School choice: close to home
Pinellas County schools will likely resegregate if parents get to choose where their kids go to school, because they want to keep them nearby.
By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published September 28, 2006
Kindergarten classes at 10 Pinellas elementary schools would be predominantly black right now if not for rules requiring desegregation.
The same would be true for the sixth-grade classes at three middle schools and the ninth-grade classes at two high schools.
That scenario reflects the preferences of parents who participated in choice for this school year. Only students at the entry-level grades - kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades - had to go through the application process.
Though a limited sample, their preferences are further evidence that when race ratios are lifted at the end of this academic year, resegregation is likely to begin at many south Pinellas schools.
The School Board's attorney told the board this week that any efforts to extend the ratios or replace them with similar measures would almost certainly be successfully challenged in court.
Lakewood Elementary principal Kathleen Young said she would like her school, located in a predominantly African-American part of St. Petersburg, to maintain racial diversity. But she knows that's unlikely once the ratios are lifted.
"Eventually," Young said, "we could become an all-black school."
In the four-year history of choice, families of all races have shown a strong inclination to apply for schools close to home rather than venture into other neighborhoods. In many cases, only the choice plan's ratios - which keep schools artificially integrated by capping black enrollment at 42 percent - have kept schools from becoming predominantly black.
Last year's application figures, for example, reveal that 82 percent of the incoming kindergartners who made Fairmount Park Elementary their first choice were black. Seventy-three percent of the incoming sixth-graders who chose Bay Point Middle were black, as were 78 percent of the ninth-graders who chose Gibbs High.
The choice application numbers mirror a recent Times poll in which more than 60 percent of parents said they preferred a school in their neighborhood. Fewer than 30 percent said their first choice would be an integrated school.
Brenda Scott, who is black, wanted her first-grade son to attend Lakewood Elementary this year because it's close to home. She was disappointed - and baffled - when the district assigned him to 74th Street Elementary, miles from their south St. Petersburg home.
"I do want him to know there are other cultures out there," Scott said. "But I don't think that's a good enough reason to send him way out to another school."
Because children probably will continue to enter choice only at the kindergarten, sixth- and ninth-grade levels, resegregation is likely to take several years. And several School Board members, including Nancy Bostock, have suggested that most families want to stay where they are, further slowing changes.
But that appears to depend on how satisfied parents are with the choices they received.
Bessie Martinez, a black parent who lives in south St. Petersburg, was hoping her son would get a spot at Lakewood or Maximo Elementary. Instead, he was assigned to Woodlawn Elementary, a school miles from his home.
Martinez said she values diversity. But getting her second-grader to and from school and making after care arrangements has taken a toll on her family.
"Being in an integrated classroom might better prepare him for the world," Martinez said. "But I'm going to keep applying until I get a school closer to home."
Responding to the news that the district will not be allowed to extend race ratios after they expire at the end of the academic year, board member Carol Cook said the goal still will be to strive for diversity.
"I don't think that means we're not going to pay attention to what may happen with schools becoming resegregated," Cook said.
Among the strategies Cook and other board members have suggested is creating strong attractor programs that will encourage white parents to send their children to schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, thus voluntarily desegregating schools.
But the Times poll indicates that may be easier said than done.
When asked specifically about magnet and attractor programs, only 41 percent of Pinellas parents said they would be very likely to send their child to a school in a black neighborhood. Twenty percent said they were "not at all" likely to do so.
Kathy Krow, a white parent who lives in north St. Petersburg, is among that 20 percent. When her 6-year-old son was assigned to Campbell Park Elementary, a south St. Petersburg school with an award-winning marine science program, she opted to send him to private school.
"From everything I read on their Web site, the school itself wouldn't have been a problem," Krow said. "It was strictly the commute."
Tijuana Bigham, Campbell Park's assistant principal, is sensitive to those neighborhood children who are being turned away from the school because of the cap on African-American enrollment. She sees something of a silver lining in the end of race ratios.
"I feel it's a great opportunity to open doors to (neighborhood) students and families who may have wanted to participate in our program," Bigham said. "But this is a great environment for all students. Regardless of who shows up, we're going to teach them."
Times staff writers Thomas C. Tobin and Matthew Waite contributed to this report.
[Last modified September 28, 2006, 00:36:27]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]