RALEIGH — Wake County school officials are willing to go only so far to keep individual schools from having too many struggling students - especially when steps in that direction might conflict with providing families schools closer to where they live.
Superintendent Tony Tata last week touted two new student assignment proposals he said would maximize achievement for every student.
But he and his student assignment task force, who on May 23 introduced the proposals for public comment, rejected two other high-ranking plans that would have gone much further to keep schools balanced academically.
One rejected plan would have redrawn Wake's student assignment lines to balance the percentages of low-achieving students countywide.
The other would have made it easier for low-performing students to get into top schools while also setting caps on the number of struggling students both at the school and classroom level.
In both cases, the plans scored lower on the issue of school proximity for students.
Tata said their efforts to promote academic achievement had to be weighed against factors such as cost and how much it would disrupt families.
"We looked for the most feasible and acceptable models that are consistent with (the student assignment policy) and provided the best opportunities for achievement, stability and proximity," Tata said.
The Republican-majority school board that took office in December 2009 eliminated the use of socioeconomic diversity from the student assignment policy after some parents complained about reassignment, mandatory year-round school assignments and poor performance of low-income students.
The issue of student achievement as part of a new student assignment plan entered the picture in September, when the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership hired education consultant Michael Alves to develop a plan.
A component of the Alves plan, presented in February, was to provide diversity by trying to keep schools from having too many low-achieving students. It's centered on the idea that schools with too many struggling students will have a hard time attracting teachers and hurt the ability of students to learn.
Tata embraced the idea of factoring in student achievement into the new long-term student assignment plan.
Tata formed a task force of school administrators that looked at nine plans, including the Alves proposal. They said Alves didn't make placement of low-performing students in high-performing schools a priority.
The two plans presented by Tata last week:
The "blue plan," preferred by Tata, would give families four to six elementary school options to choose from, based on proximity, instead of assigning them to a specific school. Every family would get an option of attending a high-achieving school, with priority being given to students from historically low-performing areas.
The "green plan," similar to what's now in place, would assign students to a specific school on the basis of their address. The plan would also assign students from low-performing neighborhoods to higher-performing schools to keep schools from being more than 10 percent below the system average of 78 percent passing on state exams.
The academic targets were more detailed in the "red plan" and the "burgundy plan" that were among the final four options considered by the task force.
Like the blue plan, the red plan was a choice plan. But under the red plan, the lowest-performing areas of the county would have had the priority in the selection process. They're ranked fourth on the priority list in the blue plan, behind those designed to promote proximity.
The red plan also would have said that these low-performing students would automatically be sent to the high-performing school if parents didn't make a choice in the lottery. Principals would also ensure that those students were assigned to a teacher considered to be high-performing.
"Research clearly shows the best thing for a student with greater learning needs is pairing that student with a high-performing teacher," said David Ansbacher, a member of the task force, in a video explaining the red plan. "That is where maximum student achievement occurs, and this plan is rooted in that idea."
In addition, the red plan called for capping the percentage of low-performing students to no more than 50 percent of a school's enrollment and no more than 30 percent of any classroom.
Tata said that, while sending so many low-performing students to the high-performing schools in the red plans sounds good in principle, transportation costs would have been too high.
"When you looked at the numbers, that wasn't feasible," Tata said.
For the red plan, negatives listed by the task force included a lower score for proximity - compared to the blue plan - and the need to make "significant one-time changes and many ongoing changes."
The burgundy plan is similar to the green plan in that it would assign students to a specific school based on their address. But the plan would erase the current attendance lines, redrawing them to balance student achievement at all schools. This would include continuing to send students to a school even if they don't live near it if it helped with academic balance.
"In this plan the schools will be better balanced along the achievement spectrum from day one," said Susan Pullium, a member of the task force, in a video explaining the burgundy plan. "As all the attendance areas are redrawn there will be conscientious attention to keeping an achievement balance."
Also mentions teachers
The burgundy plan also would have called for developing a plan to encourage the hiring of more high-performing teachers at the lowest-performing schools.
Tata said the burgundy plan involved an overhaul of the system that he logistically didn't consider feasible. The task force also gave the plan the lowest score for providing proximity to families.
School board member John Tedesco said Tata and the task force made the right call in recommending the blue and green plans over the others. Based on public feedback, a final plan will go to the school board in June.
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