Wake reassigns Garner High students

Staff WritersApril 19, 2010 

— Some Garner High School students are getting an early taste of how a community-based school system might work.

More than 100 students who live in Southeast Raleigh will be reassigned to Southeast Raleigh High, a move by the Wake County school board that came without a public hearing or notice to families. The school board has said it will take nine to 15 months to complete plans for a new community-based system, but it recently voted to reassign more than 1,000 students to move them to closer schools next year.

The reassigned students have been attending Garner High as part of the system's now-discarded emphasis on keeping schools socioeconomically diverse. Several students said they aren't happy about switching schools, especially since it will cut short their summer break. Garner High is on a traditional calendar that begins Aug. 25, but classes at Southeast Raleigh start July 26.

"We want our full summer break," said Manuel Ramos, 15, a freshman at Garner High who said he had planned to look for a summer job.

Ramos, who is on the junior varsity football team, said he and his classmates will also face another hurdle: adjusting to a new school after they've gotten used to Garner High.

"You have to prove yourself again," Ramos said.

School board member Keith Sutton said the reassignment was meant to fulfill political promises by member John Tedesco, whose district includes Garner. The lack of notice to residents and the lack of a public hearing were troubling, Sutton said.

Garner leaders have complained for years about the percentage of poor students in the town's schools and the number of students who are bused to Garner from Southeast Raleigh. Eight of Garner's 11 schools exceed the school system's guideline, which says no more than 40 percent of students should receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Nearly 48 percent of the high school students who live in the area slated to transfer are from low-income families.

Tedesco said the board's decision will ease overcrowding at Garner High, which has more than 2,300 students. The building is designed for fewer than 1,800, so the campus has dozens of mobile units.

Southeast Raleigh High has 1,565 students, but its building can accommodate about 100 more even without mobile units.

"We had to begin to maximize effective use of our capacity," Tedesco said. "One school is over-enrolled, and the other is under-enrolled."

Tedesco argued that it also made more sense for the students to go to Southeast Raleigh High because they live much closer to the school than to Garner High.

Anthony Clark said he doesn't mind that his son, Anthony Jr., is being reassigned to Southeast Raleigh. The school is less than three-and-a-half miles from their subdivision off New Hope Road. Garner High is about 10 miles away.

But while Clark supports community schools, he said he worries that poorer schools will get fewer resources.

"You can't just say, 'OK, we're gonna send you back to your community school' and forget about you," Clark said.

Tedesco said the reassignment fits in with the new board majority's goal of sending students to schools in their community even if it leads to the creation of higher poverty schools. The previous board had followed Wake's long-standing policy of trying to keep school enrollments diverse, first by race and, since 2000, by family income.

Tedesco stressed that many of the students will be able to request transfers that guarantee they can stay at Garner High. But he acknowledged that the requirement that these families provide their own transportation to stay at Garner High might deter some who wish to stay.

Josh Smith, 15, a freshman on the junior varsity basketball team at Garner, said he wants to apply to stay at his school, where he has gotten used to the teachers and made friends.

"I don't like change," Smith said.

His family would have to drive him nearly 11 miles to the school. A bus ride to Southeast Raleigh would be less than four-and-a-half miles.

Students have until April 25 to file an online request to stay at Garner High.

No public hearing

Historically, the school board has held a public hearing for families whose school assignments are scheduled to change. But Tedesco said they didn't have the time this year because of the pressing deadlines for things such as notifying parents about magnet school assignments and figuring how many teachers principals should plan for based on student enrollment.

Sutton said the process was unfair to the Garner High students. He noted how the board was supposed to review the three-year assignment plan approved by the old board in 2009. He pointed out that the Garner students weren't in that plan.

"I'm not against moving them, but it had to be more of an open process," Sutton said.

In other parts of the county, well-organized parents have been able to stave off some reassignments, or even have changes reversed.

Shuyun Mu, who lives in Morrisville, was part of an effort to collect 300 signatures on a petition asking board members not to make them go to the more distant Weatherstone Elementary School in Cary to stay out of a year-round school.

That means her son, Keyi You, 7, will be able to remain at Cedar Fork Elementary during his second-grade year and take the after-school tennis lessons that Mu hopes will help prepare him for networking in a globalized society.

Stough's experience

Some reassignments result when the currents of growth conflict with neighborhood traditions and the need to keep schools fully enrolled.

Stough Elementary in West Raleigh saw a drop in enrollment when Brier Creek Elementary opened in 2006, so the last school board reassigned some students from Lacy, an old-Raleigh favorite with many politically connected families, to Stough.

"I'm very sympathetic to Stough and want to give them the students from Lacy," board member Carolyn Morrison, whose district includes Lacy, said at the time.

Parents in the area got organized, held fundraisers and donated at least $2,600 to support candidates who were to become the new board majority. After a year in which some reassigned children attended Stough, and others apparently went to private schools, the new board reassigned the areas back to Lacy.

Now Stough, which has its own active PTA, remains under capacity by about 100 students but is working to improve morale and has introduced new high-tech equipment.

"We have a fantastic school," said Stough parent Brenda Berg. "The current thinking is to forget the past and move forward."

sarah.nagem@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4758

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