Parents of Wake County's more than 20,000 rising sixth- and ninth-graders may face unexpected, last-minute changes in where their children go to school this fall.
Student assignment changes being considered by the new Democratic majority on the school board could overhaul the way some, if not all, students would get their middle school and high school assignments.
It's one of several areas in the new student assignment plan that the Democratic board members say may need to be changed. Democrats are also looking at increasing the diversity elements by potentially making student achievement a higher priority than proximity in filling schools and possibly requiring that seats be set aside at high-performing schools for applicants from low-performing areas. Proposals being discussed would change the default assignments for students while others would impact all of the district's middle school and high school students.
A reason for the potential changes is that the school board majority is criticizing the assignment plan's feeder patterns - the mandated kindergarten-to-high-school paths that are supposed to bring stability.
"I think there are significant problems with the feeder patterns," new Democratic school board member Jim Martin said Wednesday. "I think we are in a very awkward situation where to do nothing will create significant problems and to make changes will create significant problems."
School administrators warn that one proposal to delay the implementation of the feeder patterns for a year could lead to even more parental complaints.
"You're talking about a different plan entirely," Superintendent Tony Tata told board members on Tuesday.
In November, parents received slips telling them where their children are preliminarily assigned to school for the 2012-13 school year. Parents were told that if they liked their assignments, they didn't have to do anything else.
If feeder patterns aren't used, administrators say they can't tentatively assign current fifth- and eighth-graders to the next level this fall. If the plan is changed, students entering middle school and high school this fall would have to participate in the choice process slated to begin Jan. 17, primarily for kindergartners.
Administrators said they'd also have to redo the magnet application process held last month. They said some families may not have participated in the process because they liked their feeder assignment for the 2012-13 school year.
The feeder patterns would guarantee a family where their children would go to school from kindergarten through high school. That certainty has been one of the elements of the new plan touted by Tata. He has said the feeder patterns mean families will never have to worry about reassignment again, a concern that was part of the old assignment plan.
Families around Wake County have complained about their feeder pattern, generally when it changed the middle school or high school their children would have attended. Since the fall elections shifted board control from Republicans to Democrats, parents have lobbied the new majority for changes.
The board hasn't taken a vote yet on delaying the feeder patterns. The board could discuss the topic, along with other potential changes to the assignment plan, on Tuesday.
Maria Reier said Wednesday she'd accept requiring all sixth- and ninth-graders to apply if it will stop implementation of new feeder patterns that would send students from Carpenter Elementary, where her children attend, to East Cary Middle School.
"I will be for whatever they have to do to delay the feeder patterns," she said.
Martin and fellow new Democratic board member Christine Kushner expressed doubts about the feeder patterns Wednesday.
Martin said he and other new members inherited a flawed plan that had been rushed to a vote before it was complete.
"I am very disappointed in the parties that have got us where we are today," he said.
Democratic board members have complained about what they called unintended consequences of the feeder patterns.
Martin cited how the new plan would send students from Walnut Creek Elementary to Carnage Middle School. He said this feeder pattern will significantly change the character of Carnage, where his son is a magnet student.
"If you look at the Walnut Creek students who go to Carnage, they go to Southeast in the feeder pattern; all the other students feed to Enloe," he said. "What that feeder pattern does is enforce a school within a school, because there will always be the Walnut Creek group and everybody else."
New Democratic school board member Susan Evans said the feeder patterns would cause families to not attend year-round schools or magnet schools because they don't like where their children would be sent for secondary school.
"I'm hearing from so many people who are contemplating changing their elementary school, not because they're unhappy, but because they don't like their feeder pattern," Evans said.
But Tata said Tuesday that only a small number of people have complained about the feeder patterns. He warned about upsetting those who like the feeders.
"You're going to flip the coin, and you'll hear the hue and cry from people who are satisfied with the feeder patterns," Tata said.
Republican school board members said it was too late to consider major changes for this fall.
"There's no plan on earth that doesn't have unintended consequences," said Republican board member John Tedesco.