K-6 & other numbers: putting data to the disagreement

If you’ve spent much time in meetings of public boards, you’re not surprised that people can suddenly wake up to an issue that’s been out in the open — and in the media — for months and, almost as suddenly, show up at a meeting to take a four-square stand against that issue and the perceived hoodwinking behind it. It’s just a phenomenon of local politics, here and elsewhere, and its only bad because, when people show up like this, they usually show up with a lot of emotion but very little real information.

So it seemed to be at last Monday night’s meeting of the Lenoir County Board of Education. We had a overflow crowd. We were glad to have them and regret that those who came late couldn’t get in the meeting room immediately. We wish we had known they were coming in numbers, but our visitors apparently communicated much more with the news media and with each other than they did with us. It’s hard to say exactly what brought them out — school diversity, K-8 schools and Rochelle Middle School got mentions — but their concerns all connected tangentially to an item on the agenda concerning Northwest Elementary and a proposal to make the K-5 school a K-6 school next year.

The idea of adding a grade at Northwest originated last fall with a group of parents. School administrators followed up with a survey that drew responses from more than half of the schools’ parents and a series of public meetings that brought out increasingly larger crowds. This public input period ended with parents deciding in favor of K-6.

At the same time, the School System Improvement Task Force — a group of about 60 people from the schools and community — took up the conversation as part of its work on school choice and fashioned a recommendation for consideration by the school board: make Northwest a K-6 school next year with an option to go K-7 the following year and K-8 the year after that. Parents could choose whether they wanted their children to stay at Northwest for the sixth grade or attend another middle school — that is, the program would be voluntary.

These meetings and discussions occurred over a six-month period and got a fair amount of media coverage, so you’d think word would get around. Not necessarily. Speakers and their supporters in the audience Monday night gave the impression this K-6 thing was a nefarious attempt to impose K-8 schools on the county in an effort to perpetuate a segregated school system and to specifically harm Rochelle Middle School.

Actually, the K-6 proposal was an attempt to heed the wishes of parents at a specific school. True, creating a sixth grade at Northwest would impact enrollment at Rochelle, the middle school in this city track, but to what extent it’s hard to say, since students can choose whether to stay or go.

It’s very easy to say a future Northwest K-6 school would not significantly impact student diversity, just as LCPS’s current transfer policy — another area of criticism at the school board meeting — does not affect diversity in the schools in Kinston now.

Somehow transfers, K-8 schools, diversity and the health of Rochelle Middle have been merged into one big ball of dissatisfaction, when in reality those four issues have to be viewed separately to understand them.

About K-8, we can say this unequivocally: This is no plan to institute K-8 across LCPS. There are several proposals that list K-8 as one among several options for solving some problems the aforementioned task force has identified — for example, the big drop in academic performance between grades five and six nationwide — and, as spelled out in the recommendation, the Northwest change could evolve into K-8, but only after a lot of questions have been answered. Without a concrete plan on the table, it’s impossible to support or oppose K-8 except as a concept.

The opposition voiced to the school board characterized K-8 schools as bastions of segregation, a scheme to preserve the whiteness of predominantly white schools and to keep predominantly black schools black. It’s impossible to say what motivates parents who favor K-8 — an important point since LCPS has always seen K-8 as an option rather than as a requirement — but one of the primary reasons is that they and their children like and are comfortable at the school they attend. Whether they would like the particular school involved in a K-8 conversion is another matter. Obviously all current K-5 schools and all current middle schools could not be converted to K-8, so it’s probably a good idea to wait for a plan to be presented before deciding whether you like it or not.

And while you’re waiting, consider that membership at LCPS’s single K-8 school is 64 percent minority and only four of the system’s nine elementary schools have more white students than minority students. All four of those schools currently feed into middle schools where the level of diversity is about the same as their own. Race wouldn’t appear to be much of a factor for families favoring a K-8 option in their attendance zone, and diminished or improved diversity would not be an outcome either way.

The same is true in Kinston for Northwest. Of the 78 fifth grade students at Northwest this year, 70 are black. Obviously a decision to stay put rather than move on to predominantly black Rochelle wouldn’t be based on race. The same is true for Rochelle-bound students who opt for another middle school in Lenoir County. Of the 67 who transferred in 2013-2014, about 60 percent were minority students.

Clamping down on transfers, which some speakers apparently see as enabling racism, wouldn’t help for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it would tick off parents who think they should have some say in where their child goes to school, an idea that LCPS happens to agree with. For another, the student transfers out of Kinston and into Kinston are a wash. In 2013-2014, when 67 students were leaving, 66 students were coming in — all to Kinston High from our other two traditional high schools and three other counties.

Limiting transfers might stem the decline in enrollment at Rochelle, a trend that naturally vexes the school’s staff and supporters; but with the multitude of choices Kinston parents have in education today — a K-8 charter school a few miles from Rochelle, home schooling, two new online academies in the state, the possibility of private schools through vouchers — there are no guarantees regarding public school enrollment. Besides, there’s a better way for Rochelle and for all schools — make them places of learning that, because of special programs and other enticements, students stand in line to attend.

The task force is looking into career academies and other concepts that would individualize our schools, and it is taking a hard took at helping Rochelle, which is battling a reputation it doesn’t deserve.

One of the knocks on Rochelle concerns student safety. Here’s the data on that: according to figures on crime and violence in schools compiled by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Rochelle is the second safest middle school of LCPS’s four. Its 5.61 incidents per 100 students (for the 2013-2014 school year) is below the school district average and below the average for middle schools in the district (6.425).

Would Rochelle and our schools in Kinston be better off with a more diverse student population, where the common bond among all humans can be better understood and the differences in cultures appreciated? Sure, and so would our neighborhoods. When people of different skin color decide to live together as neighbors, when diversity becomes a standard in low-income housing, schools will change organically. As badly as we might like to see change come faster, trying to force parents and students along a path they wouldn’t otherwise follow or limiting their choices would only make matters worse.