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Concerns raised about York prep school's diversity

Local black leaders are concerned that York Preparatory Academy, the first charter school in York County open to any student, will be nearly all white.

The academy's organizers are still compiling information about the student body's demographics. But the several hundred people who attended the school's recent enrollment lottery were mostly white, as was the crowd of several hundred who attended a recent board meeting.

The school's governing board of seven members is all white.

Melvin Poole, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Rock Hill chapter, sees the makings of a segregated school.

"I don't think they made a real effort to get blacks in," Poole said. "I think this is just a cover-up way to get back to segregated schools ... creating a school of elites on the taxpayer's dime."

That's not true, said York Prep founder Craig Craze. He said organizers targeted black neighborhoods and churches with public information sessions about the school. Craze, who declined to speculate about the school's demographics until that data is available, said 1,588 people applied to send students to the school.

"Nowhere did we ask about gender or race before the lottery," he said.

The debate reflects a growing concern nationally over charter schools, which, with President Barack Obama's blessing, are opening in larger numbers every year.

"The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure," reads the foreword to a recent study by researchers from the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA.

Charter schools continue to "stratify students by race, class and possibly language," according to the 130-page report, titled "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards."

The researchers found that across the country, many charter schools have largely black student populations. But the study reported that in the West and some areas of the South, charter schools are mostly white.

"These trends suggest that charter schools are contributing to white flight in the country's two most racially diverse regions," the authors concluded.

While success varies at the thousands of charter schools across the country, proponents tout them as needed competition for traditional public schools. Obama has made them a cornerstone of his push to reform American public education.

At their best, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, charter schools are "laboratories of innovation that we can all learn from."

The schools are public and paid for with tax money but generally operate outside the authority of local school districts. Charter schools don't have to follow mandates that traditional public schools must follow.

At York Prep, for example, the school day for all grades would run from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., except on Mondays, when classes would let out at 12:45 p.m. Parents would have the option to leave children at school to take part in extracurricular and academic programs, including karate and foreign language lessons.

York Prep received its charter last year through South Carolina's public charter school district. The school plans to open in August with kindergarten through ninth grade. It will add an additional grade each of the next three years.

Founders wanted to start in a campus comprised of prefabricated buildings that would have been assembled to create separate wings for elementary, middle and high school classes at The Gates, subdivision planned for land near Rock Hill off Eastview Road.

After financing for the modular campus fell through, the school changed plans. Organizers are working on an agreement with Trinity Bible Church in Rock Hill to use the former Trinity Christian School, which closed last summer due to low enrollment. They hope to add mobile classrooms and use that campus for a year until a permanent campus is built at The Gates.

The school expects to receive roughly $3,700 of taxpayer money per student, which would pay for operating and construction expenses. Federal grants also are paying for start-up costs, Craze said.

Herb Crump, pastor at Freedom Temple Ministries and former president of Rock Hill's NAACP, also expects that the school won't be diverse. But unlike Poole, Crump doesn't blame the founders.

"They made a good effort to have diversity in the school," said Crump, adding that Craze asked for his help in reaching out to Rock Hill's black citizens.

York Prep held information meetings at Crump's church. Crump also was one of three people who pulled names during the school's enrollment lottery.

"When I looked out on the day of the drawing," Crump said, "there may have been eight African-Americans in the room, including myself."

C.T. Kirk, pastor of Sanctuary of Life Outreach Center in Rock Hill, believes confusion about what the school would offer caused minority families to be wary.

The perception, Kirk said, was that students would have to pack their own lunch because the school wouldn't offer it. Also, people heard there would be no bus transportation and no sports.

"That was a big concern," Kirk said.

Craze admits that he and his colleagues didn't explain the lunch program. "That may have been a miscommunication on our part," he said. "We focused on, 'Hey, it's about differentiated learning, parental involvement and academic standards.'"

While York Prep won't have a lunch room, Craze said he plans to hire a company to provide lunch every day. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in traditional public schools would receive the same, he said.

"No kids will go hungry at YPA," he said.

In retrospect, Craze said, those details and others about bus transportation and sports should have been mentioned clearly.

The school, he said, will have bus transportation and sports. Which sports depends on how families respond to interest surveys.

"It sounds like there's a lot of confusing information floating around about the lunch program," said Marvin Rogers, a community activist running as a Republican for the state House who described himself as an "unabashed supporter" of charter schools. "It's no secret that free and reduced lunch is often a code word for African American."

"I encourage them to be very thorough in how they explain their lunch program. If it's not clear, they could alienate parents. That could be a missed golden opportunity."

As for the school's all-white board, Craze said, one member plans to step down, and officials hope to replace her with a black member.

Poole, who said he's not opposed to charter schools, isn't convinced.

"I don't know how they can say they're actively recruiting African-Americans," he said. "I still think it's a step toward segregation."

Travise Smith, a black parent, has two children who were accepted to York Prep. However, she hasn't decided whether they'll attend.

"I do have a concern about the lack of diversity," she said, adding that school populations should reflect the world around them. "I don't want them to be the only black kids in the class."