Florida charters less diverse than other public schools
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"It is important to consider if we are creating these patterns in charter schools that public schools have worked for decades to alleviate," said Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor of education at Penn State University, who studies segregation in charter schools
Florida charters less diverse than other public schools
May 1, 2011
Racial imbalance is making a comeback in Florida's public schools with the new wave of charter schools springing up across the state.
One out of eight charter schools has a student body comprising 90 percent or more of a single race or ethnicity, an Orlando Sentinel analysis of the state's 456 taxpayer-financed charters shows. That compares with one out of 12 traditional public schools.
Those top-heavy charters are adding to the list of out-of-balance public schools that have perplexed educators since integration 40 years ago. They have worked for decades to reduce the racial imbalance through rezoning, school transfer options, magnet schools and other devices to shift students.
More of the charters with skewed enrollments may be on the way as lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott push for changes in state law to allow more such schools.
"Charter schools really do fulfill the notion of parent choice," said Marie Turchiaro, principal of The Palm Beach Maritime Academy in West Palm Beach, which focuses on maritime studies, science and technology.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but privately run public schools. They are exempt from many regulations placed on mainstream schools and sometimes are not graded by the state.
Of Broward County's 68 charter schools, seven are 90 percent or more black; two are more than 70 percent white. In Palm Beach County, five of 32 charter schools have enrollments of 90 percent or more black; two were greater than 70 percent white.
Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba charter school in Palm Beach County offers an African-based curriculum for an enrollment that is 97 percent black, Principal Cleveland Bryant said.
"Our focus is on children of African-American origin," he said of the 230-student kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Riviera Beach. "The focus is on putting people in front of them who look like them."
But at Imagine Schools at North Lauderdale, the 78 percent black enrollment simply reflects the neighborhood, Principal Rebecca Dahl said.
"We're sitting in a minority area, that's just where we are," she said, noting that the Imagine campus in Coral Springs is mostly white, while the Weston campus is mostly Hispanic.
'We seem to be reverting'
In 1970, Broward County was under court order to desegregate but problems persisted into the 1990s. A grassroots group filed a lawsuit in 1995 over school inequities that was finally settled in 2000.
Now, more than 38 percent of the district's 256,000 students are black, 25 percent are Hispanic and 30 percent are non-Hispanic whites.
Jody Perry, director of charter schools for the Broward County school system, said the district has little control over racial makeup of charter schools.
'It is a choice process, and parents can choose to enroll the student in the charter that best meets their needs," she said.
But critics say creating racially imbalanced public schools is not a model Florida should follow.
"The parents aren't doing the kids any favors because they're going to grow up and have to deal with other kinds of people," said Catherine Kim Owens, a member of the Broward School District's diversity committee.
Ernestine Price, a Pompano Beach activist who attended segregated Broward schools in the 1950s, said she has seen the ups and downs of desegregation. Her children were bused miles to white schools. Her grandchildren were in school when she was part of the grassroots group that filed suit over school inequities.
"We seem to be reverting back to segregation," said Price, who doesn't have a problem with the concept of charters, but worries about the lack of oversight.
In Palm Beach County, 11 of the charters — about a third — are top heavy with black, white or Hispanic students.
Juanita Edwards, director of charter schools in Palm Beach County, said the demographics of charter schools "hasn't been anything we've been monitoring."
'Vanilla public school'
More than 155,000 students across the state, 6 percent, are enrolled in charters, including about 23,000 in Broward and 8,700 in Palm Beach County.
Often there is nothing academically wrong with the public schools that students are leaving. Many earn A's or B's in state grading.
But parents who don't want their children to attend "just another vanilla public school" have a choice through charters, Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith says.
G-Star School of the Arts for Motion Pictures and Broadcasting in Palm Springs, with 890 students, touts itself as the only high school in the world with a working motion picture studio on campus.
And Ben Gamla Charter School, which has campuses in Hollywood, Plantation and Miami-Dade, offers Hebrew language.
Other schools, such as the ones run by the city of Pembroke Pines, were set up to relieve the school district's extremely overcrowded facilities. Today, that system serves 5,000 students and has a long waiting list.
Other schools also skewed
A lot of traditional public schools are heavily of one race or ethnicity, say charter advocates.
But many of those schools struggle with underfunding, high teacher turnover, poorer quality teachers and low student performance that often are duplicated in charters with similar demographics.
"It is important to consider if we are creating these patterns in charter schools that public schools have worked for decades to alleviate," said Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor of education at Penn State University, who studies segregation in charter schools.
With high start-up costs, charter schools often struggle for years to get the financial stability of established public schools. Minority charters typically don't have deep-pocket backers.
Some experts say diverse schools help students develop both socially and academically.
New research by the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, shows the best way to improve academic achievement of low-income students, who often are minorities, is to scatter them among more affluent schools.
Virginia Farace, former education liaison for Boynton Beach, said parents have urged the school district for years to diversify the city's schools with students from a variety of economic backgrounds.
"When schools rely so much on parental support, when you need money for field trips, for PTAs, you don't have a pool to draw from in a poor school," Farace said. "This leaves the poor schools behind."
Staff writer Dave Weber contributed to this report.
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