The other side of town: Southeast Raleigh's problems and promise | News Feature | Indy Week
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The other side of town: Southeast Raleigh's problems and promise 

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AUG. 27, HOW LOW IS LOW? Keith Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh on the Wake school board—he's the lone African-American member—has called a community meeting this Saturday morning, at the new and virtually all-black-and-Hispanic Walnut Creek Elementary School. When Hurricane Irene approaches, Sutton calls off the meeting, but I don't get the word until I arrive. I spend the next hour in not-bad weather exploring the thicket of nearby tract houses that, if it were 50 years ago, could be Levittown, Pa.

How is it possible that Walnut Creek opened with 80 percent of its students estimated to be eligible for federal lunch subsidies, i.e., their families are low-income? Low-income? These neighborhoods may be lower middle-class, but they're nothing like old Southeast Raleigh. Still, some households here apparently fall below the income standards for subsidy: The limit is $27,000 for a family with two children.

FALLING SHORT: "We pray, God, that they understand that they have a special task in their hands." It's the annual back-to-school meeting at Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, a brick building at the end of a long driveway across the road from Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and a few miles up from Walnut Creek Elementary. The opening prayer is offered for the school board and for Superintendent Tony Tata, who's here today.

Compassionate Tabernacle is where Marvin Pittman goes to church. Pittman is a retired Wake principal and a fixture at community meetings where the conservative school board is roundly thrashed. Conservatives want voters to believe that Wake's longstanding diversity policy, which integrated every school based first on race and then on family income, didn't help black or poor kids. The conservatives' evidence: Graduation rates for blacks and economically disadvantaged students are 20 percent below those of whites.

Pittman is among the great majority of black leaders who say the conservatives are wrong. The achievement gap, bad as it is, they say, would be worse if poor students were concentrated in the high-poverty neighborhood schools that would exist in Southeast Raleigh if diversity is abandoned.

Pittman does credit the conservatives with recognizing that too many poor kids aren't learning and are being excluded from challenging courses, because principals and teachers aren't doing their jobs. Walnut Creek, for example, opened with less than 50 percent of its students reading at grade level, he points out. What happened in their previous schools?

But if the conservatives raised the right issues, they did so for the wrong reasons, Pittman insists. "We know what they were really saying is, 'we don't want your children in our schools'," he says. "If they had left the diversity policy alone and did a better job of educating the kids once they went to those diverse schools, focusing on the issues they brought to the table, we would have an excellent system."

SCHOOLS ARE CRITICAL: The school issue is huge in the community. For years, Southeast Raleigh has allowed about half of its children—some 10,000 currently, according to school officials—to be bused to suburban schools. In turn, this makes room in the Southeast Raleigh schools for magnet students who come by choice from the suburbs. With special programming backed by additional funding, the magnet schools in Southeast Raleigh are one reason why middle-class blacks have never left. Their kids attend a top-notch magnet school or a good suburban school, but they've never been consigned to a high-poverty one.

Tata, a diversity supporter, makes a different point when he addresses the Compassionate Tabernacle congregation. Because it has so many lower-income students, Walnut Creek is budgeted for $5.4 million a year, Tata says. That's $1 million more in operating funds than elementary schools of comparable size with diverse student bodies.

The extra money is to ensure that struggling kids can get necessary help, including free breakfast and lunch and an after-school program that is free for every student. Without help, many students would be at risk and so would Walnut Creek. It's currently over-enrolled—free after-school care was a big draw, causing some kids to be "residing" with aunts and grandparents, school officials say—but the school could quickly empty if parents determine that it's a bad school.

Wake County can't afford a lot of high-needs schools, Tata tells the 100 people in the pews. It's better and cheaper to avoid them in the first place.

THE MAGNET FAIR: It's a madhouse—or a fun house—as Wake County's 33 magnet schools, the majority of which are located in Southeast Raleigh, pitch their services to several thousand prospecting parents at this annual event at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School. Poe Elementary School teacher Juliet Kuhn, who's white and lives in Garner, is explaining her school's Montessori approach. "It is a good school," she tells me. "Of course, you know in Wake County, you can't go wrong."

Sometimes you hear that the magnet schools are two separate schools in one building, I say to Kuhn. The magnet students and the base students don't really mix. She smiled and shook her head. "That's just not the elementary school experience," Kuhn said. "The kids pair up." Her son's a fifth grader at Poe. "When I see the kids at his sleepovers, that's what diversity looks like."

For the first time this year, Southeast Raleigh parents, too, are shopping the fair. Under Tata's controlled-choice assignment plan, they're no longer assigned to a magnet or suburban school. Instead, they can apply to their two closest magnets, a high-performing suburban school or make another choice.

Observing the scene, Tata says: "If this doesn't get you excited about the Wake school system, nothing will."

Sojourning

SEPT. 29, READY? My friend Ricky Caldwell and I take a midafternoon stroll through the neighborhood around Haywood Street. I met Ricky when he was "in transition," shall we say, and living in a homeless shelter. He's come a long way since then. He has a handyman and yard-care business, rents a house and is working on his GED. With a different start in life, his intelligence and salesmanship would surely have ensconced him in the middle-class. Instead, he lived over here and has a prison record to overcome.

Data from the Raleigh police indicate that serious crime is down in Southeast's worst neighborhoods. However, their aggressive policing, the reports also say, may be the reason for an increase in drug-related arrests in areas farther east on New Bern Avenue. To me, this area feels safe enough by day. Not at night.

Our research takes us to a house on Alston Avenue where two men are sitting in the front yard drinking beer. Ricky knows one of them, and soon we're having a beer, too, and talking about crime. From where we're sitting, we can see a trio of young men who appear to be in the drug business. One is on a bicycle. One keeps moving from the street to the back of a building. The third keeps a lookout.

