New plan touted for school balance

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board’s proposed changes to its desegregation plan could help bring more racial balance to the district’s schools more quickly, more effectively and at a lower cost than the current court-ordered plan, one board member said Friday.

The School Board has argued that the existing plan’s requirement for the construction of three new elementary schools at an estimated cost of $54.5 million would be too burdensome on the financially strapped district.

In addition, the student assignment plan to desegregate the schools could not be implemented until construction is complete, effectively requiring a two-year waiting period, and would leave 21 of the district’s 31 schools statistically segregated.

The modified plan, by contrast, would use a combination of school choice and program enhancements to foster more effective parishwide desegregation, maximize current campus capacities and encourage parental buy-in for the system, without any construction costs or waiting period, board member Brett Duncan said.

Any changes to the court-ordered plan would require approval from U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, who oversees the district’s desegregation case.

Lemelle on Tuesday denied the School Board’s request to discuss these proposed changes at a status conference. He instead directed the board first to reach a consensus with opposing counsel on any modification requests.

Duncan said Friday that the board’s attorneys have not been successful in their attempts to solicit plaintiff’s attorney Nelson Taylor’s feedback on the proposals.

Taylor could not be reached for comment Friday.

However, the president of the Tangipahoa Parish chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said Friday that the organization is in support of the proposed changes.

“It’s probably the best thing we have to bringing an end to the case and ensuring fairness and equity for all kids,” Tangipahoa NAACP President Patricia Morris said, adding that the modifications certainly would be more effective than the current court-ordered plan.

Morris said the organization’s main concern has been that students not going to college have an opportunity to gain skills through career education programs. The modified plan would offer those opportunities at each of the district’s high schools, rather than at a single, centralized location to which students would have to travel each day.

Under the proposal, the parish’s public schools would be grouped into three transportation zones, within which the school system would be responsible for providing students transportation to any school of their choice, Duncan said.

The northern transportation zone would include Kentwood, Sumner and Amite schools. Independence and Loranger schools would make up the central zone, and the southern zone would be composed of Hammond and Ponchatoula schools.

Each transportation zone would include traditional community schools, academies and magnet schools, giving parents and students a wide range of options, Duncan said.

Those school districts that have had little trouble attracting students and generally perform well — Sumner, Loranger, Ponchatoula — would remain traditional community schools, Duncan said. The rest would be given program enhancements to make them more attractive, he said.

Magnet schools, which would require a minimum 2.0 GPA and a parental-involvement agreement, would be established in Amite, Independence and Hammond, Duncan said. Magnet options would include International Baccalaureate, Montessori and other themed programs such as communications and performing arts.

Academies focused on science, technology, engineering and math would be concentrated in Kentwood, Independence and Hammond, he said. These schools would not have minimum GPA requirements.

Students would be assigned to a residence-based district, called a home zone, and would be admitted automatically to the grade-appropriate school situated within that district, if they so choose, Duncan said. Otherwise, students could apply for admission to another school, whether inside or outside their transportation zone, listing at least three choices in order of preference, he said.

Available slots at each school would be filled according to a list of priorities, including first whether the student’s admission would further the goal of desegregation, he said.

Implementation of the new home zones alone would desegregate the schools at least as much as the current court-ordered plan and, in some cases, more so, Duncan said. If the program enhancements and school choice plan are successful, however, the schools would be desegregated even further and current campus capacities could be maximized to avoid construction, he said.