Erosion of diversity draws little notice
The plan to keep students at schools near their homes hasn't been questioned by minorities who will be most affected.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007
As Pinellas officials built a new system of neighborhood schools from the ground up this summer, they also dismantled the machinery that powered the desegregation effort for decades.
The district's new student assignment plan, set to take effect next year, will end the practice of using buses to engineer the racial makeup of schools. Begun in 1971 as a tool to ensure black students got equal resources, busing also came to be seen as a way to prepare all kids for a diverse world.
If its imminent demise gives anyone heartburn, it was scarcely apparent in July and August, as school officials publicly crafted a plan that would keep race out of the student assignment process. The plan would concentrate large numbers of black and other minority students in less diverse schools with poorer populations and lower test scores.
Yet black parents and those who play leadership roles in black circles stayed away, missing an early chance to influence the transition. Given the historic moment at hand, some found their detachment remarkable.
"I was sitting there wondering, 'Where is everybody? Why is there such a great silence?' And the silence is deafening," lamented Mary Brown, the School Board's only black member.
Meanwhile, hundreds of parents, most of them white, were quick to contest other parts of the plan with e-mails, phone calls and attendance at meetings.
"Quite frankly, I'm amazed that the black community hasn't been involved," said board member Peggy O'Shea. "I'm curious as to why that is."
At an NAACP forum in St. Petersburg last week, Brown told an audience of 22 people there was still time to be heard in five public forums, including two this week in Largo and St. Petersburg.
"These children are going down the tubes," she told them. "You have got to be at the table to know what's going on."
While officials have long acknowledged that the new plan will cause some schools to resegregate, no one has calculated its overall impact.
A Times analysis suggests the plan would significantly increase racial isolation in Pinellas. Schools in white neighborhoods would become more white and those in black neighborhoods more black.
The number of well-integrated schools would drop to 25, down from 50 under the current choice plan. More than 40,000 students attended such schools under choice. The new plan would cut that number in half, reducing everyday contact between races.
Under choice, 33 schools had enrollments made up mostly of minorities, many of whom tend to score lower on standardized tests. That number would drop to 19 schools as those students concentrate closer to home.
Two opposite viewsof what future will be
Poor students as well would tend to be grouped in fewer schools, creating more daunting challenges for teachers.
One example is Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, which was 40 percent black in 2005. This year, the school is 61 percent black and enrollment models show that number climbing to more than 80 percent. The percentage of kids in poverty at the school also has inched higher.
Last year, Fairmount Park students scored below the district average in reading, math and science. But the school got an A grade from the state on the strength of huge reading gains by its most struggling students.
When the school's racial makeup changes next year, principal Karen Moseley said the strategy will stay the same: "To be an A school."
The school got the A by teaching to state standards, emphasizing character education and working with parents, she said.
Still, as some black residents take a closer look at the plan, their biggest concern is that Fairmount Park and other newly resegregated schools get the money they need to overcome inevitable problems.
They say the district should pay for more programs proven to help struggling students. They say teachers in those schools should receive extra pay to prevent the high turnover that often plagues high-poverty minority schools.
Another concern: the district's decision to create seven attendance areas for high schools rather than the two areas proposed by a citizen task force.
The plan puts Gibbs, Lakewood and Boca Ciega high schools alone in their own attendance area. That reinforces the notion that they are the county's primary "black" high schools, said Trenia Cox, a task force member who co-chairs the education committee of the St. Petersburg NAACP.
"We did not want diversity to be such a stranger to the new system," she said. "Is it not clear enough that south is black and north is white?"
District officials can do better, said Enrique Escarraz, a St. Petersburg lawyer who for years has represented Pinellas black residents in desegregation litigation.
"What I see them as doing is sacrificing diversity with nothing in return for the kids," he said. "I see them not having real concern or any sense of what the community has gone through. ... It's as if the people in charge are back 35 years ago in their attitudes."
He said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited what districts can do to racially balance schools did not tie their hands completely. He noted the court suggested ways to maintain racial balance, such as gerrymandering school zones.
"You have to be creative about it," he said. "You have to be smart about it."
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Escarraz had two years to share thoughts on the plan and hasn't. He called his comments "really tiring."
He said the high court's ruling was less a concern as he drafted the plan than were the wishes of Pinellas parents, who have said anecdotally and in surveys that they want neighborhood schools.
Wilcox said the district has crafted a system where every school is good, where extra resources are sent to schools that need help, where kids are assigned to schools close to home but get "a rich bouquet of options."
Under the plan, every student would be assigned to a "close-to-home" school, but could explore other options such as magnet programs and fundamental schools across the county. High school students would have added choices such as career academies and "centers of excellence" designed to teach job skills.
In addition, any student could attend any regular school in the district, provided there was room and they provided their own transportation.
Promoting diversity through options
Wilcox said providing a range of options would promote diversity by compelling students to explore schools around the county, notwithstanding Cox's fears about the tightly drawn high school zones.
"I think that should send a powerful message to people that we're not going to abandon any community," he said.
Paying teachers more to work in racially isolated, high-poverty schools is "treating the symptom not the disease," Wilcox said. It might be better to spend the money on more prekindergarten programs, he said, arguing that students' lack of readiness is what wears on teachers and prompts them to leave.
He said the district is focused on plans to bring more resources to struggling schools. One idea is to make classes at those schools smaller than the state requires. But he is wary of starting new programs.
"It's not how many programs we do," Wilcox said. "It really is about using the ones we have well."
The less-is-more approach does not resonate with black parents like Andrea Allen of St. Petersburg, who has a son and daughter in the arts magnet at Gibbs High. If the test scores of black students are low now, Allen argued, think what would happen when more black students are in racially isolated schools.
She says she won't believe the district's promise of extra resources until she sees results. And she questions last year's survey, in which a majority of black parents said they wanted neighborhood schools - even if it meant they were less diverse.
Allen said she has talked to black parents who took the survey.
"They thought, 'Okay my kid will get to go to a neighborhood school, but they'll have the diversity,'" she said. "They didn't know we were going to go a hundred years backward."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8923.
Here is the schedule of public forums on the proposed Pinellas student assignment plan:
Wednesday: Community input meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo.
Thursday: Community input meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, St. Petersburg.
Oct. 8: School Board members conduct a "listening tour" to get more public opinion. First meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.
Oct. 9: Second stop on listening tour, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Oak Grove Middle School, 1370 S Belcher Road, Clearwater.
Oct. 10: Last listening tour forum, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Countryside High, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater.
Oct. 16: The board takes an initial vote on the new plan after a public hearing.
Nov. 13: The board takes a final vote on the plan after a public hearing.
On the Web
For recent Times coverage of the plan, an extensive Q&A and links to important documents, go to education.tampabay.com.