Wake schools assignment plan in turmoil

Coalition urges delay; others say go forward

khui@newsobserver.com, tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2012 

  • Proximity is currently a higher factor than student achievement when it comes to filling seats at high-performing regional-choice schools. But one potential change could see students who live near the schools waiting to see how many seats are available after applicants from low-performing areas make their selections.

    The plan currently doesn't set aside seats at the high-performing schools for applicants from low-performing areas. Administrators think they've got enough seats to handle some of the applicants with the rest being sent to schools with empty seats.

    Another potential change could see 15 percent of the open seats set aside at those high-performing schools.

The Wake County school board meets today amid conflicting calls from influential community groups about what to do with the choice-based student assignment plan that was adopted in October, when Republicans were in control.

The Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which supports the new Democratic majority on the board, called Monday for a delay of the choice plan until the 2013-2014 school year. The advocacy group contends there are too many unanswered questions, particularly about cost, for the plan to be in effect as scheduled for this fall.

"The prospect of tweaking an incomplete and problematic plan after implementation is tantamount to launching that airplane and building it once off the ground," Great Schools says in a position paper released Monday. "We don't want our children on that plane."

But business and education leaders from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership restated Monday their support for going ahead with the plan for this fall. Leaders of both groups said that the school board can continue to make changes over time to address the concerns raised by critics.

"It should go forward," said Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, an advocacy group for public schools. "The pieces are in place to transition to a plan in a manner that's least disruptive to families."

In the middle are the board members, who will discuss the plan today.

The board will look at changes proposed by Democratic members, aimed at ensuring that the new plan doesn't create too many schools with large concentrations of minority and low-achieving students.

Regional choice at issue

One option targeting Wake's high-performing schools would give students from areas where scores are typically low a better chance than neighborhood students in the selection process. Another possibility for those top schools would be to set aside as much as 15 percent of openings for applicants from low-performing areas.

Neither option would result in students currently at those high-performing schools losing their seats. The changes would only affect openings for new students.

"We want to make sure that low-performing students and minority students get a good shot at some of these schools," board vice chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, said last week. " We don't want to create more high-poverty schools."

Republicans on the nine-member board are already calling the use of set-asides another quota system, using test scores instead of economic background or race to balance schools. They're warning that the proposed changes to the assignment plan would result in some students' being denied a chance to attend their neighborhood schools.

"I can't imagine parents wanting to lose the option to attend a proximate school in order to put in a quota busing system," Republican board member John Tedesco said.

Balancing act

At the heart of the debate is what should be done for students from low-performing areas who want to attend high-performing schools. Many of those students live near magnet schools, but won't be able to attend because seats are set aside for magnet applicants.

Under the choice assignment plan, students would get several school options to choose from. The options include what are called regional-choice schools.

Some regional-choice schools were chosen because they're high-performing, based on factors such as test scores and teacher experience and credentials. But some were made regional-choice options because they are under-enrolled.

Because high-achieving schools such as Davis Drive Middle in Cary will probably be chosen by students living nearby until they are at or above capacity, there's more likelihood that lower-performing students will wind up at the under-enrolled schools, where quality is less predictable. At least, that's the concern of board Democrats.

"There are definitely schools that do better with low-performing children," new Democratic board member Jim Martin said. "I don't think the least selective schools are the ones that are likely to meet that need."

Superintendent Tony Tata said it might be necessary to hold back up to 15 percent of seats at the high-performing regional-choice schools to make room for applicants from low-performing areas.

Tata said that the staff had spent months debating whether to have seat set-asides before deciding against them. He laid out to board members last week how that tactic could affect schools.

"Do we want to go to Olds Elementary and say, 'You don't get 66 kids or whatever it is for kindergarten. You're getting 50 because we're going to hold 16 seats in that very small school because you're a regional-choice school?' " Tata asked.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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