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School Zones Rekindling Segregation, PTA Says

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The Richmond City Council of PTAs is leveling charges of class and race elitism against the much-heralded "open enrollment" program that allows parents to send their children to schools outside their designated zones.

PTA leaders are so fed up with the program that they define the issue in stark black and white terms. They say a program intended to help the city retain its depleting middle class -- young families who might otherwise head to the suburbs for better schools — is also being used to economically segregate student populations.

Critics say the inherent unfairness of the system is that it allows affluent families with better resources to take their children out of their geographically designated school districts — Richmond calls them "mega-zones" — and send them to schools such as Mary Munford or William Fox, which are in higher-income neighborhoods.

The deadline for parents to submit open enrollment applications is Feb. 8.

"Mega-zones are being used to keep certain groups of children out of certain schools in certain communities," says Arthur Burton, legislative chairman of the Richmond PTA, adding that the zones predate Brown vs. Board of Education. "When we use this language, we use language that is really a segregationist language.

"If our goal is a socially, economically and culturally diverse school system, then we have to get rid of the dual education system that exists now. And we either do it by changing the culture — or the leadership."

School Board Chairman George Braxton dismisses the idea that there are favored schools that get more resources than others: "I don't really think there's anything to that," he says, questioning what data PTA leaders have that shows such disparity.

But School Board member Keith West, who last year took a shot at doing away with mega-zones and open enrollment, says it's clear there's a growing disparity. A School Board committee studying open enrollment expects new data later this month.

In many cases, West says, parents successfully gain placement at a school outside their zone because it's known to be better than what's offered in their mega-zone. These parents must supply their own student transportation, a condition that disqualifies many lower-income families who lack transportation.

Even more egregious, West says, is the lottery system, in which schools such as Fox get so many applications that enrollees are chosen randomly. West charges that the lottery system is subverted by parents who play an end run, going directly to the school principal to secure a slot for their child.

"I think it would make a lot of people upset to know that they're not going through the system," West says. "Policy needs to be applied consistently and fairly."

School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf suggests that open enrollment has allowed a type of closet segregation to continue in Richmond schools, but concurs that fixing the system will take time.

"You can't just wake up one day and say we're going to get rid of open enrollment," she says. "The problem is the superintendent and the majority of the School Board believe open enrollment is a great thing and they don't see that it weakens neighborhoods that need help the most."

PTA leaders want the system fixed now, says Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, the PTA's president, calling mega-zones and open enrollment policy unfixable under current circumstances. "I want to get the message out there that open enrollment is a farce," she says. "All we're advocating for is schools of equal stature for all of the kids."

Burton says change is long overdue: "The Richmond City Council of PTAs is adamantly against what we see as being a separate, unequal and dual education system that is operating in the city of Richmond."





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