RALEIGH — The green light will be flashing for Wake County families to attend or leave year-round schools this fall - even if it leads to overcrowded and less socioeconomically diverse schools.
At the direction of the Wake school board, administrators said last week they will approve virtually all requests from families to enroll in a year-round school or to leave one to attend a traditional-calendar school. The requests will be approved even if they lead to packed classrooms at some schools or change the percentage of low-income students at others.
Supporters of the change say it will greatly expand parental choice, while critics complain it could pose hardships at schools.
"People are going to be getting what they want," school board member Chris Malone said. "This is a good step."
Malone and three other new board members campaigned last fall on a platform that included ending mandatory year-round schools and the diversity policy and providing parents with more calendar choices. They joined Ron Margiotta in forming a majority coalition in the state's largest school district.
But last week, newcomer Debra Goldman defected from the majority to support a compromise that falls short of guaranteeing the end of mandatory year-round schools. The resolution now says every effort will be made to eliminate mandatory year-round assignments.
But in return, board members who support the diversity policy on the board accepted their own compromises. They agreed to leave in the language that calls for making every effort to ensure families get the calendar they want and ends the use of diversity as a factor in selecting applicants to year-round schools.
"The new board is trying to be more analytical so people can get the choice they want," said Gail Marold, a Cary parent who plans to apply for a year-round school for her daughter, who will enter kindergarten next school year.
Marold was a spokeswoman for Take Wake Schools Back, a political action committee that backed the new board members.
Board members asked administrators to figure out how to implement the resolution. The result is a plan that will increase the percentage of calendar requests that will be approved for the next school year.
Administrators said all calendar requests submitted between Feb. 8-28 will be approved for the 2010-11 school year unless, in a few limited cases, special education requirements can't be met. Crowding won't be a reason to turn down a student unless the request is made after the school year starts.
"The board asked us to make every effort to accommodate families," said Chuck Dulaney, assistant superintendent for growth and planning. "This plan does that."
But any overcrowding caused in the next school year by calendar requests won't be addressed until the following school year, Dulaney said. Measures to address overcrowding could include student reassignments and capping the enrollment of a packed school in the 2011-12 school year.
Dulaney said Wake schools can avoid serious overcrowding if the number of applications stays about the same. In 2009, 884 of the 3,887 applications for a year-round school were not approved. Of the 2,676 requests to leave a year-round school for a traditional-calendar one, 143 were turned down.
To help provide more space for new applicants, Dulaney wants the board to give approval on Feb. 2 to reassign more than 400 voluntary year-round students to different year-round schools.
Dulaney acknowledged there could be a problem if the number of applications goes up sharply now that families know they'll be approved. That's a concern for Janny Flynt, a parent at Fox Road Elementary School in North Raleigh. She fears that Fox Road and other traditional-calendar schools will lose large numbers of active, middle-class parents to year-round schools.
"It could be a nightmare for schools," Flynt said.
Some parents are also unhappy with how administrators plan to carry out the resolution.
Allison Backhouse, an Apex parent who backed the new school board members, said she's disappointed that administrators don't plan to make any changes in the traditional-calendar choices they provided last year to families.
Although Backhouse is happy with the nearby option she'll have to get her daughter into a traditional-calendar middle school, she said many families aren't as fortunate. For example, some North Raleigh parents who want their children to attend a traditional-calendar school have to send their children to Rolesville.
"It seems there are still plenty of odious traditional-calendar options," she said.
Another wild card is the online parental calendar survey that ends today. The results of the survey will be used to help determine whether schools will change calendars for the 2010-11 school year, which could trigger more reassignments.
School board member Keith Sutton, who had proposed the compromise last week, said there's just a lot of uncertainty.
"We don't know what decisions people will make," Sutton said. "But we know there's a potential for overcrowding."
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