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They Still Don't Get It

Education leaders are wrong in how they tackle integration

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Somewhere deep in the bowels of the education building, there's got to be a demographics guy who shows up for work at 10 in the morning, takes a two-hour lunch, then leaves at four o'clock. They should hunt him down and fire him immediately. The bastard has cost this county hundreds of millions of dollars.

Over the past decade, school leaders here fought an all-out war with the suburbs on behalf of African-American children. Unfortunately for taxpayers, they missed the part where tens of thousands of African-American children moved to the suburbs.

After suburban parents clobbered the school board in court in 1998 and forced it to dismantle the busing plan it was using to racially integrate schools, educators flipped the suburbs the finger by virtually halting school construction in the fastest growing suburban areas of the county. The plan at the time was to overbuild urban schools while letting white suburban schools overflow. That way, educrats could eventually cap the enrollment at suburban schools, and then ship enough of those white kids to under-filled urban schools to achieve diversity.

In the meantime, while no one was paying attention, many of those overflowing suburban schools became increasingly diverse thanks to a massive migration of African-Americans and Hispanics nobody caught on to. Between 1995 and 2005, all but five of the county's 30 zip codes experienced double digit — and in some cases triple digit — increases in black population, while the percentage of white children in our schools plunged from 54 percent to 39 percent (see this week's cover story). So in the end, all the school system accomplished with its exorbitant inner-city building scheme was to piss off suburban parents and raise our tax bills.

But that's not the most frightening part. What's really scary is that many of our education leaders still don't get it. Judging by the stuff the people at Swann Fellowship and the UNC Center for Civil Rights have been cranking out lately, education leaders still think all African-Americans and most Hispanics live in the inner city. Those two education groups, which have long fought nobly for diversity in schools, have lots of charts and graphs about race and poverty in other districts, but no real grasp of what's going on right here. The Swann Fellowship is increasingly cranking out newsletters that focus on lawsuits as a way to force the system to integrate economically or racially.

At first glance, it's easy to see why. The number of middle schools with African-American populations over 50 percent has jumped from 12 to 15 over the last three years. But while some community activists were obsessing over what they see as increasing segregation, they missed the fact that the number of middle schools with white populations of more than 50 percent fell from 10 to eight over the same period as those schools became increasingly diverse.

What these people haven't yet grasped is that with white enrollment at 39 percent and poverty levels at 45 percent across the system, there aren't enough middle class white kids left to integrate high-poverty, largely minority urban schools.

If a lawsuit to force economic integration is coming - which some predict - it will devastate the school system and any hopes we had of real integration. If the percentage of white kids in the system continues to decline the way it has over the last decade, by the time the suit is wrapped up, it'll be too late.

There's only one solution. The school system must swallow its pride and begin to cater to the suburban parents it has spent the last decade kicking in the teeth. That may sound counter-intuitive to some, but it's our only hope of achieving racial and economic diversity in our schools.

We need to take the half billion dollars or so in bond money voters will probably approve this fall and do what we should have done with the last half billion: Build schools on the outer edge of middle-ring suburban neighborhoods that — newsflash to educators — are either no longer majority white or are becoming increasingly diverse.

Locate these schools so that they're no further than a 20-minute bus ride from the far-flung suburbs, mid-ring neighborhoods or urban edge neighborhoods. Hire a competent demographics guy and have him dust off the maps before you choose the sites for these new schools to achieve maximum diversity. Stack these schools with the best teachers in the system and programs for college bound and gifted children. Hold focus groups to find out what suburban parents want and give it to them. Get a handle on discipline problems. Then cap poverty at no more than 35 percent at these schools and fill them to the limit.

In the beginning, that will mean that some poor, largely minority urban schools will remain largely poor and largely minority. But at present, we don't have enough affluent kids to integrate them with anyway, and in the long-term, if we can make the system a place where middle class parents actually feel comfortable sending their kids, the diversity problem will solve itself.

There is no other way.

tara.servatius@cln.com

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