Software platform engages communities in school rezoning decisions
April 16, 2019
School rezoning decisions often cause emotional stress for families and communities for a variety of reasons.
Parents worry about continuity of programs and activities at a new school, the toll it might take on their children’s friendships, and modes of transportation. School officials, administrators, and staff want to ensure that all students have equitable access to educational programs and facilities. Almost everyone is concerned about the impact a particular school attendance zone will have on traffic patterns, especially at opening and closing times.
Redistrict, an online interactive platform developed at the Discovery Analytics Center at Virginia Tech, is trying to reduce that stress by getting parents and other stakeholders more involved in the process. The platform uses data analytics and machine learning to help them better understand school rezoning plans and their potential effect on the community; share their comments and concerns about proposed plans; propose changes to boundaries; and even create their own plans.
Subhodip Biswas, a computer science Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering, led the Redistrict platform design. Biswas is a trainee in the urban computing certificate program, a National Science Foundation-sponsored program administered by the Discovery Analytics Center that prepares students to use data analytics to help local governments and communities find new and effective ways of tackling challenges.
“Redistrict is a good option to bring together all stakeholders involved in a rezoning effort — school board officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents,” Biswas said. “It highlights complex objectives that must be balanced to arrive at an equitable rezoning.”
Biswas’ interest in rezoning was sparked by reading news articles and blogs.
“I realized that school boundaries are an important issue across the United States and took a deep dive, learning more and more about the process,” said Biswas, advised by Naren Ramakrishnan, the Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and director of the Discovery Analytics Center. “My interest grew further when I attended some of Loudoun County Public Schools' public rezoning meetings as I was developing algorithms for the Redistrict system.”
“While local government and school board meetings are open to parents who desire to voice their opinions, these meetings are impractical to attend for many as they tend to run long and late into the evening. Redistrict offers an easier way for them to participate on their own time and from a more convenient location,” said Biswas.
Kurt Luther, an assistant professor in computer science who specializes in crowdsourcing and human-computer interaction, helped refine the workflow of Redistrict while it was being developed.
Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) has since partnered with Redistrict, most recently when establishing the school attendance zone for Waxpool Elementary School in Ashburn, Virginia, which will open in fall 2019.
Biswas worked closely with Susan Hembach, supervisor of the geographic information system (GIS) in Loudoun County Public Schools’ Division of Planning Services, who helped advocate for Redistrict among all the stakeholders in Loudoun County who could benefit from it.
Hembach's staff members Vicki Keegan, GIS analyst, and Colin Flynn, GIS specialist, were also involved in the Redistrict effort.
“Rezoning is one of the biggest issues for LCPS parents and I believe the Redistrict program did exactly what it was supposed to do,” Hembach said. “It allowed for improved communications between our parents and our community leaders and provided an opportunity for everyone to get involved and be heard, as well as being a great way of keeping everything in focus.”
According to Hembach, Loudoun County Public Schools is planning to use the software system again later this year to establish a new attendance zone for Lightridge High School.
“I think it's great that we can open up what can be a fairly opaque process. I hope that the interactive visualizations on Redistrict can give everyone a sense of how difficult it can be to come up with satisfactory zoning proposals,” said Nathan Self, research associate in the Discovery Analytics Center and member of the Redistrict team.
Other students provided specific expertise and viewpoints to the project as the team explored new functionality and brainstormed opportunities to partner with other school systems.
Andreea Sistrunk, a Ph.D. student in computer science, offers the perspective of a mother, a former middle and high school teacher, and a researcher. “In any redistricting effort, tension can build up from the schools and into the neighborhood, where even those without children begin to think about the long term impact of a redistrict, such as real estate prices,” she said.
“I was drawn to this project because it not only helps families, children, and school districts, but also enables cohesive support for community development through a fair and transparent vote,” said Sistrunk, also advised by Ramakrishnan.
Fanglan Chen, the most recent member of the Redistrict team, brings her domain knowledge as a Ph.D. student in computer science and as a simultaneous master’s degree student in urban planning to the project. She is working with Biswas to develop an enhanced algorithm for the platform. Chen, who has completed the UrbComp certificate program, is advised by Chang-Tien Lu, a professor in computer science and associate director of the Discovery Analytics Center; and Elizabeth Morton, associate professor of practice in urban affairs and planning.
Written by Barbara L. Micale