CARY — It used to be registering for school in Wake County meant going to your child’s assigned school any time of year.
Now those who didn’t register before June must go to the Wake County school system’s central office in Cary, a requirement that is causing waits of two hours or more. Some unfortunate parents whose paperwork is incomplete have to come back.
The reason for the change is the new choice-based student assignment plan. Instead of automatically being assigned to a specific school based on your address, families now go to the central office to register and choose from a list of school choices.
Between 150 and 200 families register each day. Their first step: Take a number. Then they move from one waiting area to the next. And in the end, there’s no guarantee that families will get their top choice in schools, especially as openings have become scarce at some schools.
“I’m serious as a heart attack,” said Amber Nichols of Apex, who was told Wednesday that she would have to send her 10-year-old son, Dakota, to a year-round school that’s been in session since July. “If I had the money, I’d move out of Wake County.”
Families used to have a “base school” that was tied to their address. But the Republican-led school board in October adopted the new choice-based assignment plan.
Critics of the old address-based plan said it didn’t do enough to control crowding and resulted in frequent reassignments of students to different schools.
The new Democratic majority on the school board voted in June to direct the administration to develop an address-based plan for the 2013-14 school year. School assignment staff will present a model to the school board in September.
But for the 2012-13 school year, families new to Wake schools were told over the summer that they’d have to register at the central office.
The controlled-choice plan is supposed to prevent overcrowding by limiting how many students a school can have at each grade level. With schools running out of seats at some grade levels, Judy Peppler, Wake’s chief transformation officer, said it made more sense to have families register in a central location – where student assignment staff would know how many seats are still available.
“We waited as long as we could to let families register at the schools,” Peppler said. “We didn’t want families to go to a school and choose and be told, ‘Sorry, we don’t have room for you.’ ”
In a few hardship instances, Peppler said they may still let a family that has gone to a school register there.
Wake’s most recent estimate is that the district has more than 150,600 students registered for this fall, a net gain of 3,900 kids from last year.
Rush expected soon
Registration lines were extremely crowded in early July when year-round schools opened. The rush has slowed somewhat but is expected to pick up as Aug. 27, the first day for traditional-calendar schools, draws closer.
Families wait in the school board meeting room for their number to be called. If they haven’t yet done so, they’re asked to fill out an enrollment packet. A member of the Office of Student Assignment reviews the information and, if it’s all correct, tells parents to wait for a different staffer to call them.
When their names are called again, the parents are directed to wait in the building’s lobby. At some point, they’re called into the Office of Student Assignment to make their school choice and find out what they’ll get.
Wake’s website tells parents to expect the registration process to take at least two hours.
“For the sake of my son’s school, I don’t mind (waiting),” said Pradeep Pudu of Cary. “But if it was a little faster, I would be happier.”
Pudu, whose company relocated him from Mississippi, was enrolling his 9-year-old son, Aakash. Pudu was optimistic because two of the schools he was interested in have openings.
Families that applied during the choice selection process in January and March had a better chance getting what they wanted when more seats were available.
Getting the school you wanted went a long way toward making some families more accepting of the process.
Tricia Rychcik’s son, Ajay, got the last kindergarten seat Wednesday at Baucom Elementary School in Apex. The family moved from Massachusetts to Apex after Tricia’s husband, Shawn, was hired in July to be N.C. State University’s softball coach.
“People have to register,” Tricia Rychcik said. “People will look at this and streamline it in the future.”
But Amber Nichols was unable to get a seat for Dakota at Baucom or Apex Elementary School, two traditional-calendar schools on her list. She was given Salem Elementary School, a year-round school in Apex where some students have been in class since July 9 and others started July 30.
Nichols, who recently relocated from Sampson County, angrily slammed the door behind her as she left central office. After having missed some paperwork, Nichols wound up making three trips and waiting over four hours on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I’m not happy,” Nichols said. “It’s like they want your address in blood.”
Robin Sur’s two sons, Luis and Leo, also face starting school behind their peers after they were unable Wednesday to both get into Penny Road Elementary School, a traditional-calendar school in Cary. To keep the boys together, Sur accepted Salem Elementary.
Sur’s company transferred him from Germany for a three-year assignment in North Carolina. They moved to Cary because Chapel Hill was too expensive.
“In Chapel Hill, you know from your address where you’ll go to school,” Sur said.