No Attraction to This Magnet Cook parents send Forsyth school officials back to drawing board

School officials proposed combining Brunson and Cook to create a magnet schools. Parents urged them to preserve Cook’s specialness.

Parents of students at Cook Elementary School thought that their school was unfairly being singled out when school officials broached the idea of merging Cook with Brunson Elementary School to create a new magnet school.

The plan called for the merged school to carry on with two campuses: Cook for students in kindergarten through second grade and Brunson for third- through fifth-graders.

At the same time, the boundaries of the Cook attendance district would be shifted, moving a large number of students from Cook to Kimberley Park, Ashley and Petree elementary schools.

What school officials didn't realize, though, was just how happy Cook parents are with their school and its place as a haven in one of Winston-Salem's poorest neighborhoods.

They know now.

After Cook parents made their feelings known, school officials quickly shelved their plan. Now the goal is to turn only Brunson into a magnet school.

The episode reveals the difficulty of drawing attendance boundaries when a need to replace an older school runs smack into strong school loyalties.

Cook parents were happy to keep their school as is, but it is only a temporary reprieve. The system plans to eventually close Brunson, which is on a floodplain and can't be expanded.

Cook would be renovated and made bigger. The new school would be a magnet school, drawing students from the old Brunson district and a part of the existing Cook district.

But parents wonder if it would still be Cook.

"When you rebuild Cook, it will be for Brunson," Mack Parker told school officials at a recent meeting. "Our kids still have to go somewhere else."

School officials say they started the plan with the best intentions. They learned they had a chance to get a federal grant to create another magnet school and decided that Brunson and Cook elementary schools looked like ideal partners for the project.

The schools are near each other and centrally located. By combining the schools, school officials decided, they would be able to create a magnet school emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math.

The new magnet would fill a gap, with students going on from Brunson-Cook to Hanes Middle School.

On top of that, the two Title I schools would be getting the benefits of a magnet school.

Title I schools are those that get extra federal money because they have high percentages of students from low-income families. At Brunson, 60 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches. At Cook, about 97 percent do.

Community helps out

When school officials tried to sell Cook parents on the benefits of a magnet school, they responded with testimonies about how well Cook has treated their children and how well community businesses and organizations work with the school.

The school gets materials, money and volunteer help from the Kilpatrick Stockton law firm, Lowe's Home Improvement stores and the Reynolda Rotary Club.

The school's parents also appreciate its heritage as a school that served black students in the time before integration.

"We are not lacking for anything," Ny-Isha Thompson, the mother of four Cook students, told Superintendent Don Martin last week. "We have supporters. We have sponsors. We can work it out. We would prefer that y'all take the grant and do what you need to do for Brunson. Let Cook be Cook. There is no other school in the Forsyth County school system like Cook."

Ted Burcaw, who is in his sixth year as the principal at Cook, said he and his staff felt as if they received a "vote of confidence from the community" during meetings with school officials.

"I am very glad that the parents were able to find their voices and express their concerns," Burcaw said. "This is an excellent child-centered learning environment -- a school with a culture that parents are very proud of.

Burcaw is quick to say that his isn't a perfect school and that he can't say it is closing the achievement gap better than any other school.

And using some measures, Cook is struggling: Only 40 percent of its students are performing at grade level. That's up from 27 percent last year, but still far below some other schools.

On the other hand, Cook students are doing well compared with where they have started. And the students continue to show improvement in test scores and growth, school officials say.

"Growth is measured by where students start at each grade level," Burcaw said. "We are taking the students where they are. Many of our students are coming from families that live in poverty, and there are some educational needs that come along with that. Our job is to close the achievement gap."

Now, a new solution

Cook at first looked like a good choice for merger with Brunson because the magnet school would need enough space to add about 100 students to those attending from the residential district, Martin said.

Cook had that space and more. And the school system has merged schools before.

The Winston-Salem Forsyth County school board voted early this year to close Diggs Elementary School, an arts magnet, and move the students to Latham Elementary School, which focuses on global education. The two schools have dealt with dwindling enrollments, and the combined school would have about 600 students, about twice the number each school has now.

The school system has also had success with a now-defunct magnet school at Kimberly Park, which drew students from around the city. Admission was granted based partly on race, which resulted in some students who lived just blocks from Kimberly Park not being able to attend the school.

Cook parents are adamant that they don't want that to happen at their school, so now, at least for the time being, school officials are trying to find 100 spaces at Brunson.

Martin said that the school system believes that it now has a magnet-school solution that will work. To free up space at Brunson, kindergartners in the Brunson attendance district will be assigned to Cook if they don't want to go to the magnet school at Brunson. The year after that, Cook would include both kindergartners and first-graders from Brunson who didn't want to go to the magnet.

Brunson already serves more than one function in the school system. In addition to being a neighborhood school like others with a residential district, it is home to the school's program for HAG -- highly academically gifted -- students.

One idea that came up last week was moving all the HAG fifth-graders to Cook in order to free up space. But that idea has been dropped. Parents of HAG students didn't like the idea because it would force their fifth-graders to change schools yet again when they went to middle school, said the principal of Brunson, Jeff Faullin.

There are 206 students in the HAG program for third through fifth grade. The program admits students who have very high scores in standardized testing. About 85 percent of those students are white.

One reason for having magnet schools is to encourage voluntary racial integration, Martin said. Magnet schools bring in students to schools that they might not otherwise attend, and help the system get the maximum use out of its classroom space. One reason Cook has extra space is because students transfer to other schools, officials said.

At Cook, about 89 percent of the 240 students are black. Brunson is more diverse: About 35 percent of its 550 students are Hispanic, 17 percent are black, and 38 percent are white.

Faullin said that a common reaction among Brunson parents to the various proposals has been "be patient and see what is coming down the pike."

School officials say they think that it may take a bond issue in 2012 to provide the money to renovate and expand Cook. If that project goes forward, though, many Cook parents will once more be faced with a move.

Some students will remain at Cook. But others would be shifted to Kimberley Park, Ashley and Petree.

School officials showed Cook parents how nice Cook would look after the renovation and expansion is complete. They pointed out that whenever redistricting takes place, many students who have already started at a school can continue, to minimize disruption.

But the redistricting plan left many Cook parents wondering what the advantage of a new Cook school would be if most of them no longer live in the Cook district.

"Redistricting always strikes nerves," Martin said.

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