Durham Public Schools recently released its magnet school lottery results for the year -- a much-anticipated moment when parents find out if their sons and daughters made it in to the specialty program they hoped for.
In some cases, those programs are desirous to provide kids with a particular educational philosophy or specialty, be it Montessori, foreign cultures, International Baccalaureate, or what-have-you. In other cases, though, it's the ticket out of a base school that (are you listening, Wake County?) isn't deemed a desirable choice if you're the kind of parent who feels they have a choice in education.
Take Duke Park. The base school for most of the neighborhood is Glenn Elementary, a school with a 94% free and reduced lunch rate, giving Glenn what I believe is the second-highest concentration of poverty anywhere in a DPS school, after Fayetteville St. Elementary. Fewer than 50% of students are passing 3rd to 5th grade end of grade tests at Glenn.
Of course, any school with high poverty levels is going to struggle academically, no matter what the school does to intervene. Which leads to precisely the kind of school flight you see in a case like Glenn; once a school reaches a socioeconomic tipping point, no one wants to send their kids there if they have a choice.
(We had some discussions at a neighborhood board meeting over this very subject last year, after adding Glenn to E.K. Powe and Watts as schools to receive financial support from Trinity Park in '09. Some parents at the decision meeting were baffled as to why T.P. was reaching out to Glenn, way up the I-85 corridor. Told that the northern part of the neighborhood was, in fact, zoned to Glenn, a parent retorted, "Well, does anyone actually send their children to Glenn in our neighborhood?" Reaction aside, it's a legitimate question -- and the answer is, I'm betting, "I doubt it.")
For most Duke Parkers, it's Glenn, or a charter, or private school, or go through the process of trying to arrange a transfer.
Or, there's the walk-zone option to Club Blvd. Magnet Elementary at the edge of Northgate Park. That half-mile walk zone around magnet schools serves to, well, "magnetize" local kids, drawing them in to the school -- and with them, parental volunteer time and PTA resources more likely to be missing from a high-poverty school like Glenn.
But what do you do when the half-mile walk zone you thought included your house turns out not to include your house?
That was the dilemma that appeared recently on the Duke Park listserv.
The question of Glenn first popped up there a few weeks ago:
We are looking at the possibility of a transferring to one of these schools for my son [Forest View, EK Powe] going into kindergarten. Unfortunately, our districted school (Glenn Elementary) is not an option for us. Forgive me for my frustrated tone, but we have applied in the lottery for Club elementary and Central Park School for Children and did not get into either of these schools -- did not even make the wait list.
I am truly disappointed that two schools that are both within walking distance of our house (less than 1/2 mile away) are not an option for our family. Moreover, I am disappointed that Durham has districted our neighborhood in such a way that our children's education is either unimportant or left up to chance. Regardless, we are now at a crossroads and must decide if we have to take on the mighty task of private education for two kids or moving to a district with a better school system. We LOVE our neighborhood and do not want to leave, but now I am not sure that we can afford to stay. Having said that, I wonder if any of you may know who to talk to in the school board about our neighborhood districting problem. I know it is too late to solve the issue for my kids but maybe something can be done for others.
The post led to a long and thoughtful conversation on the challenges of finding the right school -- including important reminders that Glenn has some wonderful teachers, and that the magnetized Club Blvd. elementary did its wondrous improvement in performance and scores with the same teachers there who taught there when it, too, had a bad reputation.
But the next question that came up along the way delved into exactly what parents need to do in order to find that mythical walk zone, given the first parent's comment about their own perceived distance. As other parents noted:
I just spoke with someone at Club because I was curious to confirm whether we were in the walk zone (we are not, as we thought). However, it is interesting to us that the first block of Acadia next to the highway is and they would have to walk all the way to Washington to get to Club or around the park the other way, which is even further....
Club, Burton, and Harris Elementary have 1/2 mile walk zones. A friend of mine who believed (rightly, by my odometer) that she might be in the walk zone was told by DPS that there is no appeal process for the walk zone map....
[We] also live in the 1/2 mile radius (according to Mapquest, GPS, and car odometer). We are on Edgevale across from Everett. Someone is the department of School Assignment told me the changes were made for political reasons. She also assured me there wasn't an avenue to dispute the school line. Folks have to be living on the north side of Englewood to be in the walk zone....
