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Proposed school closures prompt discussion about segregation

Orange County School District’s proposal for two new K-8 schools in Baldwin Park and Parramore, to replace smaller elementary schools, inspires acrimony



Editor's note: The original version of this story contained inaccurate information about the location of the new K-8 school planned for Audubon Park. Currently, Audubon Park Elementary is located in Baldwin Park. The old Audubon Park Elementary School, located on Falcon Drive just outside of Baldwin Park, will be demolished to make room for the proposed new Audubon Park K-8. The story has been edited to correct the error.


On May 27, a surprise meeting of the Orlando City Council – or, more specifically, its Community Redevelopment Agency – was called to order so departing District 5 Commissioner Daisy Lynum could have her last stand. On May 12, Lynum officially said goodbye to the City Council after serving for 16 years, but she wasn’t about to leave office for real until she finished something she claims to have started: the beginnings of the development of a new kindergarten-through-8th-grade (K-8) community school in the Parramore district.

The CRA would sign over a 3.8-acre parcel between Federal Street and Otey Place – once meant to be a residential development spearheaded by Lynum and her failed Pathways to Parramore project, which spent $1.3 million in relocation fees for residents a decade ago – to the city for just $10. The land could only be used for school development, per the CRA. The stage was set for Lynum’s grand dismount.

“I have to vote no, because of the impact it could have on Fern Creek Elementary and Kaley Elementary,” District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan chimed in when it was time for the commissioners to have their say. Fern Creek, which is in Sheehan’s district, would lose 157 of its 359 students (and almost all of its African-American population) without the busing from Parramore. About 500 elementary-age kids are bused out of Parramore to eight schools in Orange County daily right now. The proposed new school, along with a new one planned for Baldwin Park, would replace Fern Creek, which would close for good, as school board officials have already confirmed.

“The most important thing in a community is a school and churches,” Lynum snapped back at her. “I have never interfered with any other council district. To have this discussion about keeping this school open, and to have little black children bused to some community that they can’t walk to, is asinine.”

Just weeks before, Lynum and Sheehan had come to blows on the same issue, with Lynum saying it was none of the city’s business what happens in the school district – take it to the school board, she suggested – although clearly the city has some business in the matter.

Orange County Public Schools has been – some say surreptitiously – drafting plans for the two K-8 schools (along with three more in the future) for more than a year, and has made it all but completely clear that small community schools like Fern Creek Elementary in Colonialtown and Grand Avenue Primary Learning Center in Parramore will be folded into these larger, state-of-the-art schools. Orange County’s school desegregation order was lifted in 2010 – nearly 60 years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared that separate schools for black kids and white kids were not constitutional; school districts in the South were notoriously slow to integrate their schools, so the courts had to force the issue, which led to busing kids from various neighborhoods to schools around the city.

Orange County’s 2010 unitary status, which granted it permission to end its federally mandated desegregation order, has opened the door for Orange County Public Schools to create new schools and end busing. Parents, teachers and students from the smaller schools facing possible closure have balked, though, doubting the efficacy of what they call “super schools,” which they think are intended to cut costs and divide communities. The goal of the new schools is, in theory, not to divide the community but to reunite it and to improve it, the school board insists, especially in the case of the new Parramore school. The parents who are complaining, according to elected OCPS Chairman Bill Sublette, aren’t coming from Parramore, where many of the city’s African-American students live and where the most students will be affected.

“The great irony of this is that most of the critics that I run into about this tend to be white people,” Sublette says. “And most of the people who led the charge for desegregation 30 or 40 years ago, they want modern schools in their neighborhood, and they want them emphatically.”

In September 2012, Gov. Rick Scott stood in the Fern Creek Elementary library beneath a banner celebrating the $1 billion in increased education spending included in his budget. (He had cut $1.3 billion in his first year.) Fern Creek – which had been profiled just months before by the New York Times and 60 Minutes for its exemplary and compassionate handling of an impoverished student population, 20 percent of whom were homeless – seemed the perfect place for stumping at the time. Selected poor children were seated before the governor as he read a children’s book to them and posed for pictures. He praised the school’s efforts and left.

Those efforts have included literacy nights and book fairs, as well as strong community engagement from student mentors at Rollins College and donations from Blue Man Group. The school also provides “firm yet caring discipline,” according to the Times, that many weren’t receiving at home or at the homeless shelters where they lived. The school’s approach to handling kids living in adverse situations made it a model for better schooling in the community.

