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Watching, with worry, loss of diversity in Wake schools

Students Kaitlyn Allen, 9, left, and Kendall Jackson, 10, study their own fingerprint on a tablet during a lesson at the Summer Institute at Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith in Raleigh on Monday, July 20, 2015. The church works with students at nearby Walnut Creek Elementary School, an almost all-minority and high poverty school that resulted from Wake County dialing back on the use of busing for diversity.
Students Kaitlyn Allen, 9, left, and Kendall Jackson, 10, study their own fingerprint on a tablet during a lesson at the Summer Institute at Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith in Raleigh on Monday, July 20, 2015. The church works with students at nearby Walnut Creek Elementary School, an almost all-minority and high poverty school that resulted from Wake County dialing back on the use of busing for diversity. cseward@newsobserver.com

Until my senior year in high school, I had attended public schools that remained all-black and resource poor for nearly two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, I went on to graduate on time from UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s best universities. My story is not unusual. Among my fellow graduates of Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High School are a psychologist, a university professor, teachers, military officers, healthcare and technology workers, and small business owners. Similarly, Raleigh’s former J.W. Ligon High School, Durham’s Hillside High, Wilmington’s Williston High and Greensboro’s Dudley High can boast of similar successes among students who attended those schools during the era of American apartheid.

Still, I am in despair over the trend toward resegregation of many of America’s public schools and, particularly, about the big increase in the number of Wake County schools with large percentages of poor black and Hispanic students.

The schools I attended as a youth were segregated by race, but not by economics. Dirt-poor students sat next to students from solid working- and middle-class families. Our teachers were the best and brightest people in the black community. They were fierce and demanding. Many saw themselves as not just teachers but soldiers in the broader Civil Rights Movement of the time.

They were backed by supportive communities where individuals didn’t speak of “my” children, but “our” children.

To be sure, these schools did not overcome all of the barriers for their students in the environment of segregation and inequality. But they produced results far better than they should have under the circumstances.

In recent weeks, I’ve read studies and talked to people who have studied and written about the resegregation of public schools in 21st century America. They paint a bleak future for students attending schools with large percentages of poor black and Hispanic students.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a former News & Observer reporter who is now with The New York Times Magazine, has spent the past four years doing stellar work reporting on housing and school segregation for the Times and ProPublica.

The news that Wake County is backing away from its diversity policy is “very sad,” Hannah-Jones said in a recent conversation. She noted that Wake’s economic diversity policy was held up as a national model.

Any move toward resegregation is distressing, she said, because “the record is very clear that when districts resegregate, education plummets without exception.”

All Wake has to do, she said, is look at Charlotte, which rapidly saw more racial segregation in schools after it was released from court-ordered busing.

Duke University economics professor Helen F. Ladd has contributed to studies on racial and economic imbalances in North Carolina public schools. Among the findings is that charter schools, which North Carolina is rapidly expanding, are more likely than public schools to be racially imbalanced.

Charters are often presented as a way out for poor black and Hispanic students stuck in segregated, failing schools.

However in North Carolina, Ladd says, “charter schools over time increasingly serve white students.”

Minority students tend to be enrolled in charters that are mostly minority and that are struggling.

School vouchers are also touted as helping poor, minority students get to better schools. But the amount of money won’t get many students into established private schools with a good track record of achievement, Ladd said, adding that most of the money will likely go to small schools with no such record.

Ladd says she adamantly opposed North Carolina’s voucher program because there “is not accountability” for the money. If policymakers genuinely want to help low-income students with vouchers, they would ensure that those students have quality private schools as an option.

Vouchers, she said, “are an escape for policymakers … a way to take them off the hook” for not doing more for public schools.

All of the data show that integrating schools improves educational outcomes for minority students, but integration appears to be a toxic subject. Even the Obama administration declined to include incentives for integration in the Race to the Top public schools innovation grants because of the political toxicity of the subject.

Wake school board chairwoman Christine Kushner stated her individual belief in the importance of integration in a recent letter published in The News & Observer. But the new school reassignment plan under consideration says little about the growing number of high-poverty schools.

Instead of taking action to foster integration, lawmakers and many school leaders promise additional resources to schools with concentrations of poor and minority students. The evidence is not convincing that sufficient resources are forthcoming. Talk of volunteers reading to low-income students is laudable, but it won’t have the impact of smaller classes and highly qualified teachers – resources that cost money.

How much is enough? Ladd mentioned some interesting statistics. The Netherlands, which has schools with large numbers of immigrant children, gave those schools 90 percent more in per-pupil spending. England recently offered a premium of 50 percent more funding for schools with large numbers of poor minorities. But, Ladd hastened to add, there is a different mindset in those countries about high-quality, equal education.

Wake school board member Keith Sutton says he doesn’t agree with the view that schools with concentrations of low-income students are destined to fail. He offered a number of reasons why trying to diversify high-poverty schools would be difficult, including the high rate of growth in the county.

But, he said, he is optimistic that those Wake schools will get additional resources.

“We are committed to provide differential resources,” Sutton said.

In addition to increased funding for high-poverty schools, he said the district is considering putting those schools on a single-track, year-round calendar. The aim would be to see whether a year-round calendar would impact student achievement, he explained.

Sutton said he thinks Wake has the “political will” to provide more support to high-poverty schools.

Let’s hope that Sutton is correct. Wake County became the booming, vibrant community that it is because it was creative and proactive in preventing educational decay. Schools filled with poor children on the brink of failure are the rot at the root.

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