September 8, 2008

Jefferson Parish Schools Await Effects From Desegregation Redistricting

By Maloney, Stephen

While buses are running on time and students are gearing up for another year of learning, the aftereffects of the 2007-08 school year are still being felt throughout the Jefferson Parish Public School System.

Superintendent Diane Roussel's proposed changes to the system's magnet schools are still drawing resistance from parents unwilling to shuffle their children to another school, while each of the system's nine districts have been redrawn for this school year in compliance with the federal desegregation order of 1971.

In May, a federal ruling sparked a string of changes within the system to bring the school system into full compliance with the desegregation order, including restructuring each district to stop busing minority children to predominantly white schools.

Jefferson School Board member Ellen Kovach said the redistricting moves helped create a reprieve from the traditional transportation headaches as students lined up for the first day of school Aug. 11.

"Last year transportation was pretty much a nightmare from the beginning," Kovach said. "This year we held a lot of buses in reserve, and this year, as far as I know, everything went well, which is huge."

Roussel said the 10 reserve buses allowed an unprecedented measure of flexibility within the transportation plan for the first day of school, but added the end of forced busing also played a significant part even though the desegregation order affected only about 1,200 of the system's 42,100 students.

"High schools typically weren't affected because they are so big and multicultural anyway," Roussel said. "Middle schools were affected to some degree depending on where they were. It's actually the elementary schools that were affected the most because they are small and they're neighborhood-based. That's what we're going back to, neighborhood schools rather than busing children."

Students from certain areas of each district were bused to schools outside of their home district before the desegregation changes took affect this year, Kovach said.

"Now all the districts are contiguous," Kovach said. "The children that live in the area are going to the school that is theoretically closest to their home, or at least they are in my district. In some districts I've heard some people don't think the boundaries are exactly what they should be, but they are better than they were."

Roussel said the plan is not perfect, but it was necessary to bring the system into compliance with the desegregation order.

Some parents were confused as to which school their children should go to the first day of school, Roussel said, but the vast majority ended up at the correct schools, which she credits to the system's large-scale efforts to disseminate information over the summer.

"I think the biggest lessons we learned from last year had to do with information," she said. "We expanded our phone banks for the desegregation and for our buses, which really helped get the information out there. We still have registration going on at our schools. We just want them to get in school quickly because every day is a day lost for the kids who aren't there."

Roussel's redistricting efforts have carried over to the system's five magnet schools -- Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies, Metairie Academy for Advanced Studies, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Ruppel Academy for Advanced Studies and the Jefferson Community School -- which will have to be shuffled to ensure children on each side of the Mississippi River have comparable access.

School Board President Mark Morgan said he sees the magnet school issue as separate, and Roussel said any changes will have to be reviewed in federal court before implementation to avoid any desegregation complications.

The proposed merger of Haynes with Riverdale Middle School to create a magnet academy has drawn the derision of parents from both schools, but Morgan said the changes are still under review and have a long way to go before they are put in place.

"My experience in politics is that everything is a process and sometimes you learn things and you're not really conscious you've learned them until much later," Morgan said. "The entire process of desegregation is exactly that: a process."

Morgan said most questions will be answered and most issues will be settled as the year progresses and as the board works through the issues that surfaced last year.

Credit: Stephen Maloney

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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