by Bob Geary
Here's something I learned last night at the District 6 school board election debate. Superintendent Tony Tata's been talking up the idea of single-sex academies in Raleigh, specifically an all-male academy at the Longview School next door to Enloe HS and an all-female academy in the former Raleigh Charter HS in Pilot Mill. (Raleigh Charter moved to a new location this year. The tiny Longview School, an alternative school program, could move out and be merged with Mary Phillips HS, Tata suggests.)
The two academies, Tata says, would be grades 6-12 and could open as soon as 2012-13. His goal is that, within a few years, the two would serve a combined 800-1,000 students.
Good models for this, he told the school board Tuesday, are the pair of Early College High Schools (grades 9-12) in Guilford County, one all-male, one all-female. Each has a graduation rate of 95 percent or better.
So far, so good.
What Tata somehow failed to mention about the Guilford schools, and what went unreported in the press from the school board meeting, is that the two schools are a good deal smaller than what he has in mind and both are overwhelming black. One, apparently, has zero white students.
The all-male school in Guilford, located at historically black N.C. A&T University, had 96 students in 2009-10, according to this "state report card" on the Guilford Public Schools website. None were white. A handful were multi-racial.
The female school, at historically black Bennett College, had 103 students. Its 2009-10 state report card indicates that a handful of its students were either white or multi-racial, but the overwhelming majority were black.
I came home and looked up the data after hearing an exchange during the debate between District 6 candidates Donna Williams and Christine Kushner about Tata's single-sex academies idea. Williams said she likes the idea, and she's heard that single-sex schools can be particularly effective with at-risk kids. Kushner, too, said such academies can be a good idea. But — Kushner said — one of the academies in Guilford is all-black, and that gives her more than a little pause.
I don't want any "racially identifiable" schools in Wake, Kushner said.
Racially identifiable as in all-black or, for that matter, all-white or all-anything.
Now, I'm not suggesting Tata's goal is a pair of all-black schools. But, his description of what he does want is very likely, it seems to me, to result in one or both student bodies being predominantly African-American unless the superintendent and the school board are committed to avoiding that outcome.
Tata describes the academies he wants as having "highly structured" programs focused on building "leadership and character." I get an image of his days in the Army and the U.S. military's very successful programs for minority enlistees. The campuses he has in mind are either in Southeast Raleigh (in the case of the Longview school) or on the edge of it (Raleigh Charter). Southeast Raleigh is Raleigh's historically African-American community.
When Tata spoke to the school board — I wasn't there, but there's a summary of his presentation on the N&O's website — he talked about partnering with nearby colleges, perhaps including historically black St. Augustine's College, which is close to both Longview and Raleigh Charter, and Peace College, historically Presbyterian and white, which is next next door to Raleigh Charter.
Enloe, a magnet HS with a base population that is predominantly African-American, just got a JROTC program started. It would be moved to the Longview academy, Tata said.
Close your eyes, and you can imagine an all-male academy at Longview with a military bent ("highly structured"), an emphasis on discipline ("character") and a student body that is coming almost exclusively from Southeast Raleigh. Sure, white kids from other neighborhoods might be drawn to it. But will they still be drawn when the school turns out to be predominantly non-white?
On the other hand, the all-female academy could be anything. Leadership and character? "Bring It On."
Still, the context of Tata's proposal indicates that it's designed to serve students from Southeast Raleigh who live near a magnet school but —because half the magnet populations come from outside Southeast Raleigh — have only a 50-50 chance of going there. Historically, about half the students in Southeast Raleigh have been bused to schools that are outside their neighborhoods.
Tata's Student Assignment Plan promises to preserve the magnet schools (Enloe is one), but the big, unsettled question about his plan is, where will the other Southeast Raleigh students be assigned? In a choice plan, they'll assign themselves, and Tata's "test drive" indicates that most will choose based on proximity to home unless school officials actively encourage other choices.
Tata's talked about encouraging kids from low-income neighborhoods to choose from of a designated set of "high-performing" schools elsewhere in Raleigh or in the suburbs. He even suggested at one point that, especially in cases where the kids' parents are disengaged and don't make a choice — or they make a poor choice given their childrens' needs — school officials might intervene and make the choice for them.
School Board Chair Ron Margiotta, on the other hand, thinks kids from the 'hood should be in "neighborhood schools" the same as the kids in the 'burbs.
That's where the idea of the new academies comes in.
Having two new schools in or on the edge of Southeast Raleigh, with room for 1,000 students, offers a possible answer to the question of where Southeast Raleigh kids will go — especially if the school board doesn't care whether those schools are racially integrated or segregated.
