Much to the delight of concerned parents, the Alachua County School Board on Tuesday began a process to see if it could address overcrowded schools.
Every Alachua County student is zoned to attend a certain elementary, middle and high school based on where they live. And starting Tuesday, the school board began looking to see how the zones might be changed to reduce crowded classrooms.
Each zone is determined with the population of each school in mind. However, magnet schools, which allow hundreds of students who come from a different zone to attend, have skewed the numbers.
The board evaluated the different magnet schools and academic programs offered in Alachua County elementary, middle and high schools.
Magnet schools offer specified curriculum to the students that attend. For example, Buchholz High School offers an academy of finance program and Gainesville High School offers an academy of health professions program.
Because of these special programs, magnet schools often have a high percentage of enrolled students who are not zoned to attend that school. This can lead to an overpopulated campus.
Data provided by Alachua County Public Schools show that the majority of students enrolled in magnet programs at Buchholz and Gainesville come from outside of their respective school zones.
Not only can this lead to overcrowded schools, the question may arise, as it did to board member Tina Certain, how much this costs the county?
“I have heard at Bishop and at Lincoln they have buses that are just plain magnet buses, so [we need to find] the cost of the bus, the driver and the fuel so we can figure out how much we are spending on transportation,” she said.
Magnet programs are implemented in schools with the hopes of increasing the diversity on campus. However, magnet schools in Alachua County may not be fulfilling this goal.
“I think the question we need to ask is do we want to continue putting magnets in schools just to promote diversity, which it is not doing,” said board member Kay Abbitt. She believes in some ways magnet programs are doing a disservice to Alachua County students.
Abbitt recalled her visit to Archer High School and the clear divide between those who were magnet program students and those who were not. She said the magnet program students were in the newly constructed building, while the rest were in the older building.
“It was two separate things,” she said, adding “it was a weird feeling.”
According to Abbitt his distinction is not only found at Archer. “We know at Williams it is the same thing, at Lincoln it definitely is. So it is not achieving the purpose, it is not making everyone feel as one,” she said.
Going forward in the rezoning process, Abbitt would like to look at how they can create more unity within magnet schools.
Fellow board member Sarah Rockwell agrees. Rockwell said that some of these magnet programs have created “schools within schools” which only hurts the students.
Rockwell also noted in the meeting that she wants to ensure that students with disabilities are provided with ample opportunities. “We can not exclude our students with disabilities from our high expectations,” she said.
The solution of reorganizing magnet programs within the different schools in Alachua may seem like the proper response to the overpopulation and divide in these schools. However, Alachua County resident and Buchholz class of 2016 graduate Wesley Lopez knows this will not work for every magnet program.
Lopez was a student in the academy of entrepreneurship at Buchholz High School. Lopez cares deeply about the academy and is concerned with the impact that the rezoning efforts may have on it.
“It is my opinion that a relocation is not the answer,” he said. Lopez explained that Buchholz is equipped with the proper infrastructure and facilities to house the academy of entrepreneurship and that moving this program to a different school would not help the students in it.
“I implore the board to look for other innovative solutions to address this issue, instead of potentially jeopardizing the programs that have a proven history of success.
In an effort to solve the issues of diversity and overpopulation, the county has started to make changes to the magnet programs.
They are beginning to reduce the number of out-of-zone students accepted into over-capacitated schools.
They also are shifting to a more holistic approach with the magnet application process by removing a minimum required state test score and providing students with new opportunities to share highlights of individual talent on their applications.
The board will continue the rezoning process in future board meetings and workshops with the hopes of rezoning the district before the start of the 2023-34 school year.