Wake student assignment plan pleases board

But student assignment details only available after school board elections

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2011 

  • The Republican majority that took control of the Wake County school board in December 2009 voted last year to end a policy of assigning students based on family income.

    The decision came over objections of supporters of the former policy, whose complaints escalated to protests and arrests that generated national media coverage. The state NAACP also filed a pair of complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and AdvancED, the group that accredits Wake's high schools.

    Supporters of the policy change argue that allowing students to attend schools closer to home will benefit families and possibly improve academic performance. Critics of the change argue that it will lead to the creation of schools segregated by race or family income.

    Wake school leaders have been ironing out the fine points of the new plan since May.

— Wake County school board members seem poised to approve sweeping changes to the county's student-assignment plan - changes designed to let parents choose which schools their children would attend.

But the school system isn't offering parents the ability to find out exactly what their school options would be under the plan.

Administrators said Tuesday that the information might not become public until after the school board votes on the plan Oct. 18. That means it might not available until after school board elections Tuesday and after an Oct. 13 public hearing at Broughton High School in Raleigh.

Preliminary school options and feeder patterns have been out there for public review for months. But administrators have made changes since then and, as a result, options may have changed.

"I would like the board to answer that, tonight or before the 18th," Dani Moore, a Raleigh magnet parent, said of specific assignment information. "I am very concerned about the resegregation of our schools. We all need more clarity and understanding before moving forward."

To ease crowding - and to balance school performance using family income as a guide - thousands of Wake County students are bused to schools that are far from home.

The new plan is aimed at giving parents closer-to-home options.

But students would be guaranteed the right to stay at their current schools when the new plan goes into effect during the 2012-13 school year.

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

Republican and Democratic board members expressed general approval of the plan. But speakers at a public hearing Tuesday questioned the plan's effect on low-income people, its still-undetermined cost, the speed with which it's being adopted, and its rejection of socioeconomic diversity as a guiding principle of assignment.

"What's the rush?" said Karen Rindge, a Raleigh parent and head of the slow-growth group WakeUP Wake County. "This will have such a profound effect on our community. Let's take more time to absorb this complete information."

Diversity vs. proximity

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 addresses, they will choose from a list provided by the county.

The plan reflects a policy change made by the Republican school board majority last year that eliminated the use of busing for 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 typically would 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. Families who want to go to their closest school, but can't get in because it's a magnet, with have additional choices, including two schools with histories of high performance.

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 waiting list and sent to the next-highest choice on their list.

Colethia Evans, a frequent critic of the school board majority, warned that the new plan will result in schools in less desirable areas not being filled and eventually closing. "Wake County will become a carbon copy of all the failed public school systems in other parts of the country," Evans said. "The plan will create overcrowding in the highly desired schools, and under-enrollment in the less-desired ones."

New schools would be filled only by families that volunteer to attend them.

'Effectively boxed out'

Susan Pullium, a member of the task force that developed the plan, said the panel might recommend offering only kindergarten through second grade at new elementary schools, with the higher grades added later. 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, said siblings and students who live closest to the regional schools will have a higher priority to get in. He raised concerns that low-performing students who don't live near these schools wouldn't be able to get in.

Hill's concern was echoed by several speakers at the board meeting.

"It leaves students in high-poverty areas effectively boxed out of choices," said Ann Campbell, a major donor to the Democratic-backed school board candidates.

"The board majority knows that," she said. "But it hopes to get out of it by paying lip service to it."

Staff and board members stressed that no family will be forced to change schools under the plan. Administrators estimate that 94 percent of students will take advantage of the grandfathering options to stay at their current schools 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 projections show the new plan would result in 19 percent 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 would look at issues such as whether some schools get too many or too few families choosing to attend, and whether there is an unexpected rise in the percentage of high-poverty schools.

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

Hui: 919-829-4534