‘Blindsided’ parents working with SFSD to avoid multiple grade school relocations for kids

News and weather for South Dakota, western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.
Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 11:21 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Imagine learning that your child might have to attend three different elementary schools in four years without your family ever changing its address.

That’s what about 20 families in the ever-expanding northwest part of Sioux Falls might be facing as the Sioux Falls School District navigates the “good problem” of trying to avoid overcrowded schools due to a city with booming business, thousands of people moving to it every year, and new housing sprouting like a wild garden.

New elementary schools are planned, but will not be constructed by the start of the 2023-24 school year next fall. So, the solution, as Dakota News Now reported on Feb. 13, is the SFSD’s proposed boundary adjustments that will relocate some K-5 students currently attending Rosa Parks Elementary on the east side and Renberg Elementary on the west side to schools that have ample space.

The changes will force slivers of kids to separate from the relationships they’ve made with teachers and friends, which frustrates some parents. Some students will have to potentially make two such moves in three years. Some may have to make three switches in four years if you include the move to middle school in sixth grade.

“I feel like’s comfortable here, he’s grown up here,” Renberg parent Stephanie Johnson said of her second grade son. “He’s really grown in this school district, so it’d be nice to keep him here in one spot instead of switching him.”

SFSD assistant superintendent Jamie Nold, who oversees these re-district proposals, said the goal is to impact the fewest students possible, but not moving any kids is not an option.

“I fully understand they’d prefer to keep their child at one location through the whole time,” Nold told Dakota News Now on Monday. “We just don’t have that option with the growth of the city and if you look at the new apartments going up at a record pace.”

Johnson, and some of the other parents of students at Renberg who will be relocated, told DNN they understand the overcrowding issue, but the district’s process of deciding on the boundary change, and informing parents of it, is a point of agitation.

“We kind of just got blindsided with a third of our school getting moved from this awesome, small town country school to basically a downtown school,” Renberg PTA president Sherry Cummings said.

“There was no discussion, there was no heads up with the families prior to them just saying, ‘hey, this is what we’re going to do.’”

Asked later how she would describe the way the district initially rolled out what Nold calls its “beginning proposal,” Cummings said, “honestly, a little shady.”

Nold has been in constant communication with the parents since they first found out about the beginning proposal, making sure they know about the options that could prevent multiple school changes. The parents Dakota News Now spoke with Monday said they are appreciative of that communication, but are still irritated by how the process started.

“I was honestly hurt,” said Johnson. “I feel like we were not considered, and (the district didn’t consider) how this would affect our family.”

At a School Board meeting on Feb. 13, Renberg parent Kristal Schoffeitt said, “if parents had been part of the conversation, there would have been a giant group of happy campers instead of angry people.”

Asked Monday by DNN if parents have been enough of the process, Nold said, “we absolutely will communicate with the parents. We have to first make sure the School Board knows what the steps are.”

How did we get here?

A few years ago, thanks to a city bond issue, the school district hatched a 10-year plan to build a new elementary school in the northwest part of the city, along with the new Jefferson High School and Ben Reifel Middle School, which were completed in August 2021. The new elementary, which will be built next to McGovern Middle School, is set to be completed in the fall of 2025.

But because the apartment complexes in the Renberg Elementary attendance area footprint are going up at a record pace, and much faster than expected, there is “not enough time to accommodate that growth going on in the northwest area,” Nold said.

“We needed to pull over 50 students to make sure that we had enough space for the next two years until the new elementary opened.”

Parents of current Renberg students who live in the southwest corner of its attendance area — a suburban swath near the new Jefferson High School — were sent both an email and a letter from the district, dated Feb. 3.

That statement informed the parents that pending Board approval, the district will re-assign these 70-or-so students from Renberg — which is located in the small, nearby town of Renner — to Hawthorne Elementary, near downtown, about eight miles from Renberg. Nold said that most families in the affected area live about the same distance form Renberg and Hawthorne.

District officials first notified Renberg administrators and employees of this proposed move. On Feb. 1, the officials informed the School Board of this change in a district “work session.” This was two days before parents received the letter.

Nold did not deny to DNN there was zero to little advertisement of this meeting to parents. He said it was meant to inform only the School Board.

“The first step after that was going to be communication with parents,” Nold said, “This is something we’ve been able to do for 20 days, now, to talk to parents and give them different options. Each one of the questions they’ve had, I’ve responded to.”

The Feb. 3 letter invited parents to a Feb. 7 informational meeting with Nold.

There, the parents of those Renberg students who currently are in kindergarten thru second grade learned their kids will not only have to attend Hawthorne for two years, but that they would be relocated back closer to their neighborhood when and attend new elementary school when it opens in 2025.

That’s three elementary schools in four years.

Several parents found it bothersome that the Feb. 3 letter only referred to the move for 2023-24 move, and not the second school change in 2025.

Nold told DNN this was because, “we need to always make sure we had that parent meeting and communicate it to them there. It was much better to tell them in person.”

(One Renberg parent told Dakota News Now that this is a cautionary tale for parents to read those letters from their school district carefully, and wonders how parents would find out about the second school change without attending the Feb. 7 meeting.)

