'Blue plan' has change, stability

Staff WriterMay 31, 2011 

The "blue plan," emerging as the early favorite, would radically change the way students are assigned to Wake County schools.

At the heart of the blue plan is the idea of choice.

Families would be given four to six elementary school choices, largely based on proximity to a student's home, and a variety of magnet school choices. They would rank their choices, which then would be plugged into a mathematical formula, developed by the SAS Institute, to determine which option could be granted by the school system.

School officials say they expect most families would get their first or second choice.

To control crowding in the blue plan, schools would be capped and not accept new students, beyond siblings, after they reach capacity. Once full, families would be given a lower-ranked school on their list that has space.

When a new school opens, students wouldn't be reassigned to attend. Instead, it would be filled by families who request the change. School officials acknowledge that the blue plan could leave new schools under-enrolled in the first few years. Since schools get funding based on enrollment, it could limit what those schools offer.

Superintendent Tony Tata said, however, it would end the mandatory reassignments that have been a source of complaints, particularly in fast-growing suburban areas, for more than 30 years. "Any plan needs to get parents more involved in the process," he said.

Also, under the blue plan, once a family chooses an elementary school they'll know what their middle school and high school will be from day one. In theory, families will never be reassigned.

That stability is a chief selling point of the blue plan.

Achievement touted

School board member Carolyn Morrison said the stability under the blue plan could improve student achievement.

"As a former principal, I know that if I could have children for three years, I could teach them, I could make them a family," Morrison said. "You could know the children, know the families, and they could achieve better."

But balancing student achievement among schools is one of the uncertain components of the blue plan.

Every family's options would include an "achievement choice," a school that's in the top third of the district based on criteria such as the concentration of high-performing teachers and test scores.

One of the goals of the blue plan is to make sure that the magnet schools, many of which are in and around Southeast Raleigh, still have roughly the same number of seats for magnet applicants. This means encouraging the Southeast Raleigh families who have been bused out in the past not to choose their nearest schools.

Tata said none of the magnet schools will be used as an achievement choice. Administrators are considering offering the students who live near magnet schools two achievement choices instead of just one. But Tata acknowledged he's not sure how many of these families will choose the achievement choices over going to a closer school.

School board member John Tedesco said the blue plan is better because it meets the needs of individual students.

"We're providing every student access to a highly effective teacher," he said. "We're not labeling these students as low-performing."

But Neil Riemann, a Raleigh lawyer who supports the old diversity policy, complained that the blue plan could result in parents opting for closer schools instead of the achievement choices that would better serve their children's academic needs.

"It punishes the kids of the parents who don't step up to the plate," he said

Cost still a question

But the plan is so different from previous assignment methods that it raises questions such as how much it will cost and whether it will avoid creating extremely high-poverty and low-performing schools.

Tata said the school system could save some money on existing transportation costs if, as research on other choice plans indicates, 80 percent of people pick their closest school. He said one question the system will need to examine is whether to provide traditional neighborhood bus service in some cases or "express busing," in which students go to central locations such as schools or libraries to get on the bus.

Tata said the administration hopes to get a better feel soon of how the blue plan would work from an online simulation they'll soon be conducting. He said they'll be inviting some parents to simulate what schools they'd pick.

"The blue plan to me seems more visionary, kind of looking ahead, being more proactive instead of a reactive plan," school board member Deborah Prickett said.

Staff writer Jay Price contributed to this report.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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