Wake defends student assignment selection program

Say computer isn’t to blame

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2012 

  • Round 2: The second round of Wake County’s school selection process opened Monday. Go to assignment.wcpss.net to apply.

Some Wake County parents are frustrated with a new school assignment computer program that has denied their top choices, but school administrators say the program is working fine, though some parents may not be using it correctly.

Parents with complaints say that the program has split siblings and communities apart and has failed to put their children in the school they wanted. Administrators say that the program has effectively assigned 19,048 students under the new student assignment plan. Parents who are unhappy with the results, administrators say, may be up against space shortages in their chosen schools, or they didn’t take advantage of options that would have raised their chances of getting the school they wanted.

“People picked where they wanted, not necessarily where they had priority,” said Chief Transformation Officer Judy Peppler, who oversees the student assignment plan. “If they picked a school that was crowded, it followed the priorities. They didn’t get what they wanted. You can’t say that it’s the algorithm’s fault.”

Wake is paying to use a program developed by Massachusetts education consultant Michael Alves, who has helped districts around the country with school-choice programs.

Under Wake’s new choice-based student assignment plan, families rank where they want to attend from a list of school choices based on their address. It replaces the old system where each address was tied to a specific school.

Priority was given to applicants trying to keep their children together and who wanted to attend their closest school, especially if it was within 1.5 miles of where they live.

On Friday, the school system posted results from the first round of the selection process that show that 75 percent of the applicants got their top choice and 82 percent got one of their top two choices. Since then, parents who didn’t get what they wanted have let school board members and administrators know about their frustrations with the selection plan.

The first round left 221 new students without a school assignment, including Eileen Taylor’s daughter. She questioned how her daughter didn’t get into Millbrook High when those who are farther away got accepted.

“There’s got to be something wrong,” Taylor said. “They just don’t want to admit it.”

Peppler said students like Taylor’s daughter didn’t get a school because they didn’t have space at their choices.

In the second round of the selection process that started Monday and runs through April 9, all families were given two additional elementary schools to choose from. Some families may also now get additional middle school and high school choices. Peppler said the additional schools will increase the number of available seats in some areas.

School board member Christine Kushner said she’s heard from several parents who weren’t able to get into one of their closest elementary schools even though they’re within walking distance. She said it seemed to be more of a problem when people lived within walking distance of two or more schools.

“It seems the algorithm didn’t recognize the walk zones for some families,” Kushner said.

Peppler said some applicants lost their selection priority when they didn’t make their closest school their first choice.

Peppler acknowledged that they also haven’t yet met their goal of placing all rising kindergarteners, sixth-graders and ninth-graders who requested a school within walking distance as their first choice.

Penny Cobb is among those who are hoping to get off a wait list so her son can attend Millbrook High School for ninth grade this fall. Although they live within 1.5 miles of Millbrook, her son is slated to go to Sanderson High School.

“This is nonsense,” Cobb said. “They want us to ride the bus 4-1/2 miles instead of walking to Millbrook.”

Michael Thompson is upset that the new assignment plan has his two sons at two different elementary schools. He successfully applied to switch his older son to a closer school, but his younger son was assigned to kindergarten at a different school.

Peppler said that Thompson lost sibling priority when he moved his older child. But she said she thinks that the family is high enough on the wait list to get them both in the same school

“They should just fix it,” Thompson said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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