Santa Rosa City Schools to examine attendance boundaries

For the first time in a generation, the largest school district in Sonoma County will examine its school district boundaries with the aim of creating more socioeconomic and racial balance between its campuses.|

For the first time in a generation, the largest school district in Sonoma County will examine its school district boundaries with the aim of creating more socioeconomic and racial balance between its campuses.

Santa Rosa City Schools trustees on Wednesday night approved the launch of a full-scale demographic study that will guide the creation of new school boundaries throughout the nearly 16,000-student district.

“We are talking about integration,” trustee Alegria De La Cruz said Wednesday at the school board meeting. “I want to say that this was the intent of this conversation. ... We were going to close a school that was segregated and that we (have) an opportunity to integrate our school system.”

The decision was spurred by the Board of Trustees’ decision last February to shutter Cook Middle School at the end of the current school year and fill the Sebastopol Road campus with Cesar Chavez Language Academy, a dual-immersion K-8 Spanish-language charter school. The closure of Cook — which currently serves about 428 seventh and eighth graders, 86% of whom are Latino and 66% who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch — will leave southwest Santa Rosa without a traditional middle school.

Rather than simply redrawing the boundaries of the area currently served by Cook, the school board voted Wednesday to reexamine student movement in the entire district.

Board president Laurie Fong acknowledged that redrawing school boundaries will be a highly emotional process in the coming months and comes at a time when many people in the district — families, teachers and staff — are already feeling raw because of the coronavirus pandemic and distance learning.

But board members unanimously concurred that the time is now.

“This is unprecedented work. This is right work,” Fong said. “I think it’s going to be very emotional. I don’t know why school has become so emotional lately but it has. I think we are going push buttons. ... It is about creating new and creating inclusion and creating equity. It doesn’t mean anyone is going to have anything taken away.”

The process will include public forums, which district officials expect to be well attended.

“When we start talking about school boundaries, depending on how long you have lived in a neighborhood and what age your children are, you have expectations in your mind the path that those children take and this could change the path that those children were on,” said deputy superintendent Rick Edson. “Obviously it will play into communities where boundaries have not been redrawn (in) a little over a quarter century.”

“Hopefully it will make all of our schools stronger,” he said.

Trustee Jill McCormick on Wednesday called the launch of the monthslong process “a great first step” but urged the board to include the district’s own intradistrict transfer policies in the study. Any changes to the boundaries from which schools draw their students could be rendered almost meaningless if the district continues to allow mass transfers from one campus to another, she said.

“I just want to make sure we don’t do a whole bunch of work and (then) allow a bunch of movement everywhere,” she said. “That is a concern of mine; I feel like that should be part of this discussion.”

For decades — spurred largely by the charter school boom and transfer trends created by the federal No Child Left Behind policies — the district has largely allowed students to petition to attend schools outside of their neighborhood boundaries. Barring space issues, those requests are largely granted.

But those policies have left some campuses in the district strapped for space and loaded with portable classrooms, while others have room to spare. The makeup of the student bodies rarely reflect the city as a whole.

Elsie Allen High School, by Edson’s guess the largest physical high school campus in the district, has the fewest students at about 1,030. Santa Rosa High, the oldest high school in the district, has the most students at 1,900.

Elsie Allen, opened in 1994 and the second-newest high school campus in the district behind Maria Carrillo, also has the largest percentage of Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged high school students in the district at 82% and 59% respectively.

Trustees and school officials have expressed concern that the closure of Cook puts Elsie Allen at a disadvantage without a feeder middle school and that any new boundaries must seek to remedy that. That debate in February almost immediately spurred conversations about the racial, socioeconomic and enrollment imbalances at campuses across the district.

“That was the nudge, but I think it was something that was on a lot of peoples’ mind for a long time,” said McCormick, making clear she was not speaking on behalf of the board but as an individual trustee. “A lot of us, we have felt it and we have lived it, so its like ’Oh, OK, this is the nudge, let’s get after it.’ ”

“The whole demographics of this area are changing and there’s declining enrollment and who is living here and where they are living — all that has changed,” she said.

The current boundaries do not reflect those changes and current board policy on transfers exacerbates them, trustees said.

In addition to Cook, Comstock Middle School’s Latino enrollment is 86% while whites account for just 6% of students.

At the elementary level, the differences are even more stark.

At both Lincoln and Monroe elementary schools, 92% of students are Latino. Conversely, Hidden Valley Elementary is 30% Latino and 45% white.

It’s been more than five years since the district last took on enrollment policies to address disparities in both ethnic and socioeconomic makeup on its campuses.

In 2014, the board, spurred in part by California Education Code that requires districts to work to ensure that enrollment at dependent charter schools reflects the demographics of the overall district, voted to overhaul its admission policies for charter schools with the aim of increasing diversity. The board targeted one campus in the first year of the new policy: Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School.

At the time, just 6% of the approximately 130 students enrolled in the fifth and sixth grade school on the Rincon Valley Middle School campus qualified for a free or reduced-priced lunch and 10% were Latino. At the same time, 56% of elementary school students in the district qualified for a free or reduced-priced lunch and 59% were Latino. In the high school district, 48% of middle and high school students qualified for the lunch program and 45% of all students were Latino.

The board voted to continue to give priority to siblings of SRACS students, but the second tier of priority put students from across the district’s high school boundaries into two pots: one with students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, and one with those who do not. After siblings, remaining spots were to be doled out at a 2-to-1 ratio favoring economically disadvantaged students until the incoming class of fifth graders reflects the demographic ratio across the high school district.

It hasn’t happened.

Last year, five years after adopting the new enrollment and lottery criteria, just 10% of SRACS students qualified for the lunch program and 10% were Latino. Across the district, elementary enrollment was 62% Latino and nearly 56% of all students qualified for a reduced-price lunch. In the high school district, those percentages were 51% and 39%, respectively.

McCormick acknowledged the topic is fraught, but concurred with other board members that it is overdue.

“Real change is real hard,” she said. “People are going to get nervous because it is the unknown. They don’t like change. It’s the human condition.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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