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Some rap school-assignment plan

While class size would shrink, safety a concern

Some Reading parents are anxiously awaiting a School Committee vote that would assign the town's 2,400 elementary school students to five schools instead of the current four.

But even though the opening of Wood End Elementary School was the latest sign of the town's school improvement project, the subsequent redistricting plan has its critics, who don't want their children to leave the schools they are already attending.

Some of the most vocal opposition to the redistricting vote, scheduled for Jan. 27, comes from a neighborhood east of the Joshua Eaton Elementary School. About 40 children live there, about a half-mile from the school. If the proposed plan is accepted, then at least some of those students will have to board school buses, heading for a school in another part of town. The parents of those children would like to be exempted from the redistricting plan.

''This confirms that we have wonderful schools," Reading School Superintendent Patrick Schittini said of the parents' desire to have their children stay at the same school, ''but we also have five schools that we need to fill."

Frustrated School Committee members, however, say that while change is difficult, this change is a good one for the community, because it will result in small class sizes for young students.

''It becomes easy to lose perspective when you get focused on some goal that you think is critical for your kids," committee member Elaine Webb said, ''but we on the School Committee must consider the entire town. That's our job." She also said she has heard, and considered, the community concerns.

The redistricting issue was inevitable following the opening of Wood End on the north side of town.

Town Meeting approved the plans years ago with the understanding that a new school would mean new school boundaries.

The traditional boundaries have stayed in place this school year. When Wood End opened, the Alice M. Barrows Elementary School closed for a year's worth of renovations. For this academic year only, the Barrows students were bused to the Wood End school. Next fall, when Barrows reopens, all five schools will be on line.

To evenly disperse all the students, and to comply with a state request that each elementary school has special rooms reserved for art and music classes, the school department began working this summer on its redistricting plan.

The district hopes to have 20 to 22 students in the each elementary-level classroom when redistricting is complete. According to School Committee chairman Carl McFadden, the five elementary schools will be filled at 90 percent capacity.

Schittini and other school administrators wrote the redistricting plan, elementary school parents advised them on it, and local real estate agents helped out by predicting which might fill up with school-age children in the near future. In drafting the plan, administrators considered school capacity, transportation, safety rules, and natural boundaries. They were to try to get more children within walking distance of their schools, too.

In November, Schittini presented a draft to the School Committee. In December, Schittini held four public meetings to hear community reaction to the plan. Webb said the School Committee knew the discussion could get emotional. They asked a uniformed police officer to attend the meetings, though they never needed the officer to control the crowd. Webb said people at those hearings asked Schittini ''aggressive questions," but were orderly.

On Jan. 6, Schittini presented his original plan and an analysis of all the requests that had been made at the community meetings to the School Committee. McFadden said it was essentially the same plan as the one Schittini presented in November. Meanwhile, School Committee members have been composing their thoughts and concerns about the plan, and sending them to Schittini. ''We're not done yet," Schittini said.

McFadden said that based on comments at the hearings, he has asked administrators about such issues as whether students now in the fourth grade could remain at their school for the fifth grade. He said he expects to receive answers to his questions at the Jan. 27 meeting.

But Laura Baker, a Shackford Road resident whose elementary school-age son may have to change schools if the proposed plan is approved, is worried that her voice, and other parents' voices, won't be heard.

Her group, the Eaton East Neighborhood Alliance, has created a website denouncing the plan. They oppose it, Baker said, because the benefit -- smaller classroom sizes -- doesn't outweigh the educational and social risk of transferring children from a nearby school to one across town.

If Baker's son were transferred to J. Warren Killam Elementary School, as proposed by the plan, a walk home from school would be a 2-plus-mile trip, through the town's center and an industrial area. His current school is about a half-mile from his house.

''When safety, proximity, and neighborhood cohesion are given proper consideration, all Eaton East elementary school children [ought to] stay at Eaton School," the alliance states on its website.

Such criticism frustrates School Committee members, who say that when forced to choose between small classes and keeping students in schools that are closer to home, they'd opt for smaller class sizes.

''Of course, we want the students to get to school safely, but we want to maintain low class sizes," Webb said.

The redistricting, and the promise of small classes, comes after an exhaustive school overhaul. In the past two years, the School Committee has overseen the $11 million construction of one elementary school, and the $9 million renovation of another, and the $54 million renovation and new construction at the town's high school. About seven years ago, the town's two middle schools -- the Coolidge and the Parker -- were redone.

As a result, McFadden said, the Reading schools are the envy of the area. ''Some of our neighboring towns are increasing their class sizes; we're trying to lower it," he said.

In fact, McFadden said it's not the children he's worried about; the schools would create a transition program for children who transfer.

''Kids adjust all the time . . . . Sometimes change is harder on the parents," he said.

Christine McConville's e-mail is

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