500 ...+217

Towanda...174 ...140 ...-34

Total elementary...6,611...6,721...+110 or 1.66% rise

Junior High Schools

Chiddix ...853 ...861... +8

Kingsley...1,032... 1,101 ...+69

Parkside...918 ...905 ...-13

Total junior high...2,803 ...2,867...+64 or 2.28% rise

High Schools

NCHS ...1,805 ...1,806 ...+1

NCWHS ...1,640 ...1,654 ...+14

Total high school ...3,445 ...3,460...+15 or 0.44% rise

Total Unit 5 ...12,859 ...13,048 ...+189 or 1.47% rise

Source: Unit 5


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