CARY — Wake County business and community leaders unveiled today a new student assignment model that they hope will appeal both to those who want neighborhood schools and those who want diversity to be used in student assignments.
The plan, presented by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership, would allow families to rank from a list of schools where they'd want to attend. A computer program would determine where they'd be assigned but priority would be given for people who want to go to their closest school.
The model also calls for using test scores to try to limit schools from having too many low-performing students.
"This plan provides diversity but doesn't promote diversity as a goal," said Tim Simmons, a vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group for public education.
It's a radically different approach to student assignment in the state's largest school district. Currently, every address is assigned to a specific elementary, middle, and high school.
Families also can apply to magnet schools and schools that follow a different calendar from their base schools.
But under the new model, families would no longer be guaranteed a specific school. They'd instead rank from a list of schools where they'd want to attend with priority begin given for them to attend their closest school, especially if they live within 1.5 miles of the campus.
It's uncertain whether the Wake County school board will accept the model. Democratic board members have been more receptive while Republican board members have questioned whether it's an attempt to bring back a version of the old policy which tried to balance the percentages of low-income students at schools.
Simmons said the new model is different because, unlike the old school board policy, it doesn't look at poverty rates at schools. But low-income students are more likely to not be at grade level than more affluent students.
Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata said the proposal will help staff as they gather more information before developing a long-term student assignment plan.
School board vice chairwoman Debra Goldman said she's proposing that the school board refer the plan to Superintendent Tony Tata for review. She said the board, regardless of what plan is used, needs to finalize something by this summer in order to give the community time to prepare for any changes prior to the start of the 2012-13 school year.
"I believe this deliberate and reasoned process will produce the best overall result for all involved in this crucial decision," Goldman said in a written statement. "I recognize that we as a community want to do what is best for our children and their academic future. I encourage my fellow board members to join with me and embrace this approach."
"This is a highly complex and emotional challenge that requires input and discussion from the entire community in order for us to craft a solution that truly meets the needs of all families in Wake County," Tata said in a written statement today. "The Chamber and Wake Ed Partnerships proposal today will contribute to our planning process as we develop our student assignment plans in the months ahead."
The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership, which had both supported the old diversity policy, hired education consultant Michael Alves in September to draw up a student assignment model. Orage Quarles III, president and publisher of The News & Observer, is on the board of trustees of the Wake Education Partnership.
Alves was tasked with drawing up a plan based on the guiding principles of proximity, stability, family choice and student achievement. All but student achievement are factors that are part of the school board's revised student assignment policy.
Simmons said that it was important to include student achievement in the mix so as to try to avoid overloading schools with too many low-performing students. He said teachers will be able to help low-achieving students if there are fewer of them in a class. He pointed to the challenges schools have getting teachers to work in underachieving schools.
"It affects the core mission of schools to start them off at the gate with too many low-performing students," Simmons said.
Simmons said the model principally calls for using student achievement to be factored into determining which school choices a family would be offered. He said the goal would be to set a range of acceptable percentages of low-performing students that schools could have.
"You're not trying to make every school look the same," Simmons said. "That's not possible. But you can set a range that's educationally sound."Simmons said the list will typically consist of the closest schools. But he said that could be changed by the school board in some areas to avoid putting too many low-performing students in schools.One part of the county that Simmons said might not necessarily be offered solely their closest schools would be Southeast Raleigh.Thousands of Southeast Raleigh students are now bused to suburban schools to promote diversity and to free up seats in magnet school. Simmons said Wake would have to balance finding seats for these students without overloading magnet schools so they can't take suburban children.
Based on a list of priorities in a computer program, Wake would determine which choice to approve for families.
Simmons said that Alves believes that 80 to 85 percent of families could get their first choice and 93 percent could get their first or second choice.
Student achievement data in the form of test scores would be used in the computer program to decide on individual assignments. For younger students, such as rising kindergartners, the plan says factors such as the education level of the mother, whether the child come from a single-parent household or attends preschool could be used in lieu of test scores.
But Simmons stressed that student achievement would be ranked sixth in the list of priorities for placing students with proximity being the top one.
Even with all these choices, Simmons said they don't believe it will increase the cost of school bus transportation. He said that the SAS Institute helped run the numbers for them.
To provide stability, Simmons said the plan calls for guaranteeing students the right to stay at their current school the year it's first implemented. This means that mostly new families, rising kindergartners, rising sixth-graders and rising ninth-graders would face some uncertainty in the beginning.
The plan also calls for dividing the district into three administrative areas with roughly similar demographics. But Simmons said this is strictly to protect against possible lawsuits and isn't meant to limit where families can attend schools.
The timetable for the plan calls for it to be adopted in June and for it to go into effect for the 2012-13 school year.
The plan comes at a time when there's no clear-cut direction on where student assignment will go. The school board majority eliminated the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignments last year but split apart over how to implement the new policy that stresses neighborhood schools.
Republican school board vice chairwoman Debra Goldman had split off to join the Democrats in October to kill work on a long-term assignment plan that would have divided the county into 16 zones.
But one of the reasons that Goldman cited for voting against the zone plan is that it didn't include guaranteed base assignments for families, something that's also the case in the new plan presented today.
If the board rejects the plan, it could turn to one being developed for the 2012-13 school year by staff that would more comprehensively implement the new student assignment policy. A wild card could be this fall's elections when five of the nine school board seats are on the ballot.
"What we want is for the board to look at it and give it a thoughtful review," Simmons said.
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