School challenges just starting

A Times Editorial
Published December 20, 2007

The Pinellas School Board finally made the right decision by scrapping the failed choice plan and embracing a "close-to-home" assignment plan, but the most difficult work lies ahead. Working out the details, encouraging voluntary integration and ensuring that students in minority, low-income neighborhoods receive a quality education are formidable challenges for superintendent Clayton Wilcox's administration.

Families pay little attention to school rezoning plans until they are reality. That means the school district has to aggressively promote the new plan and educate parents before they make decisions next year. While most students are expected to initially remain in their current schools, district officials can expect plenty of questions about new assignment policies and school boundary lines. The process of selecting a new school closer to home has to work more smoothly than the time-consuming maze in the early choice years.

While the new student assignment plan is virtually color-blind, the school district should not give up on diversity. The idea should be to do everything possible to encourage integration, not accelerate the resegregation already rapidly occurring in St. Petersburg's southernmost schools under choice. That means maintaining strong magnet and fundamental programs. It means sticking with Tuesday's smart decision not to create proximity zones around those schools, which would have benefited some neighborhood children but undermined one of the original goals of these special programs. And it means making sure all schools have strong leadership, engaged teachers and quality programs to avoid recreating an old-fashioned system of haves and have-nots.

Even if those efforts are successful, the reality is that the return of neighborhood schools will mean the return of more schools that are more easily identifiable by race and economic status. As staff writer Thomas C. Tobin reported Sunday, considerable academic research indicates academic achievement typically falters when minority students find themselves in resegregated schools. In a county where the black graduation rate already stands at a dismal 43 percent, creating more racially identifiable schools only raises the challenges facing Wilcox and the School Board in delivering a quality education to all students.

To their credit, the superintendent and School Board members already are working to create more high school programs that are more meaningful and rewarding for students who do not fit the traditional academic track. But that's just the start. They have committed to providing more resources to schools in poor minority neighborhoods, but they have yet to spell out the details. They also will have to provide more incentives for principals and teachers to work in those challenging environments. This assignment plan will fail to deliver on its promise if the best teachers wind up concentrated in the schools with the highest-achieving students in the highest-income neighborhoods.

This is far from the ideal student assignment plan. Busing costs will rise at first when the idea was to lower them and redirect that money into the classroom. Aside from magnets, there are not enough realistic options for high school students. There may not be enough room in elementary schools in southern St. Petersburg to accommodate all of the neighborhood students. There is the very real possibility that the strength of some magnet programs could be undermined and the commitment to racially mixed schools will be weakened.

Those are issues that will have to be addressed. The important thing is that the School Board has stopped its hand-wringing and set the stage for a new era in public education in Pinellas County. Now it's up to Wilcox and his team to ensure that this next stage offers more benefits than just an opportunity to attend a school close to home.