In Wake school zone maps, one goal or another suffers

STAFF WRITERSAugust 22, 2010 

— Wake County's school board is working to divide the county into student attendance zones, but deciding how many and how big they should be is proving tough.

A larger number of smaller zones would create more racially and economically polarized districts, while larger zones would mean fewer students could attend a school close to home, according to a News & Observer analysis of new demographic data.

The school board has examined four possible attendance zone maps in recent discussions on how to design them, using existing districts defined by high schools or by assistant superintendents' areas of supervision. The News & Observer's analysis looked at demographics for all four layouts.

The school board that took office in December has discarded a diversity-based assignment plan under which thousands of students were bused so schools would have a mixture of students from different economic backgrounds. Now it must satisfy parents with a new plan and set of procedures.

For instance, a family in a neighborhood currently assigned to one elementary school could pick that school or one of several others in the same zone, as designed by the board.

Once zones are established, parents could pick from several choices within their area. Most parents, but not all, would get their first choice. But the days when one address has a lock on, say, Lacy Elementary, Martin Middle and Broughton High schools are likely long gone.

"I'm worried about the parents that have not been paying attention," said Anne Sherron, a committee member and a Wake schools parent. "This is fundamentally different from what we have today."

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta has said he has no intention of creating high-poverty schools under the new plan, but the demographic breakdowns produced by The N&O show that concentrations of minority and low-income people across the county will make it difficult to keep that from happening.

School board member John Tedesco, chairman of the student assignment committee, said the board can't reasonably balance the zones demographically. Instead, members are concentrating on providing all students with equal opportunities to learn.

"There's no way we can draw up zones that can balance out the inequities in demographics from Zebulon to Apex," Tedesco said. "We can't bus all the way from Zebulon to Apex. I can't make Garner look like Apex."

Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, which backs the school board majority, said it's unfair to complain that the new zones will have areas with high percentages of poor students. After all, he said, the old assignment policy with its use of socioeconomic diversity hasn't done that, either. The goal was for no school to have more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, but 57 of the system's 161 schools exceed that standard.

A small-zone system of about 16 districts, based on the current high school districts, would create extreme variations in race and income levels, according to the newspaper's review of school district data.

For example, the zone encompassing Enloe and Southeast Raleigh high schools contains 96 percent nonwhite students and 68 percent receiving subsidized lunches. In contrast, the zones for Apex and Middle Creek high schools each have more than 70 percent white students and 10 and 16 percent of students, respectively, receiving subsidized lunches.

Because of the diversity-based assignment plan still in effect, the high schools' student bodies are not as racially one-sided as the areas around them. Enloe, for instance, had about 39 percent black students and 39 percent white last year.

Plans that would create fewer and larger zones, as few as seven, would even out some disparities but create the possibility of students being assigned much farther from their homes than if the zones were smaller. That contradicts what the board majority has said it wants.

Zones in two sizes?

Tedesco said he backs having many smaller zones so children could attend schools closer to where they live. He said the school board can create larger regional zones for middle schools and high schools to give families more choices.

In the high-poverty Southeast Raleigh zone, Tedesco pointed out, most of the schools are already magnets. He said the school system can continue to allow students from around the county to apply as a way to voluntarily desegregate those schools.

Ciulla, of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said he's not sure whether to go with a few zones or many zones. He said he recognizes the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches but said planners can't forget the top priority for the new plan.

"As they draw up the districts, what's most important to me is whether the education of the students is better served," Ciulla said.

With Tedesco saying he'll have preliminary zone maps completed by the end of the year, many issues remain that could reduce - or increase - the disparity apparent in the sample maps drawn up so far.

Tedesco says the magnet program, which has drawn more affluent students to poorer parts of town, will continue.

But Kevin Hill, a member of the board minority and a former chairman, questions whether there will be room at magnets such as Enloe for all the magnet and base students who want to attend. "The board has made a commitment to let students attend their closest school, or one very close to it," he said.

Tedesco has said that Wake should build more new schools in Southeast Raleigh so neighborhood children can return while magnet seats are preserved.

In addition, the board majority has called for grandfathering children into their current schools and for sibling preferences. How closely these policies are followed could significantly affect transportation patterns and the workability of a closest-possible-school model.

"For stability's sake, we need to incorporate grandfathering as much as we can," said Sherron, the assignment committee member. But she still worries that the complexities of a community-zone system will mean that some families get lost in the shuffle. "It's logical to me somebody's not going to get the school they want," she said.

The school board has received 581 public comments so far on the four sample maps. Tedesco said he hopes to narrow the list of maps under review at the next committee meeting Aug. 31.

Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope urged people, particularly those who disagree with the board majority, to give the board some slack. The Wake GOP heavily backed members of the new majority in the election campaign last fall.

"They need to work through it," Pope said. "They're taking input from the community. There are those ... trying to help them. ... Unfortunately, there are those who want to see them fail."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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