Lawrence school district’s boundary committee weighs impact of closing Hillcrest Elementary

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The Lawrence school district’s Boundary Advisory Committee on Wednesday discussed the possible closure of Hillcrest Elementary and its English as a Second Language program, as well as possible implications of the school board’s looming decision on budget cuts.

Hillcrest and Cordley Elementary are the district’s “cluster sites” for its ESL program. The two schools serve students from outside of their boundaries as a way to ensure proper resources are allocated to students who use ESL services.

Sunflower Elementary and Schwegler Elementary are neighborhood ESL sites, meaning they house ESL programs, but from within the schools’ boundaries. If Hillcrest were to close, the BAC would need to assess the cluster system and how to allocate those ESL resources.

The school district’s Futures Planning Committee’s current proposal included closing two elementary schools and one middle school. In a survey of the FPC last week, members voted 84% in favor of closing at least one elementary school. 

The BAC heard reports on the FPC recommendations, enrollment numbers, and building conditions prior to the discussion. 

Hillcrest ranked as the fourth-lowest-scoring elementary school building in an evaluation of classroom condition, count, access and size done by ACI Boland Architects. 

Because of the cluster site, Hillcrest’s student population includes many more students from outside of its boundary. If Hillcrest were to close, the students and staff who are there for the ESL program would likely be transferred to their neighborhood schools.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Hillcrest Elementary School

Lawrence High School Associate Principal Mark Preut said that although there may not be huge savings from closing Hillcrest when it comes to consolidating staffing, it could be less disruptive to the neighborhood it serves than other schools that scored low on the assessment. The other low-scoring buildings included Woodlawn, New York, Pinckney and Broken Arrow. 

“That would be one of those changes that, yeah, you lose that school, but it’s not typically a neighborhood school for almost anybody,” Preut said.

Billy Mills Middle School teacher and Lawrence Education Association Interim President Emerson Hoffzales argued that the clusters can help ESL students form more of a community around their shared culture. If Hillcrest were to close and those students were disseminated back to their neighborhood schools, it would get rid of that connection.

“The reason why those inclusion sites are so beneficial to the students is because they have a community base there,” Hoffzales said. “And once you start to put them out to other buildings, you start to lose that homogeny of similar experiences.”

Contrarily, some committee members argued that having diverse students spread throughout different schools, and the ESL resources following them, would be more beneficial than the current cluster system.

Committee members agreed that regardless of whether, or how many, schools the board decides to close, the BAC should still look at boundaries comprehensively. 

“If we choose to do one or choose to do two, I still think that we need to look at comprehensive elementary school boundaries, not just the buildings impacted,” said GR Gordon-Ross, school board member and BAC member. “I think we need to look at all of them.”

Kristen Ryan, executive director of human resources, said that in her interactions with staff, the biggest desire was simply to know what the plan was rather than staying in a waiting period.

The committee worried that the longer they force staff to wait in anticipation, the more likely they are to leave.

“Let’s not kill ourselves with 1,000 cuts; let’s rip the band-aid off in one shot,” Gordon-Ross said.

The committee closed with plans to reopen further discussion next week. 

The FPC recommendation was presented to the school board at a special meeting on Tuesday. 

The school board will reconvene at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at district offices. The board is scheduled to take a final vote on a package of budget cut recommendations. 

The board will vote on whether school closures should be part of the budget discussion going forward, but not specific schools. The board must hold public hearings prior to voting to close a specific building. 

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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