It's not that the drugs themselves are so bad, Ricky's friend observes, it's that the users go crazy when they're short the money to buy them. The other man then tells how a druggie pulled a knife on him, and when the man got away and called the police, it took 90 minutes for a cruiser to arrive. "But if you take the law in your own hands, you know what'll happen," the man says. "They'll get you."

Back on Haywood Street, another trio is hanging around a convenience store. Ricky's certain that they're pushing too. He explains how food stamps are used in the drug trade. As we walk toward Martin Street, yet another trio comes into view, and one of them rides his bike toward us, mouthing a single word to Ricky: "Ready?"

Ricky shakes his head no. The youth swings his bike around and heads back to the corner.

"A white man walking with a black man on Haywood Street?" Ricky says. What else could they be doing except looking for drugs.

ELECTION DAY: Eugene Weeks wins in District C, with Racquel Williams a distant second. Billie Redmond runs second behind Mayor-elect Nancy McFarlane. In the all-important school board elections, the Republicans are swept from power as voters turn out in big numbers. A November runoff is needed to settle one North Raleigh district. But when Kevin Hill wins, candidates backed by the Democratic Party have claimed all five seats, making them the new 5-4 school board majority. Diversity in the schools will endure. You can hear the sighs of relief all over Southeast Raleigh.

One other election note: Danny Coleman's personal endorsement did little to help Redmond. Meanwhile, for the first time in memory, the RWCA never met to endorse candidates in the Raleigh or school board races. I talked with Coleman a few days ago. He acknowledged that he's finished as chairman. He didn't so much support Tedesco, he said, as try to be a broker between Tedesco's side and the pro-diversity side. Coleman questioned why white students should be "paid" to go to the well-funded magnet schools while black students who live near them are sent to lesser-funded suburban schools. He never thought that was fair, Coleman said.

With Coleman out, I've heard that the Rev. Earl Johnson of Martin Street Baptist Church may be tapped to lead the RWCA. I need to find out.

The good news

NOV. 6, ST. AUGUSTINE'S COLLEGE: Among the obvious places for a gathering place in Southeast Raleigh is in front of St. Augustine's College, along Oakwood Avenue between Tarboro Road and Hill Street in the College Park neighborhood. Down the hill to the west is the historic Oakwood Cemetery. The neighborhood is unsightly now, a collection of shabby stores and mismatched houses, not to mention the ravaged St. Agnes Hospital. But when I drop in at the St. Augustine's Community Development Corp., Executive Director Dennis Davis reveals that the college, with help from the city and federal funding, has acquired most of the properties it will need to completely remake this area. A master plan for housing and businesses is almost finished. The CDC is offering home ownership courses to area residents. The changes should come quickly.

Davis, a retired Wake County school administrator, foresees that the neighborhood will be transformed in the next few years as St. Aug's expands and the city works to improve the New Bern corridor. "There's never been a better time to be in a better place," he says.

THE CHURCHES: Lacking community places, Southeast Raleigh meets in churches. There are many, with no two alike. But no two are more different than the Upper Room Church of God in Christ and Martin Street Baptist Church.

"Visitors, you have to be ready for me," the Upper Room's Pastor Wooden warns from the stage-pulpit when I visit on a Sunday. "This guy's crazy," he cracks—because he suspects that's what you're thinking. "No, this guy's right."

Well, right wing, and ecstatically so. In two nonstop hours of performance, preaching, singing and praying, Wooden takes stray shots at gays and lesbians, Bill Maher, yoga and the Occupy Raleigh movement ("bunch of losers"). He's part Billy Graham—the hellfire and damnation part—and part James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business. With a six-piece band like Jay Leno.

The Upper Room is a football-shaped hall that seats about 1,200 with a giant stage, choir seating for 100 and a modern TV studio in control of a three-camera broadcast setup and at least 12 speakers. Expect many smiles and greetings, brother, should you check it out on a Sunday.

Behind the church, the Upper Room Christian Academy is where Rodney Purvis, N.C. State's promising basketball recruit, is a senior in high school. Christian schools are a growth enterprise out here. NBA star John Wall played at Raleigh Word of God.

Unfortunately, Wooden has put his considerable talents behind the anti-gay constitutional amendment that North Carolina will vote on next year. Not everyone in Southeast Raleigh is progressive.

Fortunately, Martin Street Baptist Church is progressive. The Rev. Earl Johnson, who arrived two years ago, matches Wooden as a pulpit preacher, if not as a singer.

Martin Street's sanctuary is about one-fourth the size of the Upper Room, and its congregation is older. But Johnson says a bigger sanctuary is planned, and he wants his church to engage "downtown"—meaning with political issues of social and economic justice.

Johnson preached Sunday on "the power of the Church." An example, he said, is the way Martin Street got behind the movement for good schools for all the children in Wake County. "I am beaming with delight," he said, "that Kevin Hill was elected" in the District 3 school board runoff. Now "reasonable people are in charge of our schools."

After the service, I asked Johnson whether he'll be the RWCA's new leader. "Maybe," he said. Of course he'd need to be elected. And he'd only be interim until the organization gets going again. Until he can get it going, I think is what he said.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Mitch Silver, Raleigh's planning and economic development director, agrees New Bern Avenue should be a two-way "gateway corridor" and an investment magnet. At least, it should take you toward the Capitol. He grabs a pen and changes its direction on my notepad. We talk about the vacant tracts in Southeast Raleigh that are ripe for development. Silver, who is African-American, is keen to work with black institutions like St. Augustine's. But white investors are needed too. It's not either-or, he says. Revitalization need not mean gentrification and displacement. What it does mean is greater density, more people and more businesses will follow. "These are communities in transition," Silver says. "I would say transitioning for the better. The potential is vast."

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