Find out if district ready to be free from desegregation order

After 41 years, is the Beaufort County School District ready to operate free of a federal desegregation order?

We won't know the answer until we have a full debate and understand what is required to be free of federal oversight.

It's time to do that.

Under the 1970 desegregation order the federal Office of Civil Rights weighs in when the district chooses a site for a new school, adjusts attendance zone or makes some other change that can affect where students go to school.

The desegregation order comes up with regularity because Beaufort County for many years has been a fast-growing school district. That means new schools and changing attendance zones. The district also has tried different approaches to boost education performance, including academies within schools and schools of choice. All invite federal review, as do charter schools.

At a meeting last week, parents upset over attendance zone changes affecting Okatie Elementary School again raised the issue of getting out from under the order.

"We are prioritizing who these children are attending school with more than their education and psychological well-being," said Sue Harvey, who has two children and lives in a neighborhood that was recently rezoned from Okatie Elementary to Bluffton Elementary.

But before we lay the blame for changing attendance zones and unhappy parents at the feet of the Office of Civil Rights and the desegregation order, let's recognize the school board's role. This board and prior boards have made school construction and program decisions that affect where children go to school and the make-up of individual classrooms within those schools.

Howard Kallem, an attorney with OCR's Washington office, told the board in 2010 that the district had a continuing obligation to fulfill its 1970 desegregation plan until it proved it had eliminated the effects of segregation as much as is practical. That is the working definition of "unitary status," the term that came up at the Oct. 17 meeting.

At that meeting, board chairman Fred Washington Jr. alluded to guidelines that must be met to achieve unitary status. In Pitt County, N.C., parents sued over race-based decisions on attendance and a result was a judge's order to seek unitary status and report back by December 2012.

Officials there have put together presentations on the subject to get the public up to speed. It's a long and daunting list of considerations. They include:

  • The diversity ratio of individual schools compared with the district's overall ratio. If individual schools are outside the overall ratios, is it because of a past history of segregation or because of housing development patterns, geography or other factors?
  • Educational opportunities for black students compared with white students.
  • Graduation rates and other measures of success.
  • Student suspension rates for different racial groups.
  • Qualifications of faculty and staff compared school to school.
  • If schools are racially unbalanced, how do the school buildings compare in terms of classroom size, age of the building, computer access and other factors?
  • Extracurricular activities.
  • Length of bus rides for students at predominately black schools compared with predominantly white schools.
  • If Beaufort County can measure up and get released from its desegregation order, that should be viewed as a positive achievement. But we won't know unless we try.