RALEIGH — Moving forward on the promise to let students attend schools in their neighborhoods, a Wake County school board committee agreed in principle Tuesday to divide the county into 16 assignment zones with widely varying levels of poor and academically successful students.
Although still a preliminary step in the drive to develop a revamped student assignment plan aimed for the 2012-13 school year, the committee's action offers Wake County parents the most detailed information so far about which schools their children will likely attend. It also underscores the school board majority's determination to favor proximity to home over socioeconomic diversity as a crucial factor in assigning students to elementary, middle and high schools.
But John Tedesco, the board member who chairs the student assignment committee, emphasized that the decision Tuesday was part of a monthslong process that will include community meetings, refinement of boundaries of the neighborhood assignment zones and a final vote by the entire board.
"This is the general shell of one piece of a whole plan," he said. "It will be layered over with magnets, choices and preferences," he said.
The neighborhood zones favored by the committee are largely based on current high school assignment areas in Wake and differ widely in economic status and academic performance. For example, the Enloe/Southeast Raleigh zone had a 53.3 percent graduation rate last year, compared to the Cary-area Green Hope/Panther Creek zone, with a 93.2 percent graduation rate.
Recognizing the demographic and economic imbalances among some of the zones, Tedesco also proposed creating five larger "regions." Each will contain three or four neighborhood zones, a concept aimed at leveling the differences and offering families more middle and high school choices.
Under this combination, most elementary school students would attend one of several schools within a family's neighborhood zone, Tedesco said. Parents of middle and high school students would have the option of requesting assignments to schools outside of their neighborhood zone, but still within the larger region in which they live.
Magnet schools, which have been used to draw suburban students to downtown schools by offering unique programs and advanced academic courses, would remain as key choices under the new plan, Tedesco said. So would other specialized schools and a family's decision to attend a year-round, traditional calendar or technical school.
The school board majority that swept into office last fall vowed to change the way children are assigned in Wake. The board majority voted this spring to scrap the decade long socioeconomic diversity policy in favor of developing a new assignment model. Board members have also said they hope to avoid mass reassignments under the revamped plan by grandfathering students already in place.
But Keith Sutton, a member of the board's minority who monitored Tuesday's meeting, expressed doubts about the zones and regions unveiled by the committee, which includes three school board members and nine people from the community appointed by the board.
"On the face of it, the regions look good, but as you peel back the layers, I think it's going to be a hard challenge to come up with a system that the public perceives as fair," said Sutton, who is not a member of the student assignment committee. .
How many zones?
Last month, the student assignment committee told staff to work on four different maps, based on high school attendance lines; transportation zones; regions run by each area superintendent; and, planning regions used for developing school construction bond issues.
Committee members agreed Tuesday to go with a plan with the largest number of zones of those considered by the committee and schools staff.
"From the things that people have said, the high school model seems to have the most positives," said board majority member Chris Malone. "What I would like us to do is begin with that shell."
But the choice of more neighborhood zones goes against the recommendations of Michael Alves, a Massachusetts educational consultant who was invited to explain his "controlled choice" concept to Wake officials this summer. Alves said that such plans, used by dozens of systems nationwide, work best with a smaller number of large zones that each reflect the entire community.
Demographic data shows that the 16 neighborhood school zones have wide disparities in race and in the percentage of children receiving federally subsidized lunches. Committee members stressed that the boundary lines for the 16 zones are still being worked on and could be redrawn in an attempt to minimize these disparities.
Worries about magnets
Anne Sherron, one of the community members on the committee, said the map picked by the committee was the best of the four choices because it would result in fewer students changing schools. But she said she has great reservations about the regional maps, particularly whether there will be enough seats for magnet students once thousands of neighborhood children return to downtown and Southeast Raleigh.
"To me, it feels like we're trying to fill one seat with two children," Sherron said.
Carolyn Morrison, a member of the board minority who appointed Sherron, shared her doubts. An analysis by The News & Observer found that more than half of about 10,000 students in the Southeast Raleigh/Enloe zone attend schools outside the area to support diversity and to open up seats in Southeast magnets.
"If we keep the magnets and the children that live in that area, where do we put them all?" Morrison said.
What comes next
The new map will likely dictate where the majority of Wake's 143,000 students will go to classes in the future. Members asked staff for more information demographic numbers and any information about the unknown financial cost of the new system.
But with the board majority in control of both the committee and the larger panel, whatever the committee recommends will likely be approved by the board majority.
"That felt like a rushed decision to me," community member Anne Cooper, appointed by Dr. Anne McLaurin, a member of the board minority, said after the meeting. "You have to have a starting place, but do we know enough to make a decision?"
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