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Garner Schools Don't Reflect Community's Diversity, Some Residents Say

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GARNER, N.C. — When driving into Garner, visitors should see a middle-class community, town leaders say. But the schools in the small Wake County town don't reflect that.
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    For months, the Wake County Public School System has been working on a massive reassignment plan -- the largest in the school system's history -- partly to balance the financial makeup of the student body.

    But balancing that financial makeup hasn't been working everywhere.

    Research shows that more than half of schools in the western part of Wake County have free/reduced-lunch percentages lower than 20 percent. More than half of schools in the eastern part of the county, which includes Garner, have free/reduced-lunch percents higher than 50 percent.

    The Wake County Board of Education's goal is to keep that percentage below 40 percent at each school because research shows test scores fall when those percentages rise.

    Which schools fall at the extreme of this spectrum? Smith Elementary School, in Garner, has the most students receiving free and reduced lunch -- about 70 percent. Highcroft Drive Elementary School, in Cary, is at the other end with only about 5 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch.

    "The same standard that is applied to other districts is not applied to Garner schools," said Horace Tart, who represents Garner and other communities in southeast Wake County on the school system's board of education.

    Tart is worried about the high concentration of students receiving free or reduced priced lunches in Garner schools. He says the Wake County school system's effort to provide socioeconomic balance across the county isn't happening in Garner.

    "Garner is more challenging to integrate because it does tend to have more affordable and lower cost housing," said Chuck Dulaney, assistant superintendent of growth and planning for the Wake County school system.

    Wake County school administrators say they're concerned, but won't bus students across the county to achieve the balance that its goals call for.

    Garner residents say that's not the solution, anyway. Community members say nearly 3,000 students in wealthier neighborhoods opt out of Garner schools for year-round, magnet or other programs.

    "We've got to do something to bring them back," said Garner resident Paul Capps.

    To do that, advocates for Garner schools want more year-round and magnet schools. Although there are already magnet programs, advocates say they aren't working because they aren't drawing in students from other areas.

    "It's going to take time for it to develop a reputation," Dulaney said.

    The school system says the special programs are still new and that there are proposals to add more. Garner residents are happy to hear that, but say they won't wait long to see action.

    "We're going to keep beating the drum, as you say, until we get our schools back in line with the rest of the county," Capps said.

    The real-estate community in Garner is especially concerned about the issue because, they say, it affects home prices. Because there is so much development across Wake County, however, there's a chance that more balance will be achieved with more growth.


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