The first Monday evening in January, Wake County Board of Education member John Tedesco met with worried parents at Combs Elementary School in Southwest Raleigh. The subject was the county's nationally recognized system of magnet schools, including Combs, and whether it can survive the new board majority's push for "neighborhood schools"—and away from the diversity policy that's been linked with the magnets for 25 years.
Part of the new majority, Tedesco was non-committal. "I don't want to dismantle the magnet system," he said initially. "I think it's a great system." But later he acknowledged that some magnet schools could lose their special programs in order to create new magnet schools "in some zones."
"We have to figure it out—the resources," Tedesco added. "Not everyone's going to be happy. I'm being honest."
The key word in his discussion, however, wasn't magnets; it was zones. As much as the 200 parents at the meeting wanted to focus on Combs and other magnet schools their children attend, Tedesco's emphasis was on a different, if related topic: his scheme to split the county—for the first time since the merger of the Raleigh and Wake school systems in 1976—into a dozen or more "community assignment zones."
"Basically," he explained, "you live in a zone, you go to school in your zone."
If adopted, Tedesco's plan would upend Wake's assignment system. It would replace the current fluid system of school assignment zones and magnet schools with fixed community boundaries that would be, in all but name, separate districts in a fractured county.
An almost inevitable consequence of the plan, given the economic segregation of Wake's neighborhoods and communities, would be the creation of a two- or three-tiered school system. Affluent school zones would be located in the western part of the county and high-poverty zones in parts of Raleigh and eastern Wake.
Would you be concerned, one Combs parent asked Tedesco, if your plan produces high-poverty schools where all or nearly all the students are economically disadvantaged?
"Not if we have the achievement," Tedesco quickly replied.
His answer was met with groans from some parents who think the evidence is clear, nationally and statewide, that concentrating poor kids in the same schools doesn't help—and almost always hurts—their academic performance.
The school board could mitigate the segregation by adjusting the zones' boundary lines so that as many upper-income neighborhoods are included in the high-poverty areas as possible and, conversely, as many low-income neighborhoods in the affluent ones.
Summed up, this is the current diversity policy: using flexible zones to help prevent any single school from becoming predominantly poor or upscale.
But mitigating segregation is not the idea behind the community zones—quite the opposite, in fact. One of the new majority's first acts upon taking office Dec. 1 was to introduce a resolution to strike diversity—or any consideration of a neighborhood's economic status—as a factor in student assignments.
In diversity's place, the majority proposed to favor "neighborhood schools with proximity to home," "stability" of school assignments and "logical feeder patterns within the communities."
Under this policy, several factors would strip school officials of their power to offset the effects of residential segregation: fixed zones, sets of feeder schools within each zone and no reassignments to different schools, except when a student advances to middle school or high school.
This new policy would also crimp school officials' efforts to keep every school full—and to save on the costs of new construction. Currently, students may be reassigned from overcrowded schools to any nearby school that has excess space. If the new majority's proposal passes, reassignments would be allowed only to schools in the same zone.
(However, student reassignments would be much less frequent, especially in the suburbs, which would please many of the parents who voted the new majority into office last fall.)
As for the magnet program, which began in 1982 as a way to lure students out of Wake's fast-growing suburbs and into Raleigh's then-emptying older schools, it would be weakened or worse, its supporters say.
That's what happened when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools droppped diversity a few years ago, says Caroline Massengill, former Wake schools assistant superintendent and the immediate past president of the Magnet Schools of America association. Middle-class parents abandoned Charlotte's inner-city schools, magnets included. They emptied even as the suburban schools filled above their capacity.
"Charlotte tried to preserve its magnets and align them alongside a system of neighborhood schools," Massengill says. "They ended up with segregated schools, and the magnets suffered as well."
Within the new board majority, there's disagreement about how to handle the magnets. Tedesco says every zone should have at least one magnet school, even if it means eliminating an established magnet. However, his ally, Debra Goldman, who calls herself a staunch supporter of the magnet system, says she opposes any cutbacks to the existing magnets.
