published Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Pre-k parents claim inequity in Normal Park decision


by Kelli Gauthier
  • photo
    Staff File Photo Normal Park Lower School

Parents of 12 rising pre-kindergartners who live outside the Normal Park school zone are petitioning the local school board to hear their concerns over no longer being guaranteed a spot in the school's 2011 kindergarten class.

Although the parents already have paid a $300 deposit for their children to attend pre-k at Normal Park in the fall, a recent school board vote denies them automatic entry into kindergarten the following year.

Their argument is that, in the same motion, the board voted to "keep their promise" and allow 38 residents of Bell and Spears avenues to attend Normal Park next year, so they should do the same with the 12 pre-k students.

"You made a promise, you took our money, and now you're going back on it," said parent Courtney Altfillisch. "And there's room for everybody."

At the March school board meeting, members voted to exclude Bell and Spears avenues from the Normal Park zone, with the exception of 38 families who specifically expressed interest in their children attending the school.

The board also voted to discontinue the paid pre-k program for students who live outside the Normal Park zone.

During the meeting, school board member Rhonda Thurman was vocal in her disapproval of the paid pre-k program, saying it amounted to paying for a public school education.

The parent group is not now on the agenda for the April 22 school board meeting, but Chairman Kenny Smith said he will consider adding it.

If the issue comes to a vote again, Mr. Smith said he would vote "with our legal counsel," which he understood was suggesting disallowing kindergarten enrollment for the 12 families.

At the March school board meeting, Mr. Bennett said the deposit paid by the 12 parents guaranteed their child a spot in pre-k, but not necessarily in kindergarten. Under Tennessee statutes, boards of education can make zoning changes from year to year, so "there are no guarantees for anybody on any zoning decision," he said.

He declined to comment further on the legality or equity of the issue because he believes it still may be unresolved.

"I don't want to convey the impression that just because (the parents) do or don't have a right to the contract that that's going to drive the decision," he said. "There are many factors."

Parent Becky Armstrong said she paid a deposit for her twin sons to attend Normal Park's pre-k program because she thought it guaranteed them a place in kindergarten the next year.

Unless the school board reverses its decision regarding the families of the 12 children, she does not plan to send them to pre-k at Normal Park, she said.

"It's a lot of unnecessary transitioning for them," she said. "It was our way of getting into what we thought was an incredible school."

Ms. Armstrong said she didn't know board members were even considering denying her children automatic entry into the K-8 school.

"I didn't even have a clue that this was a possibility to be taken away from us. I didn't even know it was on the table," she said. "I'm hoping we can get grandfathered in. They need to honor that."

Board member Jeffrey Wilson said he voted against the zoning proposal specifically because of the 12 families.

"For the sake of those families, my vote was for them," he said.

THE STORY SO FAR

During its March meeting, the Hamilton County Board of Education voted on several issues related to Normal Park zoning. The board voted to reverse its 2007 decision to include neighborhoods on Bell and Spears avenues in the Normal Park zone for the 2010-2011 school year. An exception was made for families of 38 students who specifically expressed interest in attending the school. Members also voted to discontinue the paid pre-k program for students who live outside the Normal Park zone.

Mr. Wilson said he likely would vote the same way if the issue comes again before the board in April. He pointed out, though, that many of the parents did have options.

"It's not like they're 6-year-olds," he said, referring to the fact that most of the children are between 3- and 5-years old and still could apply for other kindergarten classes.

"It is unfortunate, though," he said. "It probably could have been handled better. Maybe we could have gotten to that conclusion a little earlier."

Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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