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Beyond Boundaries: Deeper Reporting on School Attendance Zones

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When Baltimore County school officials wanted to move boundary lines in 2015, some parents predicted declining property values and voiced fears of sending their children to school with “those kids.”

Liz Bowie, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, pushed for clarity on the coded language. Doing so, she told a packed room at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar, is crucial to news coverage of school boundaries and the often related issues of segregation, class bias, and equity.

“The key is to really keep asking parents and community members, when you talk about property values, what do you really mean?” Bowie said. “When you’re talking about ‘those kids’, what are you afraid of about ‘those kids’? What are ‘those kids’ going to do to your kids?”

In Bowie’s reporting for Bridging the Divide, a recent Sun series that included a look at the impact of changes in school boundaries, she pressed parents and community members to truthfully answer a crucial question: “What’s really at the heart of your fear?”

Dividing Lines

That experience underscores the complexities of reporting on school attendance boundaries. When officials decide to redraw school zone or boundary lines – typically because of issues related to crowding or rapid growth in a particular area – there tends to be controversy stemming from underlying issues of race and class.

Redrawing boundaries is both a way to desegregate schools and to segregate them, the panel of experts warned. Now, more than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, black and Latino students are increasingly experiencing double segregation by race and poverty, according to research from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

When covering school boundary changes, reporters need to repeatedly go back to parents, officials, and other community members for clarity and to ensure they are reporting on the heart of any resulting strife, panelists said. Reporters also should be aware of how the boundary changes might exacerbate inequity for already disadvantaged students.

With system-wide or “metro-wide desegregation, substantial assets will follow the white children into the inner-city,” said Dan Shulman, an attorney who has been involved in lawsuits to promote desegregation for about 22 years. “That type of investment really helps improve the lot for everybody.”

Another way for reporters to cover boundary lines while keeping an eye on issues of equity is to look for new information included in state, local, and school report cards under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a 2015 rewrite of the main federal law for K-12 education. ESSA now requires districts to report per-pupil spending by school, said Daarel Burnette, a reporter for Education Week who also moderated the panel discussion.

“That’s where you’re going to see a lot of disparities between teacher salaries, et cetera,” he said.

Transportation Troubles

Aside from demographics and issues of class, parents and officials also fret over boundary-related concerns that even offering choices such as open enrollment might not resolve. Transportation, for example, is a challenge for working families and single parents, said Jeffrey Platenberg, an assistant superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. It not only affects parents’ involvement at the school, but also their ability to support their children’s friendships with other students who might live in far-away neighborhoods.

A parent working two jobs just to make ends meet would not have the flexibility to provide transportation for their children the way a wealthier family would, Platenberg said.

Also, boundary maps usually are “vague and nebulous,” Platenberg said. This flexibility may produce unintended consequences, such as requiring students to travel long distances to school, he said.

That’s why it is important to see what the actual boundaries are for families. The main idea is for the school routes – whether to the closest bus stop or the school itself – to be walkable for students, he said. “Well, define walkable.”

For example, Virginia state law allows secondary students to walk up to 1.5 miles to a school or  a bus stop, Platenberg said. The distance is up to one mile for elementary students, he said. “That’s a huge walk for little legs.”

The boundaries, and the distances students have to travel to school or to a bus stop, also matter when there is dangerous weather.

Telling Deeper Stories

As with other stories, there is more than one side. Parents might resist sending their children to a high-poverty school because of the stigma associated with the quality of education students receive there.

It is important for reporters to tell the deeper stories of school boundary changes.

“If you write stories that really slap people in the face with this and really show them how schools and how the system works to segregate kids,” Bowie said, “there will be people who say, ‘No, that’s really not acceptable.’”