Divided schools seek boundary balance

The meandering school boundary lines drawn nearly a decade ago divided allegiances in Duluth, sinking PTA budgets, stifling community sports programs, making rivals out of old neighbors.

It was the biggest physical rift in the city since the railroad came to town in 1871. The memory for some still stings.

Back then, much of the country club set was moved from Duluth High School to populate a new school in Suwanee. The aftermath is being measured today in taffeta and test scores. Student poverty has risen in Duluth, graduation rates have softened and the PTA’s largest fundraiser, the Miss Duluth pageant, barely broke even this year.

Today, when the Gwinnett County school board votes to again rewrite school attendance zones, Duluth neighbors don't want history repeating itself.

Duluth could inherit more low-income areas without also taking in more of the business and homeowner base Duluth parents say is needed to balance out the impact. Property values and confidence in Duluth High's ability to remain a high-achieving school could be at stake. Parents have spoken out by the hundreds.

"If the table tips a little more it’s going to topple," said Rae Saidman, a PTA leader in the county. "More families are going to get discouraged and move away. We want to bring Duluth families back to Duluth.”

Gwinnett Schools is redistricting to relieve overcrowding at Peachtree Ridge High, which has 3,226 students, but room for only 2,800. Hull Middle, which is 700 students over capacity, has reached an enrollment of 2,409 – more than many small colleges.

The district's initial plan to balance enrollment sent some of Peachtree Ridge’s poorest neighborhoods, in the shadows of Gwinnett Place Mall, to Duluth schools.

“I don’t think the original split 10 years ago was done in a way that would balance the demographics,” said Mayor Nancy Harris who served as principal of Harris Elementary, a school in Duluth named after her father. “It caused Duluth High to really have to regroup.”

About half of Duluth High students qualify for free or discounted lunch compared to 32 percent of Peachtree Ridge High students. Duluth feeder schools have a Title I campus that receives federal aid, Chesney Elementary with an 81 percent poverty rate. No Peachtree Ridge feeder schools have that designation. Yet 290 of Peachtree Ridge's Mason Elementary students are slated to be moved to Chesney, a poorer, slightly lower performing school. Mason is only 13 students over capacity, according to Gwinnett Schools.

Like most metro Atlanta school distrcts, Gwinnett does not consider socio-economics when school boundary lines are drawn to relieve overcrowding.

“We don’t sort students,” said Mary Kay Murphy, the board member who represents Duluth and parts of Peachtree Ridge.

But national experts say that socio-economics should play a role.

“It creates a burden on resources on a school when you have a greater population of poor students ... than others in a community," said Michael Zuba, a senior planner with Milone & MacBroom consultants which advise schools on redistricting. "You want to spread it out a bit.”

The drain of wealth from Duluth has led to flight and disparities in school programs, though academically Peachtree Ridge and Duluth feeder schools meet and exceed academic expectations on standardized tests and rank among Newsweek magazine's top 1,000 high schools. Duluth High's average SAT score is 1556 compared to 1549 for Peachtree Ridge. Peachtree Ridge has a 92 percent graduation rate compared to the Duluth's 88 percent.

Participation in the Duluth High band dropped from about 100 members to 60 members since the split. "The dues are $500 a student, people can't afford it like they used to," said band parent David Lowry.

The annual scholarship pageant almost didn't happen. “The last two years we almost had to cancel it because we didn’t have enough girls,” said Dianne Ogden, a PTA volunteer. This year 22 girls competed. Ogden helped some find discount gowns. At Peachtree Ridge, there were 51 girls, sellout crowds and a $1,000 prize for the winner.

A revised boundary map could bring back Duluth’s loyal Buford Highway business base and the half million dollar homes in the 30097 zip code. That's where the median family income is more than $106,000 and almost half of the houses have at least nine rooms. But some of those parents, now zoned for Peachtree Ridge, don't want to go to Duluth High.

Peachtree Ridge is what drew Adeola Umusu to her neighborhood. Some of her neighbors might be happy Umusu's Cresswell subdivision could be rezoned the the Duluth cluster, she was blindsided. Neighbors have been circulating a petition looking for a way out of being shifted to Duluth.

“We paid $414,000 for our home to go to Peachtree Ridge schools,” Umusu said. “It’s not fair."

Staff Writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this report.


Shuffling schools

Redistricting in metro Atlanta.

Cherokee County

Reason: Opening 2011-12 of Indian Knoll Elementary

Being shuffled: 1,184 students

Status: approved 2010


DeKalb County

Reason: Closing eight schools and freeing up about $12.4 million a year

Being shuffled: 6,000 to 7,000 students

Status: approved


Forsyth County

Reason: Opening new Kelly Mill Elementary School in 2012-13 and relieve overcrowding at all high schools.

Being shuffled: Estimated 1,028 elementary students; unknown for high students

Status: Process runs Sept. – Nov. 2011


Fulton County:

Reason: Opening new school at Bethany Bend

Being shuffled: potentially about 2,169 students

Status: pending


Gwinnett County

Reason: To relieve overcrowding at Peachtree Ridge High and Hull Middle School

Being shuffled: 602 students

Status: Before the Gwinnett school board today.