RALEIGH — This fall could mark the final year of Wake County's school diversity policy as the new ruling coalition on the school board develops a plan that overhauls where and how children are educated.
Next week, Wake families will start applying for seats at magnet schools this fall. But the magnet program is among the things that could be overhauled as part of a new student assignment plan school board members say they want to start implementing in the 2011-12 school year.
Members of the board majority say they plan to spend much of the next year developing details of a new plan that would carry out their campaign promises of eliminating the diversity policy, moving Wake toward neighborhood schools and revamping the magnet program.
"We're going to turn around the Titanic that is the Wake County school system," said school board member John Tedesco, who is chairman of the board's newly created student assignment committee.
Tedesco is laying out a vision in which Wake would be divided into up to 20 community-based assignment zones, each with a mixture of magnet, year-round and traditional-calendar schools. He proposes spreading magnet schools around the county - removing programs from some of the 33 existing magnet schools, most of which are clustered inside the Beltline around Raleigh.
His plan would lead to the creation of high-poverty schools in some areas, which he said could be addressed by giving such schools additional money. But the main challenge to implementing the plan may come from members of the board majority.
Tedesco's plan confirms the fears of magnet parents who've been the most vocal critics of the new school board majority. They've argued that abandoning the diversity policy and significantly altering the magnet program would lead to de facto resegregation.
"They're going to get away with saying there's still magnet programs," said Lisa Callan, a parent at Combs Elementary, a magnet school in Raleigh. "But it won't be the same. It's going to be awatered-down version."
Magnet schools are part of a carrot-and-stick approach for maintaining diversity.
While some students are involuntarily bused for diversity, others are encouraged to attend magnet schools voluntarily. Unique academic programs have been used since 1982 to entice suburban students to apply for magnet schools that are mostly located in higher-poverty areas in and near Southeast Raleigh.
During an open house late last month at Washington Elementary School, administrators touted the fact that more than 300 electives are offered at the magnet school. Offerings include gymnastics, aeronautics, orchestra, photography and playwriting.
"I wish every school could be equivalent to a magnet program," said Kathleen Hughes, a North Raleigh parent who has a child at the magnet program at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh. "I wish things were different, but I'm going to advocate for my child."
Resentment has developed from suburban parents whose children don't attend magnet schools. They complain that Wake limits non-magnet schools from offering certain courses. For instance, non-magnet elementary schools are not supposed to offer electives.
"If you leave the magnet program as it is, you can kiss Knightdale goodbye," said Robin Woodlief, a member of the Knightdale 100, a grassroots advocacy group that wants more resources put into Eastern Wake schools.
But Woodlief said she'd like to keep the diversity policy. That's not a concern for Jennifer Mansfield, a longtime critic of the magnet program. She said it's "sickening" how a non-magnet school such as Wakefield Middle in North Raleigh had to cut foreign language for budget reasons while some magnet elementary schools are offering daily foreign language instruction.
"Give up a little bit at the magnets to help everybody," said Mansfield, parent of a magnet student at East Millbrook Middle School in North Raleigh.
Some parents have also complained about the process used to select magnet students. Only 10 percent of magnet seats are filled randomly. Most seats are filled under selection criteria that give priority to applicants from crowded and affluent schools.
Four school board candidates tapped into resentment over the magnet schools to win seats last fall. They joined board member Ron Margiotta to form a majority on the nine-member board.
Tedesco, a new board member, said one of the goals of the new assignment plan would be to address the inequities among the schools. He wants to allow non-magnet schools to offer electives, and he doesn't want magnet schools concentrated in one area.
"I'm willing to create less magnet schools and more program equity so that a magnet school may not have 200 electives but every school may have 50 electives," he said.
But Tedesco could have a hard time persuading fellow new board member Debra Goldman to back his plan. Goldman, the parent of a magnet student, has shown the willingness to break from the majority on votes.
Goldman said she supports the vision of community-based schools and is interested in some magnet changes, such as adding a few new magnet schools in other areas. But she's not for making major changes to the magnet program. She's also against changing the magnet selection criteria for this fall, which Tedesco advocates.
"I want to protect the magnet system," Goldman said.
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