Magnet proposal gets big reaction

Durham parents sound off to panel

Staff WriterOctober 18, 2005 

The Durham school board got an an earful about its proposal to revamp the magnet system during a Monday night committee meeting that felt like a public hearing.

More than 50 people packed the board room to vent their opinions about the Durham Public Schools' first major overhaul of the district's magnet schools and attendance zone lines since the county and city systems merged 13 years ago. Monday's turnout was the largest ever for a school committee meeting, and officials had to haul in chairs several times to accommodate the crowd.

There were about as many opinions about the proposal released Thursday as there were people.

Under the plan, 1,200 elementary students from 14 schools and 300 students from the middle and high schools would be moved around starting next fall in an effort to clean up attendance lines originally created to diversify schools. But the redistricting part of the plan brought little commentary Monday. What drew out passionate parents were changes to the magnet schools aimed at giving them more magnetism.

Magnet schools were designed to entice people into voluntary integration and to fill inner-city schools that had been largely abandoned. But Durham has abandoned that approach, and is instead using magnets to make the public school system attractive to parents who want choices.

The plan proposes:

* Turning Y.E. Smith Science and Technology and C.C. Spaulding Biosphere elementaries, which are magnets, into traditional schools with regular attendance zones.

* Making the new W.G. Pearson Elementary, which is to open in the fall of 2006, into a magnet school for the talented and gifted.

* Converting Shepard Middle School, currently an International Baccalaureate magnet, into a talented and gifted school that serves grades six through 12. It would be linked to W.G. Pearson. When an elementary school is linked to a secondary school, students who attend the elementary magnet are guaranteed entrance into the secondary magnet if they apply.

* Transferring Shepard's International Baccalaureate program to Hillside High School in a new center for sixth- through 12th-graders. Students earn a special honors diploma through the rigorous program.

* Linking Burton Geo-World magnet, which will begin the International Baccalaureate curriculum at the elementary level, to Hillside.

* Linking the elementary magnet schools R.N. Harris and Club Boulevard to the highly popular Durham School of the Arts, which is already a combined middle and high school.

Several in the audience objected to the proposal for Hillside High School.

"You want to put sixth- and 12th-graders in the same school?" Musa Williams asked. "These are two totally different worlds."

Parent Carline Jules said that Hillside's Baccalaureate program is not as strong as Shepard's and that the district should move Hillside's program to Shepard. That brought angry shouts from several in the audience who did not want to see the school lose the much-sought-after program.

School officials also had to dispel a rumor that they intended to rename Hillside High, something that had been circulated in fliers distributed during the weekend.

Groups of parents from R.N. Harris and Club Boulevard spoke in favor of the link to the Durham School of the Arts.

"The link will help with bringing diversity and helping enrollment," said Larry Brockman, a parent at R.N. Harris, which has few white students and is under capacity.

Another parent called the link unfair and said he worried it would reduce the opportunity for students from other Durham elementary schools to attend Durham School of the Arts and make the school less diverse.

Several voiced discontent with the parent survey that the district used to draft the plan. Blacks and Latinos accounted for only 32 percent of respondents, though they make up about 70 percent of the district.

Barbara Rumer called survey results "demographically skewed."

Others were concerned that the district intends to move forward without giving the community a chance to weigh in. School officials and board members said they intend to hold at least three public hearings before voting. Those dates will be set at the Oct. 27 board meeting.

Chris Bennett, the district administrator in charge of the initiative, said he is going to seek advice on how to better reach black and Latino parents. Bennett said he thought the meeting went well and was optimistic that the board would vote on the proposal by the end of the year.

"People are passionate, and I thought it was a great opportunity to give us some input," he said. "The plan is solid in what it can do for students academically."

Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones @newsobserver.com.

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