For those that were there, Cummings said Nold “was fantastic” and that he “really listened to us.”

Nold told that group what he has now told DNN several times — that worst thing the district could do was nothing. Or, in other words, to not move students from Renberg and then have an overcrowded mess next fall.

“Dr. Nold does a very good job,” Johnson said. “He made us feel comfortable, and I think he answered our questions. I still feel kind of left in limbo, where we’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen, or what to do with our own kids in regards to our transportation.”

Johnson’s son attends a daycare center near Renberg, and the providers give him a ride to and from Renberg.

”Now, we are left trying to find different options for our son, and how to get him to and from school, and possibly even summer care for him,” Johnson said. “We are now struggling to figure out if we need to start looking for a different dare care provider.”

Johnson said the average wait to get into a before-and-after school day care program in Sioux Falls, according to her findings, is two years.

Since the Feb. 3 letter was received, this group of about 20 parents has galvanized and organized a campaign to not only make district officials aware of their complaints, but offer solutions so their kids may be able to stay at Renberg, or eventually go back there.

It has been a carefully crafted campaign, with carefully-worded emails sent to Nold, Superintendent Jane Staven, and School board members.

One solution is a proposal to “grandfather in” the students who were already attending Renberg who want to stay. They understand kids in their attendance area who have not yet started kindergarten will need to start at Hawthorne, which has more space, but those already attending Renberg should get a chance to stay, they say.

Another idea the parents have floated is that they be able to “open enroll” their kids at Renberg.

These “clauses” to the proposed boundary changes were mentioned by some of these Renberg parents who spoke in the “public comment” portion near the end of the Feb. 13 school board meeting.

The speeches caught the attention of one school board member, Carly Reiter, who said there were some meetings planned with parents and there would be “a lot of considerations” to be discussed before the final decision on these changes at the Sioux Falls School Board meeting on Feb. 27. Parents will be allowed to speak at that meeting.

Nold told DNN both the “grandfather” and “open enroll” ideas are “on the table, but have not been decided as of yet. I have communicated with the families that this decision will be made soon.”

And when it comes to “open enrolling” back to Renberg: “Depending on the number of requests, we will work to honor that request to the best of our ability,” Nold said.

If open enrollment is allowed for a student, bussing will not be provided, “but I have communicated with each that have applied that have asked at either the informational session or by email and they stated that they have the transportation covered,” Nold said.

Cummings said this of Nold in that Feb. 7 meeting: “He was definitely open to listening to ‘let’s try to grandfather the kids in,’ but then what about the kids that are open-enrolled that are actually getting priority over these kids that are being grandfathered in? If there’s no room, there’s no room. They can’t grandfather in everybody. So, that doesn’t fix the problem.”

A third option outside of attending three schools in four years, Nold said, is parents can choose for kids to stay at Hawthorne after the mandatory two years instead of moving back to the new school in 2025.

“They would apply for Open Enrollment, but it will be approved,” Nold said, as there is plenty of space at Hawthorne.

Nold repeated a few times to DNN that the lines of communication have been open several ways since Feb. 3 — that he has fielded and thoroughly responded to phone calls, e-mails, texts, and other avenues.

“The response by our parents has been limited, but all input has been appreciated and the communication has assisted in potentially creating a final resolution that can make the process easier,” Nold wrote in an e-mail to DNN.

“It was good to hear that multiple parents appreciated the communication knowing that no time to be informed of this information of change is easy. I do believe that all understood that the only option we could not consider was to do nothing. We will continue to ensure we have a quality school for our students to attend and gain an education at.”

Johnson said she and Nold have met a couple times, “so I think we’re on the way to getting some of our questions answered and some of our resolutions resolved.”

While the boundary change and possible multiple relocation of kids is undesirable for these Renberg families, Nold said he has tried to hammer home this message time and again to them:

“Change is difficult,” Nold said. “We fully understand that, and it’s never easy to make a change. A lot of times, once they’re in the new setting, they love where they’re at. But they also have other options.”

He pointed out how some Roosevelt High School parents and students were unhappy with their re-districting to Jefferson, but once they attended the brand new school, they didn’t want to leave.

Relayed this message, one Renberg parent said a change in high schools does not affect teenagers in as dramatic of a way as an elementary switch would affect children formative years of ages 5-11.

Johnson offered this response to Nold’s “change is difficult” message:

“I understand (boundary changing) is something that needs to be done, that the school is growing and this side of town is growing, but I just feel like they could’ve gone about it in a different way. I wish they would’ve given us more insight, a little bit more preparedness that this was going to be coming, that we might be looking at different boundary changes. That we could just prepare a little more instead of just being in the middle of the school year saying, ‘your kid could be going to a different school next year.”

Nold admitted the timing of this whole process has not been perfect.

“I think it can be always scrutinized that it could’ve been sooner or we could’ve waited later in the school year so it doesn’t confuse families,” Nold said. “But it does not impact the change that we need to do something to make sure that we take care of the numbers at Renberg. We need to do something to make sure we take care of the numbers at Rosa Parks.

“The first and foremost priority is to make sure that when kids come in the fall that we have space for every single family to have their child in the classroom. So, I think this process worked very well.”