Whether it's a good answer is yet another question. Around the country, there are a few successful all-black schools, but not many — and fewer still where the students are low-income. Conversely, Tata said the research shows that single-sex academies lift student achievement in all subject areas.
Take a look at the Guilford schools. The girls school is doing great. The boys? Average for the district — but that means above-average for other black males in the district.
But these are choice schools — very small — and the students who attend them are presumably not a random sample of African-American students. Rather, they're students with engaged parents who've decided not to put their kids into Guilford's other, much-much-larger high schools.
For 35 years, Wake County has avoided having all-black schools. Under the new school board, Walnut Creek Elementary School opened recently with a predominantly black student body, but it's located on the outer rim of Southeast Raleigh in an area of middle-class black subdivisions.
How would a school drawing a predominantly black, predominantly low-income student population do?
Here's another thing I learned last night. Tata's Student Assignment Plan — the Blue "Choice" Option — which Tata says is "very close to where we need it to be ... and getting a vote" is not going to get a school board vote prior to the October 11 elections.
How do I know that?
Because Donna Williams, a Republican with — shall we say — close ties to the Republican majority on the school board, said so.
Heading into Tuesday's school board meeting, it was thought — but obvioiusly it shouldn't have been — that the board would give Tata's plan some kind of thumbs-up or thumbs-down that day. (That's literally the way the Republicans do it — Board Chair Ron Margiotta asks how the members are feeling and sticks out his thumb.)
On Tuesday, though, the board listened as Tata once again described in a very general way how his plan is gonna be great. Then they kicked the can down the road to the Oct. 4 meeting — a week before Election Day.
Will there be a vote on Oct. 4?
Conceptually, Tata's "Blue" plan rolls right down the middle between the school board majority's desire for "neighborhood schools" and the goal many others have for neighborhood schools with diverse student populations — that is, they would NOT be pure neighborhood schools.
But that middle ground is, thus far, in concept only.
Whether Blue will result in reasonably diverse schools or not depends entirely on how it's executed. The devil, in other words, is in the details. And the details are far from set — or clear.
Margiotta has made clear his preference for a pure neighborhood-schools plan, with diversity cast aside as a goal. But he's running for re-election Oct. 11, making for an awkward situation if Tata insists on diversity as a real outcome of his Blue plan and Margiotta feels constrained to vote no. You know Margiotta doesn't wan to break with Tata — the Republicans' choice to be superintendent — on the eve of the election.
By the same token, if Tata is forced to vague up the diversity element in Blue to the point that it won't produce reasonably diverse schools, Margiotta & Co. probably don't want that outcome to be apparent prior to the elections either.
Anyway, Williams said she's "been told" that the Student Assignment Plan won't be put to a vote until after the elections, and if she's elected, she'll insist that her views on it be taken into account. Williams, if elected, wouldn't take office until December. Figure at least a month for her to get up to speed on the assignment issue, and we'd be into January before this hash is settled under her scenario.
The debate itself was energetic, if predictable. District 6 looks like a race between Kushner, who's endorsed by the NCAE and the Wake Democrats, and Williams, who's endorsed by the Wake Republicans. There are two other Democratic candidates, Mary Ann Weathers and George Morgan, but neither seems to have much support or an organized campaign.
Is the Wake school board majority — the Republican majority — on the right track or the wrong one? Williams says right track, Kushner says wrong. Kushner says the board majority is political and divisive. Williams says there's too much anger on both sides, majority and minority. (Actually, if you'll allow me an editorial note, there's lots of anger at the majority from people who come to the school board meetings. But the board minority has been almost saintly, month after month, in their willingness to disagree but remain polite.)
One other thing I learned — or confirmed — last night. Williams husband, Tom Williams, is a partner in Acadia NorthStar, an accounting business with a specialty in charter schools management with some 67 charter school clients in North Carolina already.
I encountered Acadia NorthStar a few weeks ago when I attended the N.C. Charter Schools Alliance conference in downtown Raleigh — the company was a headline sponsor of the conference. With the cap of 100 charter schools taken off this year by the Republican-led General Assembly, being in the charter school management business in North Carolina is about to be a growth sector.
Kushner, at one point in the debate, said her one of her opponents (unnamed, but obviously Williams) was getting support in the race from proponents of charter schools and private schools — the likes of Art Pope and Bob Luddy, in short. That she is. And yes, she told me, her husband is the Acadia NorthStar Tom Williams.
"I heard the shot," Donna Williams said of Kushner's comment when I talked to her after. "I'll say this, I am in favor of school choice, and I am in favor of competition."
During the debate, Williams acknowledged that she's in the school board race as a consequence of her very active role in GOP politics over the past three years. But she said if elected she'll be independent-minded and not bring a political agenda to the table.