Some Carmel school board members open to splitting elementary schools to balance middle school populations

CIC COM 1201 School board
The preferred redistricting plan as presented to the Carmel school board Nov. 23. (Submitted image)

As the redistricting process continues at Carmel Clay Schools, members of the board of trustees have concerns about how middle schools are affected in the preferred plan.

At their Nov. 23 meeting, school board members reviewed and discussed the preferred plan, which was developed after gathering feedback from parents, educators and other community members on three proposed options.

The redistricting is needed because Orchard Park Elementary will close after the 2020-21 school year and Clay Center Elementary will open in the fall of 2021 5 miles to the northwest. Throughout the process, CCS and consultant Cooperative Strategies have attempted to assign students to their nearest school, balance school facilities relative to capacity, keep neighborhoods together and transition entire elementary schools to the same middle school.

However, some school board members said they would be willing to consider splitting elementary schools to better balance populations at the middle schools. Under the preferred plan, capacities at middle schools are 102 percent at Clay, 98 percent at Creekside and 79 percent at Carmel. Because there are 11 elementary schools, one middle school will have significantly less students if elementary schools aren’t split.

The preferred plan moves Cherry Tree Elementary students from Carmel Middle School to Clay Middle School and moves Forest Dale Elementary students from Clay Middle School to Carmel Middle School, a change from all of the proposed options. With many Orchard Park students likely moving to Forest Dale, the change was made to keep a large percentage of those students at Carmel Middle school instead of splitting the Home Place area between Creekside and Clay middle schools, both of which are farther away for most residents. Currently, Orchard Park students feed into Carmel Middle School.

CCS Associate Supt. for Business Affairs Roger McMichael said swapping the middle schools for Cherry Tree and Forest Dale didn’t “meaningfully change” enrollment projections at Clay as shown in the three proposed options. He also said demographic data shows that middle school enrollment at Clay and elsewhere is expected to begin declining soon.

Board member Pam Knowles questioned whether the district could keep Cherry Tree students at Clay and split Forest Dale students, with those living west of Westfield Boulevard going to Carmel and those east remaining at Clay. She said it could help balance the middle school populations without moving Orchard Park students to Clay.

“Over the years, Orchard Park began at Carmel Junior High, then they went to Creekside, then they went to Carmel Middle School and now there’s a possibility they’re going to go to Creekside, Clay and Carmel middle schools,” Knowles said. “Being in the middle of this district has been hard for those students.”

Board member Layla Spanbenberg said she’s “not totally sold on the benefit of the feeder system” as some of the reasons CCS didn’t previously split up elementary schools are no longer valid. For example, she said one reason the district has kept elementary schools together is to keep students with the same school resource officer who is assigned to their elementary and middle school campus. However, each elementary is set to have its own SRO in the near future.

Spanenberg said she noticed that her own children found new groups of friends once they left elementary school.

“Once we got to middle school and high school, my kids were not in class with their friends. They all get spread out and they meet new people,” she said. “They have done well, and most of our children are very resilient.”

CCS Supt. Michael Beresford said he sees advantages to keeping elementary schools together as students enter middle school.

“You’ve spent six years where you’ve developed these relationships with families and kids with each other,” he said. “(Splitting elementaries) is kind of haphazard. Sometimes kids and their core friends go together someplace, and sometimes kids and their core friends split and that can make the transition even more difficult.”

The district will continue to gather and review feedback through Dec. 10. The school board is expected to vote on a final plan at its Dec. 14 meeting. See the plan and give feedback at