Ambler parents assail school district over redrawing elementary school boundaries

Jan. 15, 2013 file photo: Awaiting dismissal at Mattison Avenue Elementary in Montco. The closing angers many parents.
Jan. 15, 2013 file photo: Awaiting dismissal at Mattison Avenue Elementary in Montco. The closing angers many parents. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: March 22, 2013

Ambler parents are again facing off against the Wissahickon School District, accusing officials of racism and classism in redrawing elementary school boundaries.

Under the redistricting proposal unveiled this month, Ambler's Mattison Avenue Elementary School would close and its population would split in two while the rest of the district would remain largely untouched.

District officials say the proposal would balance the populations at the remaining schools for the next 10 years while disrupting the smallest number of students.

In addition to Ambler's 177 students, who would be split between Lower Gwynedd and Shady Grove Elementary Schools, the plan calls for moving 14 Blue Bell students and 26 Shady Grove students to Stony Creek.

Mattison Avenue parents say their children are bearing an unfair share of the burden.

"Why is it impossible for the well-to-do, affluent folks in Lower Gwynedd to take a little bit of a hit in this process?" John Kunzier, 47, asked during a public-input meeting Monday night.

District officials said no single school has enough capacity to take all of Ambler's students.

"You sort of get a domino effect. If you move all those kids into Lower Gwynedd, it would go over capacity and you would have to move a number more," said Barbara Moyer, who sits on the school board and the redistricting panel.

Moyer said she understood where the Ambler parents are coming from.

"When it's a smaller number of kids, people say, 'Why just me? Why not the whole district?' " Moyer said. "I think they see the numbers, but it's difficult to accept it when it's happening to you."

Socioeconomic and racial disparities add to the tension. Half of the students at Mattison Avenue are economically disadvantaged, and 22 percent are Hispanic and 18 percent are African American - a contrast to their more wealthy and mostly white counterparts in Whitpain and Lower Gwynedd.

"It almost feels like a class issue. It seems like the path of least resistance to go through the poorer community," said parent Rick Taylor, 43.

The district has long been accused of not properly reaching out to Spanish-speaking parents. Translators were brought into meetings after a parent filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which triggered an investigation.

At Monday night's meeting, the translator spoke to only one parent even though several Spanish-speaking parents were in the room. An English-speaking parent stood up to ask that the translator be more vocal, but district officials moved forward with the presentation in English.

The federal investigation is ongoing, and it's unclear whether a ruling will be made before Mattison closes in June.

Mattison parents and Ambler officials fought bitterly against the closure, arguing that the school was the "beating heart" of the community and that the large population of Spanish-speaking students would suffer at any other school.

"When you closed Mattison, you ripped out our hearts. Now you're just carving them apart," said Scott Miller, 42.

On the north end of the district, where about 40 students will be changing schools, parents were more accepting of the change.

Jill Lafferty's children are also moving to Stony Creek. "I realize it's redistricting - I didn't realize it would be so small, but it is what it is," said Lafferty, 42. She said her children are "devastated," and asked that the district allow parents to request that children be placed in a classroom with a friend.

Neil Jacobs, whose children are moving from Blue Bell to Stony Creek, said, "We're OK with what's happening." But he expressed sympathy for the Mattison Avenue parents.

"It does seem pretty shocking that you would show up without Spanish materials in a school that 37 percent speak Spanish," he said at Monday's meeting.

Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, or follow on Twitter @JS-Parks.

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