Pearson parents sense betrayal

Some fear magnet will exclude them

Staff WriterJune 22, 2006 

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CORRECTION

An article Thursday on W.G. Pearson Elementary School in Durham misstated the figures on students who meet federal poverty guidelines. More than nine of 10 students this year met those guidelines.

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DURHAM -- It sounded too good to be true when parents learned their children would leave the crumbling W.G. Pearson Elementary School this fall for a pristine facility up the road and out of the slums.

Now, before the doors of the brand new school open this fall, those same parents feel like their children are getting pushed out.

First, parents learned that most of their beloved teachers would not follow their children to the new W.G. Pearson, which will become a magnet school. Then they got wind of school meetings to which they were not invited, taking place in prosperous neighborhoods such as Hope Valley Farms. And last week, the district held a meeting in another part of town to establish the school's new PTA, but many of the Pearson parents never received notice.

"They are going to find some way where these kids don't get to go to the magnet school," said Estella Bell, current PTA president. "This school is for the Hope Valley folks; it is not for our children."

Sandy Chambers, Pearson's new principal, said the district has bungled Pearson's transition. Now she has to deal with suspicious parents and assure them no one wants to push out their children.

"I really do feel that things could have been done differently and not so many people would have been hurt or mad," Chambers said. "It is frustrating to me that I am getting thrown in."

For years, Pearson has been the poorest and one of the most racially segregated schools in the Durham school system. More than one in nine students meet federal poverty guidelines. The district decided in December to make the new facility a magnet school in hopes that the gifted and talented program would draw the parents of white and middle class students.

Dale McDowell, who has one child at Pearson, said parents were excited at first about the new school's enhanced status.

But then the district administrators decided that few of the school's current administrators, teachers and staff were qualified to work at the new school -- only four of 23 will go to the new building. The rest will be reassigned. That sent a message, Bell said: Certain teachers were good enough for poor children, but not for children from families who are well off.

And McDowell said other "sneaky little things" began to happen. Parents learned that Chambers met with parents from other schools to recruit their children, though Chambers had not met with them to talk about the new school. Chambers said administrators instructed her to hold meetings at those schools.

Then McDowell got a letter about a meeting to establish a PTA for the school. But only she and one other parent from the current school showed up. McDowell's anger rose as she watched parents who didn't know the old school put their names down for positions on the PTA board. So, she signed up also.

Chambers said she sent letters to previous and new Pearson parents. But she got a stack of them from the old school back. Several parents who did get notice could not come. Some had to work. Many had no transportation to North Durham -- miles away from the school -- to attend the meeting.

Thernarda Crudup Harris, a Pearson teacher who was told last month that she did not make the cut for the new school, said Chambers does not understand the parents and students she has inherited from the old school. The meeting should have been held close to the school, with notices distributed by school administrators because poor families move frequently, said Harris, who has taken a job in the Chapel Hill schools after teaching in Durham for 18 years.

Chambers said she did not realize Pearson had so many poor students. She said she should have found a better way of communicating with parents.

But Harris and McDowell do not think it's all accidental. They point to the meeting agenda that said all students had to register in order to attend the new school. That seemed to counter an earlier guarantee that students already enrolled at Pearson had a spot at the new school without signing up.

School officials say that guarantee is still in effect. But many from the old school don't buy it.

"The needs of these 200 poor black children was not going to supersede the needs that the district has, or their plans for this school," Harris said. "My theory was it was going to take DPS at least two years to get these children out of this school. It is not even taking two months."

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

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