New School Opens In Embroiled N.C. District

fromWUNC

The school district in Wake County, N.C., is well known to educators across the country. The school district has been in a two-year fight over how it assigns students. It's a fight that has led to protests and arrests — and cries of school re-segregation. In the middle of this heated debate, a new school is opening this week.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: We're going now to Wake County, North Carolina. The 800-square-mile area includes Raleigh and its suburbs. And the school district there has been embroiled in a two-year fight over how it assigns students. It's a fight that has led to protests and arrests and cries of school resegregation. Well, in the middle of this heated debate, a new school is opening this week. It's a school many in Wake County and across the country are going to watch closely. Dave DeWitt of North Carolina Public Radio takes us there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, (unintelligible) how are you all?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Great. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A heavy lunch today?

DAVE DEWITT: Corey Moore is the principal we all wish we could have had. He's got experience, charisma and - as he practically skips down the hallway, just a few days before he opens a brand-new school - all the enthusiasm in the world.

COREY MOORE: It's been amazing seeing some of the classes just develop and come to life and all the color, and I get excited every time I walk down the hallway.

DEWITT: Walnut Creek Elementary in southeast Raleigh has the latest in classroom electronic blackboards and networked computer labs. It has handpicked teachers, small classes and a longer school day. It's also the latest battleground in an ongoing fight that has split the community. For 10 years in Wake County, students were assigned so that no school would have more than 40 percent low-income students. To achieve this, suburban kids chose magnet schools downtown, while mostly poor kids in southeast Raleigh were sent to schools in the suburbs. On the night last year when he voted to end that policy, school board member John Tedesco said it was flawed.

JOHN TEDESCO: I think, now, it's time we start educating those children instead of hiding them and shuffling them. That's the deal. I don't think we've done a good job of educating them. We have to close the achievement gap. So now, it's time to educate those children, not just shuffle them and hide them.

DEWITT: Supporters of the diversity policy staged protests. The school system nearly lost its accreditation and is now the subject of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Education Department. During a meeting last summer - as police led away several people - board chair Ron Margiotta read a statement to try to calm fears.

RON MARGIOTTA: This board does not intend to create high-poverty or low-performing schools in the new zone assignments.

DEWITT: A year later, Walnut Creek Elementary is holding its first open house.

MOORE: Attention all parents and families: We'd like for you to go ahead and move into our multipurpose room at this time. It is 5 o'clock...

DEWITT: The students here are mostly high poverty and low performing; exactly the kind of school the school board chair said would not be created. The Reverend William Barber is the president of the North Carolina NAACP.

The Reverend WILLIAM BARBER: Why would you create a school that is high poverty, racially identifiable, resegregated, when you know that the law is against that? Your goal should be diverse schools with resources. Why not do what had worked in Wake County before?

DEWITT: Barber, legal experts and educators across the country are watching Walnut Creek to see if extra resources will make a difference for low-income students. And parents are paying attention too. Paula Wordsworth's son, William, is starting second grade at Walnut Creek.

PAULA WORDSWORTH: I think folks are going to watch to see if the kids are at a level that's competitive with the other kids in Wake County. I'm optimistic. I think that the parents here are eager and willing to participate to ensure that the kids will rise to the highest expectation.

DEWITT: Wordsworth says she is especially encouraged by the principal. Corey Moore says he refuses to believe his school is set up to fail.

MOORE: If I believed that, then I wouldn't have accepted the job here. We have children, just like any other school in the world. They are children who come to school. They want to learn. They want to grow. And they depend on us.

DEWITT: The fight over schools in Wake County enters another round in October. On Election Day, four seats and control of the school board are up for grabs. For NPR News, I'm Dave DeWitt in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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