Best Practices for Changing School Attendance Boundaries

Posted by Ron Van OrdenO

October 10, 2019

Redrawing school attendance boundaries can be challenging, but adopting these best practices can help the process run as smoothly as possible.

Superintendents may need to change their district’s attendance boundaries for a variety of reasons, including fluctuations in school enrollments, changes in school programming requirements, and school closings precipitated by anything from budget cuts to natural disasters. While superintendents don’t have to tackle this mammoth endeavor every year or even every few years, many will have to orchestrate an attendance boundary change at some point during their tenure.

For many superintendents, redistricting can be a foreboding task. It has been said that the two things that are most likely to get a superintendent fired are killing off a school mascot and changing school attendance boundaries. The source of this contentiousness is neither financial nor structural, but emotional. Parents and students alike become emotionally attached to their schools and are often reluctant to leave them, even if it’s for the greater good.

While these concerns — as well as concerns about the socioeconomic and racial implications of redistricting — shouldn’t be discounted, there’s no need for district stakeholders to approach redistricting with dread. Changing school attendance boundaries is an opportunity for growth, and should be considered an investment in students’ success.

After all is said and done, every educator’s goal is to give children the best possible education, and redistricting can be an important part of doing so. By following these four best practices for changing school attendance boundaries, superintendents can ensure their district’s transition goes as smoothly as possible.

1. Build a Plan Around Clearly Defined Goals

A superintendent’s first step should be to clearly define what they hope to gain from shifting their district’s attendance boundaries. What will change because of redistricting? How will this change affect people for the better? Answering these questions sooner rather than later will ensure the project stays on track.

Once these goals have been set, the next step is to outline what will be done to achieve them. District administrators should make every effort to optimize the usage of their existing facilities, zone students for the schools closest to their homes, and consider racial and socioeconomic diversity in attendance boundary decisions. Above all else, superintendents should strive to minimize the impact on students.

2. Embrace Collaboration and Community Engagement

Since changing school attendance boundaries can be an emotional and highly personal process for everyone involved, district administrators must remember to place people at the center of their efforts. Parents will inevitably have a lot to say about any plan that affects their children, and educators must be prepared to handle such passion with tact.

This begins with framing the redistricting process as a positive opportunity for growth, and explaining how the proposed changes will ultimately improve their children’s education. Well-thought-out, well-publicized communication about the attendance boundary change process will alleviate most concerns, but superintendents also need to embrace community engagement every step of the way.

Anxious parents will want to know: what are these changes, why are they happening, and when? What new resources will be implemented to ease the transition? How will school choice options work? Typically, these questions are answered during open fora, community meetings, and family surveys, but written communiqués concerning an attendance boundary change should also be widely distributed in multiple languages so everyone has ample opportunity to become informed.

Other effective ways to facilitate constructive conversations about an attendance boundary change include hands-on workshops, internet campaigns, and the use of online comment cards. No matter what approach a superintendent pursues, embracing collaboration and community engagement is imperative.

3. Keep a Realistic Timeline in Mind

Every attendance boundary change process involves four basic steps: gathering data, communicating with the community, finalizing the plan, and implementing the changes. Some steps may need to be revisited based on district or community stakeholders’ feedback, and some steps may take a number of months to complete.

As such, superintendents should be prepared to spend at least 12 months working on redistricting. For example, a school district might take 14 months to redistrict its middle and high schools, and 17 months to redistrict its elementary schools. Rushing this process will create more problems than it solves. Take it slow, and be realistic about how much district staff members will be able to accomplish from month to month.

4. Partner with an Enrollment Analytics Expert

Finally, superintendents should consider partnering with an enrollment analytics expert to assist with attendance boundary changes. Hoonuit’s Enrollment Analytics solution streamlines the attendance boundary change process by helping district administrators stay on budget, troubleshoot challenges, and promote data-driven decision-making.

For instance, the Upper Merion Area School District partnered with Hoonuit to create balanced enrollment across five elementary schools — including one new school — and communicate these changes to families in the community. We not only supplied Upper Merion with enrollment analytics, boundary consulting, and an assortment of redistricting tools, but also helped the district assemble a mailing list it could use to get the word out about the redistricting process.

At the end of the day, while changing attendance boundaries can be an intimidating task, with the right tools and analytics, it can actually be a fairly smooth process. With the help of an enrollment analytics provider like Hoonuit, district administrators can ensure their redistricting process goes as well as possible.

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