Red Cedar might be district's first school with a Hispanic majority

Red Cedar Elementary could be the Beaufort County School District's first majority-Hispanic school when it opens Aug. 17, according to enrollment projections from the district.

The attendance zones drawn to accommodate the new Bluffton school being examined by the federal Office for Civil Rights, as mandated by the district's 1970 desegregation plan. Last month, the federal office ruled the racial composition of Riverview Charter School in Beaufort did not comply with the plan and required the school to take several steps to boost minority enrollment.

Fred Washington Jr., chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education, said OCR has not yet indicated whether it has concerns about the Bluffton attendance zones. But when the district asked if it should proceed with plans for this school year, OCR staff members said yes, Washington said.

About 53 percent of the 700 students registered in Red Cedar's attendance zone are Hispanic, according to data in the district's student information system Thursday. Twenty-seven percent are white and 17 percent are black.

The enrollment figures do not account for students who move in or out of the county during the summer without informing their school, said Elaine Morgan, the district's director of data services. Enrollment figures could change significantly after school starts, she said.

More than 500 of the students expected to attend Red Cedar Elementary -- about three-quarters of the school's total enrollment -- will transfer from the former Okatie Elementary attendance zone, said Kathleen Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary.

That's expected to decrease the number of Hispanic students at Okatie Elementary from 32 percent last school year to 12 percent this fall.

About 72 percent of students in Okatie Elementary's new attendance zone are white and 12 percent are black, according to the district's data.

Jamie Pinckney, principal of Okatie Elementary, said she expects the number of white students to be closer to 65 percent this fall, in part because about 80 students turned in enrollment forms this week and are not yet entered into the district's student information system.

Awaiting federal reviewThe district's desegregation plan requires that the percentage of white and black students in each school approximate the district-wide percentage. It doesn't specifically mention Hispanic students or other minorities.

The plan requires the district to consider racial balance and get federal approval whenever it sets school attendance zones, selects sites for new schools or shifts student populations.

After OCR concluded last month its investigation of Riverview Charter School -- opening in Beaufort on Aug. 17 -- it directed the school to take immediate steps to boost minority enrollment there.

The school district's enrollment is 45 percent white and 34 percent black. Eighteen percent of students are Hispanic.

Riverview's lottery to determine which students would fill 247 spots for the 2009-10 school year produced an enrollment that was 76 percent white and slightly less than 10 percent black -- numbers similar to the projection for Okatie Elementary.

The agreement between OCR and the school district requires Riverview to close if it doesn't meet racial enrollment targets and take specific steps set by the OCR to recruit more black students and faculty.

Jacqueline Rosswurm, human resources officer for the school district, said she does not know when OCR will conclude its investigation of other district schools and rezoning plans, but expects it could be within the next two weeks.

She said OCR understands the racial make-up of communities within Beaufort County vary, and she expects the office will consider the demographics of neighborhoods closest to the school when conducting its review, as well as the diversity of the county as a whole. Setting attendance zones

The attendance zones for the three Bluffton-area elementary schools -- M.C. Riley, Bluffton and Okatie elementary schools -- were redrawn by a school district consultant to accommodate Red Cedar Elementary, opening next month, and Pritchardville Elementary, which will open in fall 2010.

Kelley Carey of Hilton Head Island's Associate Planning and Research analyzed growth to determine where new schools would be needed over the next several years. He created attendance zones based on enrollment capacities, geography, density of neighborhoods, growth trends and the network of roads near the school, according to a report he presented to the school board in January.

A committee of school officials and community members presented guidelines to Carey before he redrew the attendance zones. According to the report, he followed those principles whenever practical.

The committee asked that students change schools as infrequently as possible, communities and neighborhoods be kept together and demographics be considered, according to the report.

Red Cedar absorbed a few neighborhoods previously zoned to Okatie Elementary that have a large number of Hispanic students, such as Bluffton House and Simmons Cay apartments, Corley said.

"If we're their neighborhood school -- and we are -- we're going to reflect their neighborhood," she said.

Preserving neighborhood schoolsWashington said the racial make-up of students at Red Cedar and Bluffton's other elementary schools reflect the neighborhoods surrounding them.

Many students who will attend Red Cedar live within walking distance of the school, he said.

School board member George Wilson, who represents Okatie and parts of Bluffton, said he wants students to go to school near their homes.

"The primary goal was to make sure we had neighborhood schools and kids went to the closest school possible," he said. "I think most people, particularly in the elementary schools, want their child to have the shortest bus ride and might want them to walk to school."

He said the district has supported neighborhood schools for years and doesn't think the difference in the number of Hispanic students at Red Cedar and Okatie elementary schools is a problem.

"If it was being done for racial division, that would be a whole different ball game," he said. "But it's not."

Pinckney said although the majority of students who will attend Okatie this fall are white, she expects the school's racial composition to change over the next several years as more homes are built in Okatie and the area surrounding the school is developed.

"Just because there's an imbalance right now, it's not planned to be that way indefinitely," she said.

In northern Beaufort County, the Office for Civil Rights also is investigating the consolidation of Whale Branch and James J. Davis elementary schools, Rosswurm said. Davis will open as an early learning center this fall in an effort to boost student achievement at both schools.

Both schools will enroll about 84 percent black students this fall, according to the district's projected enrollment data. Last year, Davis served about 95 percent black students and Whale Branch about 72 percent black students.