Wake County busing fewer students for diversity

Fewer Wake County students are being bused to make schools more economically diverse, contributing to a doubling of the number of high-poverty and racially isolated schools, according to a review of county data.

Critics warn that Wake, which has been nationally recognized for its integration efforts, is starting to see resegregation of its schools. But school leaders say they don’t want to make major assignment changes that would disrupt families.

The Democratic school board majority has left in place assignment changes made in 2010 and 2011 by the former Republican majority, changes that shifted low-income students to schools closer to home and that are being examined by federal civil rights investigators. The current board has focused on promoting stability in school assignments. That has meant largely leaving intact old assignments based on diversity, while taking no steps to assign students to stem the growing number of low-income schools.

It’s a pattern that’s expected to continue Tuesday when school administrators release the first draft of an assignment plan for the 2016-17 school year.

In the past seven years, the number of high-poverty schools in Wake has increased by more than 150 percent. Schools where at least half the students received subsidized lunches numbered 18 in 2008; last school year, there were 46, more than a quarter of Wake’s schools. Also, since 2008, the number of schools where at least 70 percent of the students are receiving subsidized lunches has gone from none to 12.

Additionally, 24 Wake schools have populations where black and Hispanic students make up at least 70 percent of the enrollment, compared with 12 schools in 2008. During that period, black and Hispanic enrollment has increased by 3 percentage points to 41 percent.

However, school board members have asked staff for a plan that’s focused on filling five new schools instead of requesting a sweeping proposal that would address these patterns in the 155,000-student district.

“We certainly do have schools in the west that have students coming from urban Raleigh, and I’m fine with that,” said school board member Susan Evans, a Democrat, referring to western Wake County. “I won’t be looking to change that necessarily.

“But in terms of where we go, do I anticipate a major shift in where anyone’s currently attending schools? No, I don’t.”

Boosting lower-end schools

Instead of relying on assignment to raise achievement at schools, Wake has increasingly turned to providing additional resources to lower-performing schools, which typically have high numbers of students from low-income families.

While Democrats heavily criticized the 2010 and 2011 assignment changes that moved low-income students to schools closer to home, former Republican school board member John Tedesco feels vindicated because those moves haven’t been reversed.

“What we were doing was reasonable, even though it was portrayed as unreasonable,” he said. “They’ve had five years to make those changes, but they haven’t.”

However, community activist and education consultant Marvin Pittman sees how the de-emphasis on diversity has resulted in 4-year-old Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh having 84 percent of its students receiving subsidized lunches. Pittman says what’s beginning to happen in Wake is school resegregation.

“I do recognize that it’s hard for the school system to go back to the way it used to be,” Pittman said. “We may not be able to go back politically. But since we aren’t able to go back there politically, we’ve got to address the issues of equity.”

Pittman wants Wake to go back to actively busing students to try to keep schools from having too many low-income children. But if that’s not done, Pittman says Wake needs to develop a very focused plan to address the needs of students and staff at the high-poverty schools.

He helped organize a federally funded summer program at Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh to prepare students for the coming school year.

Changing goals

Whether to promote diverse school enrollments has been a long-running issue in North Carolina’s largest school district.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Wake bused African-American students to suburban schools and placed magnet schools in inner-city Raleigh to voluntarily attract white students to try to create racially balanced schools. But amid concerns that the legal climate was changing, the school board switched in 2000 to trying to keep schools from having too many students who received subsidized lunches.

On average, low-income students don’t do as well academically as more affluent students.

“You can address the needs of children who are challenged by having them in smaller numbers,” said Pittman, a former Wake principal and retired state education official. “But when you have entire schools or mostly entire schools with students who are struggling, it makes the life of the teachers and principals quite complicated.”

A consultant estimated in 2011 that at least 5,900 students, primarily from Southeast Raleigh, were bused for diversity. But Tedesco has said the number was higher.

Fueled by suburban discontent over student reassignment, the GOP majority that took office in 2009 dropped socioeconomic diversity from the assignment policy.

In 2010 and 2011, the board reassigned more than 1,000 students from low-income areas. The changes prompted protests, arrests, national media coverage and an ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

When low-income students go to closer schools, Tedesco said, parents are more able to be involved in their children’s education.

