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Schools start rezoning process

Suffolk Public Schools hopes to reduce mobile units, maintain diversity, create more efficient bus routes and better take advantage of space in its buildings during an upcoming rezoning process, School Board members heard on Thursday.

The rezoning process is taking place in order to fill two new schools that are currently under construction and will open next fall. Florence Bowser Elementary School and Col. Fred Cherry Middle School will serve the North Suffolk area.

But while they’re at it, it’s a good opportunity to look at the entire division and see if improvements can be made in a variety of areas, including the number of mobile units the division uses, the efficiency of its bus routes, the space available in its buildings and how closely the diversity of the student population at each school mirrors the division as a whole.

“Our immediate concern is Fred Cherry and Florence Bowser,” school division Director of Facilities and Planning Terry Napier said. “While we’re looking at that, it is an opportunity.”

A committee has developed criteria for the process. For Florence Bowser Elementary School, the school should open with about 850 students — the current population of nearly 600 students from Driver Elementary School and the rest from Creekside Elementary School, which is nearly 110 percent over its capacity.

Driver Elementary School’s current building will be transformed into the Excel Academy at Driver, a school for students who are behind academically.

At Col. Fred Cherry Middle School, the goal will be to open with about 650 students, which are anticipated to come mostly from John Yeates Middle School. JYMS is by far the most crowded school in the district at more than 157 percent over its capacity.

While some schools are overcrowded, the district has nine schools that are under capacity. Lakeland High School, for example, is at only 70 percent of its capacity, while King’s Fork is at 92 percent at Nansemond River is at 103 percent.

The goal is to fix that as much as possible in the rezoning process, Napier said.

“Hopefully we won’t have a building with a large number of empty seats while we have a building that has no empty seats,” Napier said.

At both new schools as well as for the district as a whole, the goal will be to keep neighborhoods together when possible and use established roadways and geographical features to separate attendance zones.

School Board members and staff said they know it will be a challenge to complete the rezoning process.

“We’re going to bring you back the best that we can offer,” Napier said.

A public input session just before the regular meeting on Thursday brought only one speaker. Nicola Smith-Wilson asked that students from Nansemond Parkway Elementary School all be zoned to attend John Yeates Middle School. Currently, some of them are zoned for John F. Kennedy Middle School, which separates some students from their friends, Smith-Wilson said.

Rezoning proposals will be available on the school division’s website in December.

A second public input session will be held at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 11.

At 7 p.m. Feb. 8, the committee will make its formal presentation to the School Board. And at its March 8 meeting, the School Board is expected to vote on the rezoning plan.