Wake schools look to promote diversity

khui@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2013 

  • Working on school bond projects

    The Wake County school board on Tuesday began reviewing projects it wants to fund with a school construction bond that could go on the ballot this fall.

    Last week, the school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners agreed in concept to a construction program of about $900 million, with most of the money coming from a bond issue. School administrators on Tuesday presented a $925 million list of projects.

    School board members said they want $4.4 million for renovations to the athletic facilities at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh to be included in the list.

    School board member John Tedesco said that he can’t support the bond as is because funding is eliminated or sharply reduced for renovations for three schools in Garner. Administrators said they ran out of money.

    The board will continue reviewing the list May 7.

— Wake County is planning once again to try to keep any school from having too many low-income students, but school board members say families shouldn’t worry that the effort will mean mass shuffling of students.

Democratic school board members on Tuesday said they’re in support of a draft student-assignment policy that would aim to minimize the number of schools with high concentrations of low-performing students and students from low-income families.

But board members also said they realize that student assignment isn’t the only way to promote diversity and equity. They said the assignment changes will be put in place along with a policy to provide equity for students and the formation of a new office to promote diversity and equity.

“We want the public to know that when we’re looking at student achievement, our focus is not just on student assignment,” said board member Susan Evans, a Democrat. “We are putting the focus on equity to promote student achievement for everyone in Wake County.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the revisions to the student-assignment policy May 7.

Also on Tuesday, the board voted 7-2 for a resolution supporting keeping the current school board election districts. Republican board members Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco were the dissenters.

The vote comes a day after the state Senate passed a bill changing the boundaries for all nine Wake school board seats and moving the elections to even-numbered years. The bill awaits a vote in the state House.

Opponents of the bill charge that it’s payback for the 2011 defeat of the Republican school board majority that had eliminated socioeconomic diversity from the assignment policy.

“It runs against everything I’ve ever seen in a mature democracy,” said board member Tom Benton, a Democrat.

Finding a new path

The new Democratic-backed board majority said it would revise the policy because of concerns that schools were resegregating when Republicans were in charge. But they also said they would not go back to the old days, when parents complained about frequent reassignments.

The new policy incorporates features such as guaranteeing that students will be given the opportunity to stay at the schools they attend and to go to the same schools as their siblings.

“I don’t want parents to panic,” said Kevin Hill, a Democratic-backed board member.

The revised policy says that student-assignment plans will be developed by “balancing to the extent reasonable” the goals of student achievement, stability, proximity and operational efficiency, which includes minimizing overcrowded and underenrolled schools.

Republican board members were skeptical, saying they feared that low-income children would be moved around again.

“I don’t want the kids to be in the middle of this and they’re moved and they’re not getting the continuity of services they need,” Prickett said.

The new policy says that target ranges will be set, but no specifics are listed. Assignment staff would oversee the numbers, which could change over time. Wake would have to find a new way to balance schools by family income now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t let it use school lunch data for student assignment.

At the same time, the district is working through a new policy that would say that students should be provided equity in access to resources and academic opportunities. Some families, especially those at non-magnet schools, have complained about what’s offered.

“We’re in a district where students don’t get the same resources at the end of the bus ride,” Tedesco said.

Extra support for diversity

Democratic board members said they recognize the equity concerns. Those concerns were cited Tuesday as among the reasons they told staff to budget as much as $200,000 to start an Office of Diversity and Equity. Board members say the new office can fulfill such tasks as training teachers about diversity and making sure that students have equitable opportunities and equitable access to resources.

“It’s a small price to pay for something that I think would pay huge dividends,” said board chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, who has been the most vocal advocate for creating the new office.

Tedesco said that the office has value. But he questioned creating it at a time when Wake is facing budget uncertainties such as the potential loss of $11.7 million in state funding for teacher assistants.

“While I see value in this, what do we trade off for another half million dollars?” he said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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