RALEIGH — Hundreds of middle-class Wake County families are leaving crowded, high-poverty schools for magnets and year-rounds thanks to the school board's decision to quit using their relative wealth as a reason to deny their applications.
Now that those barriers have been eased, poverty levels are expected to increase at a number of other Wake County schools.
For the academic year that starts this fall, a majority of magnet applicants and more than 80 percent of year-round applicants have been approved now that administrators no longer have to maintain socioeconomic diversity in county schools.
Members of the board's majority say the new rules provide families greater education choices while filling hundreds of seats in magnet and year-round schools that had been left vacant.
"We've eliminated the discriminatory practices," said school board member John Tedesco. "We're using our available capacity. That's a good thing."
Others fear that the balance has tilted too much toward family choice and away from keeping poverty levels down at individual schools.
"This may be the start of more high-poverty schools," said board member Kevin Hill, a member of the minority faction.
Magnet schools have been a major part of Wake's diversity efforts for 28 years. The goal has been to attract affluent, suburban applicants to magnet schools that are mainly in lower-income areas, such as Southeast Raleigh.
Before this year, the selection was designed to give priority to applicants who wanted to leave crowded schools in affluent areas. Applicants in schools with higher-than-average poverty levels were placed at the bottom of the selection process.
The old barriers had the practical effect of also making it harder for middle-class families to leave higher poverty schools.
Complaints from parents about the fairness of the selection criteria helped elect four new school board members last fall who pledge to end the district's socioeconomic diversity policy. On March 23, the board voted 5-4 to pass a resolution eliminating socioeconomic diversity in filling magnet schools and year-round schools.
The board majority is scheduled to give final approval Tuesday to a policy eliminating socioeconomic diversity in assigning students to schools.
Under the new guidelines used this year, priority was given to applicants leaving crowded schools regardless of poverty levels.
At Fox Road Elementary in North Raleigh, 55 of the 86 magnet applicants who wanted to leave were accepted. Last year, only 22 of the 81 applicants were accepted.
One mom's quest
Stacy Robinson applied for her son to attend kindergarten at Millbrook Elementary School's magnet program despite hearing from several Fox Road parents who complained that their applications to magnet schools had been rejected in the past. Robinson said she wanted her son to go to Millbrook because she liked the school's International Baccalaureate theme.
"I was surprised to get accepted," Robinson said. "I kept hearing from all these other parents."
Similar turnarounds took place at other schools. For instance, 91 of the 142 applicants got accepted to leave Wilburn Elementary in North Raleigh compared with 29 of 97 applicants last year.
Poverty may rise
At the elementary and middle school levels, the percentages of low-income students is expected to go up now at schools such as Fox Road and Wilburn.
Some magnet schools, such as Bugg Elementary and Poe Elementary, are taking more applicants this year and are expecting to see drops in their percentage of low-income students.
It's the kind of change Hill said he worried would happen when diversity was dropped from the magnet selection criteria earlier this year.
"There has to be a balance between choice and what's in the best interests for education," Hill said. "The data and the research is pretty clear that all students benefit in a school that has lower poverty."
A parent's argument
Jennifer Mansfield, a critic of the old magnet selection criteria, argued that the new rules could force school leaders to do more to help the higher poverty schools. Mansfield said the old board was content with using magnet selection criteria to keep families from leaving high poverty schools rather than trying to do something to help those schools to encourage parents to stay.
"Maybe they'll try to address the issues at the schools instead of saying, 'Let's not let the parents go,' " said Mansfield, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents group that backed the new board members.
While the rule changes seemed to favor more middle-class families wanting to leave high poverty elementary and middle schools, the data seem to show that the new rules also helped more lower income black families get into Southeast Raleigh High School. Administrators said the elimination of the diversity guidelines allowed them to add 435 magnet applicants this year at Southeast Raleigh, 261 more than last year.
The additional students are projected to increase the percentage of low-income students at Southeast Raleigh High.
"We're letting the Southeast Raleigh families go to the school nearer where they live," said Tedesco, the board member. "What's wrong with that?"
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