Speakers defend keeping diverse schools in Wake County

Staff writerOctober 16, 2010 

— Supporters of Wake County’s discarded diversity-based student assignment policy blasted the Republican school board majority today and charged that moving to neighborhood schools will resegregate the school system.

Speakers at today’s forum at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center warned that Wake could become as segregated as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which abandoned its diversity efforts in 2002. Around 200 people heard researchers talk about the benefits of socioeconomically integrated schools and to discuss what to do next in Wake County.

“This is not where you get people with political agendas or ideological agendas…” said Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL-TV, who gave the closing speech. “My view is that the wheels are coming off the bus because of the poor governance practices of the Wake County school board.”

No supporters of neighborhood schools were speakers today. Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that supported the old diversity policy in Wake and organized the forum, said they had gotten the experts in their fields to talk today.

“This is all politics,” charged school board chairman Ron Margiotta, who was not at today’s meeting. “Look at the people who are in charge.”

Four new board members elected last fall joined with Margiotta in ending the policy of trying to balance the percentage of low-income students at schools.

But what will happen next is up in the air because board vice chairwoman Debra Goldman broke with her Republican colleagues last week to back the Democratic members in a resolution halting all work on a plan to divide the county into 16 assignment zones.

Brannon said that last week’s vote was welcome news and a time for the community to learn more about the benefits of diverse schools.

Much of today’s forum revolved about what has happened in Charlotte since the district abandoned its busing efforts.

The move to neighborhood schools in Charlotte has sharply increased the number of high poverty and high minority schools. Questions about funding and low student achievement have led school leaders to consider closing several schools in minority neighborhoods.

At the same time, Charlotte’s black, Hispanic and low-income students are now outperforming their peers in Wake on state exams. Speakers today attributed the gains to increased funding, now put at risk because of the recession, while also arguing that other measures where Wake does better such as SAT scores and graduation rates are more important.

.”We have done amazing things with student achievement in the last few years,” said Amy Hawn Nelson, an education researcher and assistant principal at a high-poverty school facing closure in Charlotte. “We’ve done it with blood sweat and tears but not because of strong policy.”

Speakers repeatedly complained that the Wake school board is making the change to neighborhood schools without knowing how much it will cost. They also pointed to a survey made public this week in which a high percentage of 501 teachers polled said they disagree with eliminating the diversity policy and feel the school district is moving in the wrong direction.

“Demagogues always blame something,” said former school board member Tom Oxholm, a critic of the new board. “ They quote facts and absolutely believe they know they’re right. But voters and citizens who say let’s give them a try wake up a few years later and wonder what happened. We need to wake up those folks now.

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

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