RALEIGH — Wake County's school board was presented Tuesday with a choice concerning a new student-assignment plan: Accept some level of diversity in the plan, or risk turning the acclaimed magnet school program upside down.
Wake Superintendent Tony Tata told the board they need to let Southeast Raleigh families have the chance to go to high-performing schools in suburbs. The alternative, he said, is that all these families stay in their neighborhoods and turn the magnet schools into high-poverty schools with lots of low-achieving students. Using maps and slides, he sought to show how strongly connected magnet schools and achievement schools are to the district. On one level, the presentation was just another step in a long process of changing how the state's biggest school district determines which students go to which schools.
But it was a telling moment in that process, one that revealed the strong division that remains among board members.
The issue of how to handle the magnet school program has been one of the most contentious issues since a new Republican board majority took office in 2009. In 2010, the majority voted to eliminate the so-called "diversity policy," a student-assignment method that used socioeconomic data to balance income levels - in an attempt to balance performance - throughout the system.
The GOP majority has stressed the desire to allow more students to attend schools closer to where they live. But ending diversity-based busing means having to decide what to do with the thousands of Southeast Raleigh students who are now bused to suburban schools to free up space at magnet schools.
Which is why Tata's presentation was problematic to the majority.
Most board members gave muted reactions to the preview of Tata's choice-based plan, saying it needed development in important areas.
But the presentation left school board Chairman Ron Margiotta exasperated.
"We're still a long way from voting on a final plan," he said.
Margiotta recently spoke out against setting aside seats at high-performing "achievement" schools as a return to the diversity policy.
He has an interest in the matter: Margiotta's Southwestern Wake district includes several of the high-performing schools where some neighborhood children might not be able to attend because of Tata's plan.
Keith Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh, has another view. His district includes several of the magnet schools.
"We either have to go that direction or we are going to wind up with silo schools," said Sutton, referring to neighborhood schools with high populations of low-income, low-performing students.
He added: "We all have to give up something to reach a consensus."
Keeping magnets alive
Administrators want to set aside enough seats at magnet schools so that suburban students can continue to apply to attend the schools, which offer specialized curricula and are mostly located near downtown Raleigh. But to make sure that the magnet schools aren't overloaded with students who live nearby, administrators hope the families will choose to attend the so-called achievement schools, mostly located in the suburbs.
For magnet schools in high-poverty areas near downtown Raleigh, administrators want to have neighborhood students fill up to 45 percent of the available seats.
"If you have a magnet program you need to accommodate that 55 percent somewhere else," Tata said. "The best way to accommodate them is to give them the maximum number of choices for student achievement."
Under the new student assignment plan, families would rank where they want to attend from a list of several nearby elementary schools. Families would also be able to apply to magnet schools and achievement schools.
As part of the "choice plan," administrators would divide the magnet schools into three groups, with different percentages of seats set aside for application students.
Administrators said there would still be about the same number of magnet application seats overall in the district.
Administrators also presented a list of sample middle schools and high schools that each elementary school would feed into. The goal would be for students to be able to stay with the same group of school peers to high school.
Administrators said they're still on pace for the school board to vote on the final plan by October for adoption in the 2012-13 school year. Tata said public hearings will be held in September.
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