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Unit Five Enters Emotional Minefield of Redistricting


It is said, not altogether jokingly, that only two things are guaranteed to get a school superintendent fired: trying to kill off a school mascot and school redistricting.

Unit Five in Bloomington-Normal is not trying to change mascots. But it has been roughly five years since the district last drew new school boundaries, and the district is just starting that process again.

Superintendent Mark Daniel said they are beginning the ticklish job of approaching this third rail of education administration.

"This is one of the toughest things to do because of the emotional buy-in to that school," said Daniel.

Unit Five has hired a demographer look at birth rates in various areas.

"We definitely have capacity issue for instance at Towanda Elementary School. There is no more room in that building. As far as high schools, there is a population difference between (Normal) West and Community high schools, about 450 students. We're seeing that trend continue," said Daniel.

Normal Community High School has about seven more classrooms than NCWHS. Daniel said that takes care of less than half the student imbalance. He said Unit Five is also looking at virtual classrooms for some courses to allow students to free up room space. And he says careful management of internships and out-of-building experiences can also ease room shortages. But not forever.

"When you have capacity issues you had better address those and better lay it on the table," said Daniel.

In an ideal world, educators say all schools would be ethnically and economically diverse in student bodies. It's widely accepted that there are cultural and learning attainment benefits to exposing students to peers with different family incomes and backgrounds. But Daniel said that can't always happen because of money.

"We've literally designed our elementary programs, our secondary programs to house certain programs in certain buildings. That's to best use the resource," said Daniel.

Daniel said that includes programs for behaviorally challenged and learning challenged students.

Daniel said the primary filter in creating elementary school borders is geography. He said Unit Five will likely continue embracing neighborhood schools, even if it creates buildings with high concentrations of poverty.
Daniel said schools with high concentrations of free and reduced lunch qualifying students are also eligible for federal help.

"From the standpoint of the level of needs that we are seeing in some of our schools, we need those additional resources. We have to have those additional resources," said Daniel.

The demographic study is due in April. Daniel said Unit Five will use software to do various configurations of school boundaries with public discussion hoped for late this year and the new borders to take effect in the fall of 2018.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.