Schools face racial dilemma
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Lakewood Elementary School principal Ray Tampa says he has lost two good teachers.
All because a federal court order puts limits on the number of African-American students in every Pinellas County school.
Lakewood is 48 percent black, but the court order only allows 42 percent. Campbell Park Elementary's enrollment also stands at 48 percent black.
The district asked Enrique Escarraz, lead local attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to waive the ratio requirements.
Escarraz wouldn't budge. To him, this issue extends beyond two schools. To waive the requirements at a couple of schools, he said, would undermine the importance of integration as the district moves into a new choice plan in 2003-04.
Racial ratios will likely be one of the plan's more complex and controversial issues. Parents will choose schools for their children this fall.
"There is some potential for difficulties in attracting an integrated population if you don't start out that way," Escarraz said.
District officials decided to bring the ratios at Lakewood and Campbell Park in order by revoking about 50 special attendance permits that had already been approved. Those included permits for district employees who wanted their children to attend the school where they work.
Seven of Lakewood's teachers lost that privilege. In response, two left.
"There should have been some flexibility," Tampa, the principal, said. "I wouldn't have wanted to lose the teachers."
The school district has been under a federal court order since 1971 because of a lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, accusing the district of discriminating against African-American students. The court order required schools to be desegregated.
Most neighborhoods in Pinellas are not integrated. The brunt of desegregation efforts fell to black children, many of whom had to spend their entire school careers being bused to faraway schools.
In addition, every two years a new group of white children was selected to be bused to predominantly black neighborhoods. With school choice beginning in 2003, the last "satellite rotation" group was selected in spring 2001.
In all, 1,320 white students were picked to ride buses to Gulfport, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood or Maximo elementaries for the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years. Typically, 30 percent of those chosen don't show up.
Last year, the "no-show rate" was closer to 50 percent.
That's what created the dilemma at Campbell Park and Lakewood -- the only two schools of about 140 in the district that did not meet the ratios.
Why didn't Gulfport, Maximo and Fairmount Park have the same problem adhering? Student assignment director Kathy Walker said families were really interested in Gulfport's new Montessori program and Maximo's "microsociety" curriculum.
As for Fairmount Park, she doesn't know.
After Escarraz refused to waive the ratios, district officials considered their other options.
They quickly dismissed the idea of choosing another large neighborhood to bus to St. Petersburg. With parents already wary of choice, they didn't want to create a public relations nightmare.
They ultimately turned to the special attendance permits.
SAPs are granted for one year, and usually fall into three categories: professional courtesy, hardship and medical. The district verified the legitimacy of the medical permits, but allowed those to stand.
All of the professional courtesy and hardship permits that adversely affected ratios were rescinded. Those that improved ratios were allowed.
Those same standards will be applied to all future SAP requests for Campbell Park and Lakewood.
"If you get it straightened out now, it does make it easier to go into choice," said Jim Steen, principal of Campbell Park Elementary. "Once we get the appropriate ratios established, it will be much easier to maintain them."
Meeting the ratios is an inexact science.
Students continue to apply for special attendance permits for medical reasons, and those aren't being denied. Students in Pinellas, particularly those near Campbell Park and Lakewood schools, tend to move a lot. As students move and change schools, the percentages go up and down.
Despite those variables, officials think those two schools will meet the ratios now. But they won't know for sure until a count is taken this fall.
Until then, School Board attorney John Bowen said he'll hold his breath.
"I believe we can show the Legal Defense Fund that we've done everything within our power," Bowen said.
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