'Every kid deserves the best ...'

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007

As the Pinellas County School District continues to ponder the most equitable way to assign children to schools, two mothers share their views on diversity, parental involvement, and what makes a school "good."

No one can accuse Nikki Barfield of not doing her homework.

Shes already begun researching kindergarten options for her 4-year-old son, Michael. She's been comparing FCAT scores and measuring "adequate yearly progress," and soon will embark on a series of school tours.

But after attending one of six community meetings the district held recently to find out what parents think about a proposed student assignment plan, Barfield, 34, has a new worry.

"I came away thinking that if my son doesn't get into a fundamental school or a magnet program, I'm going to be settling for less," she said.

The issue came up at Thursday's School Board workshop. Even as board members pointed out differences between regular schools and special programs such as magnets, they said they wished for a time when the public would view all schools as good.

The argument made by board member Nancy Bostock that every school in the district has both high- and low-achieving students doesn't sway Barfield. She says she's looking at the bottom line, and the schools in her south St. Petersburg neighborhood just don't measure up.

In fact, Barfield says, if Michael doesn't "win the lottery" and get into a magnet or fundamental school, she likely will keep him at Gulf Coast Christian School where he attends prekindergarten.

"We're certainly not rich," Barfield said. "But when it comes to our kids and their future, we have to make the best decision possible."

Unlike many African-American parents and community leaders who spoke at the community meetings, Barfield isn't worried that schools in south Pinellas are likely to resegregate as the district moves away from assigning children to schools based on race. Michael has plenty of opportunities to mix with children of other races on his league football and soccer teams, she said.

"Diversity is important," Barfield said, "but it's not the main reason I would choose a school."

Cheryl Underwood wants the best of both worlds for her 9-year-old son Larry: a high performing school with a diverse population. She thinks she's found it at Bay Point Elementary.

But Underwood, 42, worries about what she sees as a growing divide in the way parents and school officials classify children.

"It's always this group vs. that one," Underwood said. "It's the black kids vs. the white kids, the north side vs. the south side, the neighborhood schools vs. the magnet schools."

She thinks the fragmentation has a trickle-down effect on children.

"When people ask my son, 'What school do you go to?' he says, 'I go to a magnet school,' " Underwood said. "He's starting to sense there's a divide, and I don't like that."

What bothers Underwood the most is the perception that children who don't attend magnet or fundamental schools are somehow inferior, and that their parents don't care enough about them to apply to the special programs. She said she sees that attitude among parents and school officials alike.

"There has to be some underlying principle that every kid deserves the best teachers and that every parent deserves consideration even if you don't get your No. 1 choice," she said. "There has to be a sense of, 'I'm going to hear your concerns,' not 'deal with it, you lost the lottery.' "

Underwood, who attended a predominantly black high school and earned a master's of divinity from a historically black college, said she isn't concerned about south Pinellas schools resegregating. She thinks what happens inside each classroom is more important than racial ratios.

"I've known black kids who have had horrible experiences in classrooms where the teachers looked just like them and I've known some who have had wonderful experiences," she said. "It's more about the attitude and the personal respect that goes back and forth."