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Parents choose schools that are close to home

Racial integration ranks low among parental priorities in a Times survey, raising questions about resegregation in Pinellas.

Published December 8, 2005

[Times photo: David Zentz]
Milton Pasco looks over his 11-year-old daughter Joyce Pasco's seventh grade social studies homework while his three other daughters, from left, Brianna Morton, 14, Brittany Morton, 15, and Theresa Pasco, 13, do schoolwork in their Clearwater apartment Monday evening.

School Choice poll results

An overwhelming majority of Pinellas parents say they prefer schools that are close to home over racially integrated schools.

Their responses in a St. Petersburg Times poll help explain why the school system has failed to persuade large numbers of Pinellas families to voluntarily integrate through the choice plan.

Now in its third year, the plan allows families to apply for schools outside their neighborhoods. But in each year of choice so far, families of all races have shown a strong inclination to stay closer to home rather than try a school farther away.

If choice applications are any indication, many schools already would be predominantly black or all white if not for the choice plan's race ratios, which keep schools artificially integrated by capping black enrollment at 42 percent.

In a county where neighborhoods are nearly as segregated as they were in the 1970s, many fear the racial balance at several schools will disappear when those ratios expire at the end of next school year as part of a federal court order.

More than 60 percent of parents in the Times poll said they preferred a school in their neighborhood. Fewer than 30 percent said their first choice would be an integrated school.

The preference was more pronounced among white parents and parents who live in north Pinellas County.

South Pinellas parents were more than twice as likely to select an integrated school than their counterparts in north Pinellas.

Countywide, fewer than 25 percent of white parents said they would choose a racially integrated school. In contrast, 51 percent of black families said they would prefer an integrated school over one in their neighborhood.

The poll also measured parents' feelings on "magnet" and "attractor" programs with specialized curricula designed to bring white families to schools in black neighborhoods.

Only 41 percent of Pinellas parents said they were very likely to send their child to such a school in a black neighborhood. One-third said they were "somewhat" likely to take part, and 20 percent they were "not at all" likely to do so.

The Times poll sought to plumb parents' thinking on some of the central questions facing the district as it plans for 2007-08, its first year without race ratios in more than 30 years.

Freed from the constraints of a federal court order, will Pinellas continue to place a premium on integrated schools?

If so, how should the district avoid segregated schools with the tool of strict race ratios no longer at its disposal?

Also: Will it be harder to find a solution in a county where most parents aren't inclined to integrate and are lukewarm to inducements like magnet and attractor schools?

"I don't think so because it was hard to begin with," said Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox. "In some ways, it just kind of illuminates the path that we're on."

A distant school would have to offer something truly special to make the trip worthwhile, said poll participant Andrea Poirier, whose grandsons Brandon, 8, and Andrew, 16, go to Bear Creek Elementary and Boca Ciega High.

"My main concern about a school is that it's close," she said. "I can walk Brandon to school. I can walk to school to volunteer. It just makes sense. ... I would not put Brandon on a bus unless I had to. I know how the kids behave."

Karen Rainville of Madeira Beach also chose a school for her son, Zachary, based primarily on proximity. Madeira Beach Middle School didn't have the highest FCAT grade, she said, but it had a "nice atmosphere" and you can walk there from her home.

Exposing kids to diversity is important, she said. But she also wanted Zachary, who is biracial, to have school friends in the neighborhood.

"I don't have anything against a school being predominantly black," she said. "If one was located near to us, it would be different. As a single parent, I couldn't get (to St. Petersburg) to drop him off and pick him up."

Rainville, who is white, acknowledged the difficulty of achieving voluntary integration if parents are unwilling to leave their neighborhoods. But parents can introduce their children to diversity in other ways, she said.

"My son goes to a gym and does tae kwon do. He does a lot of things outside of our neighborhood that involve a lot of different types of people from different backgrounds."

Milton Pasco of Clearwater was among the parents who chose integrated schools over neighborhood schools in the Times poll. But he also is proof that survey questions don't fit every situation.

In a twist of sorts, the single black father of four girls, ages 12 to 15, opted for less diverse schools farther from home. He thought they offered a better education.

Pasco chose Carwise Middle School for two girls and East Lake High for the other two, forsaking schools with larger populations of black students closer to home. The enrollments at Carwise and East Lake are fewer than 5 percent black.

Pasco said schools should aim for diversity. But he also says it's important that all schools receive sufficient funding. He worries that the choice plan will fall short and some schools will become predominantly black.

"It's not whether resegregation is going to happen, it's how much time it will take," he said. "I'm concerned for the quality."

The poll surveyed 617 Pinellas parents and guardians over two nights last week with questions about school start times, integration and other issues. Seventy-three percent of the respondents were women. Seventy-seven percent were white, 12 percent were black and 4 percent were Hispanic. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Wilcox said he was struck that only 27 percent of parents would opt for an integrated school, because "just about everywhere I go people speak to the virtues of going to school together."

He said one might have expected a higher number of black parents than 51 percent to choose integrated schools. Yet he also has heard some in the black community call for a return to all-black schools close to home. "I kind of feel (that sentiment) growing," Wilcox said. "And it's not different from what I heard in Baton Rouge," his former district, where the enrollment was 75 percent black.

Wilcox also noted the ambivalence parents showed in the poll toward magnets and attractors.

"I think what it says to me is any magnet options we have will have to be better than private schools, better than parochial schools, just spectacular," he said. "They can't be average."

Enrique Escarraz, who helped craft the choice plan as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the poll numbers did not surprise him.

"What I read into it is that we don't value an integrated, complete society very much," he said. "It's sort of like white folks think there's no problem anymore. Black folks still do."

However, he questioned what the numbers mean. There is no way a poll can capture the many nuances of an issue like desegregation, Escarraz said. The questions presume every parent who responded fully understands the ramifications involved, and they don't, he said.

"It should be taken with a few grains of salt. It's not comprehensive and it's not specific enough."

Escarraz said parents' opinions should not be ignored. "But you need to do more than whatever parents say they want. There's more at stake than just that."

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, agreed that no one should focus only on parents' opinions as the district approaches major decisions about integration. "This is the direction of this district for the next 15 or 20 years," he argued.

The question is best left to the keepers of the community's larger institutions - from city and state officials to business and civic leaders, and the Times editorial board, Moore said.

A community task force appointed by the School Board is working to fashion a plan for how the district should proceed after the race ratios expire. But Moore urged board members to take a more active role than they have so far, and to move quicker on the issue so Pinellas residents know what to expect.

"The faster the board can take ownership of this thing and make its determinations," he said, "the better off we're going to be."

At a workshop on Tuesday, School Board members addressed the future of choice but got bogged down in procedural details, never touching on fundamental issues such as whether Pinellas should make racial integration a priority after 2007.

"I want to know as a board member when we get on the same page," board member Mary Russell asked her colleagues. "Are we going to have this conversation or not?"

[Last modified December 8, 2005, 08:17:02]

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