DeKalb leaders plan to evaluate school boundaries, attendance zones

DeKalb County Superintendent Devon Horton gives his remarks during the State of the District address at Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Decatur on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

DeKalb County Superintendent Devon Horton gives his remarks during the State of the District address at Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Decatur on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

The DeKalb County School District is gearing up to evaluate school attendance zones, Superintendent Devon Horton said in a recent speech.

DeKalb’s student assignment department will be reviewing school boundaries and developing new assignment plans — meaning there could be changes to which students attend which schools and how students are selected to attend schools with special programs.

The district has never before created a comprehensive student assignment plan, Horton said during his State of the District address on Thursday.

“Because it’s hard. It’s challenging,” he said. “But we have to break through that to build a better DeKalb.”

The school board is able to alter attendance areas based on factors like geographic proximity to a school, a school’s instructional capacity and its projected enrollment.

The district’s comprehensive master plan, unveiled in 2022 to serve as a roadmap for the next decade in DeKalb schools, recommended redistricting throughout the county by 2030.

The plan predicted that 23 schools will be over 100% capacity in 2031, and 27 schools will be filled to less than 70% capacity. That means slightly less than half of DeKalb’s schools will be significantly over- or under-used. The plan suggested the consolidation of some elementary schools, the creation of K-8 facilities in some areas and the rebuilding of other schools, coupled with redrawing school boundaries as necessary.

The comprehensive master plan was introduced when maintenance concerns were reaching a fever pitch in DeKalb. Board members voted in April 2022 to prioritize critical maintenance needs across the district, rather than larger projects at a shorter list of schools, as the plan recommended. Shortly after that, the board fired Cheryl Watson-Harris from her role as superintendent, and was ordered by state leaders to proceed with major upgrades at Druid Hills High.

Though construction and maintenance projects have been moving forward in the district, the board and superintendent have seldom discussed the broader plan for school facilities publicly since the board vote to change its focus. Horton said at a school board meeting this month that staff is finalizing a list of projects ranked by importance for every school.

The student assignment planning is “long overdue,” Horton said in Thursday’s address. The process will focus on specialty schools “to ensure equity and efficient use of existing and new learning opportunities,” he said.

The board in February approved the hire of Sarita Smith as the executive director of student assignment. She worked with Horton in the Evanston/Skokie District 65 outside of Chicago. There, she led the “first community-driven process to review boundaries and develop a student assignment plan in 30 years,” the Evanston Roundtable reported.

The DeKalb community can expect to hear more about student assignment planning “very soon,” Horton said Thursday.

“This is a brutal process, but so necessary,” he said.