Wake split on how to teach poor kids

Busing issue divides parents, educators

Staff WriterJanuary 18, 2010 

— There is no dispute that the Wake County school system needs to do a better job of educating low-income students, but emotional arguments flare over whether the answer is to end busing for diversity.

The Wake school board's new majority is calling for a return to neighborhood schools and pointing to a task force it has created to try to reduce suspensions and improve test scores and graduation rates among poor and minority students. Opponents of the majority counter that the task force doesn't make up for the de facto resegregation of schools they fear will take place if the diversity policy is eliminated.

The board's new majority has pledged to eliminate the diversity policy and is now controlling the direction of the state's largest school district.

"They're saying, 'Let's go back to the old way,' but that's not working," said school board chairman Ron Margiotta, who pushed for the creation of the economically disadvantaged student performance task force.

"Don't they care they're not helping the low-income students or the higher-achieving ones? We have not been doing much for anyone."

For most of the past six years, Margiotta was the lone board critic of efforts to balance the percentages of low-income students at schools. But he was joined last month by four Republican-backed members who also oppose the diversitypolicy.

Room for improvement

The new board members repeatedly mentioned during the election campaign how Wake's 54.2 percent graduation rate for low-income students is below the state average. They dismissed the diversity policy as a way to boost overall test scores for schools, hiding the lagging performance of poor and minority students, rather than help those individuals.

"Their agenda has been telling people that there are no unhealthy schools in Wake County to attract businesses," said new school board member John Tedesco, the chairman of the task force. "It's a mask."

A key part of Tedesco's vision for improving the performance of low-income students is to move to a system of neighborhood schools. He wants schools to partner with community and business groups to provide students in high-poverty areas with additional resources.

Supporters of the diversity policy say that low-income students will not benefit from the increase in the number of high-poverty and high-minority schools that will result from neighborhood schools. They note how high-poverty schools typically have lower test scores and a harder time attracting teachers than more affluent schools.

"To say that undermining the diversity policy will improve student achievement is ludicrous," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP. "It doesn't make sense."

Barber has threatened to sue the Wake school system if the board abandons the diversity policy. Barber has unsuccessfully requested time at a board meeting for a 45-minute public presentation that he says will include ideas for improving the performance of low-income and minority students.

Margiotta said he has been following the past board practice of responding to those kinds of requests with an offer of a smaller, private meeting with Barber.

Try new ways

Tedesco argues that there's room within a system of neighborhood schools, which he calls community schools, to improve the performance of low-income students. He points to the narrowing of the racial academic achievement gap in the Fairfax County school system in Virginia and how the Guilford County school system sports a higher graduation rate, both overall and among low-income students, than Wake.

Tedesco is joined on the task force by school board member Keith Sutton, who is hoping to place more scrutiny on discipline policies that result in the suspensions of thousands of students annually. Sutton has been an outspoken critic of the "zero-tolerance" disciplinary policies that have driven up those suspensions.

But Sutton disagrees with Tedesco's view that neighborhood schools are the answer for helping low-income students. Sutton said he wants to look for ways to help these students that don't involve school assignments.

"I expect everyone will stand by their principles, but I'm hoping we can agree on this issue to impact this group of students," he said.

Yevonne Brannon, a member of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition that formed to oppose the new board majority, says she's not going to defend the poor performance of Wake's low-income students.

But she said dropping the diversity policy will make things worse.

"They're saying that we'll resegregate, but we'll provide more resources," Brannon said. "That's not going to work. There's no data to show that separate but equal works."

Margiotta, the school board chairman, said he's tired of hearing the other side accuse the new majority of trying to resegregate the school system with neighborhood schools.

"They're not concerned about the children in Wake County," Margiotta said. "They're concerned about their loss of power in Wake County. That's sad. They should be concerned about the education of all the children in Wake County."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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