“The primary goal of the Wake County school system should be a quality education and supporting families, communities and taxpayers in supporting a quality education,” Tedesco said. “While I value the nobility of diversity in our broader community, that’s not their main mission and objective.”

Changes at Walnut Creek

For example, the GOP board changed the assignment plan to put more neighborhood children in Walnut Creek Elementary, located on Sunnybrook Road near Rock Quarry Road. The previous board had wanted to keep busing children from the area to North Raleigh schools for diversity.

Robin Moore said her daughter has enjoyed being at Walnut Creek since it opened in 2011. But Moore, who is African-American, said she wishes her daughter’s classroom was more diverse. This past school year, 11 of Walnut Creek’s 812 students were white. The enrollment is 62 percent African-American and 33 percent Hispanic.

But Moore says the school board is stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to make schools more diverse because parents get upset when their children are reassigned.

“I know the plan is to diversify students,” Moore said. “But in the end, I don’t know if it’s worth it. It would be great in an ideal world for it to happen.”

The Republican majority’s efforts to assign even more low-income children to neighborhood schools was stopped when GOP board member Debra Goldman sided with Democrats to block the changes. This caused the board to change direction and instead adopt in 2011 a choice plan under which families could request a school from a list of options.

The Democratic majority that took office after a hotly contested 2011 election discontinued the choice plan to restore Wake’s former practice of having every home address assigned to a specific school.

But Democrats didn’t reverse the assignments made by the GOP board. The board restored policy guidelines that called for “minimizing high concentrations of students from low income families at each school,” but hasn’t directed staff to make assignment changes to carry out the policy.

Stability trumps balance

“We’ve had two elections that I think it would be reasonable for Democrats and liberals to say, ‘We won,’ and yet we haven’t seen the kinds of reversions to the status quo prior to 2009 that campaign rhetoric would suggest,” said Andy Taylor, an N.C. State University professor who co-wrote “The End of Consensus,” a book looking at Wake’s student assignment politics.

School board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat, said reversing the GOP base assignment changes would have produced more instability for families.

Said Evans, the board member: “We just froze what they did basically. So we haven’t made a philosophical blessing.”

Evans added that families needed a break after dealing with issues such as frequent reassignment, mandatory year-round schools and the choice plan.

The Democratic board has also been willing to stop busing students for diversity, though on a smaller scale than did the GOP board.

Magnet schools abound

For instance, the board agreed last year to allow students who live in the Walnut Terrace public housing complex south of downtown Raleigh to attend nearby schools. Staff said it would increase operational efficiency to stop running buses for those students to schools in Cary and Apex.

In lieu of assignments for diversity, board members point to the nine new magnet schools added over the past four years to try to reduce the percentages of low-income students at those schools.

School board member Keith Sutton has been an advocate of going beyond using assignment to promote diversity. This includes a new program, largely involving the use of federal funds, to provide additional resources to 12 challenged elementary schools, including Walnut Creek.

“It’s not realistic to have every school be a balanced school or what we used to call a healthy school,” said Sutton, a Democrat who represents much of Southeast Raleigh.

‘A step back’?

Wake is pursuing other options, including a vote Tuesday to start a program to recruit more minority and low-income high school students to take advanced courses.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the progressive Century Foundation, frequently cited Wake in the past in his research supporting socioeconomic integration of schools. He said it would be a mistake if Wake were to become more typical of districts “that focus on making separate but equal work.”

“Wake, with all its flaws, remains far more integrated than many districts in this country,” he said. “If it wants to maintain that special status, it needs to take proactive steps to maintain diversity.”

While Wake has “taken a step back” on diversity in recent years, Sutton said, the district can still be a national leader in addressing issues of race and poverty.

“When we stopped using assignment as a primary tool and began using it as a tool along with special training for teachers and differentiated resources and so on and so forth, it can be said that Wake County reinvented itself,” he said.

Pittman, the education consultant, said in lieu of more busing for diversity, it’s going to take more resources and greater community involvement to help high-poverty schools.

Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith, located at 2310 Compassionate Drive in Raleigh, is holding a back-to-school information session Sunday from 3:30-5:30 p.m. with Wake school officials.

“I don’t think our Board of Education or our administration want any school to be a low-achieving school or a challenged school, but they’ve got it, and I want to say we’ve got it,” Pittman said. “So how do we as a community work with the school system to improve educational outcomes in the challenging schools?”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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