School reassignment is a subject you don't hear much about in Durham; it typically disrupts our neighbor to the southeast instead, where lawsuits and (this year) protest marches aren't uncommon in discussions about the Wake County schools.
In Durham, on the other hand, the district you're in has usually been the district in which you stay. This year, however, DPS has given a heads-up that the very popular Creekside Elementary in South Durham may have its assignment zone parceled out differently come the new year.
As the N&O's coverage pointed out, don't expect parents to go quietly on this one. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7 at 6:30 pm at Creekside to discuss the school system's recommendation, which itself is on the agenda for the Jan. 31 meeting.
All of which, of course, leads to an important question: just what makes this issue so important to Creekside parents?
Before I hazard my guess, I'd like to encourage Creekside parents (and folks in the Creekside zone) to share their thoughts and concerns over redistricting on the comments here. As a married man without kids, my perspective on schools is very different in all likelihood from those with a direct stake in the game.
Still, even though I don't have a parent's perspective on the issue, and though I know enough to not trust fully the data that comes out of the flawed end-of-grade testing programs, there's no doubt that those numbers tell part of the story about what's working and what's not at local schools.
From that perspective, it's not hard to see why Creekside parents would want their kids to stay there. Note: Durham's districtwide end-of-grade average scores are 48% for 4th grade writing, 60.5% for 5th grade math, 85.8% for 5th grade reading.
- Creekside: 57.4% 4th writing, 65.6% 5th math, 89.5% 5th reading; state ABC rating 75% (School of Progress)
- Parkwood: 42.7% 4th writing, 46.7% 5th math, 88.5% 5th reading; state ABC rating 62% (no recognition)
- Southwest: 53.6% 4th writing, 61.9% 5th math, 91.7% 5th reading; state ABC rating 67% (no recognition)
- Forest View: 51% 4th writing, 79.2% 5th math, 93% 5th reading; state ABC rating 72% (School of Progress)
- Hope Valley: 59.3% 4th writing, 67.2% 5th math, 87.6% 5th reading; state ABC rating 72% (no recognition)
- Bethesda: 36.6% 4th writing, 56.6% 5th math, 76% 5th reading; state ABC rating 56% (Priority School)
- Fayetteville St.: 34% 4th writing, 54.8% 5th math, 95.1% 5th reading; state ABC rating 58% (Priority School)
The data are stark. Bethesda and Fayetteville St. Lab elementaries are tagged "priority schools" -- meaning they're considered at risk of failing by the state. Most of the schools neighboring Creekside did not earn recognition in this year's ABC tests; in fact, as these schools have had to expand testing and to face the ever-rising N.C. standards, some are performing worse, by this scale, than they were a few years back.
What differences could explain why Creekside is succeeding in a way that other district schools aren't? I suspect it has quite a bit to do with socioeconomics:
- Creekside: 867 students; 28.5% free & reduced lunch (F&R)
- Parkwood: 698 students; 51.9% F&R
- Southwest: 666 students; 36.5% F&R
- Forest View: 642 students; 48.0% F&R
- Hope Valley: 745 students; 44.6% F&R
- Bethesda: 629 students; 70.4% F&R
- Fayetteville St.: 284 students; 89.8% F&R
At the end of the day, after all, the correlation between socioeconomics and school performance is tremendously high. And we see here that the schools with the lowest percentage of students living at or near the poverty line seem to have the best quantitative performance on standardized testing.
This is by no means a phenomenon isolated to Durham. The situation is even more numbingly stark on the individual school level. Take Cary, where Davis Drive Elementary has been at the center of a firestorm over school reassignment. Is it a "high performing school?" The stats say yes -- its N.C. ABC rating last year was a whopping 96.3%. Similarly, Wake County has Brier Creek Elementary -- 90% ABC, 6.4% F&R lunch. Morrisville Elementary -- 90.6% ABC, 15.9% F&R lunch. Cedar Fork Elementary -- 92.6% ABC, 14.8% F&R lunch.
On the other hand, Wake has Wilburn Elementary, with 64.8% on the ABC tests, and 60.9% F&R lunch, and Barwell Rd. Elementary, with a 65.0% ABC score and 59.3% F&R lunch rates.
At the end of the day, Wake County's better school performance and better reputation ultimately seems to reflect the fact that, per capita, it's a richer county. In fact, the average free and reduced lunch rate across the entire Wake County school district is just 28.2%... or about half Durham's elementary school F&R rate of 47.2%.