That final walk zone ruling, though, seemed bizarre to one parent who had been in the walk zone in that same area before:
[W]hen we lived [on Edgevale] from 1993-1997, we were definitely in the Club walk zone.
How to solve this mystery? Well, in order to do so, you've got to start by getting definitive information.
A number of parents started hunting on the DPS site for copies of attendance maps and other data, a resource some parents felt wasn't the most forthcoming or most available.
"The DPS has made determinations street by street and house number by house number, and the only way to know for sure whether you are in a school's walk or priority zone is to call DPS and ask," one parent noted. "If you have particular skills at persuasion, you also may be able to get them to fax you a list of the streets and house numbers in a walk zone for a particular school. I have suggested to them that a more transparent process might benefit everyone, but I believe it is still handled for now on a case by case basis."
Still another parent recalled their own frustration last week in finding out that they were in the walk zone -- but only as long as they maintained their current address, thanks to policy changes (at Club, at least) that didn't grandfather you in if you moved elsewhere in the district. Said parent would have entered the lottery -- success there would have guaranteed access from throughout the district -- but were told they didn't need to do so because they were in the walk zone.
At last, though, a parent found the map, buried within the choice.dpsnc.net web site, and displayed above.
"What a wackadoodle map. Clearly there is some metric at work" besides a flat half-mile distance, one parent noted. (Another pointed out that just because you're in the half-mile zone isn't enough -- you also need a safe route to school, so crossing, say, Roxboro isn't an option.)
But others began to notice discrepancies. One parent saw her house on the map, for instance, but not on the list of addresses on file at Club Blvd.
Was it because Brookline closed when I-85 was widened? But even then, is DPS' map taking into account the new greenway trail along I-85 that could provide a replacement for Brookline's old connectivity?
Donna Hudson, DPS' student assignment director, checked out one address (1609 Edgevale) and came back lacking -- but only by following the city streets' path:
I have researched your request, 1609 Edgevale and found it to be beyond the half-mile distance to Club Blvd. school. To walk to Club Blvd from your residence, a person would have to turn right on Englewood Av, right on Washington St. and right on W. Club. I measured the distance using three different resources and the results were .54 and .55 of a mile. I am sorry that the map on the website was incorrect and have asked our programmer to pull it from the DPS website. Thank you for bringing this mapping error to our attention.
But that mystified another parent, who noted that Acadia Street, to the east of Edgevale -- and thus requiring the same exact path to get to school as the Edgevale student would have had to use -- was still in the half-mile walk zone.
A local Realtor noted the frustration that school assignments factor into the value of homes, and that Realtors rely on DPS having accurate information to keep real estate agents from being sued over wrong info. Others tested addresses that were listed as being in the half-mile zone for Club and had similar greater-than-half-mile results.
For now, DPS has put all the walk-zone maps on the choice.dpsnc.net site behind an authentication barrier, with district spokeswoman Kay Williams telling the Durham Association of Realtors that the maps were incorrect and the district would update them before reposting.
She noted the closing of Brookline as not having factored in to walk zone eligibility -- something that Williams implied will be looked at (though again, we're curious whether DPS will end up counting the greenway trail towards connectivity.)
And while parents were appreciative of having some clarification -- Donna Hudson got praise in particular for going to far as to drive out to the neighborhood to check out the situation -- it still leaves the neighborhood with a mess on its hands.
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Of course, as one parent noted, so much of this comes down to the double-edged sword that is school choice in the first place.
The presence of a high-poverty population at schools like Glenn inevitably dissuades parents from choosing that school, if they're motivated enough and have the social capital to want to make a change.
Yet there's nothing inherently better about Club Blvd., or Powe -- two once-struggling schools that improved because parents agreed, en masse, to send their kids there, to volunteer, to affect change.
Ultimately, while the power of school choice can give parents options that keep them within a district, it also can create islands of kids stranded in high poverty schools like Glenn, where a tipping point has been inexorably been reached.
It's a tough problem. And if there were easy solutions, we'd doubtlessly have found them already.