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Policy takes precedent: School board defends end to attendance area exemption

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Students pass by in the hallway as they head to class at D.H. Conley High School Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.

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By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Frustrations overflowed after the Pitt County Board of Education ended a practice that allowed some students to attend D.H. Conley High School even though they live in the South Central High School attendance area — but board members said policy, not practice takes precedent.

In an Oct. 2 board meeting, members voted that the school district should grant a one-year grace period before administrators end a practice that allowed some families in the Treetops, Dudley’s Grant, Cedar Ridge and Irish Creek neighborhoods whose children attended Hope Middle School, which sends most of its students into D.H. Conley.

The decision sparked outrage from frustrated parents who voiced concerns at public hearings, but board members said the practice, which started under former superintendent Beverly Emory, was no longer viable due to the neighborhoods’ growth.

Several families in the neighborhoods contacted by The Daily Reflector expressed concerns about the practice ending. Though all declined to be named and quoted, they relayed fears of siblings being separated, friendships being broken or routines being interrupted.

There are two options when parents want their child to attend a different school than the one to which they are assigned: applying for reassignment or going through the open enrollment process.

The district’s policy requires parents to apply for their child’s reassignment between April 1 and July 1 prior to the year of enrollment. Reassignments are based on cause, such as transportation issues or a particular school having a class not offered in the child’s assigned school.

Reassignments are made at the discretion of the superintendent. If denied, parents can present their case to a transfer committee which then makes a determination to be submitted to the full school board for approval.

The exemption practice, on the other hand, gave families in the four neighborhoods a fast-lane to reassignment via an in-house approval process.

“What they didn’t do — and this was the outside-of-policy thing — is they weren’t asked or expected to get a board hearing because they were approved in-house rather than denied and sent to a board hearing, a transfer appeal hearing, which is what everyone else does,” Caroline Doherty, board chairwoman said. “It’s what you’re supposed to do.”

When the exemption started, fewer than 10 students from the four neighborhoods were reassigned to Conley. That number grew to 38 students during 2016-17 school year, School officials said the potential for more growth exacerbated the issue.

For comparison, 46 students from the neighborhoods attended South Central.

“I was there years ago when this happened,” said current school board member Melinda Fagundus. “At that time, it was less than 10 (students). But at that time that neighborhood was not that big and I don’t even know that the neighborhoods that go all the way down (Firetower Road) were there.”

Some children in those neighborhoods attended private schools that ended in the eighth grade, which complicated the matter. Instead of being granted the exception like some of their neighbors, their parents had to go through open enrollment, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Winning a spot at a desired school oftentimes involves standing in line overnight outside the Board of Education office prior to the date that open enrollment begins.

Board members opted to allow a one-year grace period for current eighth graders at Hope to be grandfathered in under the now-ended practice.

Some, like Anna Barrett Smith, who represents the district in which the affected neighborhoods are located, advocated for a longer grace period, potentially two or three years. Others, however, wanted the practice ended immediately, with no more exceptions.

While Smith hoped for more time for the affected families to make necessary arrangements, she echoed her fellow board members, saying that the policy must be followed.

“I am advocating on behalf of my district,” Smith said, “but I’m also here serving on behalf of all the children in Pitt County and I recognize that for the entirety of the county it is in everyone’s best interest — not just in this policy but in all policies — that we follow the policy.”

Feeder patterns

A growing county like Pitt provides obstacles for school assignment. Ideally, the same group of students would travel together throughout their school careers, with several elementary schools feeding into a middle school, and several middle schools flowing into a single high school. But these neat patterns are often unattainable, especially for schools where the population continues to rise.

Some Wintergreen Elementary students are separated from classmates and friends in middle school, only to be reunited in high school, according to Fagundus.

“There’s kids at Wintergreen that go to South Central,” Fagundus said. “People don’t know that. They have this feeding thing in their mind that we’ve got this little pocket of kids. That’s important to know because those neighborhoods are big and they all go to Wintergreen. The difference is, for middle school for three years, they come back to A.G. Cox, these kids go to Hope but they would all go together to South Central.”

Open enrollment also has made traditional feeder patterns nearly impossible to maintain in some school districts. Pitt County is no exception.

“I think there are a whole bunch of school districts that don’t do feeder patterns because they can’t,” Doherty said. “Kids don’t come in neat sized bundles, it doesn’t work that way. Neighborhoods grow and build. It’s not static.”

In order to accommodate for the growth while avoiding redistricting, schools would have to expand their buildings, adding additional wings. This, officials said, is unrealistic given the cost of such an undertaking.

What’s next?

While board members said they emphasize with parental concerns, they all agreed that South Central is a desirable school.

Travis Lewis, director of Community and Student Services for Pitt County Schools, said fear of the unknown is a driving force behind the concerns.

“What we’ve got to work on is helping these communities understand that South Central is a good school and I think right now it’s fear of the unknown more than anything else,” he said. “There’s great programs there, great teachers and great kids there.”

Open enrollment, which begins on April 1, still is an option for parents in the four neighborhoods who want their child to go to Conley. Some parents are concerned about the competitive nature of the first-come-first-served system. School board members noted, however, that with the neighborhoods’ exemption ending, it could open more slots at Conley.

Charter and private schools also remain viable options for parents, and one family already has discussed moving to a different neighborhood within the Conley attendance area.

Smith said she has heard from upset parents on countless occasions. As the representative for the district affected by the longstanding practice, Smith has been the first line of defense in reassuring parents of their child’s resiliency.

Still, she said though following the policy is important, the consequences for the families is a tough pill to swallow.

“Our heart hurts that this had to happened, for most of us,” she said. “For me it was sleepless nights.”

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.

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