Race, education converge in roiling real estate market

by Jordan Green

Tony Barr of High Point put his house on the market this summer, but not because of a controversial plan by Guilford County Schools to swap students between Andrews and Southwest high schools. It’s the gash of raw earth where a developer is preparing the ground for hundreds of new homes across the road from his spacious stained-wood bungalow set in the sylvan outskirts of High Point that bothers Barr.

The cellular phone service salesman and Baptist minister takes a favorable view of the adjusted attendance lines, which will divide his children between the two schools. His daughter will be allowed to stay on at Southwest High School for her senior year. Barr’s son, a rising freshman, will enter Andrews High School after spending his last three years at Southwest Middle School.

His son had expressed a preference for Andrews, an inner-city High Point school, over its suburban counterpart to the north before the changes were even announced, Barr said. While Southwest enjoys a reputation for superior academics, Andrews holds the edge for athletics. A member of the Andrews Class of ’87, Barr views the new attendance map as repairing an old injustice.

“I was really upset about five years ago when they did the first redistricting,” he said. “They put four or five projects at one school. All of those with the same mentality were together. You need to put together the highs and the lows so everybody can learn something from that.”

Lately Andrews’ reputation has taken a beating, earning a “low-performing” designation after less than half its students performed at grade level on end-of-course tests in the 2004-2005 school year, and its violent incident rate fell at 4 per every hundred students, double the state average. The school has seemed to share the fate of central High Point, with its dependence on the shrinking furniture industry, while economic development and population growth has taken off north of the US Hwy. 311 Bypass – a landscape shared by Southwest and high-tech companies like RF Micro Devices.

Twenty years ago Andrews was a different school, Barr said.

“Back then I bet Andrews was fifty-fifty in diversity in terms of race and income,” he said. “You didn’t feel out of place. The sad thing is there’s no more land around Andrews to build houses. Does that mean the school has to die because there’s nowhere else to build?”

The word among real estate agents plying their trade in this transitional area between High Point and Jamestown is that Southwest is clearly the coveted high school among parents seeking to give their children maximum leverage in the contest for upward mobility. The numbers,’ posted on the internet in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandate for accountability, leave little room for argument.

Southwest earned an “expected growth” designation, with at least 60 percent of its students performing at grade level, and its rate of violent incidents was a quarter of Andrew’s and half the state average. While neither school met the federal government’s adequate yearly progress requirements, Southwest met 15 out of 17 of its target goals while Andrews met only 10 out of 20.

Those performance measures coincide with a widening demographic variance between the two high schools. In the last school year, Andrews’ student body was 79 percent non-white while Southwest’s student body was 56 percent white; 55 percent of Andrews’ students took advantage of the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program while only 26 percent of Southwest’s did so. The swap – which will transfer students from the Penny Road area where Barr lives and the White’s Mill Road area from Southwest to Andrews, and in exchange bus students who once attended Andrews from the middle-class African-American community of Eastwood to Southwest -‘ seeks to even those statistics.

Barr’s house on Tangle Lane is part of a comfortable, semi-rural African-American neighborhood faced with increased crowding in the wake of new development. Less than a quarter mile north on Penny Road circumstances and attitudes differ dramatically. To begin with, High Point gives way to Jamestown.

Most of the vinyl-sided two-story houses in the Meadows subdivision, crammed into lots of less than an acre, have been built in the past ten years. Real estate brochures for houses listing at around $200,000 boast of the neighborhood’s proximity to the Jamestown Park Golf Course, but the neighborhood of cul-de-sacs also possesses a distinctly isolated feel, stranded as it is on the opposite side of High Point Lake from Jamestown’s historic downtown area.

Residents of the predominantly white neighborhood, which has a handful of black newcomers, exhibited a reluctance to speak on the record, but of those interviewed, none left any doubt about their disdain for the new attendance plans.

One woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she moved to the Meadows so her grandsons could go to schools in the Southwest attendance zone. Her son-in-law has been stationed in Korea with the US military, and he hadn’t wanted his children to live on the base. Now the daughter and grandsons have recently moved out. The woman is waging a battle against cancer, and is putting her house up for sale to save money.

Despite the fact that she no longer has a personal stake in the changes in attendance zones, this is the first political issue that has really engaged her in her life. She said she views the school board’s ongoing efforts to adjust attendance lines as a superficial fix to deeper academic problems, and believes board members are more concerned with helping Andrews evade sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act than helping its students.

