Three decades ago, when Wake County began busing children to maintain diversity in its schools, officials were trying to erase stark racial divides.
Now, as the county contemplates an end to busing, many of Wake's neighborhoods are more racially integrated, but the economic dividing line remains.
In December, four new Wake school board members will take office, after a contentious election that tipped the balance for the first time since the 1970s in favor of abandoning busing for diversity. Barring an upset Tuesday in the District 2 runoff, a majority of the new board will favor sending children to school in their neighborhoods - a philosophy that could dramatically reshape the state's largest school system.
Opponents have said it would resegregate classrooms, but few know exactly how a system of neighborhood schools would look in Wake County.
An analysis of school system data by The News & Observer shows that many of the county's neighborhoods, especially in suburban areas, have become relatively racially diverse. Available statistics indicate that less than 20 percent of Wake neighborhoods are more than 75 percent minority, and slightly more than a third appear to be 75 percent or higher white. Census data from 2000 showed a similar situation, spurred by growth and the entry of minorities into the middle class over the past few decades.
But The N&O's analysis also shows a county split by income into halves. If all children went to their neighborhood schools, poor students would cluster in the county's eastern half while students from more affluent families would be concentrated in Wake's western side.
The N&O analysis, using neighborhood-level demographic data collected by the school system, shows that in the vast majority of northern and western Wake neighborhoods, fewer than 20 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunches. On the other side of the line, in eastern and much of southern Wake, all but a handful of neighborhoods have more than 20 percent economically disadvantaged students.
The line runs through the center of Raleigh, separating the city's growing north and west sections from its high-poverty eastern half. In virtually all of East Raleigh, at least 60 percent of children receive free and reduced-price lunch. And though other areas of the county are more racially diverse, all of East Raleigh remains dominated by people from racial minority groups.
That area of the city contains some of Wake County's most sought-after magnet schools, including Hunter and Washington elementary schools, Ligon Middle School and Enloe High School. If they became traditional neighborhood schools, filled entirely with children from the surrounding homes, they would have high concentrations of poverty, the data show.
Lisa Morrell, whose fourth-grader attends Hunter, said that would be a loss both for the magnet students, like hers, and for the low-income children who share their classrooms. She said the mix of incomes has resulted in a well-funded PTA that buys school supplies, supports teachers and holds food and clothing drives to help poor students.
"When you have schools that are balanced, then you have people who can help people in need," Morrell said.
Officials with Wake schools say it is too soon to know what the student assignment will look like under the new board. The new board members have offered few specifics on how they will carry out a vision that could require moving nearly half of the system's almost 140,000 students.
"There's no way to speculate what might happen," said Greg Thomas, a spokesman for the Wake County school system. "Neighborhood schools mean different things to different people."
Even if the board hews to a strict interpretation, in which every child goes to the school closest to home, most areas of the county are not likely to return to a 1960s vision of racially segregated schools, the school system data show.
Many areas of suburban Wake County look much like Christine Bonin's neighborhood, Park Village in western Cary. White families live alongside blacks, Hispanics and people from India, China and elsewhere.
"We counted, and we have 63 nations represented in our school," said Bonin, who is president of the PTA at nearby Davis Drive Elementary School. She said the school has diversity without forcing children from East Raleigh to ride a bus for more two hours each day.
Even under a strict system of neighborhood schools, Wake would remain more integrated than many school systems across the country, said Jacob Vigdor, a Duke economics professor who studies residential segregation and education policy.
Among proponents of busing, "neighborhood schools" conjure up visions of places such as Detroit, where city schools are almost exclusively black and, just across the river in the city's suburbs, a separate system runs mostly white schools. Some Southern cities, notably Atlanta, also have a sharp divide between an impoverished city school system and relatively affluent suburban districts.
But Vigdor said Wake's countywide system would keep the schools from dividing along city boundaries, which exacerbates the problem in places such as Detroit, where most white families have fled to the suburbs.
"You're not going to have a Detroit-style phenomenon in Wake County," Vigdor said.
Still, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, which quit busing for diversity in 2002, shows that racial divisions can intensify even with a county-wide system. There, 95 of 167 schools are more than 75 percent minority, school system data show. Sixty-one schools are less than 10 percent white. Charlotte has also seen an increase in the number of schools with large percentages of poor students.
The Charlotte system, however, is only 34 percent white, state data show. In Wake, more than half of students are white.
Location, location, location
In Wake County, the strongest divider may be the price of real estate. For all their racial diversity, neighborhoods such as Cary's Park Village has only students whose family can afford a home valued at $200,000 or more.
"I can afford to live in this particular neighborhood in Cary," saidAndrea Owens-Byrd, a Park Village resident. "But we can't all do that. And those kids in other neighborhoods deserve a quality education too."
Under the current school diversity policy, Wake school leaders have set a goal of making sure no school has more than 40 percent poor students. Above that level, they say, parental support and academic performance begin to slip.
The current board buses students out of the county's poorest areas and uses magnets to attract middle class families to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The policy has successfully balanced many of Southeast Raleigh's schools, but it has also angered people in some areas, such as Garner, by increasing the percentages of poor children in their schools.
Under a neighborhood schools policy, that picture would change. Nearly all of the schools in East Raleigh and eastern Wake County sit in neighborhoods where the percentage of students getting discounted lunch exceeds 40 percent, an analysis by The News & Observer shows.
Marsha Pharr, who lives at Raleigh's far eastern edge, said her children would likely be in one of these higher-poverty schools. She said she has seen firsthand that, as the number of poor students grows, the quality of education slips.
Her children are magnet students at Bugg Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh, one of many schools that has slipped past 40 percent poor students in recent years, as the school system struggled to keep economic balance while dealing with surging enrollment, reassignment complaints and a growing number of disadvantaged students. Since her children, now fourth- and fifth-graders started there, Bugg has gone from about 20 percent poor students to nearly 55 percent.
Pharr said she has watched PTA participation fall and teacher recruitment suffer. She said parents struggling to make ends meet don't have time or money to give to the school.
Pharr said she doesn't know what she'll do if, under a new system, her children are assigned to a school with even more poor students.
"I don't think they would be getting the best education that they could," said Pharr, who works for N.C. State University. "I'm very concerned. A lot of us are, and we'll be paying very close attention."
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