NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For nearly two decades, county school maps have created an island, separating the affluent historic downtown Wilmington area from the New Hanover High School district and sending students to Ashley High School instead. New maps, to be discussed by the School Board today, might finally change that.
Tonight’s meeting comes after a contentious meeting last month at which a previously proposed redistricting plan was opposed by several community members.
Most recently, the majority of the greater downtown area has been served by New Hanover High School, with the exception of two satellite districts – sections of the greater downtown areas essentially carved out and sent to other schools.
These satellite districts, created in 2001, appear to move two distinct groups of students: one group, predominantly lower-income minority students, and a second group, wealthier, and predominately white students from the historic district.
Historically, the rationale for moving minority students was compliance with court orders aimed at ending segregation in the county’s schools. But those court orders have long since expired, according to Janine Murphy, general counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association.
According to Murphy, satellite districts are uncommon these days, but not explicitly prohibited.
“There’s nothing in the law that says the student population has to be geographically contingent to the area,” Murphy said.
So, what’s the reason for the Ashley and Hoggard satelites?
For Hoggard High school, the current reasoning appears to be the county’s desire to achieve a demographic balance at schools like Hoggard and Ashley.
Dewey Furr, a 34-year veteran of NHCS, spent seven years as New Hanover High School’s principal, retiring in 2011. According to Furr, without a satellite in the greater downtown area, Hoggard would be unable to maintain a diverse student body.
“That is what they have to do in order to get any minority presence at Hoggard,” Furr said. “If they just relied solely on neighborhoods and communities the disparities would be greater than they are now.”
However, that reasoning doesn’t appear to apply to Ashley High School’s downtown satellite. Like Hoggard, Ashley has a majority white population, so re-assigning white students from the historic downtown area doesn’t serve the purpose of creating a more diverse student population. If anything, it exacerbates the de facto segregation that already exists in the largely white school.
The proposed new maps would remove the Ashley satellite district, but keep the Hoggard district; the change appears to focus on maintaining diversity at Hoggard while leaving the historic downtown as part of New Hanover’s district.
Not everyone is pleased about the proposed change, which would also rezone some students going to Laney High School to New Hanover High School.
During a recent School Board meeting, several parents voiced concerns that the property values of their homes – based in part on school assignment – would suffer if the were rezoned into New Hanover’s district.
“I work hard for what I’ve had,” said Dawn McCumbee, parent of a Laney student. “We’re certainly a middle-class neighborhood, nothing fancy about it, but I think redistricting will affect property values in the area because unfortunately, New Hanover High School is not a sought-after school district.”