CARY — Wake County’s magnet schools program aims to attract a diverse student body, but now that it’s up for expansion the magnets also are attracting diverse opinions.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, board members split over which additional schools should be converted to magnets for the 2013-14 school year. Some call for converting high minority schools in low-income areas. Others favor giving magnet status to schools that are struggling to be diverse despite more affluent locations.
The debate is more than academic. How the school system structures the magnet expansion will affect it chances of winning $10 million to $12 million in federal grant money. The grants are awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to reduce minority concentration at schools where less than half the students are white.
Wake County school administrators proposed Tuesday that three schools in North Raleigh with a high percentage of low-income students – Green and Lynn Road elementary schools and Carroll Middle School – become magnets. They also asked that two existing magnets in Southeast Raleigh and downtown Raleigh – Poe Elementary School and Moore Square Middle School – overhaul their magnet themes.
Board members John Tedesco and Debra Goldman responded to the staff proposal by suggesting that new programs should go to schools with even higher percentages of children from low-income families. Tedesco said the magnet conversions should occur at three elementary schools, Hodge Road in Knightdale, Fox Road in Northeast Raleigh and Creech Road in Garner.
Tedesco said that if magnets seek to promote diversity, the status should be given to the schools that lack it. “If we really want to reduce poverty and really reduce minority isolation, then why wouldn’t we hit where it’s hardest,” he said. Beth Cochran, Wake’s senior director of magnet programs, said Hodge, Fox and Creech weren’t recommended because of concerns they’d either not attract enough magnet applicants or would draw students away from other magnet schools. Of Wake’s 169 schools, 32 are magnets.
Democratic board member Jim Martin said he was glad to hear Republicans Tedesco and Goldman promoting the economically diverse schools, an apparent reference to their votes for a previous school assignment plan that removed diversity as a factor.
“I’m extremely pleased to hear this conversation,” Martin said. “I’d just like to make sure that we commit to addressing this as we go forward with student assignment.”
The board’s discussion showed its continuing conflict over the role of diversity in student assignment, a back-and-forth struggle that largely drove the 2009 and 2011 elections. During this period, a Republican-led board cast aside a longstanding emphasis on diversity in schools. The Democratic-led board elected in 2011 has instructed Superintendent Tony Tata and staff to revise the current choice-based plan, adding back a diversity element and tying addresses to specific schools.
Since 1982, Wake County’s magnet school program has been one of its main tools for promoting diversity. Most of the magnet schools are located inside the Raleigh Beltline and offer unique academic programs to attract suburban applicants.
Wake is in the midst of a review of the magnet school program. In addition to deciding which schools should join the magnet program, the board will also decide whether other schools should lose their magnet status. Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said the system is not far enough along in its review to recommend which schools should no longer be magnets.
What comes next
Under the administrators’ plan, the system would use federal grant money to start the three new magnet programs and to revise two existing magnet schools. Wake has to commit to putting the programs at the five Raleigh schools even if the application isn’t approved.
School board members asked staff members to present more information next week on other schools that they might want to add to the grant application instead. A final decision could come Sept. 4
If the school board accepts staff’s recommendations, the five schools will face major changes beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
For Green Elementary, it would mean the school would no longer operate on a year-round calendar. Green has had a hard time attracting families.
“Green has struggled as a year-round and needs to be shored up,” said school board member Christine Kushner.
Green’s students would feed into Carroll Middle. With both schools located in the North Hills area near the Raleigh Beltline, Kushner said they’d be easy for families to reach.
Administrators said they haven’t yet determined which themes they’d offer at the five schools.
Moore said Lynn Road Elementary could get the Montessori theme that Poe Elementary would be eliminating. Montessori stresses having children work independently on hands-on activities with teachers acting as observers to keep their students on track.
Moore said they’re hoping giving Poe a new theme will attract more applicants to the under-enrolled school. Poe is the school system’s only Montessori-themed school. Moore said they want to keep the program in the district.
“I think we’ve got a market for a Montessori in the district,” Moore said.