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School proximity trumps diversity

As a new assignment plan looms, a poll of parents shows racial makeup is a low priority, far below quality.

Published October 21, 2007

[Times charts]

The vast majority of Pinellas parents consider racial integration a low priority when it comes to public schools.

Both white and black parents polled in recent days by the St. Petersburg Times said other factors -- the quality of a school, its proximity to home and the ability of siblings to go there together -- are more important.

Only 4 percent of the parents surveyed ranked racial diversity as the most important characteristic of a school, while 63 percent said overall quality was their top priority. Black and white parents ranked their priorities in the same order.

Parents expressed similar views in a 2005 Times poll and in a 2006 Pinellas County school district survey of more than 7,700 households. But Mary Brown, the School Board's only black member, said the numbers don't reflect the views of black parents she has talked to.

"Black parents, like all parents, want high-quality schools, but they do not want segregated schools," Brown insisted. "When you put all that together, it's how you ask the question. If you had said, 'I want a high-quality school close to home that is segregated,' you'd come up with a different answer."

Race has emerged as a troubling issue as School Board members struggle to finish work on a new student assignment plan set to take effect next year. Brown and board member Linda Lerner have called for delaying the plan a year so the district can find ways to make schools more diverse.

The board's other five members are ready to move ahead.

The plan would return Pinellas to a system of neighborhood schools, but would hasten the return of predominantly black schools for the first time in more than three decades.

Board member Nancy Bostock said she was surprised racially integrated schools ranked so low as a parent priority. "But it doesn't surprise me that all parents want a high-quality school," she said. "That's what the board needs to focus on."

The board meets again Tuesday to try to reach a consensus.

Thepoll surveyed 604 Pinellas parents, 70 percent of whom attended racially integrated schools in their youth. Twenty percent were black -- about the same percentage of black students in Pinellas schools. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

While black and white parents shared the same priorities, they disagreed on other major points -- particularly in how they greet the specter of predominantly black schools.

The poll asked parents: "Are predominantly black schools as good as predominantly white schools?"

Only 19 percent of black parents said yes; 38 percent said black schools are worse. They echoed the black residents in recent public forums who said they doubt the district would provide equal resources to black schools when the new plan is implemented.

Meanwhile, 42 percent of white parents said the two kinds of schools are equally good, which surprised School Board member Janet Clark, who is white.

"I think a lot of white people are in la la land as far as racism goes," she said.

In general, the black parents polled expressed a more negative view of public schools than white parents, and showed a stronger inclination to change schools.

Some examples:

  • Of those whose children attend regular schools, only 14 percent of black parents rated their current school as excellent compared with 56 percent of white parents.
  • Twelve percent of black parents described their regular schools as poor, compared with1 percent of white parents.
  • Black parents are three times more likely than white parents to move their children to a neighborhood school next year rather than stay in their current school.
  • Sixty percent of black parents said they would be willing to forgo school bus service if that's what it took to get their child into a better school. Fifty-one percent of white parents said they would do the same.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox looked at the numbers differently, noting that 70 percent of black parents with kids in regular schools agreed those schools are good or excellent.

"That is a very positive number for me," he said. "It means the problems we have are manageable. ... That's in sharp contrast to what people have been saying to our board recently -- that our system is failing black children."

Still, the 70 percent favorable response from black parents is considerably lower than the 90 percent of white parents who rated regular schools excellent or good.

Black parents with children in magnet and fundamental programs expressed a much brighter view. Ninety-four percent rated their schools good or excellent -- the same as white parents.

The poll also asked parents about other issues related to the student assignment plan.

Parents were split over new start times.

Forty-three percent of middle school parents said they like the current start time of 9:45 a.m., but 46 percent want a later time.

Among high school parents, 50 percent said they want a start time later than the current 7:05 a.m. while 46 percent said they like the current time.

Start times are determined by the system's ability to get 45,000 kids to school using about 800 buses. Wilcox has said he would explore a change in start times if the return to neighborhood schools reduces the busing load as expected.

"Grandfathering" is another issue.

The district has agreed to "grandfather" students into their current schools instead of forcing them to move to their new neighborhood school next year. The catch: The district would not provide bus service to elementary school students who elect to remain in their current schools.

How many students will accept the grandfathering offer?

According to the poll, 59 percent of parents say they would keep their children in their current schools.

Terry Michaels of Oldsmar has toyed with the idea of moving her daughter from East Lake High, which she regards as "only fair." She would even be willing to drive her to a school farther away. But she'll stay put next year.

"She's already established now," said Michaels, 46. "She has friends there."

The grandfathering question again exposed a difference among races. Only 35 percent of black parents said they would stay in their current schools, compared with 64 percent of whites.

Corlis Bryant, a 49-year-old black parent in St. Petersburg, said her son Benjamin is doing well this year at Tyrone Middle School. But she would like to get him into Bay Point Middle next year because he can walk there.

"I have to leave for work at 5:45 a.m.," Bryant said. "I wanted him at Bay Point for the convenience."

The poll also sought to answer another mystery: What is the public's definition of a school close to home?

Twenty-four percent of parents said it was a school their children could walk to; 36 percent described it as a school within 2 miles of home. Nearly 40 percent said it was a school they could drive to in 15 minutes.

Among black parents, 57 percent said the 15-minute drive fit their idea of a close-to-home school.

Wilcox said that response might mean that black parents want to choose from a variety of schools in and around their neighborhoods.

But Clark called the number appalling.

"It's because (black) kids have been sent all over the place that they think that," she said. "My idea of close to home would be one to two miles, something a kid could bike."

In addition, the poll asked parents what they thought of Wilcox and the School Board. Fifty-six percent said Wilcox's performance is excellent or good, 9 points better than the board.

But board member Carol Cook noted that roughly equal percentages of black and white parents -- about 45 percent -- gave the board favorable marks.

"That to me is an indication that we're looking at this from an all-county perspective," she said. "It's not a majority white board looking out for white children only."


[Last modified October 21, 2007, 00:47:10]

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