RALEIGH — A new student assignment plan being developed by the Wake school board majority faces a knotty test in Southeast Raleigh, where many of the system's popular magnet schools are located.
About 10,000 students live in Southeast Raleigh, where about 68 percent of students are low-income and 90 percent are black or Hispanic, according to Wake schools statistics.
An analysis by The News & Observer shows that more than half of these students attend schools as far away as Wakefield High School near Wake Forest and Green Hope High School near Morrisville, both to help diversify suburban schools and to free up inner-city magnet school seats.
With reinforcing diversity no longer a goal for the board, the system will have to make room for more than 5,200 students returning to Southeast Raleigh as Wake moves toward a neighborhood schools assignment plan. At the same time, school planners will have to keep magnet seats open at Southeast Raleigh High, Enloe High, Ligon Middle, Hunter Elementary and other magnet schools in the area.
John Tedesco, a member of the school board majority and chief architect of the new plan, says Wake County will be able to offer attractive new schools and educational choices to the students who have been attending schools outside their neighborhoods but who will likely return when changes to the student assignment plan are completed.
Not so fast, says Keith Sutton, Tedesco's colleague on the Wake County school board. Simply building new schools and promising new choices will not satisfy Sutton's constituents in District4, which includes Southeast Raleigh, he said. Educational quality and money to make it happen has to be on the table, too.
"As I see it now, the plan just throws a carrot or a bone to District 4," Sutton said. "Just because it's new doesn't get it for me, and it doesn't get it for people in Southeast Raleigh."
Extra capacity needed
Tedesco says a new community zone system will have to include much more classroom capacity for Southeast Raleigh. He has urged quick action on new schools such as the planned Walnut Creek Elementary and points to expansions at Bugg and Wilburn elementary schools.
"I believe that there are a lot of kids in Southeast Raleigh that would like to go to neighborhood schools," Tedesco said. "I think that they deserve the same opportunity that other parts of the county have. The current system force-buses kids to other parts of the county and brings in kids to their neighborhoods. That doesn't seem fair to me."
Tedesco says the plan could also include provisions to apply to magnets and other specialized schools across zone lines.
But for Sutton and others, a key issue is whether students who come back to schools closer to home can be sure they'll receive the same quality of teachers and instruction they are getting now. Under the new plan, the schools will almost certainly come closer to mirroring the demographics of students who live in Southeast Raleigh.
Shiny new school?
The Sunday before traditional-calendar schools opened, Sutton spoke at a back-to-school information meeting at Compassion Tabernacle of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, across the street from Southeast Raleigh High. During his talk, he addressed the debate about whether to build new schools in Southeast Raleigh.
"It doesn't help us to have a shiny new school if at the end of the day it won't be a good school, if you're not providing a good quality education with good teachers," he told church members. "It shouldn't be an attempt to simply house students in District 4 rather than having them in other communities, which is what some of my colleagues want to do."
Sutton and others have also questioned the lack of any fiscal analysis of the cost of instituting a new assignment plan for Wake students, who will likely number more than 143,000 in the 2010-2011 school year.
Earlier this year, the board's five-member majority tossed out an assignment plan that used families' economic background as a means of balancing student populations. Critics of the change say the board has not adequately thought through the logistics and economics of its decision.
Christine Kushner, a magnet schools parent, agrees that the board is rushing toward a decision on an assignment plan that should merit the nine- to 15-month process that Tedesco and others promised early on.
At a recent school board meeting, majority members Tedesco and Debra Goldman couldn't agree with other board members on the timing of planning more schools downtown without knowing the overall design of a new plan.
"Growth has been driving so much of our system," Kushner said. "Mr. Tedesco has talked about wanting more capacity downtown. I want them to think this through. I think it's far more complicated than the community realizes."
Magnet school worries
There's interest in Southeast Raleigh schools, and how changes there will affect the magnet program, far beyond the district itself. When the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce met last week in Greensboro, school board chairman Ron Margiotta faced questions from members about the future of the magnet program. The magnets, part of the Wake system since the 1980s, keep inner-city schools vital and full by luring suburban kids with enhanced academic programs.
"Magnet schools will be here forever as far as I'm concerned," Margiotta said. "They serve an excellent purpose."
But Margiotta warned business leaders that changes in the magnet program are possible, including proposals that would allow more neighborhood children to attend them.
"Why should students be bused out of schools across the street from them so that some rich kid can come from Cary, or from my district?" said Margiotta, whose district includes Apex and Holly Springs.
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