FORT MILL — More than 100 parents and teachers gathered in the cafeteria of Riverview Elementary School’s cafeteria Thursday night for a PTO event.
They weren’t planning a fall festival or spaghetti dinner. Instead, they were there to talk to the district’s superintendent and the school’s principal, Annette Chinchilla, about their dissatisfaction with elementary school attendance rezoning proposal.
After a brief introduction by Superintendent Chuck Epps, parents were given the chance to ask questions and offer suggestions to improve the proposal many consider unfair to the Riverview community.
The phrase “free and reduced lunch” – or the number of students whose family’s economic situations qualify the student to receive subsidized meals at school – was a concern shared by many in the room.
Currently, 44 percent of Riverview’s students qualify, the highest level of the district’s seven elementary schools by more than 20 percentage points. Under the new plan, that number jumps to almost 51 percent, 22 percentage points higher than the next elementary school.
Many parents brought up Orchard Park Elementary, one of the school zones adjacent to Riverview. Under the proposal, the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch at Orchard Park will be under 6 percent.
But that doesn’t mean they want their kids to go there.
“I think most parents here are very happy to be at Riverview,” said Kirk Ogden, who praised the teachers and principal. “We’ve personally chosen to be here because we want to be in a diverse community.”
But while he doesn’t want to send his child elsewhere, where the percentage of free-and-reduced-lunch students is lower, he also doesn’t think Riverview’s 50 percent rate is acceptable when there are ways to change it.
A teacher in the Fort Mill school district, who declined to give her name because of her position, said that she is concerned about Riverview’s image.
“You’re setting yourself up to be known as the poor school,” she said. “Are we setting up a school to be as successful as the other schools in the district?”
As other parents raised concerns that high free-and-reduced-lunch rates often correspond with lower test scores, Epps admitted that, yes, they did.
“Was any attention given to the population of free-and-reduced-lunch students when drawing the map?” asked Riverview parent and Town Councilman Nathan Blythe.
Dale Holden, the outside consultant who drew the rezoning map, confirmed that that was not a factor. Instead, he and Epps said, the focus was on maintaining “neighborhood schools.”
In a survey last year, a very high percentage of parents said that maintaining neighborhood schools was their biggest concern when thinking about rezoning, Epps said.
Rone Washington, a teacher at Riverview, said that she wanted to be sure that the proposal was following the district’s mission of putting children first.
“They are not ‘free and reduced,’ they are kids,” Washington said. “I think we cannot take just a neighborhood approach because children are made up of so much more than a neighborhood.”
Some parents offered suggestions to change the proposal, such as splitting Baxter Village, the subdivision of hundreds of children who will attend Orchard Park, or providing extra funding or support to schools with higher rates of free and reduced lunches, such as Riverview.
These were suggestions the district will consider, Epps said.
Throughout the meeting, Epps was quick to remind the parents that the point of the night was not for him to defend the plan, but to get feedback from the public, as had been encouraged by the district since the proposal was first presented a week ago.
On Tuesday night, Epps will make his recommendation to the school board about the district rezoning plan. The board will then have two weeks to discuss it before making a decision at the beginning of November.
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072