DADE CITY — Natalie Brock noticed it right away.
A plan to redraw middle and high school attendance zones in eastern Pasco County would dramatically alter the socioeconomic diversity of the schools.
The single biggest factor: changing the feeder pattern for Cox Elementary School from Weightman Middle and Wesley Chapel High to Pasco Middle and Pasco High.
The campuses in Wesley Chapel would see their numbers of low-income students fall, with Long Middle dipping to almost 30 percent of enrollment. Meanwhile, the schools in Dade City would see their level or poor students rise, in the case of Pasco Middle to 70 percent or more.
Brock, a member of the committee charged with revising the boundaries, quickly brought up the issue during deliberations.
Kids with social and economic needs, she said, also require added support. If the district is intent on concentrating the numbers, Brock suggested, it should be sure to provide the necessary resources to the schools that receive them.
"I really don't care if every other school in the county has 100 percent non-free and reduced-price lunch students," she said later. "I just want my kids' friends to have the same advantages. … I want the district to guarantee these two schools, when the doors open in August, that they're going to have every teacher that they need."
For years, the children from Cox, who are mostly lower-income and black or Hispanic, have been bused to Weightman Middle and Wesley Chapel High to support diversity of the student bodies. But overcrowding in some central Pasco schools has prompted officials to revisit the boundaries.
Moving the Cox children to Pasco Middle and Pasco High would help ease the overcrowding, and it would bring those children back to the Dade City schools closest to home. It would also increase the concentration of lower-income students at those schools who may need additional support.
School Board vice chairman Allen Altman, who lives in Dade City, has received several phone calls echoing Brock's sentiment.
"All the calls and comments that I have received have all been related to Pasco Middle and Pasco High, from teachers who love the community, love the kids and think it's the right thing for all the parties concerned — as long as the schools are provided the additional support to meet the academic requirements that they will be held to," Altman said.
He said he planned to insist as part of the rezoning process that the district commits to supporting Pasco Middle and Pasco High.
Pasco Middle principal Kim Anderson backs the proposal to move the Cox students to the Dade City schools. "I know those kids should be going to a community school," she said. "We are the community school."
By living closer to the school, the students will have more opportunities to participate in activities. Their parents will be closer if needed.
That does not mean Pasco Middle won't require added resources, Anderson said.
She has begun encouraging every family that might be eligible for free or reduced-price meals to apply.
"When you're far away from Title I funding, it's easy to say whoever fills it out fills it out," Anderson said. "But here we're making sure everyone is documented, to be Title I. That's what we're trying to do."
But money for extra programs and people isn't always enough, said Richard Kahlenberg, an expert on academic achievement for the nonpartisan Century Foundation.
"The research is clear that moves that exacerbate concentrations of poverty are bad for kids," Kahlenberg said. "And extra money in high-poverty schools does not adequately address the problem."
He pointed to a recent study of Montgomery County, Md., public schools that showed low-income children in mixed schools performed better academically than their counterparts at schools with heavy concentrations of poverty. He also disputed the notion that parental involvement will increase if poor students attend a school closer to home.
More beneficial is allowing students to be surrounded by peers who are have high academic expectations, with active parents who know how to hold a school accountable, he said. Teachers also tend to prefer middle-income schools to those in high-poverty areas, he added.
"Probably the best thing you can do for a low-income student is allow her to attend a middle-income school," Kahlenberg said.
Daria Hall, K-12 policy director for the Education Trust, agreed that low-income children come to school with many needs that can affect their education. And it's also true, Hall said, that a large body of research indicates that all groups of students do better in more economically diverse schools.
"But the economic diversity of a school does not come anywhere close to trumping the quality of the teaching in the classroom," Hall said.
Given the choice of a diverse school with less vibrant classroom instruction or a high-poverty school with strong teaching, "I'm going with the great teachers," she said.
Elena Garcia, Pasco's Title I supervisor, said Pasco County schools aim to provide that excellent education to all children regardless of status or school. Pasco's low-income children actually perform better academically in the Title I schools that have plenty of support in place for their needs, she said.
"If you increase the population of any subgroup that has a higher degree of need, then certainly the challenges increase," Garcia said. Yet "some of our schools that are more adept at dealing with populations have greater successes because they have greater resources or experience."
It's not always easy to find those top teachers, though. Anderson acknowledged that she has had trouble hiring highly qualified teachers when vacancies arise at Pasco Middle. "It's a sleepy little town and it's not what everybody is looking for," she said.
Yet once they come to Pasco Middle, teachers tend to stay and create the community that supports students to succeed, she added. "I just hope having this group of kids with us will provide them a chance to be more successful," Anderson said.
Brock expressed disappointment that the committee recommending the boundary changes did not discuss this matter at greater length before moving on to other topics.
She didn't question the strength of the schools. She simply hopes to see the district make a good faith effort to help the schools and the students.
School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley, who attended the committee meetings, said she felt confident that the benefits of moving the students will outweigh the potential negatives.
"All the principals were sitting at those committee meetings," she said. "The principals didn't have anything negative to say about keeping those students in their neighborhood schools. The committee has real credibility because they talked about these things."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.