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Opinion: Dominion Overcrowding a Test Case for School Board’s Ability to Make Tough Decisions

Vladimir Kogan Vladimir Kogan Opinion: Dominion Overcrowding a Test Case for School Board’s Ability to Make Tough DecisionsPhoto by Lauren Sega.
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Columbus City Schools confronts many of the familiar challenges that plague other urban school systems.

The district’s “F” rating on its latest state report card means it’s less than two years away from a state takeover unless it can quickly improve student achievement. Columbus is also one of the country’s most economically segregated metro areas, and segregated neighborhoods create segregated neighborhood schools. White flight — to the suburbs, to private schools, or simply to homes outside the boundaries of the district  — continues to shape the demographics of the district: although African-Americans make up less than a third of the city population, they account for a majority of students enrolled in city schools.

There is, however, a bright spot in this otherwise dispiriting picture: Dominion Middle School in Clintonville. The school’s student body almost perfectly mirrors the demographic and economic diversity of the city. And although students attending Columbus schools fall further behind each year overall — as measured by the “Progress” section of the state report card — Dominion is a rare exception. Its students regularly post more than a year’s worth of achievement growth, with even more pronounced gains among the school’s lowest achieving students.

Unfortunately, the school’s success has created a problem of its own. Thanks in part to efforts by groups such as Clintonville Go Public, which encourages neighborhood parents to send their kids to Clintonville public schools, Dominion has become increasingly popular. This year, more than 630 kids attend the school, which was built to hold only 409 students. A community task force appointed by the district recommended moving the school to a larger (and currently underutilized) building on the southern edge of Clintonville, a location more centrally located for the six elementary schools that make up the Dominion feeder pattern. Last month, however, the school board refused to adopt the task force’s recommendation — either killing the proposal or sentencing it to more study with no defined decision date, depending on which school board member you ask.

Responding to the board’s inaction, some Dominion parents have taken matters into their own hands and are now advocating addressing the overcrowding issues by kicking several elementary schools out of the Dominion feeder pattern. In a letter to the editor published in the Dispatch, one such parent argued, “The simple solution to the problem is to adjust the number of feeder schools by redrawing the boundary line.” The publisher of the Spotlight, Clintonville’s neighborhood newspaper, also endorsed the idea, writing that “the easiest option to address overcrowding might be to tinker with the feeder schools.” The newspaper left little doubt about which elementary schools it would like to see moved: “While Como and Weiland Park elementary schools also are now feeding students into Dominion, the middle school’s current location is most convenient for most of its students and families.” (Other supporters of changing the attendance boundaries have also included Salem Elementary and Hubbard Mastery on the list of schools they’d like to see cut.)

Left unsaid is that these targeted schools are the majority-nonwhite and the most economically disadvantaged elementary campuses in the current Dominion feeder pattern. Removing them from the middle school attendance boundaries will not only institutionalize the segregation reflected in our city’s housing patterns and rob Dominion of the diversity many Clintonville parents say they value, but it would also entrench the deep achievement gaps already present among the students who attend these elementary schools. Research has shown that attending segregated schools has devastating consequences, particularly for economically disadvantaged students of color, reducing high school graduation rates and increasing the odds of criminal involvement later in life.

To their credit, school board members seem reluctant to support such an outcome, although the board has ducked several opportunities to issue an official statement denouncing the proposal or to make clear that it would not consider breaking up the Dominion pathway. However, the other options the district is reportedly considering to address the overcrowding — such as housing classrooms in temporary portables, or separating Dominion into separate sixth and seventh/eighth grade campuses — are likely to stoke further outrage among Clintonville parents and guarantee that calls to break up the feeder pattern will only grow louder.

In recent years, the school board has avoided making tough but necessary decisions. For example, both in 2016 and earlier this year, the board rejected proposals to close or otherwise consolidate half-empty schools, a step necessary to access more state matching funds to rebuild some of the district’s oldest and most poorly maintained buildings. One school board member, Mary Jo Hudson, pointed to the district’s handling of the Dominion issue and other recommendations made by the district’s Facilities Task Force in her decision to resign from her position last week. In her resignation letter, Hudson blamed the school board majority for “repeated decision-making based on personal interests, raw emotion and concerns of small but vocal opponents.”

“The result,” Hudson continued, “is that the voices seeking what’s best for all our children are drowned out, and those well-intentioned supporters are driven away from engaging or encouraging support for the District or, most importantly, our children. … Our completely inadequate model of governance is broken.”

How the remaining board members — several of whom have either run for or are currently pursuing other elected offices — choose to tackle the Dominion overcrowding issue is thus an important test case that will reveal whether the district’s governing body is capable of making politically difficult decisions that put the interests of the city’s children — all of the city’s children — first. Hopefully they will prove Hudson wrong.

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