Small wonder, then, that a tempest erupted when Wake's public school system considered naming a new Western Wake elementary school after "Alston Avenue." Why, homebuilders and New Jerseyites might think there'd be poor kids going to school there! Who'd buy the McMansions?
Does this mean the parents whose kids attend Creekside are somehow socioeconomically biased, and don't want there kids going to school with children who aren't like them? No. Many Creekside parents will probably tell you they picked their home in order to go to that school because their kids could get a very good education as well as experience socioeconomic diversity.
And, heck, compared to parts of Cary that SoDur homeowners might otherwise have picked, by this math they're getting an education in a school that has five times the number of poverty-line families as a place like Davis Drive.
No, I believe strongly that Creekside parents just want to be able to send their kids to the best performing school they can. Which, in the American context, also generally happens to be the wealthiest.
Ultimately, this points yet again to the ways in which our local school challenges are just a broader reflection of the much wider segregation that exists throughout America. Social science researchers will tell you that the U.S. is far more racially integrated, but far less socioeconomically integrated, than it was a generation ago.
And to some extent, this has been the legacy of life after racial segregation. Over a generation, the black upper-middle class has moved out of Hayti, to Hope Valley and Treyburn and South Durham. (In fact, as we noted during last year's election, both Bill Bell and Thomas Stith live closer to Cary than downtown Durham.) Poorer blacks remained where they were, joined by less affluent newcomers like Latino immigrants as well as folks in-migrating from other parts of the U.S.
All of which, in our "neighborhood schools"-based DPS system, means that you have schools in impoverished, inner-city areas that are weighted down with 70% and 90% F&R lunch rates. Schools that offer students a mirror of the life they've seen so far in their life: hardscrabble, hungry, paycheck-to-paycheck. Or, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam notes in a recent interview--
Many social scientists believe this sudden rebirth of economic inequality is the biggest news of the last half-century. That fact has not been fully understood, however, because too often in our public discourse in America class is taken as code for talking about race. In fact, class isn't race....
Work we're doing now shows that, among white high school seniors, there's a growing class gap.... White working-class kids go to church a lot less than working-class kids used to; they are less involved in community activities; and their parents spend less time with them, partly because, unlike middle-class kids, they are likely to have only one parent in the home. They have lower self-esteem than working-class kids used to, less social trust, and lower academic aspirations.
...[T]he fundamental bargain, the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity. If that is no longer true, then the core bargain is being violated.
At the end of the day, then, the real question isn't why parents wouldn't want to keep their young students at Creekside instead of seeing them reassigned. (Or for the Hope Valley or Forest View or Parkwood parents to worry about being nudged to Bethesda or Fayetteville St. so their schools can take in Creekside kids.)
No, the bigger question I have is -- why in hell do we tolerate a world in which there are schools with 70% and 90% free and reduced lunch rates? Why do we tolerate an educational system that segments out schools like Bethesda and Fayetteville St. -- or Glenn, or Burton, or Y.E. Smith -- to be warrens of the poor alone? To allow children to be sent to these schools knowing that they will likely lack for parental involvement, for community investment?
Of course, it'd be great to wave a magic wand, and do away with the concept of "neighborhood schools" altogether, and to implement the same kind of socioeconomic balancing that Wake's system does, to try to balance schools in ways to ensure an equal educational opportunity for all.
Sadly, it's pretty obvious what would happen then. Parents whose children moved to less successful schools, or who saw their schools' test scores decline, would pull their kids out of the public system for charter schools or private education -- the same "flight" trend that we've seen in the decade-plus since the merger of Durham's city and county schools.
And that's the damning problem behind the problem. Socioeconomical balancing of schools is the right thing for school systems to do, in the aggregate. Yet parents will make their decisions at the margins, and -- perfectly rationally -- will choose to exit the system instead of enrolling in schools that might be (actually, or in perception) less successful.
At the end of the day, the real solution to making schools more socioeconomically diverse -- and more successful -- lies not in jerryrigging school district lines, but in making neighborhoods themselves more economically integrated. Which means inclusionary zoning, and finding sites for social services facilities that are distributed throughout the city rather than crowded into particular "zones," and so forth.
That's the real battle that's needed over school redistricting.