tampabay.com

Schools' racial mix is largely unchanged

Next school year, most students stay put. The future is less clear.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published May 5, 2007


After decades of carefully steering children into schools by race, Pinellas educators finally let go of the wheel this spring.

Some feared calamity. With no more ratios to keep schools racially balanced, they foresaw a quick return to segregated schools.

But that has not materialized - at least not yet, according to newly released enrollment figures for next school year. The racial makeup of Pinellas schools in 2007-08 will remain largely the same as this year's.

That's because the new rules that keep a child's race out of enrollment decisions applied only to the students who will enter kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade next year. Their numbers aren't large enough to dramatically change the overall racial balance at individual schools.

The vast majority of the district's 110,000 students have opted to stay in the schools they attend this year.

"I have said all along that schools were not going to, overnight, go one way or another" regarding race, Pinellas County superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Friday. "Generally, people are happy with their schools. That's where their friends are. They're going to stay there."

Another factor: The choice plan's rules discourage families from switching schools.

When classes start Aug. 21, South Pinellas schools that are thought to be ripe for "resegregation" under the new rules - Gibbs High, Lakewood High, John Hopkins Middle and Sanderlin Elementary, to name a few - will maintain the same percentages of black and nonblack students they had this year.

The exception is Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, which is expected to have a black enrollment of 51 percent next year, barring major changes. That would be up from 46 percent this year.

The race ratios that for years have kept these and other schools diverse expire this month as part of a federal court settlement that eases the district away from the days of busing.

The enrollment process for next year, which took place this spring, marks the first time race has not been used to assign Pinellas students to schools. Before schools were desegregated in 1971, educators used race to keep black and white students separate. After 1971, they used it to create diversity.

Now, race is out of the picture unless the School Board decides to bring it back in the next six months as it writes a student assignment plan for the future.

Much will depend on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, expected soon, that likely will tell districts how far they can go when trying to achieve diversity in schools. Board members also will be mindful of the polls and surveys in which Pinellas parents have made clear that a neighborhood school is more important to them than one that is racially balanced.

"We have to let that play a big role," said School Board member Peggy O'Shea.

"I think it's important to keep diversity," said board chair Mary Brown, the board's only black member. "But parents, black and white, are saying they want neighborhood schools. So we have to make it work."

If no steps are taken to achieve diversity, district officials expect more schools to join Melrose Elementary in becoming predominantly black. While they haven't seen the numbers yet, officials strongly suspect that the 17,000 families who applied for seats this spring displayed a strong desire to get into a school close to home.

That sentiment will show up more prominently over time as entry-level classes cycle through the system each year, they said.

"Over the next couple of years we could see dramatic changes," O'Shea said. "That will tell us which schools will become higher minority."

As the school year winds to a close, district officials are focusing more attention on the new assignment plan. Their goal is to approve it by mid November.

Administrators begin intensive talks Monday, and the board is planning several workshops. The public will have its say at meetings tentatively scheduled for August and September.

The public debate is expected to be as complicated as it will be intense.

In a School Board workshop this week, it quickly became clear that the process will be more involved than simply designing a plan that will allow every family to attend a neighborhood school.

The district staff produced numbers showing what would happen if every student was assigned to the school closest to the home.

A handful of schools - Gibbs, Lakewood and John Hopkins - would be predominantly black. And many schools would not have enough room to admit all the children in their area.

Wilcox said many families think they know which schools they would be assigned to in a system of neighborhood schools. They might be wrong, he said.

Brown said, "There are going to be some students that will have to be moved around; there's just no getting around that."

But she added that allowing families the option of continuing to choose their schools will ease the situation.

"I do believe we can get this done," she said, "hopefully in a way that everybody will be pleased."