Small move signals big divide in assignment philosophy
It’s not a huge number of students that would be affected by a proposal to reassign the Woodcroft subdivision from Hillside to Jordan high schools this fall.
But the plan has created a profound rift among members of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.
On one side of the debate, the board’s chair, Heidi Carter, argues for making the change so that families that took their kids out of the district schools to avoid going to Hillside might be drawn back to DPS.
“That strategy we have tried for two decades has not worked,” Carter said during Thursday’s meeting of the administrative services committee. “It can only succeed if families are willing to choose to attend their assigned schools. All the data shows that isn’t happening.”
On the other side, vice chair Minnie Forte-Brown worries that the district, which just adopted a vision statement for excellence and equity in local education, now actually might be broadening socioeconomic gaps.
“Hillside is already inundated with low socioeconomic challenges,” she said. “We’re talking about in our compact lessening the link between low socioeconomic status and achievement and now we’re looking at creating an even wider gap by pushing children from a middle class, high income area to a school that already has one of the lowest free-reduced lunch rates in our city.
“I think we’re sending a mixed message.”
The Woodcroft proposal
Originally, the Woodcroft realignment wasn’t even in the plan that Hugh Osteen, assistant superintendent for operations, brought to the board in December.
However, Carter asked district administrators to explore the possibility of shifting Woodcroft, where she lives, because the plan did include moving about 43 students from the Hope Valley Farms area from Hillside to Jordan.
The original plan mostly involved moving students from Githens to Brogden middle schools to relieve crowding at Githens and make better use of Brogden.
By the time the proposal reached a public meeting in Jordan High’s auditorium last week, it had morphed into a plan that would include moving about 100 student assignments from Hillside to Jordan.
Woodcroft residents addressing the board during that meeting seemed united in their support for a plan that would put their children at a high school within walking distance. But Hillside parents and that high school’s principal, William Logan, warned that shifting the neighborhood would hurt Hillside’s socioeconomic diversity.
“I’m struggling,” said board member Omega Curtis Parker. “When we originally heard this plan, it was quite different. That’s the problem that I have, because it seems other things got entered into it.”
District statistics suggest that Jordan is relatively fortunate, socioeconomically, with only 34.6 percent of its students on free and reduced-price lunch plans. Hillside, by contrast, has 67.86 percent on free and reduced-price lunch.
Racially, Hillside’s student population is 87.7 percent African-American, 7 percent Hispanic, 2 percent white, 2 percent multi-racial and 1 percent Asian. Jordan appears more balanced, with 40 percent African-American, 39 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent multi-racial and other ethnic groups.
Of the 69 students assigned to Hillside in the Woodcroft neighborhood, more than half already found a way to transfer to Jordan using district “pathway” options. About a dozen attend Hillside or Hillside’s New Tech program.
“I think people in Woodcroft have figured out a way to go to Jordan,” Forte-Brown said. “They’ve been doing it. I don’t think we need to make it any easier for them to have access to a school that already has less than 40 percent low income.”
Losing ground to other options
The district’s enrollment numbers show some leakage.
Jordan’s student population, 1,727, is down 42 students compared to last year. Hillside is down 44 to 1,279. Southern dropped more than 100.
Carter noted that the district has tried for the past 20 years to assign students with an eye toward maximizing racial and socioeconomic diversity. But during that same time, educational options have grown and expanded to include not just private schools and home schools, but public charter schools.
“We can’t gerrymander our way into integrating our schools,” she said. “They did that with our election districts. You have to vote where they tell you to vote, but our families don’t have to go where we assign them. More than ever, there are options. If we’re not making an option they consider the first available, they’ll go to the next.”
Board member Natalie Beyer agreed: “The challenge is the kids are not going. It’s not working. We’ve had 20 years or longer of trying this technique and the students are not going there.”
Board member Leigh Bordley calls it a “cursed choice environment.”
“I wish to god we lived in an era where we could draw lines and that was where you went to school,” she said. “That is not the environment we live in. We live in an environment where Durham could have 11 more charter schools next year. We have to recognize that reality and strive for our vision.”
Because the Woodcroft move involves relatively few students and isn’t expected to radically change socioeconomic situations at either Hillside or Jordan, Bordley didn’t consider it worth so much debate.
“This particular situation does not feel to me like the hill to die on or the place to make a stand,” she said.
She’s more concerned about losing sight of how middle schools are liable to be affected by the less controversial shifts.
“Where I really want us to put our energy is in finding ways to make our high-poverty schools more attractive,” she said.
Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor of public policy, economics and law, said on Friday that this struggle really isn’t new for Durham and is actually fairly common throughout the United States.
“School boards across the country have often had to balance having diverse and racially balanced schools on one hand and retaining families on the other,” he said. “For Durham, it is not a brand new issue. And Durham is not alone in facing it.”
Not bold enough
The district’s stopgap measures to try and entice families back aren’t addressing the real problems, Forte-Brown said.
If students grow up in housing projects, they all go to the same schools, but really don’t mingle with more affluent peers in neighborhoods like Woodcroft because those neighborhoods stick together too.
“You never have any diversity,” she said. “If we want to keep neighborhoods together, we know people of a certain class all live in a certain neighborhood. That’s understood.”
Previously, she noted, board member Frederick Davis had called for redrawing all the district lines with diversity as a goal.
“We’ve never been bold enough to do that,” she said. “We do it in little pieces. We do it to attract families back to the district, but that is always a win-lose situation. The people that lose are always the people that lose.
“What we’re planning now to appease a neighborhood is in direct opposition to our vision.”
During Thursday’s meeting, Davis made it clear that his colleagues on the board couldn’t expect his support when they vote on the assignment plan on Jan. 24.
“We can be assured that it won’t be a unanimous decision,” he said. “If that’s what you all are trying to wait for, you can throw that out the window. This will not be a unanimous action. So, please, don’t come looking for that. You’re not going to get it.”
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