Nearly three years later, in a half-full auditorium at the school on the evening of Feb. 12, parents and teachers gathered to hear school board member Nancy Robbinson and Area Superintendent Bill Gordon try to explain to them why their beloved community school would be closing, and why they hadn’t told them before (a meeting had been held specifically for the Audubon Park parents weeks earlier). Robbinson countered that the school’s scheduled closure wasn’t really news – in fact, it showed up in a 2013 Orlando Sentinel story nearly a year before that this was a possibility – and that teachers had nothing to be worried about. They would all have jobs somewhere in the district. These aren’t “super schools,” Robbinson said. “It’s three and a half years away!” she added.

School principal Patrick Galatowitsch sat near the back, saying nothing. There were far more uncertainties than certainties, and nobody left satisfied.

“So I said, ‘You’re telling me this is a done deal,’ and Nancy Robbinson said, ‘Yes,’” Alisha Kearns, a Fern Creek parent who is fighting to save the school, recalls. “As we found out, as we started researching, it isn’t a done deal. … The school board is telling us, ‘We don’t vote until 2015.’” Kearns says Robbinson has already instructed the Colonialtown Neighborhood Association to start looking for alternate uses for the Fern Creek site.

At the moment, there is little information publicly available as to when the Audubon (or Baldwin) Park K-8 will come to fruition. The years 2017 and 2019 were thrown around as dates for Parramore and Audubon, repectively, in the February Fern Creek meeting – mostly contingent on a half-penny sales tax referendum later this year. A public-records request put into OCPS was not returned by press time.

Commissioner Sheehan has been leading the charge in stirring up public discussion about the closure of Fern Creek. She personally met with Sublette (and OCPS Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins), she says, and “it became a very intense and heated discussion from the outset.” She claims that Sublette argued his points in that meeting on the merit of a “difference in morals and values and income levels” that would prevent wealthy white parents from wanting to send their kids to Fern Creek.

“We are treating it as a cultural divide,” Sheehan says. “I think that the reason that Fern Creek is nationally recognized is because of its diversity, because of its programs; those are the things that make it special. But Mr. Sublette finds that ‘odious,’ to the point where he actually spit out the name Fern Creek like it was the ‘F’ word. I mean, honestly, he hates this school. And I was trying to figure out why. And I just think it’s because he doesn’t agree with diversity; I think he believes in segregation.”

Sheehan also questions whether the school board will keep its promises with regard to the half-penny sales tax expenditures should the initiative pass. OCPS has presented a “renovation/closure” list, she says, not specifying which fate awaits each of the schools on the list. “So they’re telling people that the [proposed] sales tax is going to be used to renovate their community schools when they could actually be closed,” she says.

Sheehan is proposing alternate solutions, like redrawing the districts so that the kids currently overcrowding nearly 30 portable classrooms at Audubon Park Elementary could be moved over to Fern Creek, thereby filling the 300 spaces that will be made available when the Parramore kids are no longer being bused to the school.

“This is all about segregation,” she says. “My experience with the kids that go to Fern Creek – I’m going to be honest, the ones from the Coalition for the Homeless – is that this is the best part of their day. We send them home with food. It’s a model for how to help others. If that’s not a legitimate value and moral obligation to teach, then I don’t know what is.”

On the last Friday of the school year at Grand Avenue Primary Learning Center, just to the west of Division Street in the Parramore area, two young girls fidget as they prepare to make the amplified morning announcements in the front lobby. Principal Lino Rodriguez stands behind them, taking over after the Pledge of Allegiance and a “moment of silence to reflect on any personal stuff.” Rodriguez reminds everyone to use manners, to “be safe and be kind.”

After the formalities, Rodriguez sits down to talk – just not about any of the controversy involving the new Parramore K-8 and what it will likely mean to the fate of Grand Avenue. Those comments have to be funneled through OCPS communications. (Most teachers we reached out to for this story were not able to comment directly.)

“What I will talk about is this school,” he says. Rodriguez has been here for 10 years. The principal highlights the quality of the teachers and the quality of the community programs. Grand Avenue offers parenting classes twice a week, GED courses with free caps and gowns for parents, mental and physical health staff on hand daily, and just about anything else you could need for what he calls the “perfect storm of community needs.”

“A school with a heart should minister to those needs,” he says.

In the cafeteria on the same Friday, an assembled corps of volunteers fills bags with healthy foods for the school’s “Blessings in a Backpack” program while the Head Start kids eat their free lunches. The school has 310 students, with 55 more in the Head Start program, but it seems as much like a community center for parents and kids as it does a primary education facility. Rodriguez notes that there is virtually no turnover among teachers, not until retirement.

