I was intrigued to read that a school board member from Wilmington, N.C., won a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her stand on school diversity. The news announcement contained little detail about what Elizabeth Redenbaugh did to earn the award, so I searched the news archives of the local paper to find out more about her.
An attorney and mother of three, Redenbaugh was elected to a four-year term on the New Hanover school board in 2008. Among the news stories was a controversial letter she wrote on why she was voting against a school redistricting plan that restored neighborhood schools and that had the support of many residents. The plan, Redenbaugh said, would create middle-class enclaves and consolidate poverty in two schools, setting them up for failure.
In writing about her stance, the Wilmington Star-News said:
Rarely does a politician take a stand so bold and so potentially unpopular that it may mean the end of any further aspirations for elective office. But in a letter sent to a few parents and her fellow board members, New Hanover County school board member Elizabeth Redenbaugh, a white Republican, outlined the need for better socioeconomic and racial diversity in our classrooms.
She almost certainly will not prevail — her four GOP counterparts adhere to the misleading “neighborhood schools” label. Few neighborhoods are close enough to a school to call it part of the neighborhood, and our neighborhoods are segregated. But she and the board’s two Democrats, Dorothy DeShields and Nick Rhodes, have at least acknowledged that schools cannot guarantee equality in education when the scales are so heavily tipped.
Here is Redenbaugh’s letter, which caught the attention of the Profile in Courage judges:
I cannot vote in favor of any redistricting plan where the overwhelming majority of students at any given school qualify for free or reduced lunch. It has been projected that Map 2B creates a free or reduced lunch population at Williston and Virgo of 64 percent and 80 percent, respectively. Based upon competent data, one can also project that those schools will be failing schools.
Redistricting must be accomplished through the intrinsic lens of our district’s mission statement: to reach children and equip them to achieve their full potential.
Given the overwhelming likelihood Williston and Virgo will be failing schools under the “neighborhood school” maps presented thus far, I do not see how I can in good conscience vote in favor of those maps.
Sending any child from any background to a school where, based upon data, I know will be a failing school does not assist our district in accomplishing its mission. In fact, I consider such a vote to be unconscionable. I respectfully disagree with you. Based upon the foregoing, a vote for “neighborhood schools” is not in the best interest of all children of New Hanover County.
I wish your statement that parents who support neighborhood schools care about children in struggling schools was 100 percent accurate, but it is not.
There are myriad reasons parents support the neighborhood school concept. Many of those reasons are legitimate, and should be taken into consideration, while others reflect an ugly truth about our society. I have literally had parents who wore red shirts and spoke passionately at the elementary school redistricting forums last fall approach me and state, “The bottom line is this: I do not want my children in school with black children.”
I have had parents ask me why we do anything at all for the black children in our county. They look me in the eye and say, “we have spent so much money on black children. We have improved their schools, reduced class size and given them better teachers. Nothing helps. I don’t know why we even try anymore.”
Now that we are about to open a middle school in Castle Hayne, I have even had parents say to me, “I do not want my child to attend school with rednecks.” Such statements literally grieve my heart and beg the question: Who is my neighbor?
I am not giving up on those students. Moreover, I am not giving up on any of our students. When I visit a school, I see hope. I see promise. I see that in all students, regardless of their background. I am also not giving up on this school district. We have the teachers, staff and financial resources that, if leveraged wisely and appropriately, can make this the highest performing school district in the state of North Carolina. I believe each and every one of our schools can be a high achieving school.
Is redistricting based upon socioeconomic status the panacea? No, but it is a good start. There are many other factors that need to come into alignment and my colleagues and I on the Board have set those wheels in motion through the hours we spent this summer creating a Strategic Plan for our school district.
Those who advocate for neighborhood schools would like you to think that people like me have some demonic plan to bus your children all over this county. That is simply not true.
Those who favor redistricting based upon socioeconomic factors want to minimize busing. That is why one of the previous middle school redistricting maps was taken off the table. Our redistricting committee had gone back to the drawing board as requested and came back with a map that was far more sensible with regard to busing, while still accomplishing the goal of capping the free or reduced lunch population at each middle school at 50 percent.
What this board needs from people like you is their trust. Trust that we can accomplish our mission for all students.
I respect the passion you have advocating for your children. I feel just as passionately for my three children; however, I now have the added responsibility of looking out for over 24,000 children. …
From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog