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Parents to get survey on choice of schools.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Eugene School District Superintendent George Russell is setting the stage for a two-month public effort to find out why parents choose the schools they do and to gauge opinion on ways to level the playing field among the district's most- and least-privileged schools.

Within the next month, the district will survey parents, school staff and community members, partially by telephone but also through a Web survey and take-home letters given to students. A series of focus groups in each of the four regions of the district will follow, Russell said; in January, he hopes to bring a set of concrete recommendations to the school board.

Propelling the effort, Russell said, is the district's growing alarm over the achievement gap that separates students by socioeconomics and color.

Russell talked about the issue at a City Club address Friday.

"In Eugene, we are beginning to see concentrations of poverty in more of our schools, accompanied by large achievement gaps for our children who are low-income and our children of color," Russell told the audience of mostly white professionals and retirees.

The problem is one shared by many midsized to large school districts around the country, he said, many of which - like Eugene - are seeing fewer white students and more students of color, particularly Latinos.

Those districts, too, are searching for ways to relieve socioeconomic and racial segregation, with mostly disappointing results.

The upcoming process flows from 18 months of work by the district-appointed Access and Options Committee, which in May issued a set of suggestions to make the district's existing system of open enrollment, neighborhood schools and alternative, or "magnet" schools, more equitable and accessible.

Alternative schools are built around a particular theme, curriculum or approach, such as language immersion, project-based learning or the arts.

The committee found troubling disparities when it reviewed data on student transfers, poverty rates, parent fund-raising totals, achievement and other indicators.

The differences are especially stark when comparing some of Eugene's nine alternative elementary schools with neighborhood schools, especially those neighborhood schools in low-income areas.

The district's most disadvantaged students usually attend their neighborhood schools, some of which struggle mightily to attract families, raise achievement and engage parents in fund-raising and other activities that help schools thrive.

In recent weeks, the district has been gathering additional and updated data on those indicators as well as mobility rates, teacher experience, staff-to-student ratios and the percentages of special education, talented and gifted and English Language Learner students at each school.

The new information further underscores inequities that have emerged 30-some years after Eugene became one of the first districts in the nation to embrace open enrollment and magnet schools.

"I think from the data it's pretty clear that we have a problem," Russell said in a recent interview.

The most jarring examples may be Howard and River Road-El Camino del Rio, both neighborhood schools in the River Road area. Both have large numbers of kids whose family income qualifies them for free or discounted school meals - 62 percent at Howard and 84 percent at River Road in 2003-04.

They also have comparatively large minority populations, mostly Latino: 33 percent at Howard and 48 percent at River Road.

The profile is very different a stone's throw away at Corridor and Yujin Gakuen alternative elementary schools, which draw large numbers of students from Howard and River Road's attendance areas - in Corridor's case, close to half its students.

The percentage of poor students at Corridor is 22 percent and at Yujin Gakuen, 28 percent. The percentages of minority students, meanwhile, are 6 percent and 32 percent, respectively, with Asian students - who do not as a group lag academically behind whites - accounting for most of those at Yujin Gakuen.

Predictably, the disparity extends to student achievement.

On the state's 2004 fifth-grade reading test, for example, the percentages of students meeting or exceeding standards were 72 percent at both Howard and River Road, but 96 percent and 98 percent at Corridor and Yujin Gakuen, respectively.

The data suggest that the neighborhood's most affluent, involved parents are opting to send their children to schools other than River Road and Howard.

Carl Hermanns, an administrator intern from Harvard University who's spending six months working with Russell, has taken the lead on researching equity and school choice.

"Nationally, when you control for all other factors related to student achievement, you find that SES (socioeconomic status) correlates the most highly with student achievement," he said.

Research also suggests that students fare best in schools with a socioeconomic balance, where between 40 percent and 50 percent of the students qualify for the federal school lunch program. Disadvantaged students tend to perform better in those schools, while privileged students do just as well as they do in affluent, homogeneous schools.

However, Hermanns said, when the poverty rate exceeds 75 percent, performance suffers across the board.

What to do about the existing disparities is a vexing and controversial question, particularly as housing patterns and demographics - things beyond the district's control - play an enormous role in the differences among Eugene schools.

Among the suggestions from the Access and Options Committee was possible mergers of alternative elementary schools and neighborhood schools - something that many parents at alternative schools would strongly oppose. Five of the nine alternative schools - Eastside, Hillside, Evergreen, Family School and Buena Vista - share building space with neighborhood schools.

Another idea was to consider redistributing some of the alternative schools, six of which lie in either the South Eugene or Churchill High School attendance areas.

In his speech Friday, Russell steered clear of offering his own ideas for solutions, explaining that he first wants to engage the public in an open-ended conversation.

Betsy Boyd, an Adams Elementary School parent and district Budget Committee member, told the audience she believes the district has done too little to help those schools with high poverty and mobility rates, and suggested using a weighted funding formula that gives them more money.

Russell said the district has taken steps in that direction, such as awarding "equity grants" to low-income schools and stabilizing staff positions at schools with declining enrollment.

But he questioned whether funneling more money to poor schools would fix the larger problem of economic segregation and the resulting achievement gap.
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Title Annotation:Schools; The Eugene district wants to study reasons that separate students by income and color
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 4, 2004
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