Wake urged to save 'a jewel'

Education panel backs diversity

Staff WriterMarch 21, 2010 

— A panel of national and local education researchers and retired Wake County school administrators urged the community Saturday to fight to maintain the school system's socioeconomic diversity policy.

Panelists praised Wake's diversity efforts as a national model and told a crowd of more than 400 people that research shows that high-poverty schools will lead to a drop in academic quality and a negative impact on the economy of the county. The forum took place as the Wake school board is poised to give final approval Tuesday to a resolution that scraps busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools.

"My fear ... as I witness from the sidelines is that we'll fall into the abyss with 'have' schools and 'have-not' schools," said retired Wake Schools Superintendent Bill McNeal. "That breaks my heart that could happen and would happen in Wake County schools."

Wake has received national recognition for a decade-long policy that aims to limit the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches at any school to no more than 40 percent. Complaints about the policy helped fuel the election of new board members last fall who intend to send students to schools closer to their home communities.

To help mobilize supporters of the diversity policy, the Great Schools in Wake Coalition organized the forum at N.C. State University's McKimmon Center.

Panelists presented research based on national and state data on the benefits of diverse schools and the challenges of high-poverty schools.

Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher at the "progressive" Century Foundation who has extensively cited Wake's diversity policy, said studies have shown that high-poverty schools are more likely to struggle academically, have higher teacher turnover and less involved parents.

"This is a highly successful system," Kahlenberg said. "It is a jewel. I'm very pleased we have a huge crowd fighting back to preserve it."

Charlotte cited

Amy Hawn Nelson, a doctoral candidate at UNC-Charlotte, pointed to research in North Carolina schools showing that the highest achievement was in schools that were racially and socioeconomically balanced.

She also said the number of extremely high-poverty schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system has increased since the district abandoned busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools in 2002.

"You don't have to guess what Wake County will look like in four years," said Nelson, who is also a principal intern at Lincoln Heights Elementary, a high-poverty school in Charlotte. "You have a case study three hours down the road. It's not pretty."

Emotion shows

The frustration that forum participants feel toward the new school board majority was evident. Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, called for the formation of "truth squads," while former school board member Beverley Clark drew applause when she borrowed a quote from former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one," Clark said.

But school board member John Tedesco, who attended the forum, said Wake's socioeconomic diversity efforts aren't working, pointing to the growing racial achievement gap and declining graduation rates.

"The achievement gap has dramatically widened in the past five years," Tedesco said. "My hope is that we can get together to come up with a system that works for all kids."

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

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