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Magnet doesn't attract
Survey shows no interest again in neighborhood classes at Leon Sheffield magnet school

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

A survey of eligible students showed no interest in attending neighborhood classes at Leon Sheffield Elementary for kindergarten, first and second grades for the 2007-08 school year that starts in August.

Superintendent Sam Houston said Banks-Caddell Elementary Principal Wanda Davis surveyed her first- and second-grade students who live within a 1-mile radius of Leon Sheffield. She also surveyed parents of kindergarten students who live within this preference zone during April's kindergarten registration.

Houston said he sent the survey results to the U.S. District Court, U.S. Department of Justice and plaintiffs' attorneys involved in Decatur City Schools' desegregation case.

This will probably be the second straight year that the school system will not include the neighborhood preference zone originally agreed to during negotiations on the desegregation plan that just completed its first year.

School board member Tommy Sykes represents District 1 and, as the only black board member, opposed the desegregation plan. He said he wasn't surprised that school officials got no response. He said this would probably be the last time the preference zone will be offered.

"That's so unfortunate," Sykes said.

"But people are suspicious of the place (Leon Sheffield) even though it's a very adequate facility. People's thought patterns just don't coincide with what we offered."

The elimination of the preference zone would be one less issue that the board would have to deal with when, and if, it seeks unitary status (elimination of the desegregation order) from the federal courts.

The desegregation plan changed Leon Sheffield to a grades 3-5 magnet school and required students living near the Alabama 20 school attend Banks-Caddell. The preference zone became part of the desegregation plan, approved in August 2004, because some plaintiffs complained that requiring these young students to attend Banks-Caddell would create a hardship.

School officials surveyed eligible students in spring 2006 and only three, two second-graders and a kindergarten student, expressed interest in attending Leon Sheffield instead of Banks-Caddell.

Saying that three students were not enough to justify a teacher unit, school officials asked for and got permission to not have the preference zone during the 2006-07 school year. They promised, however, to offer the preference zone again for the coming school year.

Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson was active with the black plaintiffs opposing the desegregation plan. He has been particularly critical of the superintendent and school board for changing Leon Sheffield from a neighborhood school to a magnet school.

Jackson said the lack of response this time to the preference zone offer surprised him. Last year, he said parents and students would realize during the year how much a hardship had been created as they attended Banks-Caddell.

He said he doesn't think school officials ever wanted to offer the preference zone. He wondered if they really tried to reach out to the eligible students. Principal Davis, who did the survey, is also black.

"I tend to question the methods they use (to survey the eligible students and their parents)," Jackson said. "But, if their numbers are legitimate and accurate, I am surprised that there was no interest in attending Leon Sheffield."

Houston said the proof that school officials were dedicated to offering the zone is that four classrooms were renovated expressly for these young classes. The school used the rooms for alternate purposes last year because it didn't offer the classes.

Leon Sheffield Principal Barbara Sittason said a reading coach used one room, the robotics club used another and they stored books in the other two.

"We put the rooms to use, but we could have used them for the (neighborhood) classes if needed," Sittason said. "The rooms are quite small, so we couldn't put a full class of third-, fourth- or fifth-graders in them."

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