Mack Benn added to diversity program

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, April 23, 2015

Black students in the Mack Benn Jr. Elementary attendance zone can apply to attend Pioneer Elementary next school year, and white students there may attend either Mack Benn or Booker T. Washington Elementary.

That’s the upshot of a vote by Suffolk School Board members during a special meeting Thursday to determine how to implement the next phase of a Majority-to-Minority program.

Because fewer than 75 black students opted to attend the majority-white Pioneer this school year instead of Booker T., under the terms of a federal court order, the board had to decide whether to add Mack Benn or Elephant’s Fork to the list of majority-black schools to be included starting next fall.

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If the projected enrollment for majority-to-minority students at Pioneer in 2016-2017 is still fewer than 75, Elephant’s Fork will then automatically be included.

Board members chose Mack Benn first at the recommendation of district Superintendent Deran Whitney. Elephant’s Fork — in the midst of a state intervention — “is going through a lot of changes,” he said.

About 44 years after a federal judge found the district had discriminated against some black teachers and students, Suffolk Public Schools is the only school system in Virginia on the U.S. Justice Department’s “Open Desegregation Case List.”

Districts on the list face extra scrutiny by U.S. attorneys regarding decisions and policies impacting racial balances.

The Justice Department urged adoption of the program aimed at furthering desegregation after reviewing early attendance zone plans for Pioneer, now in its first year of operation.

A consent order by a Norfolk Federal Court judge, signed in December by U.S. attorneys and Wendell M. Waller, attorney for the School Board and Whitney, set the terms for the program. The School Board also agreed to alter the Pioneer attendance zone to include more blacks.

Board members and Whitney expressed surprise and perhaps even resignation when the Justice Department injected itself into the rezoning process for Pioneer last year, something they felt was a local issue.

“I think it’s a good idea. I didn’t last year, but I do this year. The need is there,” board Chairman Michael Debranski said Thursday, indicating a change in attitude.

According to the court order, 75 majority-to-minority students would make Pioneer 32 percent black, while it would be 22 percent black without the diversity program.

After 30 Booker T. students chose to attend Pioneer this school year, it now is about 25 percent black. The program also operates in the opposite direction, and two white students zoned for Pioneer chose to attend Booker T. Washington.

“The opportunity has been given to everyone, and it’s up to them to accept it,” board Vice Chair Enoch Copeland said.

Meanwhile, with two new schools planned for North Suffolk, Whitney said preliminary work would begin on the next rezoning.

“I’d rather be prepared for the onslaught than have to react to it,” said Debranski, who broached the subject.