“Right now, I would choose Southwest over Andrews just because of the fights and disruptions,” she said. “They just don’t seem to have it under control.”

The grandmother and others have battled Guilford County school board members Dot Kearns and Susan Mendenhall, both residents of High Point and proponents of educational socio-economic diversity. Kearns narrowly survived an electoral challenge for her at-large seat in 2004. Mendenhall, who currently represents District 2, has announced that she will not run for reelection this year. Vying to replace her are Garth Hebert and Debbie Maines, both of whom staked positions in favor of neighborhood schools when they ran against Kearns two years ago.

“Before long it was made out that we were the evil north High Point families,” the woman said. “Most of us are just hardworking people who worked hard to get into a good neighborhood, and then they change the schools around behind our backs. Honest to God, we talked to the school board for two to three years, and everything was twisted around to make us sound like we were people who are only concerned about home values, like people who hate minorities.”

There are about a dozen houses up for sale in the Meadows subdivision, and while their owners are moving for different reasons, finding new buyers is not always easy.

“If you have parents with kids in school, probably your top priority is getting kids in good schools,” said Scott Proctor, a realtor with Re/Max. “I’ve had parents come to me where the only school they would look at is Northwest, and they’re basing everything on test scores they looked at on the internet. I’m not saying Andrews is not a good school, but change in general is hard for folks.”

Proctor has had to knock $10,000 off a house listing for $195,000 on Cole Avenue and is still having difficulty finding a buyer.

“I’m really scratching my head with that one,” he said. “To me, that house should have already sold. It’s in a great neighborhood and a popular neighborhood.”

While much of the discussion about the new attendance lines has centered on complaints about their children’s lengthened commute times by parents living near Southwest High School, not all the residents of the Penny Road area live closer to Southwest than Andrews. In fact, Cole Avenue is about a quarter mile closer to Andrews than Southwest.

Students in Eastwood, a middle-class African-American neighborhood of well-tended lawns and modest ranch houses located south of High Point Lake, will face the longest trip – more than seven miles to get to Southwest. And some of them share the displeasure of their counterparts who chafe at being transferred from Southwest to Andrews.

Niesha Watkins, a rising sophomore swimming at the Boys and Girls Club on Cedrow Drive on Aug. 4, said she will be attending Southwest this year, but she and her friends would rather go to Andrews.

“I have doctors appointments and all, and my mama don’t really have a car,” she said. “They never even ask us how we feel. All my homegirls who went to Andrews together before, now we’re going to Southwest. We’ll get to stay together, so that’s good.”

In the Whites Mill Road area, a triangular wedge jutting into the gnarled fingers of Oak Hollow Lake, along with the Penny Road area, the district’s new attendance zones are prompting a ripple of white flight, with parents unloading real estate and bolting from the public school system.

“The majority of the people moved here so their kids could go to Southwest, and they’re not happy about it,” said a resident of Banoak Court who declined to give his name, echoing a common refrain.

Another man who also declined to give his name privately said he was putting his house on La Dora Drive up for sale so he could keep his children in the Southwest attendance zone.

“You do see more properties on the market, where the parents are trying to align with a certain school,” said Ray Holobaugh, an agent with Coldwell Banker Triad Realtors. “There are many clients for whom that is an issue, and they’ve researched it so they end up telling me more than I want to know about it.”

Private schools in High Point report increasing interest from parents.

“We’ve had a lot of traffic with parents coming in to check out our program,” said Wanda Garrett, principal of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School. “I’ve heard specific comments about parents coming here because they’re unhappy about the reassignment and wanting to check out the alternatives. Yes, they may be upset, but I don’t want parents coming here because they’re upset with the public schools; I want them coming because it’s the best place for their child to get an education.”

High Point had 2,308 students in private schools in the 2004-2005 school year, according to data collected by the NC Division of Non-Public Education in Raleigh. That’s about half the number of private school students in Greensboro, but when compared to the number of children under the age of 18 in each city, High Point’s per capita private school attendance rate outpaces that of Greensboro by almost 20 percent.

Yet north High Point parents’ heightened interest in private schools hardly compares to their push to get their children into Phoenix Academy. The waiting list at the city’s only charter school started at about 900 this summer, triple the number in previous years, founding director Kim Norcross said.

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