How will school choice plan work?

Parents wonder what's coming

STAFF WRITERSJuly 31, 2010 

  • The Wake County school system is looking for public comment on four sample zone maps that were presented to the school board's student assignment committee this week.

    Go to www.wcpss.net/news/2010_july28_sample_maps/ to view the maps and to comment. The comment deadline is Aug. 29.

— Public interest in the Wake County school board's new student assignment plan increased sharply this week when the board offered its first glimpse of the "controlled choice" assignment method and some possible student zone maps.

Now, the real questions have begun. County residents want to know where the board, having discarded its long-standing diversity-based policy, is heading with its plan for assigning the more than 140,000 students in the school system.

As presented by Massachusetts educational consultant Michael Alves in Raleigh this week, controlled choice is a framework that can produce different results depending on the guidelines a system uses for its specific plan. And because Wake is still developing its plan, aspects of controlled choice remain unresolved. Board member John Tedesco, chief architect of the new plan, has said it will create as many as 16 to 20 attendance zones, within which parents can choose from among varied school options.

"I understand some change is going to take place," said Betty Lou Ward, a Democratic member of the county board of commissioners and a critic of the board majority. "I don't understand how they are going to have diversity in the zones."

Controlled choice would represent a major shift in student assignment. Instead of having one specific elementary school assigned to an address, parents would pick from several choices with school officials placing them by using a computer program.

You can read 11 key questions and answers on the possible direction of a new assignment plan in Wake County on Page 8A.

Here are questions and answers about controlled choice, on queries from public officials and others, and on information from board members and educational consultant Michael Alves:

Q. When will the new plan go into effect?

Some school board members have talked about starting as early as the 2011-12 school year, but 2012-13 is a more realistic timetable. The big initial challenge is getting the parents of all 140,000 plus students to make their first-time requests for school assignments. In future years, only newcomers to Wake, those families who want to change their current school or those who are moving to a new grade level such as middle school or high school would have to make a request.

Q. How much will this new plan cost?

It's unknown right now. The system could spend a lot to make the zones educationally equivalent and to offer transportation to all the choices, especially in the beginning when students are still grandfathered at their current schools. But board member John Tedesco said he thinks the district can generate savings from the transportation budget by having more students go to schools closer to their homes.

Q. How would choices be provided for middle schools and high schools?

In addition to these smaller zones that would primarily handle elementary school assignments, Tedesco is proposing creating several larger zones for middle schools and high schools. There would be several middle schools and high schools in these "megazones." There would also still be countywide magnet programs, to which students from across the county could apply.

Q. Will a student have to leave the school he or she is attending, especially if it's not in the student's zone under the new plan?

No. Tedesco said the system will grandfather students at current schools when the new plan goes into effect. He said he also expects that Wake will continue to provide transportation to grandfathered students, even if the school isn't in their zone.

Q: What does the board majority see as the most important factors for creating controlled choice zones?

School board chairman Ron Margiotta has said stability and families' school choices are most important.

Q: Hasn't the majority faction on the school board promised it won't create schools with large concentrations of low-income students?

No. Margiotta told the board and public on July 20 that he had "no intention" of creating high-poverty or low-performing schools. But he and Tedesco have seemed to back away from too broad an analysis of that statement, saying they will not use evidence of students' poverty as a basis for reassignment. The county's "natural diversity" will keep any zone from having too many members of certain economic or racial groups, and the board will address any problems that come up, Margiotta said.

Q. Can students who are in a school's 1.5-mile walk zone be assured of a seat?

No. If too many students choose the same school, some would have to attend another school in that zone. But Tedesco said school leaders will give priority in the selection formula for people who live closest to a school.

Q. What happens if a family misses the application deadline or moves in after the school year starts?

Those families would be told they need to apply for a seat at schools in their zone that still have space.

Q. What does the board majority think about consultant Alves' contention that zones have to be racially and economically diverse to succeed in the long term?

Tedesco said Wake can't draw up zones that would make, say, the Zebulon area and the Cary area racially and economically equivalent. But, he said, zone lines can be drawn so that the educational programs offered are equivalent.

Q. How will sibling preference work?

Priority will be given to keeping siblings at the same school if that's what the parents want.

Q. Will the new system prevent the year-to-year reassignments that have sometimes bounced students around?

Tedesco said the school system is still going to have reassign students to fill new schools. But he thinks the new model will do a better job of factoring for growth that will cut back on the need to move as many students.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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