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Balancing Act: School system looks for racial balance in classrooms

The school system is working on a delicate balancing act.

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Maxwell students Summer Land (from left) and Natasha Cullpepper get help from teacher Melissa Welch. The McDuffie County Board of Education is considering several changes to equalize the racial balance between Maxwell and Thomson Elementary Schools.
Jason B. Smith
The racial makeup of Thomson and Maxwell Elementary Schools has been shifting for the past few years. The McDuffie County Board of Education is considering measures to resolve that problem.

TES is currently 61.6 percent African-American and 34.4 percent Caucasian. MES is 50.1 percent African-American and 46.8 percent Caucasian. School officials hope to have a more similar racial makeup in both schools, one that puts both within two percent of each other.

"We've had concern expressed by both faculty and parents for about three years that the districts were getting more and more out of balance," said McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Ed Grisham.

The BOE has two measures on the table to alleviate the lack of racial equilibrium between the two schools. One is to adjust the attendance zones for both. Another is to allow out-of-county students to pay tuition to attend school in McDuffie County.

"I personally think that we need to make some adjustments at a minimum in the district because I think it's incumbent upon the board to keep as good a racial balance between our schools as we can," said BOE Chair Tommy Phelps.

Adjusting the attendance zones would cause around 50 students at each school to swap schools. This plan will only affect on average two students per classroom.

"If we move the district lines, it will put it pretty well balanced initially," Dr. Grisham said. "But of course the problem with that is it will need to be looked at again in another two or three years."

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Conner Cheely works on the computer in Nan Tam's second grade class at Maxwell.
Jason B. Smith
The other option that was recommended to the board was to allow nonresident students to attend school in McDuffie County. This option was presented to the board last year but never got past the recommendation phase due to lack of support.

Institution of a nonresident student policy would allow the school system to place out-of-county students in whichever school needed a student of their race. Those students would pay the cost of educating the average McDuffie County student as tuition. According to Dr. Grisham this would also serve as a balancing factor.

"If they put in the tuition option, we feel very confident that we'll pick up some students each year," Dr. Grisham said. "And of course the students who come in from outside could obviously be assigned to the school where it would be the most advantage to keeping the races balanced."

Another option that is not currently being considered, but was mentioned during the February board meeting was to restructure the grades at both schools. This would make one school pre-kindergarten through first grade and the other second and third grade.

While this plan would eliminate the problem of racial balance, Mr. Phelps doesn't consider it a viable option at the present.

"I don't think from a timing position with all the changes going on in education from the state level and the number of changes we have going on within our system this year, now is the time to even address a permanent-type change," Mr. Phelps said.

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Sandriana Johnson and Anquavious Greene work on a puzzle in thier first grade class at Maxwell Elementary.
Jason B. Smith
The two districts were created for TES and MES 10 years ago because schools were required by the state to have three consecutive grades. That law has been lifted, but currently the board and system administrators like their original plan.

"When we created the East and West districts, initially we told the community that we would try to be sensitive to keeping a pretty close racial balance," Dr. Grisham said.



Web posted on Thursday, February 19, 2004


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