Economic segregation, the high cost of new schools (and empty older ones) and the future of the magnets are key issues that the majority must face if it intends to scrap diversity and install the community zones model.
These are also the issues on which diversity's defenders, organizing under the banner "Great Schools in Wake," intend to make their stand in opposition to the model.
"[We] are concerned that the school board has proposed changes in assignment without fully assessing capacity, economic or tax implications, or the impact on student learning," says spokesperson Yevonne Brannon, a former county commissioner and chair of WakeUP Wake County. "It's important that the board stops and listens, and that the community understands the choices ... before any drastic decisions are made and we toss out policies that we can't get back once they're gone."
Thus far, there is no official plan on the table for community zones in Wake County. But Tedesco is close to proposing one. By far the most loquacious member of the new board majority, he's the only one of the five who has offered any detail about how to execute a neighborhood-schools approach. Board Chair Ron Margiotta, who, until the fall elections was the board's only conservative member, isn't one to show his cards ahead of time (as the majority's repeated use of last-minute changes to meeting agendas demonstrates). Goldman, Deborah Prickett and Chris Malone, who were elected along with Tedesco, aren't quite as guarded as Margiotta, but neither are they seeking airtime with the public.
Tedesco, though, isn't at all reticent about saying what's on his mind. And if he sometimes sounds like he's tooting his own trumpet, it's increasingly apparent that the community-assignment zone proposal he's been describing—at Combs, at a subsequent Wake County Taxpayers Association meeting and in other venues as he's made the rounds—reflects Margiotta's thinking and probably that of the others, too.
Last week, Margiotta named Tedesco to chair a new reassignment committee, which will include board representatives and citizens to be named later. Margiotta also tapped Tedesco to lead the new committee on improving the academic performance of economically disadvantaged students.
Moreover, the Tedesco formula is a variation on "Clustering Schools, The Apex Example," an idea pitched to the Wake County school board in 2008 by a subcommittee of its District 8 Advisory Council. District 8 is Margiotta's district. (He lives in Apex).
The "clustering" plan was presented by two of Margiotta's supporters. It called for treating the six elementary schools in Apex as a group, meaning that depending on space, all Apex students might be assigned to any of them, but they would not be assigned to any other school in the county. The same idea could be used with middle schools, its sponsors said. High schools weren't included.
In short, Tedesco's vision merits close scrutiny because it likely foreshadows what will happen in Wake unless the new majority shifts course dramatically.
Tedesco cites the Fairfax County, Va., school district as his model. With a slightly larger student population than Wake (171,500 to 140,000), Fairfax groups its students into 24 "pyramids," with a single high school atop each one and its feeder (middle and elementary) schools below. Three pyramids equals one "cluster"—the Fairfax term for a zone.
Wake's zones, Tedesco says, should be built on a feeder system and include magnet schools. Although Tedesco hasn't drawn a map for Wake or announced how many zones he wants or where the boundaries for each zone should go, using the existing map of school locations and Tedesco's math of one or two high schools per zone, each with its own feeder schools, it's possible to foresee how his plan might work.
Wake's 159 schools group rather neatly into 14 zones, most of which contain a single high school and a single town center (see map). For illustrative purposes, the Indy created a map with 14 zones to fit Tedesco's formula (see map). Our map is meant to be suggestive, not exact. Wake's population sprawl offers lots of ways to draw the boundaries and preserve Tedesco's clusters of high schools and feeder schools. However, conforming the number of kids with school capacities would require not simply the technical know-how (and 2010 census results), but also key political judgments: Which kids should be asked to travel where? How much overcrowding—and empty space—is tolerable?
Political "border wars" would likely break out as families try to stay on the "better" side of school zone lines.
