Wake administrators present new school assignment plan

Staff writerOctober 4, 2011 

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Wake County Schools Superintendent Tony Tata introduces the new student assignment plan Tuesday, October 4, 2011 during a Wake County school board work session at the Wake County Public School System Central Services Building in Cary.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

— Wake County school administrators today said the new student assignment plan meets the fast-growing area's needs while letting families go to their closest schools and not worry any longer about their children being reassigned.

But the school system doesn't yet have the ability to let parents see what their options would be under the plan. Administrators said the information might not be posted until after the school board votes on the plan on Oct. 18.

Superintendent Tony Tata said that students would be guaranteed the right to stay at their current school when the new plan goes into effect for the 2012-13 school year.

"If you like your current school, you don't have to make a change," Tata said.

A public hearing will be held on the plan on Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. at Broughton High School in Raleigh. Preregistration to speak at the meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at www.wcpss.net. Speakers can also sign up at the door on the day of the hearing from 4 to 4:50 p.m.

The new plan is a radical departure in how assignments are handled in the state's biggest school district. Instead of parents being told where their children will go to school based on their address, they'd pick from a list of choices.

The plan reflects a policy change made by the Republican school board majority last year that eliminated the use of busing for socioeconomic diversity in favor of making proximity to home a priority.

"It provides parents with what they want: proximity, stability and achievement," Tata said.

Under the proposal, every family would have at least five elementary school options based on their address. The choices would typically be their closest schools. Once in an elementary school, students would be guaranteed a seat at a specific middle school and high school.

Families who don't like their default middle school or high school could apply to attend other schools.

Proximity would be the second highest priority when filling seats at schools. The only thing that would rank higher is making sure siblings can go to the same school.

The plan is supposed to provide stability because students would never be involuntarily reassigned under the plan. Existing schools would not be filled above capacity. Once the capacity is met, students would be put on a wait list and sent to the next-highest choice on their list.

New schools would be filled only by volunteers.

Susan Pullium, a member of the task force that developed the plan, said the panel might recommend offering only kindergarten through second grade when new elementary schools open, with the higher grades being added over time. Wake uses a similar approach with new high schools, which open with only freshmen and sophomores.

Achievement would be fostered by giving every family at least one regional school to apply to attend, according to the plan. These high-performing schools would be designated based on factors such as their test scores and quality of their teachers.

But school board member Kevin Hill, a Democrat, noted that students who live closest to the regional schools will have a higher priority to get in. He raised concerns that other students who don't live near these schools wouldn't be able to get in.

Throughout the meeting, staff and board members stressed that no one will be forced to change their schools under the plan. Administrators estimate that 94 percent of students will take advantage of the grandfathering options to stay at their current school and keep their bus transportation.

Administrators also dealt with concerns that eliminating the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor will increase the number of high-poverty schools.

Tata said that their projections show the new plan would result in 19 to 25 percent of Wake's schools having 50 percent or more of their students being eligible for federally subsidized lunches, which is a measure of family income level. Currently, 22 percent of schools are above that mark.

Once the plan is adopted, a team of community members and a separate team of school administrators would review its annual implementation. They'd look at issues such as whether some schools are being underchosen or overchosen and whether the percentage of high-poverty schools is rising faster than expected.

"We make no claim that this plan satisfies everyone, but we say this is the best plan for Wake County," Tata said.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4434

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