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Lincoln North Star overcrowding

Students make their way to class in January at Lincoln North Star, where enrollment has surpassed 2,200 this year.

The Lincoln Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to close North Star High School to transfers, but signaled the move is likely just the first step to longer-term solutions to ease overcrowding at the school.

“This is our way of getting out in front of the conversation, our continuing efforts to be completely transparent,” said board member Don Mayhew. “This is hanging a lantern on the issue. Growth is continuing, it’s not abating. This is probably going to be the first of several substantial conversations about what to do about the lack of space.”

The decision marks the first time in at least 20 years the district has modified its open enrollment policy for high schools since it began the practice in the early 1990s.

Tuesday's vote still allowed the district to accept transfers to North Star from students who live in other attendance areas as long as they submitted paperwork by the existing Jan. 31 deadline -- a move that essentially means the district will hold firm to the deadline, which it typically has not done.

North Star’s enrollment when school started this fall was 2,196 – the highest of the district’s six high schools -- and since then at least 15 English Language Learners have enrolled there.

Initial numbers collected after the Jan. 31 deadline indicate 2,176 students plan to attend North Star next fall, 20 fewer than the start of this school year. But Liz Standish, LPS associate superintendent of business affairs, told board members in an e-mail that fall enrollment is likely to increase as more families move into the attendance area.

The board is just beginning work to update its 10-year facilities plan and North Star will be a part of that.

However, longer-term solutions are limited. The board could close enrollment to transfers going forward, it could change school attendance boundaries, add more portables, build onto North Star or build a new high school.

Given that the community approved a $153 million bond issue in 2014, another bond issue is unlikely for several years. But after the board meeting Mayhew said a bond issue -- which the district has floated about every seven years -- will ultimately be the long-term solution. 

In the meantime, boundaries are likely to come up: The 2,463 students now living in the North Star attendance area are more than in any of the other high school boundaries. Lincoln High’s attendance area has the second-highest student population at 2,031.

And a growing and dense student population in northwest Lincoln means enrollment at North Star, which opened in 2003, will continue to climb.

Standish told board members that because the city is growing in all directions, enrollment at all high schools will continue to increase. While North Star had the highest enrollment this fall, Southeast has the second-highest with 2,100 students.

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And while closing North Star to transfers may limit the growth, the open enrollment policy has also helped the crowded high school: While 382 students from other attendance areas chose to go to North Star, 653 living within North Star boundaries chose to attend a different high school.

The board’s decision will allow those 653 -- or any others living in the North Star attendance area -- to attend another high school next year. The 382 transfers into North Star can remain there, and as long as they are there, their siblings also can enroll.

Among the challenges facing North Star are English Language Learners, who require more and smaller classroom spaces that put unique space demands on the school, which has the same design as Southwest.

An influx of ELL students to the district has put more pressure on North Star. The school began the year with 146 ELL students and now has 161, Standish said.

North Star and Lincoln High are currently the only two high schools with ELL programs, though the district plans to add an ELL program next fall at Northeast.

Overcrowding at North Star has taken its toll: the district has added portable classrooms, divided common meeting spaces into classrooms and, for the first time this year, added a third lunch period. There is no space to add sections of classes, even though they’re needed.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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