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Pitt County Schools Redistricting Battle

By Andrea Blanford

PITT COUNTY, N.C.- These days you don't hear much about desegregation.  But one school board has been wrestling with redrawing attendance lines under a Court order for next school year.  This is an Nine on Your Side Investigation: The Pitt County Schools redistricting battle that has roots reaching back 40 years.

Before the next school year begins, nearly 3,000 Pitt County elementary and middle school students could be reassigned to new schools.  Now, after months of discussion and debate, time is running out. Parents want to know, is shuffling students a long-term solution or could it hurt their child's education?

For Pitt County parents, there’s a lot at stake.

“They risk looking like they're not fair if they don't make a good sound decision,” said Melissa Grimes, a Pitt County grandparent. 

There are lingering questions.

“How do we know it's going to work?” asked Kay Godwin of the Greenville Parents Association. 

And there are glaring red flags. 

“If there are issues and problems, I think there needs to be more creative solutions,” said Mike Behm, another Pitt County parent. 

The Pitt County Board of Education told parents two of the main goals for this redistricting were to populate Lakeforest Elementary and to re-locate children who attended Sadie Saulter Elementary.

“It sounds like oh, well let's just take these kids and put them here and these kids and put them here and you're done,” said Dr. Beverly Reep, Pitt County Schools Superintendent.  “And trust me if it'd been that simple we'd have loved to have done it the simple way.”

But it’s not simple.  Reep says there’s an underlying goal with this year’s reassignment to fulfill a 40-yr.-old obligation.  The board has been under Federal Court orders since 1970 when students brought a desegregation lawsuit against Pitt County Schools.  Then in 2005, the Board used race as a guiding factor in their redistricting process.  It was an effort to comply with the old Court order and create diversity.  But the final product divided neighborhoods and sent students to schools across town.  It created racially unbalanced and low-performing schools like Sadie Saulter.  For those who lived through the redistricting battle five years ago diversity isn’t just the underlying goal; it’s the priority. 

“They should keep the schools as diverse as possible because I think a school can develop a bad name if it's all one ethnicity,”        said Tatyana Dixon, a former Sadie Saulter student. 

Pitt County Schools must now attain Unitary Status, or the opposite of segregation, by 2012. 

“With the whole process we're going through and the new maps, we're not sure that this time around will be any more successful than the last time around,” said Godwin.   

This time around, the School Board is using data-driven maps and projections based on enrollment, capacity, and the new diversity factor, reading proficiency.

The scenarios should support things like stability, proximity, achievement, and diversity without using race as the predominant factor.

“We're very careful in the humanization process to move segments that we can tie back to capacity, proximity, stability, and if it helps diversity, hooray!” said Reep.  “It's helped us do a better job.”

Reep says there’s no perfect solution where all factors are in balance.  For Melissa Grimes, that’s no excuse.  “No,” she said.  “You owe it to the entire community to get in there and make it work.  Make it work for the entire community.”

Sadie Saulter never recovered from the 2005 reassignment.  Now the Board’s converting it to a Pre-K center, sending the elementary students to other schools outside their neighborhood.  “Students won't be able to walk to school like many of the parents still want their children to do,” said Grimes.  “If you're talking about growing, why can't you grow that school?” 

“Well we've tried to grow that school,” said Reep.  “I mean that school's been an open enrollment school for three years.”

The School Board has had open discussions with parents and other stake-holders since July, they’ve put 14 scenarios on the table, and still no consensus.  “I haven't heard of anybody who's in favor of any of these maps,” said Godwin.  “And yet we're at a deadline.”  So what does that mean that the Board members aren't showing strong support for any of the maps?  “That's a good question,” said Reep.  “I can't answer that.”

In Reep’s recommendation to the Board, she’s proposing an elementary school map that will open one school at 105% capacity.

Mike Behm says when it comes to over-crowding the warning signs have been there all along.  “From where I sit, that's very troubling,” he said.  “That sounds very reactive in nature, not proactive at all.”

The new elementary school, Lakeforest, would open as a racially isolated school with 88% minority students and at 46% proficiency.

“I think that in Pitt County, the fact that we have become ok with failing schools, we should all be outraged,” said Godwin.  “It's not ok.  I don't care what you have to do or how much money you have to pump into it, moving children is not the answer.”

 “I don't think in the long-term, it hurts the student at all,” said Reep.  “I really do not believe it hurts the student at all.”

Reep says students are resilient.  With the right teachers in place, they’ll continue growing wherever they go.  “They've proven that in a three year period they've improved scores dramatically and I believe those people can do it no matter what children go there.”

With days left before the vote, parents want to know, why is Pitt County redistricting at all?

 “You know for five years they've been saying the decision made in '05 is wrong,” said Reep.  “We've been to court over it we've had an Office of Civil Rights complaint over it.  So up until August of this year when all of a sudden we heard, gosh why don't we just leave everybody where they are...that was not the message that we've had for four and half years.”

Along with Dr. Reep's recommendation to the Board, she's proposing a list of strategies to boost proficiency scores for schools county-wide.  The list includes innovative reading programs and summer programs to help elementary students transition through grade levels.  There's one more public hearing on Monday night where parents can voice their concerns.  The School Board will meet after the hearing to make changes to the maps.  The Board will vote on a final plan November 15th.  

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