Odyssey Middle’s closing affects gifted kids at other schools

Odyssey Middle School is closing at the end of the year because it failed to fill its desks. One of the complaints from parents who chose to send their children elsewhere: Odyssey didn’t have a gifted program.

As long as Odyssey in Boynton Beach stood without a gifted program, district policy let students go to the nearest middle schools that had gifted programs instead. Odyssey’s boundaries were vast, stretching from the coast to beyond Florida’s Turnpike. And the nearest gifted program depended on where in that wide swath a student lived.

But now that Odyssey is closing, its boundaries are getting carved up. And in the shuffle, more than 70 gifted sixth- and seventh-grade students who never attended Odyssey in the first place face being assigned a school other than the one they’re in now.

Their parents aren’t happy.

The proposed boundaries have been forwarded to Superintendent Robert Avossa, who will make recommendations to the board for its approval, likely in December.

Nearly 2,000 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students live within Odyssey’s boundaries. Built in 2001, the middle school has room for 1,500 students, but fewer than 700 attend. A majority – 681 at last count - go to charter schools in the area instead.

Palm Beach County School District staff and the advisory boundary committee have been working to redraw the boundaries since Odyssey’s closure was approved this summer.

The first round of possibilities drew a couple of residents concerned with the wave of students who would be sent to Carver Middle to the south and Congress Middle to the east and what that would do to integration efforts at the receiving schools. But dozens more parents turned out once the maps were open to public input at meetings in October and November.

Their concerns highlight the district’s quandary in the region: One public school had to be closed because it was too empty, but shuffling the students to other schools has become a challenge because some would then be too full.

One example, The Canyons, a neighborhood south of Boynton Beach Boulevard on the east side of Lyons Road. Nearly 360 middle school age children live in The Canyons, but only five attend Odyssey Middle, the district’s boundaries office reports.

Many head down the road to Somerset Academy, a charter just west of Lyons Road. But gifted students in the neighborhood opted to go to the nearest school with a gifted program: Christa McAuliffe Middle.

Under the proposed boundaries, however, those students would have to drive north, passing A-rated Christa McAuliffe Middle to the east, to Woodlands Middle, another A-rated school.

Why drive past the nearest school? Because if all 357 students in the neighborhood went to the school they were zoned for and if they were zoned for Christa McAuliffe, the school would fill beyond its capacity as defined by the state.

Christa McAuliffe Middle is also a straight shot from at least eight neighborhoods, including Bella Verde, Madison Lakes and Wyndsong Estates, with middle schoolers who live within walking distance of the closing Odyssey Middle.

Because Christa McAuliffe is full, the students are being redirected to Carver Middle in Delray Beach – a commute that some parents complain could take 40 minutes during peak traffic. Another complaint — while Christa McAuliffe earned an A grade from the state based on its test scores on improved performance, Carver is a C-rated school.

Students in grade seven have the option of staying in the school they attend despite the boundary change, but the district won’t provide a bus. This is a typical accommodation during boundary changes, one that is not offered to sixth-graders.

Relief is expected to come when a new middle school is built in The Canyons neighborhood beside Sunset Palms Elementary. The district has had the property for years, but until now it couldn’t get permission from the state to build on the property because the district had room at other schools in the region – specifically Odyssey Middle.

Closing Odyssey and leasing it as planned to a district-run charter takes those available seats off the books, said the district’s boundary chief Jason Link. He believes the demand is strong enough to warrant a new school even if the upcoming classes of elementary children are slightly smaller.

“We believe there are sufficient numbers to fill a new middle school,” Link said. “We’re saying the new school will open as soon as possible.”

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