Wake student assignment plan fuels anxiety

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com, khui@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2012 

  • Think of it as a conveyor belt. Under Wake County's new student assignment plan, every elementary school feeds into a specific middle school and high school. This is supposed to provide stability because families will know what schools they'll attend from kindergarten through graduation.

    Students coming from feeder schools are guaranteed seats when they enter middle school and high school.

    Incoming siblings at grades K, 6 and 9 of current students will be guaranteed placement at their sibling's school if they list it as their first choice.

    Everyone else, such as students who want a school outside their feeder, or who are coming into the school system from charter schools, private schools and homeschools, or who are new to the area, get seats if the school has space.

    Top priority is for students living within 1.5 miles of the school. Next comes students whose closest school is more than 1.5 miles from home.

    Staff writer T. Keung Hui

From real-estate agents to families worried they won't get into the school they want, Wake County's new student assignment plan is drawing questions and apprehension that it could cause more problems than it's supposed to fix.

With the school board set to review and potentially modify the plan Tuesday, school administrators continue to say the new plan will provide families with proximity, stability and choice. But some critics say the plan isn't living up to its promises.

"The use of choice is a misnomer," said parent Sally Wooten, who has an eighth-grader at Daniels Middle School and twin fifth-graders leaving private school whom she would also like to go to Daniels. "I don't get to go to the schools I want to go to."

Real estate agents also are uncertain how the new plan will affect home sales now that addresses aren't assigned to specific schools. The Triangle MLS, or Multiple Listing Services, says the assignment plan is a wild card on the housing market this year.

An online petition to delay the plan has 429 signatures, including that of Wake parent and restaurateur Jennifer Schrage.

"It's not a 'choice' if we end up with our 5th choice school,"Schrage said.

Feeder patterns are key

But supporters of the plan say far more people are comfortable with the plan than those unhappy or concerned.

"More than 95 percent of people will be satisfied with the new plan," school board member John Tedesco said. "You're not going to be able to satisfy every parent in a system with 150,000 students."

The plan provides proximity, but it's more of a factor at the elementary school level than in later years. Instead of being assigned to a specific school, families will get at least five elementary school choices, typically their closest schools.

At the middle school and high school levels, "feeder patterns" trump other considerations. That is, the K-12 path pre-assigned to each student has priority over choice, proximity or other factors.

For example, the feeder pattern says students who attend Aversboro Road Elementary, unless their families make another choice, go on to East Garner Middle and Garner High School.

Feeder patterns were added to end the fears of reassignment that dogged the old plan.

"Parents like the choices, and the stability of the feeders," Tedesco said.

But feeders mean some students who live near a middle school or high school might not get in.

Many neighborhoods have decades-long traditions under which students have "always" gone to, say, Daniels Middle on Oberlin Road in Raleigh. But some students - such as newcomers and those leaving private schools, charter schools or homeschools - face the prospect of not getting into those schools because they're not in the feeder pattern.

"I am hearing from many parents who are quite concerned, because they live quite close to Daniels," school board member Christine Kushner said. "I have followed up with staff, voicing those concerns. They have told me they are optimistic, so I will stay optimistic."

MLS listings drop schools

Some people are just becoming aware that houses in Raleigh no longer come with automatic links to certain schools.

"People still think that if they live in a particular area they go to a particular school," said Wes Minton, a Realtor who graduated from Broughton High School in the 1970s.

The Triangle MLS recently told subscribers that it was no longer possible to include specific schools on listings, leading to "a lack of hard data on whether the system is being viewed as favorable or unfavorable," according to a newsletter.

Home purchase decisions and prices were often based on the former school zones, Minton said. "Now we can only say, 'We're not sure exactly what's going to happen with your child,' " he said.

School officials say enrollment numbers are conservative and that many more children can get into these schools than it appears. But Wake's many highly educated, attentive parents are not content with what they see as Superintendent Tony Tata's "wait and see" attitude.

Preliminarily, Wake administrators say they received 19,150 applications, many related to students entering the school system (8,943 were from students entering kindergarten). Students already in the system have a feeder pattern connected to their school and do not need to make a choice.

'It's going very well'

Throughout the system, nearly 6 percent of those who have made choices have elected not to attend their feeder-pattern schools, suggesting open slots for others.

"We're seeing 'in and out' in terms of people choosing one high school over the one they were preassigned," said Judy Peppler, who oversees the assignment plan as Wake's chief transformation officer. "The seat availability was based on every student choosing that school."

But at least some parents look at the number of seats available at their closest schools and worry their children will be squeezed out by kids already assigned to a popular school. The plan was devised by staff and passed by a Republican-led board just before fall elections that changed the political balance on the board.

"I'm hearing that it's going very well and most people are getting what they want in the way of assignment," said Chris Malone, a Republican board member.

Peppler said there's no doubt some schools are more highly sought than others.

"You can predict which ones - the ones that have been popular over time," she said.

"You're not going to be able to put everyone where they've asked."

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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