Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard
Eugene schools will throw open their doors next week for prospective parents and students looking for just the right fit in the fall.
At every site, they'll find neat classrooms adorned with student art; a welcoming staff; and promises of a strong, even innovative, educational program.
But behind the scenes a debate roils over whether the Eugene district's system of open enrollment and alternative, or magnet, elementary schools is fair to disadvantaged families or financially sustainable in today's lean budget climate.
The Access and Options Committee - a group of parents, district staff and community members - jumped into the issue a year ago, and is close to making recommendations that could bring substantive changes to the long-cherished system.
One of the most controversial ideas - all of which would need school board approval - is merging some of the nine alternative elementary schools with neighborhood schools. Such a plan would surely draw fire from both types of schools, many of which pride themselves on their distinct identity, curricula and history.
The first alternative schools sprang up 30 years ago under maverick Superintendent Tom Payzant. Spawned by collaboration between district staff and parents, the schools proposed to offer something unique and innovative - language immersion, blended grades, free-ranging electives - that neighborhood schools did not. Parents could choose to send their children anywhere in the city, so long as they provided transportation.
But critics charge that a two-tiered system has evolved. Even though alternative schools are open to all, many serve few if any poor or minority students. By luring away the most stable, affluent and involved parents, critics say, alternative schools have "skimmed the cream" from neighborhood schools, eroding their ability to attract students and keep pace on test scores. Eugene's two elementary charter schools - public schools that operate independently from the district - have also siphoned students since they opened in 2000, they say.
At the same time, state budget cuts have thinned the staffing ranks, making it increasingly difficult to sustain full programs at the district's many small alternative schools.
Adams Elementary parent Nancy Willard, a member of the Access and Options Committee, has been a leading critic of alternative schools. She believes wholesale change is in order, and has given the committee her analysis of district data on student transfers and socioeconomics.
Some of the numbers are startling - none more so than at Adams, where a staggering 71 percent of the 440 students who live in the neighborhood transferred to other schools last year. The three schools that drew the most students away were Hillside Alternative, which shares a building with Adams; Eastside Alternative; and Fox Hollow, a French immersion school.
At Adams, nearly 30 percent of the 167 students were minorities, and 58 percent qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. The percentage of minorities at the three alternative schools, meanwhile, ranged from about 6 percent at Eastside and Fox Hollow to 26 percent at Hillside.
On last year's state assessment tests, students at Adams scored well below their counterparts at those three schools in both reading and math.
When it comes to per-pupil spending, though, Adams and other schools with high numbers of low-income kids come out well ahead, according to a district analysis released this week.
Adams receives thousands of dollars in Title I funding to boost reading and math instruction, along with other grants, boosting its per-pupil spending well above that of the three alternative schools.
But Becki Fujii, a former Adams teacher who now coordinates Title I funds at another school, …