tampabay.com

More schools may be mostly black

Major shifts seen in new school zones plan.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published June 15, 2007


Enrollment at several Pinellas schools would quickly become mostly black under a proposal to replace the choice plan. But school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Thursday he is not troubled by the prospect.

Referring to decades of desegregation efforts as "failed social policies," he said busing has resulted in "faux integration," where black and white kids attend the same schools but generally separate at lunch tables and in classrooms.

"We'd like to do it a little differently," he told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

During an hourlong discussion, Wilcox also released a number of details about the new plan, including names of some possible new fundamental schools and a proposal to relocate the wildly popular medical magnet at Palm Harbor University High School.

Under the plan, the district would have eight "attendance areas" for elementary schools, four for middle schools and two for high schools. Within those areas, each school would be surrounded by a zone. Students would be assigned to their zone school unless it was full or they wanted another school, such as a magnet or fundamental.

According to rough projections, at least eight elementary schools would be between 60 and 95 percent black in 2008-09 if the School Board were to approve the new plan. Wilcox said the same could happen at one or two middle schools.

Gibbs and Lakewood high schools in St. Petersburg also could become predominantly black, but the district expects to prevent that by strengthening and adding magnet programs, he said.

The district probably would fund schools based on "equity" not equality, Wilcox said. That means schools with large populations of poor students - often black children - would get more resources than schools in middle-class or affluent areas.

The district also is exploring plans to give teachers incentive pay to work at those schools, and to make their class sizes even lower than required by state law. The extra money would come from the millions Wilcox expects to save in busing costs.

"I don't struggle with the fact that a school will be majority black," he said, "as long as I do what I need to do to support the infrastructure of that school."

He added: "There is nothing inherently inferior about a school with a majority of black kids in it."

The elementary schools projected to become predominantly black in 2008 are Sandy Lane in Clearwater and several in St. Petersburg: Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Douglas L. Jamerson, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and James B. Sanderlin.

Wilcox said he and his staff have developed the new plan assuming that the U.S. Supreme Court will no longer allow school districts to assign children to schools based on their race. A ruling on that is expected before the court recesses this month.

The School Board will get its first look at the plan Thursday.

If they approve it this fall and implement it in 2008-09 as planned, it would mark the first time since 1970 that Pinellas students were not assigned to schools based on race.

Asked whether he saw any legal barriers to doing away with racial balancing, Wilcox said that was not a concern.

"I think we're designing an education plan," he said. "I don't think we're designing a plan for lawyers. It's arguable that lawyers got us into this mess."

Many of the other details released Thursday by Wilcox have to do with a proposed increase in the number of fundamental schools, a cornerstone of the new plan.

Fundamental schools offer a back-to-basics approach with required parent involvement, nightly homework and dress requirements that exceed the district's code. The schools have proven popular, with more applicants than spaces available.

The plan calls for a fundamental school in each of the eight elementary attendance areas, plus expansion of the fundamental concept in the middle schools.

Some of the details:

- Belleair, Fuguitt and Oldsmar elementaries are among those being considered as new fundamental schools, Wilcox said. Woodlawn Elementary is being considered as an added fundamental school in a St. Petersburg attendance area that already includes Lakeview Fundamental, he said.

- Wilcox hopes the plan will allow the district to get its annual busing budget, now at $46-million, down to about $30-million. Hundreds of routes would be eliminated and the School Board could face "a very difficult decision" to lay off bus drivers, he said.

- Riviera Middle School in St. Petersburg is being considered for possible closure or as a new fundamental middle school.

- The new zones for high schools, still to be drawn, could surprise some people, Wilcox said. He cited the problem with Northeast High, which sits in an area of St. Petersburg that has 3, 200 high school students, too many for one school. Some families in that part of the city may find themselves zoned for another high school, he said.

- Wilcox said he is considering moving the medical magnet program at Palm Harbor University High to another north county high school, possibly Countryside or Dunedin.

He said the move would create room for students in Palm Harbor's regular program and its International Baccalaureate program, which could be getting more students.

That's because the plan includes a promise by the district to enhance "feeder patterns" from elementary to middle to high school so families will be able to better predict where their children will go. One pattern the district hopes to beef up is an International Baccalaureate, or IB, track from elementary to high school.

In north Pinellas, that track would start at a proposed "Primary Years" IB program at Sandy Lane Elementary, lead to a "Middle Years" IB program at Kennedy Middle and end up at Palm Harbor University High.

In south Pinellas, it would start in the existing Primary Years IB program at James B. Sanderlin Elementary, continue at a proposed IB program at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School and end at St. Petersburg High's well-established IB program.

The medical magnet at Palm Harbor received 555 applications this year, making it the most popular of any special high school program in Pinellas.

Wilcox acknowledged the difficulty of convincing people the move is a good idea, saying it was "like kicking the sacred cow."

He also agreed that the plan was a lot for the community to digest. Designing it has made him realize how complex the district is, he said.

"I just don't think people realize how many moving parts are in play here."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.