‘Resegregation will not happen on our watch.’ Wake school board sets diversity goal.

In the face of growing school resegregation, leaders of North Carolina’s largest school system made a commitment Saturday to try to make school enrollments more diverse.

The Wake County school board agreed to set a goal of trying to reduce the vast socioeconomic diversity gaps that exist where 40% of the district’s elementary schools are either extremely affluent or extremely high poverty. It’s a decision that will test the school system’s political will at a time when families who don’t like their school assignments can opt for alternatives such as charter schools, private schools or homeschooling.

“It’s becoming much more difficult to maintain integrated schools, and in fact our schools are resegregating and we see that in the data,” Superintendent Cathy Moore told board members. “Yet the tools that have been used in the past and the policies that were enacted are not as feasible nowadays.”

Wake County has historically been known as a leader in school integration. In 1976, the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems merged despite opposition from many in the community. Wake now has 160,000 students and is one of the largest districts in the country.

Backers of diverse school enrollments point to benefits such as how they tend to perform better than less affluent schools. There’s also a community benefit, Moore said.

“If segregated schools and segregation was bad for economic development and prosperity in the ‘70s, it’s still not good for economic development and prosperity today,” Moore said. “You can see that in a number of cities across this nation where true integration never really reached the point where it did here in the South — due to court orders quite frankly.”

Wake tried to keep schools racially and later socioeconomically balanced, using a combination of student assignment and magnet schools. But in 2009, complaints about student assignment led to a new Republican school board majority that dialed back the diversity efforts.

Democrats regained the board majority in 2011 but the district still buses fewer students for diversity than it did a decade ago. Board members acknowledged the challenges during Saturday’s school board retreat.

“There’s a common desire to achieve this healthy diversity, integration and (it’s) stymied by either the reality or the fear of community response to the strategy,” said board member Bill Fletcher. “We talk about it, but we don’t do it.”

‘Not on our watch’

Like the rest of the nation, schools in Wake and North Carolina have become more segregated along racial and economic lines this century.

The percentage of elementary school students receiving federally subsidized lunches in the district is 38%. But school board chairman Jim Martin said 40% of elementary schools are either below 18% or above 58% of their students receiving subsidized meals

Martin told board members Saturday that it’s their job to build on the integration efforts of community leaders who merged the school system.

“That work that was done here in Wake County in the early-to-mid ‘70s, I firmly believe put Wake County on the trajectory for who and what it is today,” Martin said. “I believe that the work that we do can set Wake County on a trajectory for the next 40-50 years,”

At Martin’s suggestion, the board agreed to set a goal of having all schools within 20 percentage points of the county average socioeconomically. While they’ll look at options such as census data, Martin said they’ll likely wind up using school lunch data for the diversity metric.

Board members said adopting the new goal will ensure “great opportunities for every child in every school.” As part of the goal, the board agreed to adopt the statement “resegregation will not happen on our watch.”

Focus on achievement

Currently, the school board’s student assignment policy gives equal weight to four components: achievement, operational efficiency, proximity and stability. The new goal is expected to result in achievement becoming more important.

Despite the new goal, board members said they can’t solely rely on using student assignment to achieve diversity.

“We can’t just go to the technical solution and say here’s an empty seat, here’s a body and we’re going to move you to there,” Martin said. “That doesn’t work. In fact communities never like it when we tell you what we’re going to do.

“So the work that we have to think about, I believe, is how do we get community buy-in. How do we create integration through opportunity?”

It won’t be easy getting community support. School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said they’ll have to work through the lack of trust that some parents have in the district as they try to put the new goal into effect.

“Some don’t trust because we don’t have diverse schools,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Some don’t trust because we highly suspend and penalize kids of color. Some don’t trust because of where they live and we keep changing their schools because of growth.

“I think their personal why is different, but the why is I don’t trust you. They didn’t trust that we’d make the right decision for their children.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.