RWCA head raps diversity policy

Saying students are failing, he calls for working with the Wake school board.

Staff WritersSeptember 2, 2010 

— In a split with other African-American leaders, the head of a local civil rights group is publicly criticizing Wake County's discarded socioeconomic diversity policy and calling for greater cooperation with the new school board majority.

Dan Coleman, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, told his group's members in an e-mail message Wednesday that newly released test scores show that students in Southeast Raleigh, many of whom are bused outside the community for diversity, are "failing."

"We have to ask ourselves where is the benefit of an assignment policy based on economic diversity when the end result produces the worst scores in the system?" Coleman said in the message.

School board member Keith Sutton said he wouldn't publicly debate with Coleman, the leader of a group that has represented Raleigh's African-American community since 1932. But Sutton said Coleman's comments don't reflect what he's hearing from constituents.

"I have not had anyone tell me they disagree with what we are doing," said Sutton, who voted against ending the diversity policy.

In an interview Wednesday, Coleman amplified the criticism in his e-mail message.

"They were saying we're using diversity to level the playing field," he said. "But we weren't really leveling the playing field."

Wake County earned national recognition for its policy of balancing the percentages of low-income students at schools across the county. But the board majority that swept into office after elections last fall scrapped the diversity policy and is developing a different assignment model designed to send most students to schools in their community.

The board's student assignment committee agreed in principle Tuesday on a plan that would divide Wake County into 16 neighborhood school zones largely on on the basis of current high school attendance. The action is a crucial step in a monthslong process that will include community meetings and, ultimately, a vote by the entire board.

Southeast Raleigh, where most residents are members of minority groups and are more likely to qualify for federally subsidized lunches than those in other parts of the county, has felt the biggest impact of the diversity policy. An analysis by The News & Observer shows that more than half of the nearly 10,000 students who live in Southeast Raleigh are assigned to schools outside the area. They have been bused out for diversity and to create classroom seats for suburban students attending magnet schools in Southeast Raleigh.

The state NAACP and a number of Wake elected officials and groups representing the African-American community have opposed the board majority's plans. They have complained that having students go to schools in their neighborhoods will result in de facto segregation and the emergence of extremely high-poverty schools.

But Coleman said he was struck by data released Tuesday showing that the passing rate on state reading exams for Southeast Raleigh students was 46.7 percent in elementary schools and 48.6 percent in middle schools. None of the other zones in the plan being considered by the board had passing rates below 60 percent.

"What does it say to you when fewer than half the students are passing?" Coleman said. "Is that the diversity policy at its best?"

Coleman also pointed to a report from the SAS Institute showing that in 2008, the last year for which data are available, about 40 percent of qualified black and Hispanic eighth-graders in Wake were taking Algebra I. New test-driven guidelines using a SAS program - urged on staff by the board majority - will increase minority enrollment in those courses this school year.

The RWCA didn't endorse any of the new school board members who were elected last fall. But since the election, Coleman has met with members of the board majority and is participating on a school board task force looking at how to help poor students.

Coleman said he has heard from some group members bothered by his criticism of the diversity policy. But he said others have said they want to attend the next RWCA meeting to go over the data.

Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh and is a member of the board's minority faction, said he has heard from "quite a few" constituents who say they disagree with Coleman.

"I have met with leaders in Southeast Raleigh; I talk with constituents on a daily basis," Sutton said. "They feel like I am doing a pretty good job, that I am doing what's in the best interest of kids and of Southeast Raleigh."

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

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