Grand Avenue will close when the Parramore K-8 facility opens, likely in 2017.

“I think they should just leave the kids where they are at. Some kids will get held back during the transition,” Grand Avenue mother Andrea Chambers – who herself started kindergarten at the school in 1988 – says. “It’s great to be Grand.”

But it’s not enough, according to Sublette.

“One of the things you notice in the changing face of education is that we are under increasing pressure to compete with charter schools, home-schooling, corporate tax scholarships, vouchers,” he says. “I had a strong opinion: Why? When you look at Orange County’s 32 charter schools, they tend to be in predominantly low-income communities. One of the reasons we are building a state-of-the-art [school] – and frankly, it’s going to be a show school and a school that is going to be a model – is we believe in a neighborhood school where kids still go to a school that they can walk to.”

But there’s more to Sublette’s argument than competition, although he is seemingly coming from a more pragmatic than emotional place. According to Sublette, many communities simply don’t have enough kids to fill traditional K-5 and middle schools. These new schools aren’t super schools, he says, they’re community schools.

“A K-8 is actually a smaller school solution,” he says. “A traditional elementary school is for over 850 kids, 150 per grade. K-8 is for 800-900 kids – about the same size. The big school argument is almost rooted in ignorance.”

Sublette also acknowledges that Parramore alone does not have enough kids to fill the proposed K-8, and is hoping that further residential development around the venues and the Creative Village – including “young urban professionals” – will help to close that gap. It could also increase diversity, if not just property values. When Blankner School became a K-8 10 years ago, he says, “anybody who lives in that zone will tell you it’s the single factor most responsible for the revitalization of all those surrounding neighborhoods: Wadeview Park and Delaney Park, among others.”

Which is one of his sticking points with Commissioner Sheehan, about whom he says, “I think she thinks I was being dismissive.” But, he adds, “I respect anybody with a passion, and nobody can say Patty Sheehan isn’t passionate. But what I don’t understand about her as a politician is Blankner is one of her schools in her district. I guess she just chooses to represent who she wants to represent.”

As for the racial argument, Sublette’s position is a bit more nuanced.

“One of the things I’ve noticed about young people today, I actually don’t think the discussion should be about race anymore,” he says (making it clear that he’s “not even remotely being an apologist for segregation”). “I really think the discussion should be about socioeconomics. I think racism still exists; I think overt racism is relatively rare.”

“Middle-class parents don’t care about race,” he says. “What they do care about in neighborhood schools, they’re against putting their kids in a school of high-poverty students.”

But race does still matter, according to studies. The resegregation that is occurring throughout the country as areas are freed from the restrictions of the desegregation order is having an impact. According to independent news organization ProPublica, so-called “apartheid schools” – those in which less than 1 percent of the students are white – have spiked from 2,762 in 1988 (integration’s peak) to 6,727 in 2011. A separate study by Rucker Johnson, a public-policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, charted more than 8,000 adults affected by integration, and found that “five years of integrated schooling increased the earning of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.” Also, the study found, integration didn’t affect whites negatively.

Yet it was the school board’s only African-American board member, Kat Gordon, who pushed for the unitary status that lifted the OCPS desegregation order and opened the door to kill busing. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – so adamant in fighting for enforcement of the desegregation order for decades – doesn’t seem so concerned about the local change either.

“We haven’t even discussed it. We have it on our next agenda for our meeting,” Kran Riley, president of the Orlando unit of the NAACP, says. “Personally, I think neighborhood schools are always great. It’s kind of unfortunate, that many kids being bused out to that many schools. Busing was never part of what the NAACP fought for. Personally, I think it’s going to be good for the community.”

And of course, Commissioner Lynum has made it her final cause, saying at that final May meeting that the desegregation discussion is “foolish and best left in the ’50s and ’60s.” (Lynum’s successor, Regina Hill, supports the school as well, adding, “I haven’t heard them saying anything about the Audubon Park school being segregated because that neighborhood is white,” she adds.)

But the discussion, at least about the two Orlando schools, is happening right now, and at a heated pace. Commissioner Robert Stuart opined on May 27 that he was a “process person” and “uncomfortable” with the uncertainties. Mayor Dyer even made mention that everything was still “preliminary” and that one of his concerns was to “preserve and protect Fern Creek.”

Sublette’s aware of this, and he’ll face down the concerns of Fern Creek supporters at a Colonialtown North Neighborhood Association meeting on Thursday, June 12.

“I’ll be wearing my full armor,” he says.


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