Education

School boundary debate divides Coral Gables

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A proposal to change elementary school boundaries in Coral Gables has divided some residents, thrust one struggling school into the spotlight and raised “uncomfortable” issues of class and race.

A Miami-Dade School Board committee on Thursday will wade into the ongoing controversy when it considers a proposal to do away with a long-standing lottery-like system in favor of actual lines on a map.

Parents seem to agree the current system doesn’t work, but weeks of debate at tense community meetings have failed to yield a consensus on how to fix it. Samuel Joseph, whose daughter could be affected by the proposed changes, says more time is needed to come up with a solution.

“It’s about doing what’s equitable and what’s right for all families,” he said.

Coral Gables is the last place in Miami-Dade County where “controlled choice” remains in effect. It began in the 1970s under a court order to produce racially mixed schools. In the late 90s, the state changed the system into the one that exists today, where a majority of Coral Gables parents do not have a traditional “home school” dictated by where they live. Instead parents have to rank their preference among three schools, and enter a lottery.

“As a parent, you basically worry from the day your child is born as to where they’re going to go to school,” said Aileen Ortega, an attorney who is in favor of regular attendance boundaries.

Parents who don’t get their first pick tell frustrating stories of being sent across town when another school is just blocks away, or of siblings being sent to different campuses.

“It’s just another unnecessary level of bureaucracy that makes the lives of families in Coral Gables extremely, extremely difficult for planning,” said Aleida Martinez-Molina, an attorney and parent. “You can buy a very pricey home and be told by the Miami-Dade County School Board that your child has to go to school two miles away.”

Another problem: Parents don’t find out to which school they’ve been assigned until mere weeks before the academic year starts — after deposits for private schools are due and charter schools have sent acceptance notifications. Parents say that forces many people to simply pull out of public schools, rather than wait to find out whether they’ve been awarded their first pick.

The proposal that will be taken up by the district’s Attendance Boundary Committee, or ABC, would carve much of the city into three zones — one for each of the schools now included in the controlled choice program. Those schools are Coral Gables Preparatory Academy as well as Sunset and George Washington Carver elementary schools.

But the proposal faces opposition from parents who say not all of those schools are equal.

Gables Prep and Sunset have earned straight A’s for at least the past decade on the state’s report card rankings.

Carver, by comparison, has struggled. It is now an “A” school, after three years of C’s. Still, only 64 percent of students met proficiency goals in reading last year.

Paul Savage, a parent and lawyer who opposes the current plan for doing away with controlled choice, also takes issue with the school’s location. Sitting right off of U.S. 1 makes it unsafe to walk to and ruins any feeling of a “community school” the city is aiming for, he said.

“The citizens of south and central Gables will not attend Carver as a matter of reality. And they will attend private schools or charter schools,” Savage said.

Christine Austin understands the reluctance of parents when it comes to Carver, because she also had the same perceptions, until the lottery placed her daughter at the school.

“I cried for three weeks,” Austin said.

Now, her fourth-grader is in an Italian immersion and gifted programs. On a recent night, Austin said a teacher called to speak with her daughter for more than an hour to reassure her about upcoming testing. Austin, a business owner, joined the PTA as secretary.

“I got really involved and my perceptions changed,” she said. “Now, I’m happy.”

State grades are based mainly on test scores, which education leaders know are impacted by poverty perhaps more than any other factor.

Of the three schools within Coral Gables’ controlled choice system, Carver has the highest percentage of poor students. Almost 70 percent qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch last year because of their family income. The percentages at Gables Prep and Sunset were 41 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Carver also happens to be the most diverse school of the bunch. About 22 percent of students there are black, compared with about 1 percent at Gables Prep and 3 percent at Sunset.

Osamudia James, a law professor at the University of Miami who lives in Coral Gables, said she has been frustrated by the lack of attention given to racial issues at community meetings that have been held regarding controlled choice.

Though her own children are not directly impacted by the proposed changes, James’ work focuses on inequality in schools. And the numbers in Coral Gables, she said, speak for themselves.

“Just because there isn’t someone saying, ‘No blacks allowed,’ doesn’t mean we don’t have racialized spaces where this needs to be addressed,” she said. “Let’s talk about it: an uncomfortable conversation about race in our schools.”

Many parents at Carver also raise the issue, but less bluntly.

“People say, ‘Oh, the neighborhood,’” said Fabiola Bolanos, whose daughter is a fourth-grade student at the school.

The homes around Carver are more modest than the multimillion ones that envelop other Gables schools. They are the bungalows and shot-gun style residences that Bahamians built when they settled there in the 1920s.

With these issues in mind, and other parents complaining about a rushed process, some are calling for a pause. Instead, elected officials have lobbied to move forward quickly.

Coral Gables pushed to get on the Attendance Boundary Committee’s agenda after the once-a-year review process began — prompting citizen complaints that they weren’t properly noticed.

Parents have complained about controlled choice for years, but the political will to take it on has only recently crystallized.

Controlled choice has now become a campaign issue for city commission candidates who are taking sides to distinguish themselves among a crowded field ahead of April elections.

Added to the mix is school board member Raquel Regalado. At a time when the district has pushed school choice as a competitive answer to charter schools, Regalado has cautioned against the trend. She says schools that pull students from around the county stunt a sense of community built around neighborhood schools. The current debate in Coral Gables allows Regalado to push that agenda as she contemplates a run for mayor in Miami-Dade County or the city of Miami.

“My point is these magnets are destroying the foundations of our neighborhoods,” Regalado said. “That is today’s conversation. Controlled choice was yesterday’s conversation.”

The district’s committee will make a recommendation on the controlled choice issue on Thursday.

The recommendation will then go to the Diversity, Equity, and Excellence Advisory Committee, which will also study the proposal. School board members have the ultimate say in a vote scheduled for June.

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