- Sonja Isger Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Update: Residents are invited to review and comment on changes to the middle school boundaries in the city and its suburbs at a meeting Thursday, Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. This plan sends fewer students to Christa McAuliffe Middle than the proposal brought for community input last month. The meeting will be held at Poinciana Elementary School at 1203 N. Seacrest Blvd.
Original story: Plans that would assign some 1,900 students in Boynton Beach and its suburbs to five other middle schools in the region next fall after Odyssey Middle closes will be presented to parents in those communities later this month and could see a school board vote before the holidays.
For years, Odyssey has operated half full, losing hundreds of its students – particularly white students – to charter schools.
Now perhaps the most pressing question, at least for two of the schools due to receive students from within Odyssey’s former boundaries, is which students will come?
That’s important because federal grants intended to better integrate those schools and worth millions could be on the line.
Congress and Carver middle schools, both with significant black populations, are each in the second year of a three-year grant that together total $4.4 million. The U.S. Department of Education money is intended to attract a more diverse population – and thus decrease the isolation of minority groups — by beefing up the schools’ respective magnet programs.
The litmus for success includes seeing the black majority at each school fall by 3 percentage points per year.
And now some in the community are wondering what a wave of students from Odyssey will do to those numbers.
“What’s the racial make-up of the school going to be? Will the enrollment change the grant? Could the school lose funding?” asked Rae Whitely, a member of the Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy who spoke at a boundary advisory committee meeting this month.
A parent and a teacher from Congress Middle School posed similar questions that night.
While the boundary staff can often predict enrollments to within a dozen students each fall, forecasting what will happen when Odyssey’s lines are redrawn is trickier.
Last year, more than 600 students zoned for Odyssey chose a charter school instead. But will they come back to a district-operated school if it’s an attractive magnet program such as Congress’ STEAM – science, math, engineering, arts and math, or Carver’s International Baccalaureate?
District officials expect about 830 students of the 1,900 within Odyssey’s former boundaries will move next fall into one of the five alternatives: Carver, Congress, Christa McAuliffe, Lantana and Woodlands.
Congress, a school that opened last year with a population that was 65 percent black, is expected to take the bulk of the redirected students, an estimated 378. So instead of starting next fall with about 900 students, Congress would open with 1,290 – a more than 30 percent increase in its enrollment.
About six miles to the south in Delray Beach, Carver Middle, where the black population was at 74 percent a year ago, could see an additional 166 students, staff estimated.
Those calculations take into consideration that most students who are in a middle school other than Odyssey right now probably won’t transfer just to spend grades seven or eight at one of these five schools, said Jason Link, head of the district’s enrollment and boundary office. The students already at Odyssey, an enrollment that is about 70 percent black, will likely make the jump, he said.
But predicting the resulting racial makeup at Carver or Congress can’t be done with certainty, Link said.
District policy requires boundaries be drawn with priority on filling schools without crowding them, Link said. By policy, race is not supposed to be a consideration, though poverty can be. The boundary committee also doesn’t make programming advice.
District staff draws suggested boundaries and then the committee and ultimately the community comment on it. After that, the recommended boundaries go back to the superintendent and then are presented for a school board vote.
As for how a shift in population would affect the federal grant, the answer is still unclear.
Congress and Carver are two of five Palm Beach County schools to land a Magnet Schools Assistance Program, or MSAP, grant. The money has been paid out for the first two years, leaving only the final year in question. That final year is worth more than $1.4 million to Carver and Congress combined.
The feds consider not just the numbers, but efforts to change them by both the school and the district, said Pete Licata, assistant superintendent of choice and innovation. Does the district have a plan to lure a more diverse population? Is it adequately supporting teachers to make the school successful and appealing? And in addition to looking at each individual school, it looks at all five schools’ progress as a group, Licata said.
Palm Beach County schools have used the money to buy an iPad for each student, train teachers, create a plan to make sure the programming lasts beyond the grant and to develop a recruitment strategy, Licata said. The consequences for not hitting any one of the marks is not spelled out, he said.
“There’s nothing that says if you don’t do this, they’ll do that,” Licata said.
Licata said he is in contact with those authorities about the closing of Odyssey Middle and the required boundary changes. The district is in the early stages of the boundary process and while they are monitoring the enrollment make-up, the schools will continue to market the schools as they’ve promised.
Whitely says that’s a necessary first step, but he’d like to see more.
“I’m not saying they’re doing a bad thing. We’re not saying certain kids are going to change anything. We’re saying, ‘Just take a look at it. Create a plan for all the scenarios. What happens if 1,200 black kids go there? Don’t wait until everything happens.’ The good part is we have a whole year to come up with a contingency plan. So let’s do that.”