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Don't fix what works
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published August 22, 2007
If the guiding principle of Pinellas County's new student assignment plan is to provide great schools close to home, magnet and fundamental programs should be attractive alternatives for families who want broader choices. Those specialized programs serve students with particular interests or aptitudes, and they should naturally draw from greater distances. Toward that end, School Board members should open the doors of these schools as wide as possible as they wrestle with the many details of a new assignment plan.
One of the reasons board members are tied in knots by defining the role fundamental and magnet schools will play in the future is that their purpose has changed over time. The original programs were created to encourage voluntary integration as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan, which is why they were located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Then more recent ones brought International Baccalaureate and medical magnets, for example, to predominantly white neighborhoods.
The one thing that hasn't changed about these schools is their attraction. Fundamental schools operate with strict discipline codes, back-to-basics academics and mandatory parental participation. Magnet programs cater to a variety of academic interests, such as math, science, medicine or the arts. These schools aren't for every student, and the attempt to cater to every student is twisting the board into a pretzel.
Take Southside Fundamental middle school and Perkins Elementary arts magnet as two examples. Both are located in a predominantly black community in southern St. Petersburg, and both drew their students this year from throughout the county. Notably, both are achieving academic success and maintaining genuine racial diversity even without firm racial ratios.
Why, then, tamper with that formula? Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, for example, is suggesting that half of Perkins be filled with neighborhood students. His objective, to return as many neighborhood schools as possible to previously disenfranchised black students, is laudable. But promising so many seats for nearby students in a school with a unique program and more demand than capacity would be self-defeating.
On Thursday, board members will take another look at the emerging student assignment plan. They would be wise to take a step back. The new proposal, unlike the current open-ended choice assignment plan, would give every student something that choice has denied. It would grant a guaranteed seat at a school close to home.
That neighborhood guarantee should make it easier than ever to open fundamental and magnet programs to students countywide. That open enrollment also represents, as Perkins discovered this year, the best chance at maintaining the kind of racial diversity that makes them special.
At this point, the board has no reason to shake up fundamentals or magnets. The supply certainly needs to grow to fill the demand, but hasty growth or ill-considered decisions about how to allocate seats could compromise these programs. Trying to provide a neighborhood component to magnets, especially as large as 50 percent, could resegregate them. Adding fundamental schools too quickly could leave them with empty seats or seats filled by nearby students who may not be entirely committed to the fundamental experience.
As they work out the details for fundamental and magnet schools in the new era of geographic zoning, the School Board should move slowly and with caution.