Barling elementary zone change discussed as solution to high school population disparity

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 898 views 

Student population differences between Northside and Southside High Schools has Fort Smith Public School officials and board members looking for a solution, with community members voicing their concerns about what those solutions could be.

During the last few school years, the student population at Northside High School has been 400 more than the student population at Southside High School, though both schools are built, staffed and prepared for an equal number of students.

“The schools were intended to be serving around the same number of kids. … The maximum capacity is very similar…. And yet Southside has been incredibly below its capacity, where Northside has been exceeding theirs for the past few years and for the next few years,” said FSPS School Board Member Dalton Person.

Northside’s average capacity is 2,293 students and its max capacity is 2,787. Southside’s average capacity is 2,490 with a max capacity of 2,739. For Fiscal Year 2020, Northside had 1,821 students to Southside’s 1,341. In FY 21, those numbers were 1,827 at Northside and 1,357 at Southside. When the ninth-grade academies opened for the 2021/2022 school year, bringing ninth-graders to both high school campuses, the student population at Northside grew to 2,497 and that at Southside grew to 1,794.

“We’ve got too many kids at Northside. Not only do we have too many kids at Northside, but we had 700 more students at Northside than Southside last year,” Person said.

While those numbers declined for this school year with Northside at 2,433 students and Southside at 1,956 students, there was still a 477 student difference. That is something experts are predicting will continue over the next several years, said FSPS Deputy Superintendent Marty Mahan.

At a Feb. 6 public meeting concerning a possible change in district zoning that would move students living in Barling to Southside High School, Mahan said estimates show that if there is no change to FSPS school zones, the student population at Northside is expected to fall between 2,391 to 2,191 over the next 10 years while Southside’s population would be between 2,049 and 1,884.

“Northside has exceeded its average capacity level for the past two or three years and is forecasted to exceed its average capacity for the next three or four years,” Person said.

A zone change that would send Barling students to Southside rather than Northside, which has been the case since Barling was annexed into the Fort Smith School District, would bring the student populations of both high schools to a more even number. By year 2032/33, estimates show that if the change is instituted, the student population would be 2,086 at Northside and 2,159 at Southside.

When Barling was first annexed into the Fort Smith school district, there was no Chaffin Junior High, which is now Chaffin Middle School. All students went to Kimmons Junior High and then to Northside High School. When Chaffin was opened, Barling students started attending that junior high along with elementary students from Woods Elementary and Euper Lane Elementary.

“Nothing used to be in east Fort Smith and Chaffee (Crossing), but now that’s where all our growth is. Forty years ago, it just made sense for Barling to go to Northside. There was nothing out there. South Fort Smith has stopped growing. Barling is an island. Everything else out here goes to Southside,” Person said, noting that students at Chaffin are separated from classmates they have had for three years when it’s time for them to move on to high school.

“I’ve heard from teachers, counselors saying, ‘Do something for us.’ So what do you do? This is a contentious subject. It’s always going to be. I don’t think we have had a single zone change since the 1980s. So it’s not something we do often. But when you have 700 more kids at one high school than the other and they are meant to serve about the same number of kids, there’s an issue,” Person said.

But the around 30 people attending Monday’s meeting did not have a positive reaction to Barling students going to a different high school. Comments were made about parents and even grandparents living in Barling and attending Northside and the desire for that tradition to continue.

“Why does Barling have to be the one to change,” was a prevailing sentiment.

There are 231 high school students from Barling in the two FSPS high schools. The majority of those students attend Northside High School. About 40 high school students applied for and received attendance area exceptions this school year, Mahan said, noting those were close to 50/50 for students in the Northside zone choosing to go to Southside and vice versa.

Dalton said just moving Barling students to Southside High School does not immediately solve the problem, but over a 10-year period it would make a difference. He also said  FSPS might need to look at placing caps on attendance area exceptions.

“Because if you move Barling students to Southside and everyone fills out an exception, then have you really solved anything,” he noted.

If the student population dynamic is not changed, the district needs to look at other options, which could mean moving teachers, counselors and staff to Northside from Southside in order to keep certain classes from being over capacity.

“There are no easy solutions here. But it’s not a sustainable model to have 700 more kids, this year 500 more kids, at one high school,” Person said. “I don’t think we can do nothing. We may end up doing nothing. But I don’t think we should,” Person said.

The school board is supposed to look at school zones and enrollment every three years and make changes as necessary in order to keep schools at workable numbers, Mahan and Person said. Mahan said the district is looking at options now. Person said the school board will discuss the matter more at future board meetings.

A survey on the Barling Elementary Attendance Area and the possible change to Southside High School is available at this link on the FSPS website.