published Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Normal Park School rezoning inches along

Normal Park school in Chattanooga
Normal Park school in Chattanooga
Kelly Wegel
Hill City phase in proposal
Hill City phase in proposal
Central Office phase 2 plan
Central Office phase 2 plan

The second step of rezoning the Hill City neighborhood for Normal Park Museum Magnet School looks much like the first.

Hamilton County Schools administrators recently released more details on how they'll get more Hill City kids into Normal Park. But some Hill City residents say the plan puts them no further along than they were a year ago, when the Hamilton County Board of Education voted to expand the school's zone.

"We feel like we haven't gotten anywhere," said parent Briston Smith. "We're frustrated mainly because the school board voted to zone Hill City into the zone and make Normal Park our community school. In our opinion, there has been no concrete plan on how to make that happen."

That vote came in November 2011. The school board originally voted to bring the neighborhood into the zone in 2007, but officials cited soaring enrollment and backtracked on that decision.

Normal Park is a highly successful zoned magnet school, meaning it draws from a specific geographic zone and also takes in students from across the county through a magnet lottery.

The board voted in January to admit five Hill City kindergarten students each year into the K-8 school, so as not to overwhelm the school's already skyrocketing enrollment. The plan is largely the same now, but administrators say they'll ensure as many students as possible get in.

This year only four kindergartners applied from Hill City. The recently released plan allows Hill City students to keep any unused seats and calls for a special waiting list. So a first-grader from Hill City could use that available seat next year.

"There will always be five Hill City kids per grade level," said Karla Riddle, who oversees the school district's magnet schools. "And it will go up over time."

Hill City students will have to go through a special application process to gain admittance. If more than five apply in a year, administrators will conduct a special lottery. Any students who don't get in that way can try their luck in the countywide magnet lottery.

Because zoning is always subject to change and population figures cannot be predicted, Riddle said she couldn't say when or if the neighborhood will be fully zoned into the school.

"I keep telling both sides there's nothing set in stone with this," she said.

School board member Joe Galloway, who represents the area, said the current plan is a good first step because it guarantees Hill City a finite number of slots.

"I think this is probably a good place to be," he said.

But he said he understands the frustration of Hill City residents who long have lobbied for full inclusion in the zone.

"Not having finality to something like this keeps you on edge," Galloway said.

A group of Hill City residents proposed their own 16-year phase-in plan that would zone the neighborhood fully by 2029. But administrators said they couldn't subscribe to such a long-term plan.

School system policy now puts obstacles in the way of enrollment, said Hill City Neighborhood Association President Rhiannon Maynard. The requirement that families fill out paper applications months in advance puts a burden on local community members to get the word out, she said, which isn't the case when students are zoned for a community school.

"When you're zoned for a school, you don't have to fill out a special application," Maynard said. "You show up to the school on registration day and sign up."

Parents and residents met last week and discussed the latest draft of the plan.

Smith, whose daughter already attends Normal Park as a magnet student, said the community is starting to feel "desensitized" to the issue because the battle has been so drawn out.

"They've lost their fight," he said. "They feel like the powers that be are going to do whatever they want to do."

Normal Park Principal Jill Levine said the school has made every effort to welcome new Hill City students and those who already attended as magnet students. This summer, the school held a special program to help struggling students or those who were new to Normal Park, including Hill City students.

"They are here and they are doing very well," Levine said.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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