Fort Smith School Board tables decision on Barling area student attendance zone

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 799 views 

The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education tabled any action until mid-October on whether students living in the Barling Elementary High School Attendance Zone should switch from attending high school at Northside High School to Southside High School.

Board members discussed the action during Monday’s (Feb. 27) board meeting.

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.

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.

The disparity between high school enrollment has led administrators and board members to question whether it would make a difference and make sense to move Barling Elementary Zone – which includes areas in the city of Barling and some in the city of Fort Smith – to Southside.

A study requested by FSPS showed that a zone change that would send Barling students to Southside rather than Northside 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,” said board member Dalton Person at a meeting Feb. 7.

Person noted 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.

Along with holding a public meeting on the subject, FSPS sent a survey to Barling Elementary School families and Chaffin Middle School families asking if they are in favor of Barling Elementary High School Attendance Area moving from Northside to Southside. The survey was also linked on the district’s website allowing those not in the attendance area to make their opinion known. Survey results showed that of the 112 who participated in the survey, 72% were in favor of the change and 23% opposed. The other 5% were split between having no opinion and preferring students to be given a choice.

Though most of those taking the survey lived in the attendance area under discussion, 28% who gave input did not live in the area. More than 50% of those taking the survey had students in elementary school.

There are 213 students in the area who attend high school. Of those, 104 attend Northside High School and 109 attend Southside by utilizing attendance area exception or because of other factors. Fifty of the Northside students ride the bus. A bus does not service Southside for Barling area attendance students.

Person said though the original idea that moving the students to Southside would help equal out the enrollment at the high schools doesn’t appear to be the case, the change still seems to be what people in the zone want.

“We have gone through this (process) and can see its popularity. I think we should go through with this and phase it in so it doesn’t affect any current high school student,” Person said.

He moved that the district make the change starting with ninth-graders in the 2024-25 school year. The next year ninth and 10th grades, the following ninth through 11th, and by 2027-28, all high school students.

“Since proposing moving Barling students and seeing more already attend Southside by choice, than Northside, I think it’s fair this isn’t going to make a big dent in (the student population disparity in the high schools). What I’ve been surprised to find out is the community seems to support this,” Person said. “There are people who won’t like it, but over half the respondents have students in elementary school who will be directly impacted by this. When you see 109 already get exception and arrange transportation, it indicates there is a desire for this.”

Person’s motion did not get a second. After some discussion, Board Member Phil Whiteaker reintroduced the same motion. Person seconded it. But they were the only two on the board who voted for the motion. Richardson said the board needs to wait until after they get a snapshot of attendance in all the schools in October that shows if Haas Hall Academy and the universal school choice legislation before the Arkansas Legislature makes a difference on enrollment.

The board agreed five to two to table action on Barling students until after mid-October.