That said, Tedesco's formula almost inexorably results in a map that looks like the Indy's. And when that map is overlaid on a map of Wake County showing where the economically disadvantaged kids live, the issue in the formula jumps out: Two of the 14 zones would have schools with heavy concentrations of low-income kids.
That means Wake would have schools for the "haves" and up to 20 schools for the "have-nots," a typology that would quickly become apparent to real estate agents selling houses, parents buying them and anyone concerned with protecting property values.
Chuck Dulaney, assistant schools superintendent in charge of growth management and planning, estimates that if school assignments are made based on proximity to students' homes, as the majority's proposed policy resolution states, seven to 10 high-poverty schools would be created. Each of these schools would have 80 percent or more of its students eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program—the school system's proxy for economic disadvantage.
Meanwhile, the four zones on the west and northwest edges of the county would be predominantly upscale, with low numbers of economically disadvantaged kids in their schools.
There is a "tipping point," Dulaney says, at which middle-class parents will decide—regardless how much they might want to defend diversity—that sending their own child to the high-poverty school in their high-poverty community zone is unacceptable. What that tipping point is, Dulaney doesn't pretend to know, but he's said it's likely to be less than 80 percent.
Once a school reaches 80 percent, the middle-class almost always abandons it, increasing the school's poverty rate in a cycle that ends in the high 90s or 100 percent poverty.
"Will the 'non-80 percent' attend that [high-poverty] school?" Dulaney asked. "My best hunch is that those families will, as they have done in Charlotte and other urban systems, either move to a different zone or they'll withdraw from the public school system."
The negative consequences of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's shift from diversity to neighborhood schools were summed up by researchers from UNC-Charlotte and Winthrop University in a 2008 paper. Suburban voters didn't want to pay for propping up the failing inner-city schools. Charlotte voters balked at having to pay for new schools in the suburbs. A bond issue was soundly defeated. A county once proud of its integrated schools was torn apart.
Tedesco knows the story. But he insists that it doesn't have to be repeated in Wake. "I fundamentally reject the idea that it's either the [current] Wake way or the Charlotte way," he says. "I believe we can apply resources in a different way ... schools all over the country are finding new ways to innovate and get better results."
Indeed, Tedesco refuses to concede that Wake's current diversity policy serves the cause of diversity, which he says he cherishes. What the policy does instead, he argues, is hide the problem of failing kids from low-income families by scattering them across the county.
Wake's 78 percent graduation rate masks the fact, he and his school board allies say, that the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged kids is just 54 percent—or about the same as Charlotte's. But no schools stand out as low-performing, so the public is encouraged to think there's no problem.
Community schools would expose the issue of failing kids, forcing Wake's leaders to address it, while also returning power to neighborhood leaders over their own schools.
"I fundamentally believe that the modern civil rights issue will be poverty," Tedesco says, "and that we cannot win the war on poverty with the battle plans to end segregation. We need to make our schools the center of community once again and rebuild our neighborhoods and revitalize our communities and provide the appropriate resources targeted for each community. Different communities will have different needs. We must understand this to serve these needs appropriately. This will close our achievement gaps and create true equality for all of our citizens."
It's a lofty vision. But the examples of it working that Tedesco cites are of individual schools around the country, not urban systems. And in nearly every case, these schools spend far more per student than Wake does, which is about $8,800 each. The model he cites, in Fairfax County, spends $12,900 per student.
Critics of the new majority concede that the 54 percent graduation figure for Wake's low-income kids must be improved. But it's far above what most urban school systems in the country attain, they argue, and a segregated-schools model is likely to make it worse, not better.
That's the core issue as Tedesco's student assignment committee starts. Tedesco says he plans to carefully study the issue and the proposals before diving into any changes. And he pledges to listen to the critics, regardless of what the board's moves until now have shown.
There won't be "a reset button that reshuffles kids," Tedesco promised the parents at Combs. Rather, it will be "a transition to a new system over time."
"And you're going to see some more collaboration" with community leaders, Tedesco added, "regardless of things of the past."