Wake County magnet school program at crossroads

Leaders examine the schools, which provide special offerings and help maintain diversity

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJune 17, 2012 

  • Magnet review The Wake County school board is reviewing magnet schools in terms of: •  The overall mission of the schools. •  Each magnet’s case for meriting the designation. •  Possible designation of other schools as magnets. •  The schools’ failure to improve proficiency among economically deprived students.

The role of student diversity in Wake County public schools – the source of bruising public battles from 2009 through 2011 – is coming under the microscope again as the system takes a deep look at its magnet-school program.

There’s a Catch-22 of sorts at work: The school system has removed diversity as a component of its current assignment plan. But Wake also promised the federal government, which has supplied millions in magnet-school funding, that it will voluntarily “reduce and prevent minority group isolation and promote cultural integration.”

The magnet program has long been a lightning rod. It’s hailed by supporters as providing unique programs for students while helping to reduce the number of high-poverty schools inside Raleigh’s Beltline. But critics argue that the magnet program, which includes 32 of the district’s 169 schools, has only benefited a few students while disenfranchising students in traditional schools.

During a series of work sessions, the nine-member school board is weighing magnet schools in areas such as their mission and whether they improve proficiency among economically deprived students.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata said at a work session last week.

The review is taking place with a backdrop of a new assignment plan that replaces a system that attempted to keep any school from being overloaded with low-income students. The new plan’s emphasis on choice appears to be inducing low-income and minority families to choose schools closer to home.

UNC-Chapel Hill oncology fellow Dr. Christine Lin said missing out on a magnet education would have been a life changer.

“I think it was an incredible experience,” said Lin, 30, who grew up in North Raleigh’s Strickland Road area and rode the bus inside the Beltline to Underwood Elementary, Ligon Middle and Enloe High. “It was a singular thing to live in North Carolina during that time, when Wake County and North Carolina really emphasized putting resources toward education.

“I’ve been through college and professional schools and a lot of learning and training, and I know we really valued education in North Carolina.”

Yet not even the magnets’ most fervent boosters would argue that every student got the seemingly magical boost from the magnet system that Lin received. The so-called “base students” who live near magnet schools have had poor test scores for years.

Tata says he supports the magnet system fully, but he wants to make sure the schools make good use of their money, about $12 million a year. Tata cites figures that show low-income students score lower on proficiency tests at magnet schools than at traditional schools.

“We are spending $12 million a year, and we get 5-6 percent lower performance out of our (economically disadvantaged) children,” Tata said.

Spreading themes out

Opponents of the diversity-based system that ended this year say its promises of raising the bar for low-income students were hollow. And they say magnets – which offer special programming such as additional electives and enhanced arts offerings – have turned into expensive pseudo-private schools.

With state cuts in school funding and county contributions nearly flat for four years, some board members and parents want resources to be more equally distributed among suburban schools.

Since Tata became superintendent last year, Wake has expanded the number of specially themed schools, such as single-sex leadership academies and those offering a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program.

“We’re providing greater opportunities all around the county,” Tata said this spring. “Part of this is to penetrate into all our municipalities and the county the specialized programmings that have been resident in the magnets for so long.”

Many parents who responded to a recent school-system survey worry that the magnets’ drawing power will diminish with changes in the assignment plan and the expansion of non-magnet themed schools.

“The district needs to have more clarity about how they explain these new programs – you don’t want to cannibalize your magnet programs,” one parent wrote in the survey.

Responses to the survey were heavily weighted by magnet-school parents, but also showed that about three-quarters of non-magnet respondents supported the magnet-school principle of reducing high concentrations of poverty and supporting diversity. The Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that backs the magnet program, lobbied people to participate in the survey.

‘Who am I ... to say?’

Jennifer Mansfield, a North Raleigh resident and former school board candidate, was one of the participants in a focus group put on by the school system.

A leading opponent of the diversity policy, Mansfield said that no one would suggest that inner-city Raleigh schools get fewer resources. In fact, several elementary schools designated “Renaissance schools” by school administrators got healthy infusions of cash and resources last year to deal with populations heavy in low-income students.

But Mansfield realizes that the mere fact that some schools are heavily weighted with white or minority students always will concern some residents and parents.

“Then I look at Southeast Raleigh, and the local kids want to go there,” she said. “To me, if those families choose it and are happy with it, and they aren’t troubled by the fact that it’s a mostly black or Hispanic high school, who am I or anybody else to say that’s not an appropriate place for them to be?”

Under the choice system, low-income parents whose children have been sent to distant suburban schools will now pick between, say, a nearby elementary or one in North Raleigh with a higher achievement level.

Sheneka M. Williams, a University of Georgia professor who has been studying Wake’s diversity situation along with UNC-Chapel Hill professor Eric Houck, said that’s unfair.

“The onus of trying to provide some kind of balance can’t be placed on African-American parents,” Williams said.

Only a few dozen school systems nationwide try to make sure schools aren’t segregated by economics. In 2009, Republicans took over the Wake school board with claims that the “busing for diversity” plan was costly, cumbersome and unhelpful to students from minority groups. Even though Democrats regained control in 2011, they said it was too late to change the plan for the new school year.

Williams recalled the national reputation Wake gained for its then-innovative assignment system:

“Wake was what most other districts wanted to be like. Now it appears that Wake is looking down the hill and choosing to be like the others.”

School board Chairman Kevin Hill said the panel is still waiting for more data from staff before beginning a discussion on the student-assignment policy. But, Hill said, the magnet program can continue to be effective even if diversity is only part of the program’s principles and not formally part of the assignment policy.

‘We stopped halfway’

Dudley Flood, a member of the UNC System Board of Governors, worked for the state in the 1970s to help school systems use busing and other means to address concerns about the former legally segregated system. Though officials were able to get black and white students going to school together, the state missed an opportunity to close the still troublesome achievement gap, he said.

“I think we stopped halfway,” Flood said. “We made it illegal to deny access, but I don’t think we removed the vestiges of segregation.”

Last week, the Wake board voted against putting student achievement on the list of magnet school principles being developed. Board members said all schools and not just magnets are expected to focus on achievement.

“We’ve got to confront reality head on here and ask what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and where do we need to do it,” Tata said.

Critics have said the new approaches that Tata is debuting will detract from the power of magnets to draw students downtown and keep schools more balanced.

“If we are questioning the significance of magnets, are we questioning the significance of diversity?” Williams asked.

In August, school board members are to vote on any changes for magnet schools, including whether any should de-magnetize, whether any new ones should be named and what role the schools will play in relation to Wake’s new single-sex academies, STEM schools and other special offerings.

Those changes would likely go into effect in the fall of 2013.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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