Miami-Dade school committee backs regular attendance boundaries for Coral Gables

A controversial proposal to create new elementary school boundaries in Coral Gables received preliminary approval Thursday.

A Miami-Dade County public school committee recommended repealing the current lottery system in favor of attendance boundaries drawn on a map for three schools — George Washington Carver, Sunset and Coral Gables Preparatory Academy.

If ultimately approved by the school board, repeal of the lottery system would do away with the last remnants of “controlled choice” — a program that began in the 1970s under a court order to integrate schools. In Miami-Dade County, Coral Gables is the only place where controlled choice is still in effect.

Committee member Don Kearns said the proposal grants parents great “flexibility.”

“This is an evolution instead of a revolution,” he said.

The current debate highlighted a continuing racial divide in the schools and thrust one, Carver, into the spotlight as its performance has been publicly questioned by parents. But one committee member stuck up for the school.

“It is your community's responsibility to embrace the school as a village,” Maria Kramer said to light applause.

While the lottery system has long had its critics, the proposal to repeal it also has faced push-back from parents. The Attendance Boundary Committee’s recommendation addressed some concerns raised by parents. Under the recommendations:

▪  Students, including pre-kindergarteners and kindergartners, will be allowed to remain in the schools they currently attend. That includes students at Coral Gables Preparatory Academy, who could remain there through eighth grade.

▪  Siblings will be given preference to attend the same school, even if it is outside their regular attendance boundary. The district already gives such preference to brothers and sisters under school board rules.

The proposal to repeal the lottery system was brought forward by city officials in Coral Gables.

“The city is concerned that it's being treated differently from all the other areas in the county,” said Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen.

However, the city didn’t get everything officials asked for.

The recommendation would limit the number of children who get preference for acceptance into the nationally-recognized magnet program at Sunset. Coral Gables has asked for more parents to be given a better chance to get in. Also declined: a request from the city to redraw an attendance boundary that would have drawn kids away from nearby Frances S. Tucker Elementary.

Coral Gables officials said they asked the school board to do away with controlled choice because of parents’ complaints. Under controlled choice, parents rank their preference among three local schools and enter a lottery.

Parents say the lottery system creates anxiety for families who sometimes are notified at the last minute about their school assignments. They also complain about being sent across town when other schools are closer.

But the proposed changes also have been resisted, particularly by parents who live in the Carver boundaries. They contend the school isn’t up to par with the two others academically, and some complain that their property values could be impacted.

“The cure is worse than the disease,” said Paul Savage, a Gables resident who has a child at Sunset. “Do not repeal it. Do not repeal our choice.”

Deputy Superintendent Valtena Brown defended the school.

“What I don't think is appropriate is the insensitivity to schools in our surrounding communities,” she said.

Race and class issues also have been raised in the debate. About 22 percent of students at Carver are black, compared with about 1 percent at Gables Prep and 3 percent at Sunset. Almost 70 percent of students at Carver 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.

District officials said student demographics will remain largely the same under the proposal approved Thursday.

"My concern from the beginning has been diversity," said University of Miami law professor Osamudia James, who specializes in inequality in public education. “It's about permanently disrupting a legacy of racial isolation in our community and Coral Gables."

The proposed changes now go to a diversity committee that will also make a recommendation. The school board has the final say in a vote scheduled for June.

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